Where Do Good Ideas Come From? (Ep. 368)

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Sometimes ideas depend on technology: “mapping the universe” would have been impossible with standard refracting telescopes — then came solid-state detectors. (Photo: Smithsonian Institution Archives/Wikimedia Commons)

Whether you’re mapping the universe, hosting a late-night talk show, or running a meeting, there are a lot of ways to up your idea game. Plus: the truth about brainstorming. (Ep. 3 of the “How to Be Creative” series.)

Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

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Our previous episode — No. 367 if you’re counting — was about the future of meat. One of the people helping determine that future is a biochemist named Pat Brown. He founded a company called Impossible Foods, whose mission is:

Pat BROWN: To completely replace animals as a food production technology by 2035.

The science behind Brown’s idea is fascinating, and impressive, and all that. But it is also — to me, at least — it’s also an act of remarkable creativity.

BROWN: Well, just in principle it should be possible to produce foods that deliver all the qualities that consumers want more sustainably, from plants.

Making meat out of plants was not Pat Brown’s first creative breakthrough. Years earlier, as a Stanford researcher, he created a genetic tool called the D.N.A. microarray—

BROWN: That lets you learn how the genome writes the life story of a cell.

As interesting as it was to talk to Pat Brown about both the D.N.A. microarray and Impossible meat, I found myself thinking about an even more interesting question, or at least a much broader one: whether we’re talking science, or the arts, or business, where do creative ideas come from?

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Up to this point in our series on creativity, we’ve looked at some myths — like the connection between creativity and dysfunction.

Teresa AMABILE: It’s false. Many creative people do have dysfunctional families but not every creative person has a dysfunctional family.

We looked at the connection between creativity and school:

Mitch RESNICK: Schools end up focusing on the things that are most easily assessed rather than focusing on the things that are most valuable for kids. So what we need to do is to focus more on trying to assess the things we value rather than valuing the things that are most easily assessed.

But what we haven’t figured out yet is how to answer the question you may ask whenever you see an enormously creative thing, whether it’s a sculpture or a movie or a scientific leap: how did they come up with that idea? The idea, of course, is just the beginning. I’m sure you’ve heard the famous saying, generally attributed to Thomas Edison: genius is one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration. But still — what about that one percent? Where does it come from? And how can you get more if it?

Margaret GELLER: In the evening when I’m listening to music, that’s when ideas come. It’s very important to feel free. I don’t think there’s any way you can be creative without feeling free.

That is the pioneering astrophysicist Margaret Geller.

GELLER: I like to say that I’ve spent my life mapping the universe.

Geller is responsible for discoveries about the distribution of galaxies in the universe — the fact that they’re often in clumps and not distributed evenly. To reach that understanding, Geller had to gather many observations of distant galaxies, essentially take pictures of them.

GELLER: And the thing that enabled us to do what we did was a big change in the technology.

Geller started doing this research around 1980.

GELLER: So, at that time, what happened is that people went from photographic plates to what we call solid-state detectors. Now, that may be a confusing term, but every single person has one of those in their pocket. Your cell phone, the detector in it, the thing you take pictures with, is a so-called charge-coupled device, and it’s about as big as your fingernail. We use those same things in astronomy, bigger ones. And that’s what enabled the revolution in our ability to map the universe.

The galaxies Geller wanted to observe were many light-years away.

GELLER: I think it’s amazing to think about that, that these photons, these particles of light, travel through the pretty-empty universe for hundreds of millions, billions of years. They don’t hit anything until they hit these tiny detectors on this tiny speck of dust we call the Earth. We interpret those signals to figure out what the universe looks like and how it came to be. So the question was, “Are there patterns in the universe? Are there features, is there some geometry?”

So that’s where Geller’s path-breaking idea came from. First, there was a new technology that afforded a much better view of the universe; then, the big question that hadn’t been answered: what is the underlying geometry of the universe?

GELLER: Then the question is, the universe is big, and life is short. So, how do you address this question if you have a small telescope and you want to get done? So, I began to think about the Earth and the patterns on the surface of the Earth. What are the biggest patterns? It’s the continents and the oceans.

Suppose you’re an alien and you want to know whether the Earth has continents and oceans, but you can only see a tiny fraction of it, say the fraction covered by Rhode Island. What shape do you take for the sample that you’re allowed to see? Well, if you take a patch, you’re not going to learn much, because most of the time it will land in the ocean.

