This is my room in the American Academy in Rome, where I was a visiting artist too many years ago to be right. I could only afford a little studio room with a shared bathroom across the hall. Vic joined me after one week and we walked all over Rome, saw many wonders and made fast friends. I always felt that my IQ went way up the minute I passed through that front door, simply by being around that varied group of smart people, this one writing their thesis on a Pope who no one else found at all sympathetic; this one making sculpture out of rocks and wire and string; this one with mad plans to build a model of the water system in Rome; this one drinking and writing short stories. We all ate together at long tables under the portico while the fall weather stayed warm. It was intimidating and enchanting and scary and weirdly familiar, like being at one of my dad’s graduate student wine and cheese parties 24/7.
My time at the academy came to mind in the wake of Jonah Lehrer’s lecture at Town Hall Monday night. Of the many ideas he brought forward so economically over the course of about 45 minutes, the concept of idea spillover resonated most with that AAR experience – in his reference to studies showing that more creative problem solving happens in cities than out of them he threw away, “People get smart when they’re around smart people.” Exactly. When you get to tag along on a walk through the Forum that is led by the archeologist in charge of excavations there, you will have a closer idea of what the Vestal Virgins might have really been up to than if you walked around with a brochure – and ask better questions. As well, sitting at a table made up of individuals all very focused on their area of study and assembled expressly to focus more closely on whatever their passion is will in fact produce fabulous dinner conversation – and send you away with a head brimming with ideas. Loved hearing the science behind the intuition that my own creativity benefits from the smarties surrounding me.
Two other threads from his book Imagine: How Creativity Works really inspired and tracked with my experience. Lehrer has been quoted often on the uselessness of brainstorming. His view: its only value is in morale raising. Science says it’s much better to hang out near others who are also working away on their own solutions for creative problems, and have random conversations during breaks. Ideas spring up in the casual bumping up of one idea against each other (thus the power of cities: more bumps). So work away on your own, but have those other guys around to spur you on and take you down a rabbit hole or two. In addition, don’t focus too hard and long on trying to solve a creative problem. Those incredible moments of inspiration (they can measure them: alpha waves are involved) happen while you’re mentally looking the other way, relaxed and able to turn your attention inward.
The other idea that arrived with a satisfying ker-chunk was the notion of grit, something that has only in the last decade or so come forward as an articulated factor in measuring an individual’s success, whatever the venture. There is a direct correlation between simply not quitting, just having the tenacity to work through the hard parts, and success. You have to have talent, but without grit it’s just talent. Advice familiar to any young baseball player or aspiring writer.
Jonah Lehrer is the cub reporter of scientists – he’s the coolest nerd on the block. I cannot wait to read all of his books, and he passes the acid test: would he find an easy place at that long table under the portico? Oh my, yes.