The Terrible Ten: Modern Self-Help And A Lehrer Follow-Up

It’s extremely helpful when readers offer corrections; I can and do get the facts wrong sometimes, and I’m always happy to follow-up when there’s a reason to do so.

My friend FM had this to say on Facebook:

Yes, yes, yes. And no. Two small, but important points:1) Lehrer didn’t pretend to interview Bob Dylan. He badly mangled quotes or made up quotes from existing materials and, when he was called on it, pretended he had gotten the verbatim from un-aired video material that only he had access to. 2) The New Yorker is the last place in journalism that still actually throws money around. They’re not subject, as far as I know, to the kinds of cuts you’re talking about. If the editors there overlooked questions about Lehrer, I think it likely was because of some cult of young genius, some sense that they’d snagged the next hotshot.

With respect to #1, that’s my bad. I misinterpreted the Salon.com article’s references to what happened. At least the guy was being a little more plausible than I’d imagined.

As for #2, I should clarify that the profit motive and the problem of insufficient staff are two independent (though ultimately related) causes of the same end result — namely, allowing dishonest work to be published. Specifically, in the case of the Imagine book, Lehrer’s editors were not from The New Yorker, but people at Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt. Nonetheless, even if Houghton-Mifflin does have sufficient editorial staff, nothing currently prevents an unscrupulous editor from being greedy and lazy. Imagine was a bestseller; HMH’s bottom line is still better for having published it. (Nor, incidentally, do I applaud HMH for recalling the book now; their goal is to make this story go away as quickly as possible, and to prevent an Internet full of readers from going on a treasure hunt for more mistakes and/or fabrications.)

Not to make this too personal, but as I mentioned here a short while ago, The New Yorker seems less than fully invested in catching and correcting its mistakes. They continue to sit on Louis Menand’s article about James Joyce; the article completely mischaracterized Joyce as “contemptuous of psychoanalysis,” which he was not. It’s entirely possible that they do have a problematic cult of genius in those offices; honestly, I wouldn’t know. Still, nobody would call Harvard’s professional expounder upon modernism, Louis Menand, a young hotshot, and they seem to be giving him a lot of leeway, too.

***

Despite the recall, I have my ways of tracking down a book like Imagine, and looking at it right now, I am filled with a familiar melancholy. This is not a work of genius. It is a second-rate imitation of Malcolm Gladwell (far, far worse than my playful one yesterday), and, like much of Gladwell, it is self-help masquerading as knowledge work. The subtitle, “How Creativity Works,” almost deserves to be called misleading, since the book is about “How You Can Become More Creative By Following The Example Of Others.” Yes, you heard that right: this is a book offering uncreative, easily duplicated approaches to becoming more creative through imitation. The irony of that is, for me at least, almost too much before I even reach page 1.

Here’s the blurb, which, as one might expect, name-drops Dylan:

Did you know that the most creative companies have centralized bathrooms? That brainstorming meetings are a terrible idea? That the color blue can help you double your creative output?

From the best-selling author of How We Decide comes a sparkling and revelatory look at the new science of creativity. Shattering the myth of muses, higher powers, even creative “types,” Jonah Lehrer demonstrates that creativity is not a single gift possessed by the lucky few. It’s a variety of distinct thought processes that we can all learn to use more effectively.

Lehrer reveals the importance of embracing the rut, thinking like a child, and daydreaming productively, then he takes us out of our own heads to show how we can make our neighborhoods more vibrant, our companies more productive, and our schools more effective.

We’ll learn about Bob Dylan’s writing habits and the drug addiction of poets. We’ll meet a bartender who thinks like a chemist, and an autistic surfer who invented an entirely new surfing move. We’ll see why Elizabethan England experienced a creative explosion, and how Pixar designed its office space to get the most out of its talent. Col apsing the layers separating the neuron from the finished symphony, Imagine reveals the deepinventiveness of the human mind, and its essential role in our increasingly complex world.

You know how it is. I’d like to leave the poor guy to his quiet life of disgrace, but I can’t. I just can’t.

Did you know that the most creative companies have centralized bathrooms?

Yes. Why? Because they’re small, and people collaborate more in smaller companies. Once a company reaches a certain size, centralized bathrooms become first impractical, then impossible.

That brainstorming meetings are a terrible idea?

Yes. They’re not inherently terrible — writers meet to brainstorm ideas all the time, as you can observe on a show like 30 Rock — but in the day-to-day world of American business, neither employees nor managers do “brainstorming” like a bunch of comedy writers.

That the color blue can help you double your creative output?

I was really hoping that the explanation of this wasn’t going to be “blue puts you in a better mood because it’s the color of ocean and sky,” but that is exactly the reasoning behind Lehrer’s claim. He admits that looking at a lightbulb also makes people test as “more creative,” but of course he still tries to naturalize our reaction to blue, as though it’s in our DNA, and not as culturally determined as lightbulbs = ideas.

However, I like blue rooms too, so I’m going to give him a pass on this one.

A look at the new science of creativity.

There is no “science of creativity,” you shameless huckster. It’s still just good ol’ psychology and neuroscience.

Jonah Lehrer demonstrates that creativity is not a single gift possessed by the lucky few. It’s a variety of distinct thought processes that we can all learn to use more effectively.

“You think you’re the only guy who can give me that Barton Fink feeling?! I got a thousand guys who can give me that Barton Fink feeling!”

Then we come to what I call “the new science of the hip self-help book,” including The Terrible Ten.

The Terrible Ten are maxims.

1. Incorporate celebrities. In this case, Bob Dylan and Pixar.

2. Be slightly counter-intuitive. “Embracing the rut…a bartender who thinks like a chemist.” (Watch enough TV, and you’re guaranteed to also see chemists who tend bar in one episode, with remarkably good results.)

3. Speak in the language of public television programs. “We’ll meet Person A, who is studying which french fries people eat first, to learn about human decision-making. Then we’ll meet Person B, who will show us how the social life of koalas is changing everything we thought we knew about road rage.”

4. Exploit the reader’s nostalgia for his childhood. “Thinking like a child, and daydreaming productively…”

5. Imply a need for radical change. “He takes us out of our own heads.”

6. The Timeliness Tripod: solve social ills, promise wealth, and exile loneliness. “[That’s why we need this book more than ever right now]: to show how we can make our neighborhoods more vibrant, our companies more productive, and our schools more effective.”

7. Be slightly edgy and slightly hip. “The drug addiction of poets…an entirely new surfing move.”

8. Nothing is more delightful than a savant. “An autistic surfer who invented an entirely new surfing move.” Come! See The Incredible Surfing Freak-Man Who Will Yell In Short Bursts, And Be Inexplicably Terrified Of Things! Only Two Dollars A Person! Money Back If You Do Not Find It Poignant!

9. Refer to highbrow stuff. This could include, for example, Elizabethan England (Shakespeare!) or the finished symphony (you know, that one symphony somebody wrote, I forget exactly).

10. Promise superpowers in the context of global change. “Imagine reveals the deep inventiveness of the human mind, and its essential role in our increasingly complex world.”

***

Lehrer does not deserve to fall from grace because he doctored his Dylan. That’s like saying the worst thing about ebola is the unattractive skin blotches. Every single thing about this book was a lie from the start: the style, the reductive syntheses of meaningful research, everything, including “and,” and “the.”

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