Get Back in Your Cubicle and Think Outside the Box!



Jonah Lehrer wrote a book about imagination and creativity called — how creative is this? — Imagine: How Creativity Works. One of his ideas that may spark your imagination and enhance your creativity is to paint your workspace sky blue.

Sky blue, Lehrer says, puts you in mind of the wide-open, spacious, outdoors, if not the sky’s the limit, as they say, and also the ocean.

Or you might simply take a word apart and see where that leads you: The hardcover version of Lehrer’s book breaks the world IMAGINE into three lines of large, bold type:




This works even better in Fluent’s publishing venue, because there’s no book under it. A rectangular book under the split-up word puts it in a box, if only a psychological box, like your cubicle at “work.”

No matter that this split-up title might not be Lehrer’s idea but instead the idea of the book designer. Authors have little or no control over book covers, jacket copy, etc. Even wildly creative authors aren’t considered up to those tasks, because they aren’t market savvy.

The split-up word on the book’s cover might spark a great publishing concept itself: for example, I Magazine. For the me-first generation — or is our entire culture now me-first — that’s way better than People Magazine or Us Magazine. Those titles are far too suggestive of community.

Can you imagine a magazine about the present U.S. Congress being titled People Magazine or Us Magazine?  That would defy imagination. I Magazine already has the better demographics, not just for Congress but for the people the Congress daily fails to represent.

Lehrer also reported in Imagine how Apple put the bathrooms in the most central location in their office building. The objective was to force its people to interact. Studies show that interactions are creative. Nor must their substance be related to the problem you’re working on at the moment. In fact, those ideas’ lack of relation may deliver their main value.

Did you know that people in cities — the bigger the better — are more creative than people in backwaters like Charles Town, Ranson, Martinsburg or Shepherdstown, WV or Sharpsburg, Frederick or Hagerstown, MD? Backwaters simply give you fewer human interactions than big cities do, and the interactions spark creativity. The next time a state trooper pulls you over, think “creativity.”

When I was in college I studied in my room until I couldn’t stand it any longer. Then I would repair to a nearby restaurant to study at the counter over a 10-cent fountain softdrink. I rarely studied in the college library; it was TOO QUIET, too artificially quiet. I never talked about my study habits, because they went against everything my parents and teachers drummed into my brain box. “You need peace and quiet to concentrate and do your best.”

After decades of writing in restaurants, I found solace in playwright David Mamet’s title essay in his book Writing in Restaurants. Mamet places great value on the practice, largely from overhearing or mis-hearing other patrons or staff. The day before I finished editing this column I overheard this in a restaurant: “She said she was having a dinner for fifty of her closest friends. I don’t even know fifty people I would invite to dinner.”

Marcel Proust could imagine that comparison of self with other into a 400,000-word novel. J.D. Salinger would be content just to italicize that many words in two short sentences.

This past June my longtime writing habit of writing with real background noise suddenly went mainstream in American creativity research. You can join the mainstream, too.

In The New York Times health and science blog, “Well,” Anahad O’Connor writes: “Pulling up a seat at your favorite coffee shop may be the most efficient way to write a paper or finish a work project.”

His words were music to my ears. Apologia pro vita sua. Justification for my years of writing in public places. For the past five years or more I wrote in the Blair Road EZMart and then the Bolivar (rhymes with “Oliver”), WV, 7-Eleven. 7-Eleven’s closed-circuit TV programming gives what all writers need and want, great writing prompts. Consider this from a daily “Didja Know” feature: “Didja know an octopus has three hearts?”

How many heart attacks would it take to kill an octopus? Could you be monogamous if you had three hearts? Would it then work to explain: “I know in my hearts golf is the love of my life.” For sure, it would give new meaning to the expression: “I know in my heart of hearts….” That would then exhibit coronary favoritism — and who wants two of your hearts revolting against your third?

O’Connor continues: “But now a new Web site lets you bring the coffee shop to your cubicle.” The site is “Coffitivity.” The idea is inspired by the same ilk of behavioral studies that are both the text and subtext of Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine.

The researchers, O’Connor reports, “…found that a level of ambient noise typical of a bustling coffee shop or a television playing in a living room, about 70 decibels, enhanced performance compared with the relative quiet of 50 decibels.”

About 85 decibels… “roughly the noise level generated by a blender or a garbage disposal, was too distracting, the researchers found.”

It’s too bad that Lance Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service competitive cycling squad didn’t know about performance-enhancing background noise. I don’t see how Coffitivity would show up in a drug test. Would it leave a perceptible aural imprint on your eardrums? But what current test examines blood or urine for a past sound?

A caveat: One mustn’t present imagination as fact if the medium in which you present the imaginative element purports to be fact-based. Unfortunately, Jonah Lehrer, then a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, made that mistake in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works.

Julie Bosman, in the The New York Times “Media Decoder” blog, writes that Lehrer “…executed one of the most bewildering recent journalistic frauds, one that… cost him his prestigious post at the magazine and his status as one of the most promising, visible and well-paid writers in the business.”

Lehrer finally admitted that he made up most of his quotations attributed to Bob Dylan in support of the book’s view of imagination and creativity. The article that brought down Lehrer was written by Michael Moynihan in Tablet Magazine online.

“I’m something of the Dylan obsessive — piles of live bootlegs, outtakes, books — and I read the first chapter of Imagine with keen interest,” Moynihan writes. “But when I looked for sources to a handful of Dylan quotations offered by Lehrer — the chapter is sparsely and erratically footnoted — I came up empty and in one case found two fragments of quotes, from different years and on different topics, welded together to create something that happily complemented Lehrer’s argument. Other quotes I couldn’t locate at all.”

Al Sharpton has been known to say “You just can’t make this [stuff ] up!” Nevertheless, people still do make it up. Remember, however: Keep facticity and imagination distinct. And maybe you should paint your workspace sky blue. But in the meantime, get back in your cubicle and think outside the box!