But you can take a very thin great circle around the Earth and there are a few great circles that pass through only oceans but those are few. Most will cross both the landmass and the ocean. You’ll find out that the Earth has two kinds of patterns, both big. Now the universe of course is not a two-dimensional surface; it’s a three-dimensional place, so the analogy to this great circle is a slice in three-dimensional space, so that’s what we did. We mapped galaxies in this three-dimensional slice of the universe.

So Geller and her fellow researchers took a three-dimensional slice of the universe, and mapped the galaxies contained inside.

GELLER: It turned out that the survey we made, the slice was just thick enough and it reached just deep enough in the universe to see what turns out to be the characteristic pattern in the way galaxies are arranged in the universe. So, galaxies surround huge regions that are dark, essentially devoid of galaxies, that are tens of millions of light-years across, and the galaxies are in thin structures that surround these kinds of empty regions and that turns out to be the characteristic structure that people now call the cosmic web.

And what’s it like to be able to look into the sky and see the deep structure of the universe?

GELLER: It’s a kind of thrill that you never forget. I think there’s a kind of awe. I think that there is an artistry in nature that has a beauty that we’re all wired up to appreciate.

So, Margaret Geller’s big idea happened like this: she started from what was already known, and unknown; she looked at the new capabilities that technology gave her; she formulated a big, important question, and found a smart way to answer that question using the new tools at her disposal. Sounds like a rational way to come up with an idea — at least in retrospect. There’s another deeply rational sort of question that can lead to good ideas. It goes like this: “Isn’t it ludicrous that so many things we encounter every day are designed so poorly?”

James DYSON: That’s rather an arrogant way of putting it.

That’s James Dyson.

DYSON: Yeah, I think in my profession I do go around looking at things critically to see if it’s a good idea or if there could be an improvement or how I would improve it. I think, I know, really, almost all engineers do that. And if you don’t you are not really an engineer.

Dyson, along with Elon Musk, is among the most famous living inventors. But unlike Musk, who dreams up hyperloops and Mars missions, Dyson has worked on wheelbarrows and hand dryers and, most profitably, vacuum cleaners. It turns out he’s been fairly obsessed with the vacuum cleaner since childhood.

DYSON: I mean, I remember using my vacuum cleaner at home in the early 50’s and it screaming away, making a sort of nasty, stale smell of dust and not really picking things up. And I remember it wasn’t a very good machine, although I was very pleased to use it and I think it was the only electrical device we had in the house. We didn’t have sockets on the walls in those days. So, you had to take out the light bulb, stand on a chair, and connect into the light bulb socket, and not pull too hard at the cord.

Later on, Dyson had his own family, and a home with its own dust.

DYSON: I bought what was supposed to be the most powerful vacuum cleaner ever made. And I noticed I had the same old problem. By now it had paper bags rather than cloth bags, but the same screaming noise, same smell of stale dust. And it’s not picking things up. Now, being an engineer, I took it to bits and realized that all the airflow had to go through the bag. And of course the bag has little holes in it, and they get blocked by the very first dust that goes into the bag.

So the vacuum cleaner bag is full not because it’s full, but because it’s got a little bit of dust in it that blocks the little holes in it. And I was a bit angry about this actually, I thought, “This is bad.” You know, a light bulb gives you 100 watts until it goes pop. Your car goes along at 70 miles an hour, whatever it is you want to go, until it breaks down. But a vacuum cleaner has a reducing performance. And that’s not really very satisfactory.

Dyson didn’t act on his frustration immediately. At the time, he was busy manufacturing a different invention of his, called a ballbarrow. A ballbarrow is a wheelbarrow but, rather than the small wheel up front that can be hard to maneuver and gets stuck in the mud, it had a spherical wheel — a ball — atop its metal frame.

DYSON: And we had to put in a powder-coating plant to coat the frames, and we had a screen, a cloth screen rather like a vacuum cleaner bag, that kept getting clogged with the powder. And I discovered efficient factories used a thing called a cyclone, which is about 30-foot-high, which spun the powder out by centrifugal force rather than having a clogging filter. So I decided to make one over a couple of weekends.

DUBNER: I understand you copied one from a sawmill, yes?

DYSON: That’s it. Yes, and it worked brilliantly. It collected the very fine powder all day long. Clean air appeared to come out of the chimney at the top of it and the clogging problem had gone away. And I wondered as I was welding this thing up, whether in miniature you could put one in a vacuum cleaner. So I raced home and ripped the bag off from my vacuum cleaner and made a cardboard one, actually. With gaffer tape and cardboard. And pushed it around my house, and it appeared to work.

