On Cartoons, Bathrooms, and Creativity

Pixar Animation Studios atrium.

Pixar Studios

I have a lot of books on creativity and creative thinking, and bookstores know I’m pretty much a sure thing when something new and interesting comes out. NPR alerted me to a new one: “Imagine: How Creativity Works” by Jonah Lehrer. I just downloaded the audiobook, which I will listen to right after I finish my current audiobook (“1493” by Charles C. Mann). But even before I get a chance to hear Lehrer’s book, I wanted to share some flash inspiration that I got from the NPR interview. It was the part about how Steve Jobs redesigned Pixar studios (of blockbuster animated film fame) “to maximize collaboration and creativity.” The original design had the three teams of specialists separate in their own buildings: scientists, animators, and directors. Creative soul that Jobs was, he saw immediately that this was a Very Bad Idea when it comes to inspiring creativity.

Steve Jobs at the WWDC 07

He knew that if you only hang out with people who are just like you, you are not likely to come in contact with different kinds of ideas. So he put everyone in one building (all under one roof see the photo above), and even more, he put only two bathrooms in the whole place – which would force everyone to be in the same space at least some of the time. Very inconvenient, but very effective in accomplishing the purpose of making people who know different things and see the world differently mingle and exchange ideas. As Lehrer says, “The brain is just an endless knot of connections. And a creative thought is simply… a network that’s connecting itself in a new way.” Outside or unexpected influences can jar new connections into being. Random comments from a field outside your own. Mistakes are unpredicted results and can give rise to new discoveries (Post-It notes came from an experiment that produced a really bad glue. There are many others: penicillin. Teflon. The ice cream cone. Silly Putty. Ivory soap. Vulcanized rubber. Scotchguard. Potato chips.

It worked. Jobs was right. As Lehrer says, now the people at Pixar will tell you “about the great conversation they had while washing their hands.”

Philharmonic Orchestra of Jalisco (Guadalajara...

When I was in the orchestra, one thing I noticed was how nice it was to talk to people who weren’t in the orchestra. Nothing wrong with the orchestra people, but they all had the same mindset, the same complaints, the same experiences. The best conversations were about people’s hobbies – the non-orchestra-related stuff that they did outside of the job. Building sailboats or furniture. Travel. Mountain climbing. Skiing.

Even more interesting was talking to people outside the orchestra, who had different looks on life, different complaints, different experiences. It was always interesting to yak with jazz musicians, for example. People from other countries. Even tourists. For a while we took in street musicians, aka buskers, now and then. One couple performed on guitar and violin. She was Dutch; he was from New Jersey. He said they spent three months of the year performing in the streets in Europe, and spent nine months studying sitar in India, living on the proceeds (epilogue: he did this for seven or eight years and moved back home and became a computer programmer). Two young guys were jazz guitarists (one now teaches creative writing in college). Interesting stuff. Much better than going to work and hearing the bass clarinetist shriek to the heavens that vacation was beginning two days later this year.

Anyway. I love my job in the university, and yet it is harder than it should be to mingle with people from other departments. The few times I’ve done that have been very inspiring: conversations with others from other areas (geology, linguistics, dance, leisure studies, communications) have been very inspiring and fascinating. Everyone is booked up to the eyeballs; no one has time or space. Universities are big places, spread out, compartmentalized. You usually see people just like you. It’s comforting to speak the same language, but it’s unlikely to produce sparks unless you work at it a bit. But there are still times to meet; even an out-of-deparment committee meeting can bring inspiration. Sometimes you get an idea for an interdisciplinary adventure that will bring you in contact with others. I got to meet some interesting folks when I was looking for guests for my new Creativity in Music class – it’s a great harvest of ideas and inspiration.

There are still ways to stay in the same building and get inspiration. One is simply to poke your head out of your own narrow field. I have written quite a few articles over the years; I found it easy to get ideas and inspiration for a new article simply by looking past what horn players do and bringing back ideas from outside the gates of horn tradition. What are the other brasses doing (e.g. look in their instrumental journals)? How about woodwinds? In what ways could I bring back ideas from the world of percussion? How about other styles than classical? Jazz. Latin. World music. Electronic. What about going beyond music all together? Psychology. Brain physiology. Business. Sports. Language/linguistics. Child development. Video games. Magic/illusion.

There is a ton of stuff out there just waiting to inspire us. New stuff can be a little scary, a bit uncomfortable, but it pays big dividends. Perhaps not immediately, but as you build a big compost heap of knowledge from all kinds of areas, you are setting the stage for something truly new and amazing to happen when one thing connects in a new way with something else: aha!. The lesson we can learn from Steve Jobs and Jonah Lehrer (and others) is to take time now and then to step out of our comfort zone and experience new people, new ideas, new approaches.

It’s not comfortable, but it’s fascinating and effective. So just do it (Lehrer tells about how that great Nike slogan came from an ad man taking one line from a book by Norman Mailer about the life and death of a killer and twisting it a bit).

This kind of thinking is immediately clear to anyone that improvises: it takes a lot of energy to generate music all by yourself, but add another person and – like conversation – the ideas flow and grow with no trouble. We still have to watch out for one thing: the tendency (perhaps unconscious) to repeat ourselves (i.e. stick to the familiar, to past successes). We need to continually seek new challenges to keep growing as music creators: learn about new styles, play with new partners, seek out new techniques (both instrumental and theoretical – new keys, modes, scales, chord types, extended techniques, etc.). In music school you have the feeling that once your learn your basic scales and arpeggios and a basic warm-up and technique routine (which never changes), you just coast on it from then on. After all, it’s more comfortable and soothing to the ego to sit on what works. But what’s good for us, what keeps us alive and learning and improving is that continual push beyond the comfort zone. As musicians, as improvisers, we needs to keep seeking out stuff we don’t know much about or can’t quite do.

So remember cartoons and bathrooms and healthy discomfort. And just do it.