How to get new ideas

I recently became involved at work with helping facilitate a brainstorming session. It did not help much that this comic strip was just published (thanks to

The Official Dilbert Website featuring Scott Adams Dilbert strips, animations and more

So I had to delve into the latest research about it. It turns out I had the books that Scott Adams probably read or heard of to come up with this comic. There is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talkingby Susan Cain. I had recently watched her TED talk so I had her book checked out of the library. She makes a point that you are better off coming up with ideas off on your own, and the research she cites does agree.

I also have been reading Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer which is so packed with useful research, that I will devote a few future blogs to it. Jonah does address the fact that traditional brainstorming was refuted in studies done in 1958, soon after the practice was introduced. He cites later studies that seem to significantly improve the output of brainstorming sessions. There are two ways to increase output.

1. Ban the “no criticism” rule

While many thought that avoidance of criticism would encourage full participation. The discouraging of discussion cause participants to be less engaged with each other. At Pixar, their high creative output is due to the open and frank discussion of ideas.

2. Introduce disruptive thinking

Brainstorming is more open and ideas of a larger scope are produced when the participants are exposed to a moment of dissent, even when the dissent is wrong. In the study, participants were shown some colors and were asked to name them. In one group a plant, early on would say pink when red was shown. The other had participants name the colors accurately. In a subsequent creative exercise those that were exposed to the dissenting view were much more creative. Just the exposure to the one alternative view caused the participants to view things a little more flexibly.

I think that there are lots of techniques to introduce that dissent or disruptive thinking. This brings me to Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques (2nd Edition) by Michael Michalko. This book has dozens of different ways to get us looking at our problems in a new light.They have evocative names such as “False Faces”, “Cherry Split” and “Lotus Blossom”. Some are out there (get people thinking differently by removing shoes and allow others to try them on; I shudder at the thought), but most look worth trying out. One that I like is carefully listing the problem, stating any assumptions, and reversing each of the assumptions, and see what insights come to mind.

The book unabashedly to teach you to

     Generate ideas at will
     Find new ways to make money
     Create new business opportunities
     Become indispensible to your organization
     and much more.

Do you have any favorite creativity techniques?

Guitar Zero Book Review

In Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning. Gary Marcus chronicles his following his dream of learning to play guitar despite his age (almost 40) and his inability to keep musical time at all. I reserved this book as soon as I saw a blurb about it, because I was intrigued by the concept of learning a musical instrument as an adult, and in my case in, when I had entered middle age. I have aspirations to get myself a banjo and learn to play.

Gary (a fine name now that I think about it) covers a great deal of ground within this book which is a pretty interesting read. As a brain researcher he quickly goes over a few studies, before deciding that though the brain is changed by the study of music, there is no specific area of the brain that is devoted to music related activities. His quest will require that his brain rewire itself in many areas to handle the complexity of playing the guitar. He also spends some time weighing the merits of whether humans are hardwired with an affinity to music. The bottom line is that though we are programmed to learn language, creating music is not a natural result of our makeup.

Even though piano has always seemed more highbrow than guitar to me, Gary points out how chords and individual notes are much more complicated to understand and to execute on the guitar. I guess the difference is that you can get a lot more mileage out of a small number of chords on the guitar if you need to, while playing piano is not as interesting until you can make use of a good number of keys. He goes into some detail about the individual skills that must be mastered to play the guitar well, such as training the ear to distinguish intervals.

The author talks about the importance of deliberate practice (as studied by Anders Ericsson). Deliberate practice is constant self evaluation, where you apply effort to correct your shortcomings, as opposed to just playing what we already know or broadly goofing around with the instrument. I find this concept fascinating and have seen in mentioned in many books about achievement such as Outliers by Malcolm something and other places as well. Thinking of a personal application, I compare it to where people have a choice of studying the bible by reading it cover to cover every so often as opposed to sitting down and deciding what theme or passage is important to understand better and then deep diving to get a real handle on the insights there. Throughout the book the author considers the relative merits of this deliberate practice and innate talent.Both it seems are important.

Gary tries to decide whether music is an evolutionary development that improved the genetic survival of musicians or does it have some other value? I like his conclusion that music allows us to enter into a flow state where we are elevated by the musical experience.

He goes over the different styles of teaching guitar, and also looks at whether lessons are even needed. It is apparent that efforts to keep practice interesting are crucial, because the most important task is to keep learning. The perfect mix of familiar and new material is important to prevent boredom or frustration.

An interesting part of the book is the author’s participation in a rock and roll camp, for youth 8 to 15. I enjoyed his nervousness in waiting to be picked to be in one of the bands formed on the first day, which would work to develop their skills, to be able to perform on the last day of the camp. His account of how everything came together was fun, especially the camaraderie that developed within the band.

In one chapter the author discusses what makes for a good song and in another talks about the skills that make a true expert musician stand out from your average one. These chapters might be important for those who are going to learn to play the guitar.

This book has many similarities with Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, a book that follows the effort of an American to prepare and then compete in a national, and then international memory competition. Some of the same issues of adult learning are touched upon, but with much more interesting asides and more quirky characters. I hope to do up a review of that book soon.

When Gary completes this year and a half quest to gain proficiency in playing the guitar, he meditates on whether it was all worth it. He concludes that it certainly was, that there is something to be said for the mixture of musical enjoyment, the flow that comes of being immersed in the sounds and rhythms, and the physical challenge of learning and developing. I was a little surprised that in working up to this conclusion in the end, that he even considered that maybe the effort was futile since machines or computers can now or soon will be able to perform music better that humans can. I think that there is an important inner balance that is achieved by being to perform skillfully with our hands, be it in crafts, or with a musical instrument, especially given our current isolation from the handicraft of our ancestors. I am glad that Gary Marcus comes to the same conclusion.