It appeared to work, but not yet well enough. Dyson says he built 5,127 prototypes over five years. Today, the Dyson vacuum is one of the world’s best-sellers; the Dyson company, which also makes air purifiers and hair dryers, has annual revenues of more than $3 billion, and Dyson himself has a net worth of more than $5 billion. He’s also been knighted. So that worked out pretty well for him. But what if you don’t have five years to tinker with an idea? What if you have more like five days? Or five hours?

DUBNER: Hello.

Christoph NIEMANN: Hi there.

DUBNER: Good to see you.

NIEMANN: Come on in.

DUBNER: Yeah. How’s family?

NIEMANN: They’re good, growing like mad.

That’s an old friend of mine, an old collaborator.

NIEMANN: My name is Christoph Niemann, and I’m an illustrator and author.

Niemann is German, but lived in New York for years. Now he’s back in Berlin, and so was I last summer, visiting his studio. You might recognize his work: more than two dozen New Yorker covers; his “Abstract Sunday” column, and much more, from The New York Times. Also, children’s books. His illustrations often turn on a clever transformation — a pair of bananas that represent a horse’s hindquarters; a poppy-seed bagel is repurposed into a man’s chin, mid-shave. Even when the topic is serious, Niemann has a playful streak. Like the New Yorker cover he made after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Against a black background, Niemann drew the branches of a cherry tree; the blossoms, a familiar pink, were in the shape of the international radiation symbol, the trefoil.

NIEMANN: Well, when I started out it was fairly easy, easy in a sense of simple. I would get a call from a magazine or newspaper and they would say, “We have a story on the stock market, some political event. We have a certain space. Here’s the headline, here’s the article. We need a visual equivalent to the headline.”

DUBNER: In how many hours?

NIEMANN: My record was 45 minutes for the New York Times Op-Ed page, because the Pakistanis decided to test their nuclear weapons at 3:30, and the paper went to print at 5. So once they had the decision, I had I think 30 minutes to actually do the entire drawing. Usually from a day to a week sometimes it’s actually years for very open assignments.

DUBNER: Give me just an example — could be short, long, big, small — of a particularly difficult problem that you had to solve with an illustration.

NIEMANN: Well, for me the difficult but also the fun problems, were always the ones where you have to tell a boring story through an interesting visual. When you have an interesting story — let’s say somebody cures cancer, or aliens land on Times Square, you can’t add a great layer with visuals because with the aliens, you just want a photo of the aliens. There’s no smart metaphorical illustration to be done. If somebody were to cure cancer, I just want a big fat headline. There’s no smart image — of somebody celebrating? There is nothing to add there.

So I think these visuals often work the best when you have a subtle story, or maybe even a boring story, or a story that’s been told a million times. The equivalent in pop music would be “I love you.” It has been said and sung a gazillion times. The question is can you do it interesting again. So I often found that boring economic stories were — there was a great way to tell an interesting story. Not by saying, “This is completely new information,” but to say, “Well, think about that in a different way.”

And for years I was illustrating The New Yorker financial column by James Surowiecki, brilliant column. And I remember one that was about how small companies updating their technical machinery, how that is an indicator for something. And of course, that’s not a very sexy thing. It was really about kind of a small accounting firm buying new computers and how often they would do that. And of course I didn’t want to draw accountants or computers, so I actually drew the Grim Reaper and he looks into a shop window. And at the shop window there is a big sickle, and then there’s a lawnmower and then an electric lawnmower. So it’s him kind thinking about whether he should finally upgrade, and of course you have to know the metaphors and it requires a bit of a leap, but with a story like that, it’s much more interesting to kind of then add a visual layer.

So Niemann routinely needs to generate ideas on demand, often on a tight deadline. How does that happen?

NIEMANN: I guess with these kind of metaphoric illustrations, what I do is I try to — these images are like words, and like written language, it requires did the writer and the reader speak the same language. So when I think of a symbol I have to think of what symbol is known. And when you have Sisyphus pushing up the rock, I have to assume people know that image. If they don’t, any pun I would make based on that won’t work. And I think that’s a very important skill set for designers to be very aware of visual language and what’s known and also, especially, what’s not known.

