Thursday, April 12, 2012

Are Distractions Such a Bad Thing For Creatives?

I’ve written and talked a lot about the practice of trying to eliminate distractions from technology and the modern world and how this is key both to the spiritual and creative life. But can there be anything good that can come from the distractions that we encounter throughout the day? Author Jonah Lerher says yes in his recent book Imagine: How Creativity Works.

Jonah Lerher has set out to study the mysterious and magical world of creativity—Where does it come from and how does it work? One of the things he discovered was that creativity happens best when there is collaboration, even when it seems random and haphazard. Sometimes when we are in the midst of trying to solve a problem or create something fresh we just get boxed in by our own small perspective. Sometimes a conversation with a friend or coworker about something entirely unrelated can get us unstuck and get the creative juices flowing again. But just because these creative accidents happen doesn’t mean that there can’t be intentionality to them. Lerher sites the Pixar Animation Studio as a great example of this:

[Steve] Jobs had completely reimagined the studio. Instead of three buildings, there was going to be a single vast space with an airy atrium at its center. “The philosophy behind this design is that it’s good to put the most important function at the heart of the building,” Catmull says. “Well, what’s our most important function? It’s the interaction of our employees. That’s why Steve put a big empty space there. He wanted to create an open area for people to always be talking to each other.” But Jobs realized that it wasn’t enough simply to create an airy atrium; he needed to force people to go there. Jobs began with the mailboxes, which he shifted to the lobby. Then he moved the meeting rooms to the center of the building, followed by the cafeteria and coffee bar and gift shop. But that still wasn’t enough, which is why Jobs eventually decided to locate the only set of bathrooms in the atrium. “At first, I thought this was the most ridiculous idea,” says Darla Anderson, an executive producer on several Pixar films. “I have to go to the bathroom every thirty minutes. I didn’t want to have to walk all the way to the atrium every time I needed to go. That’s just a waste of time. But Steve said, ‘Everybody has to run into each other.’ He really believed that the best meetings happened by accident, in the hallway or parking lot. And you know what? He was right. I get more done having a bowl of cereal and striking up a conversation or walking to the bathroom and running into unexpected people than I do sitting at my desk.” Brad Bird, the director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille, agrees: “The atrium initially might seem like a waste of space . . . But Steve realized that when people run into each other, when they make eye contact,
things happen. So he made it impossible for you not to run into the rest of the company.”

I found this same phenomenon to be true when I worked at the Kenner Vineyard. Once or twice a week I would stop by a coworker’s office or bump into someone before I was leaving. Frequently I would find myself in conversations that would take 30 minutes to an hour. Conventional wisdom would say that these kinds of conversation are a waste of time, yet for me they became powerful ways to unlock my creativity, to get me unstuck. Nowadays I work a job from home so my interaction with others has to be a priority. I try to be disciplined about making time in my schedule for conversations on the phone, lunch or coffee with a friend. Not only am I better off by staying connected with others but my creativity stays much more vibrant as a result of the intentional accidental encounters with others from day to day.

What do you think of this approach to creativity?

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