So basically then what I do is I try to go — it’s almost like running through a wheel of every possible symbol, and then starting a second wheel, with how you can twist that image, and then trying to combine two symbols. Let’s say you do something on money and then you go dollar sign, a graph, the physical dollar bill, and then maybe it’s about money in sports, it would go basketball, football, baseball. And you try to take all these symbols and mix them together, and then 999 times it means nothing and then all of a sudden there’s tennis and the graph. And you go, “Hmm, what if I take the graph and weave it into a tennis racket?” Which is, I’m sure, been a done gazillion times. It’s not a great idea.

But so basically it is running these two wheels against each other and then being very, very attentive and seeing what clicks. And this usually happens in the process of drawing. I need to have that in the paper because in the act of drawing things, they turn out a little different than you would imagine in your head. And then all of the sudden you go, “Wait a minute, like that’s — I had the idea in my head but now that I put down on paper, something is off.” And that moment where it’s off, usually only then an interesting new solution comes to life.

There’s a point we should make about the kind of ideas that Niemann was coming up with. They were generally in response to a commission: basically, a buyer contacting him with a request to generate a sellable idea. So his ideas were for the most part extrinsically motivated; he wasn’t sitting around and intrinsically dreaming up ideas that turned him on. What do we know about the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation when it comes to creativity? There’s a lot of research — we went over it in detail earlier in this series, Episode No. 355, if you want to hear it — research showing that extrinsic motivation tends to diminish creativity, both in quantity and quality. Christoph Niemann, interestingly, has been able to shift over the years, from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. That’s partly because he’s been so successful, which gave him more opportunities to create what he wanted to create. But also: the shift was necessitated by changes in technology and the economy.

NIEMANN: My approach has changed, but also because media has changed. This whole deadline-driven imagery is not that relevant anymore. And I feel it’s more about storytelling. It’s more about a subjective point of view. And that’s why I’ve started doing a lot more work that’s originating with me. So it’s not me waiting for a cue from a story, but me going out there and creating the story and then finding the images for it. It involves a lot of letting go, trusting myself a lot more. With my traditional work, on the one hand it’s harder because you have the time pressure, you have a lot more restrictions to fight against.

The good thing is, I like to call it the Stockholm Syndrome for art. When you have a lot of restrictions, you also have something to struggle with, to fight against, and that is it’s almost like holding you up, you can lean on these restrictions. When you have no brief, it’s on one hand fantastic, on the other hand is really disorienting. It’s this kind of creative freedom where you just sit down as a kid and you start drawing because you want to draw. It was more about unlearning something.

Michael BIERUT: All designers in my experience, almost regardless of what the field is, sort of feel that they have some sort of intrinsic urge for self-expression.

That’s the graphic designer Michael Bierut. He’s done a lot of work you’d recognize — for MasterCard, the New York Jets, Saks Fifth Avenue, many others. So most designers, he thinks, have a strong intrinsic urge. What about Bierut?

BIERUT: Sometimes when I’ve actually examined myself really honestly, I’ve come to think that I’m really on the extrinsic side of that spectrum. I don’t actually have ideas that I want to get out that I think are personal, that I’m motivated by some need to get them in front of the world.

Bierut thrives on getting a brief from a client; those briefs do, however, range from specific to amorphous.

BIERUT: In one case, I might have an assignment where I’m doing signs in a building that identify the bathroom or the fire exits. Now those things are meant to be functional. They can be attractive, they can be aesthetic, they can even be playful sometimes. But getting to the bathroom is an urgent matter. Getting to the fire exit in some cases is a life-or-death matter. And those have to really do their job very, very efficiently.

On the other hand, sometimes people will ask me to design a logo for their business or enterprise. And in those cases, a logo can be more open-ended. It can be in many ways more creative. It can be open to interpretation, people can impose different meanings on it. And I think at the very heart of it indeed is that moment where you make something from nothing.

There’s a moment where you sort of have to do the magic bit of alchemy that transmutes all that into something interesting, compelling, and memorable. And that’s actually the moment that all creative people live for. And I think many of them are reluctant sometimes to admit how rarely that moment comes. If that connection really happens three times a year, that’s like a landmark year for me.

And there is a quote from Chuck Close that I’ve heard many people quote, which is “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work.” And I think that that’s really true. You sort of have to just be ready so that when you kind of encounter that magic moment, you’ve got the muscle memory and the experience and the instincts to let you grab that opportunity.

So Bierut and Niemann have given us some views from the creator’s side of the commissioning process. What’s a commission look like from the commissioning side? We spoke with Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum, one of the oldest and most prestigious art institutions in the United States.

Anne PASTERNAK: Hi Stephen.

At a museum like the Brooklyn Museum, Pasternak doesn’t get to do much commissioning. But in her previous job, she ran a big public-art group called Creative Time, which did lots of big and audacious commissions. Among the best known: “Tribute in Light,” a 9/11 memorial made up of two shafts of light projected into the night sky.

PASTERNAK: There were probably altogether about 120 giant lights that had come from Italy. It was new technology. Think about a searchlight, but a really mega searchlight. It was actually a very enormous installation. It takes weeks to actually set up the lights. And then you also need volunteer birdwatchers to make sure that birds are safe and that they’re not disoriented and flying into buildings. And there was a lot of stuff that was invisible to the public that had to be realized.

Pasternak had another opportunity for a big commission when she was contacted by the owners of an enormous old building — the former Domino Sugar factory, on the Brooklyn waterfront. It was going to be turned into a park; and the owners thought Creative Time might like to do something with the space before it was time for demolition.

PASTERNAK: I immediately reached out to an artist I’d always wanted to work with, Kara Walker, who was never interested in any of the ideas that I ever presented to her, Grand Central Station, whatever spaces I was working in. And Kara was not so interested. And I said Kara, “Come out and see this space, you don’t live far away. And at the very least you’ll see this incredible historic site.”

And it was just about eight inches of molasses on the floor, molasses dripping from the ceilings. It was such an incredibly intense experience, it just activated all of your senses: your sight, your touch. I mean literally, you had to wear big rubber boots when you went in there and they would fall off because they would get stuck in the floor. And the smell, the smell and the heat and the moisture.

So I thought that the space was so enormous that maybe Kara — we would do a group exhibition. But I wanted to bring Kara there first. And Kara said to me at the end of it: “Well, I want the whole space,” and I just laughed at her. I thought there was no way one artist on the micro-budgets that Creative Time was working on could actually do something that would really work within that space.

And the next morning I woke up and I think there were over 60 different proposals that she had sent to me. Literally all these drawings just — she must have stayed up all night long, just one drawing after another. And I loved every single one of them. And I said, “Okay, whichever one you want to do.”

But over the next four or five months, she just kept coming up with more ideas. And finally the idea of the big giant sugar sphinx that she created was that one idea I didn’t understand. I wasn’t really sure what it was or what it meant, but I trusted the artist so much, I said, “If this is the one you want to do, then we’re going to do it.

DUBNER: Kara Walker titled this piece “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.” She described it as “an homage to the unpaid and overworked artisans who have refined our sweet tastes from the cane fields to the kitchens of the New World, on the occasion of the demolition of Domino Sugar refining plant.” It became a sensation. Did you come to understand it differently or better?

PASTERNAK: Oh yeah. Once I was in the space and I saw the great sugar Sphinx, that if she was standing tall she would have been as tall as the Statue of Liberty. And I realized she was this great symbol of an African woman of great power and vulnerability and strength. And it was just so heartbreaking, so powerful, and now I see it’s about how we don’t see, and we do see black women in all of their beauty and all of their power and all of their courage. Quite frankly, I was in tears over and over again.

So, the Sugar Sphinx wasn’t Anne Pasternak’s idea; but she was the commissioner, the facilitator; she had an idea about what kind of artist might respond well to that kind of space. And that, to me at least, seems like a creative act in itself.

PASTERNAK: That sounds maybe a little narcissistic on my part, but I think maybe that’s true, about having a sense of who are really great artists who say something I believe important about the times in which we live and my desire to want to work with them and being able to pick out what is a good idea. And one of the things I have learned is that artists tend to, like everybody else, like some structure. Sometimes I would turn to artists and say, “Oh, so-and-so, you’re just such a brilliant artist. I’d do anything to work with you. What do you want to do?” And that’s just too open for them.

So let’s say you are not commissioning massive public works of art; let’s say you’re, maybe, a middle manager, in charge of a team that has to produce some creative ideas. Let’s say you manage a team of 10 employees — maybe they’re marketers or educators or engineers. And your job is to inspire them to think creatively.

Teresa AMABILE: Okay.

Teresa Amabile is a social psychologist at the Harvard Business School.

AMABILE: I study motivation, creativity, innovation and inner work life.

Amabile has done a lot of research inside firms to see how creative work actually gets done. So for a team of 10, what’s the best approach? Gather all 10 to brainstorm? Send them all off to come up with ideas on their own? Or maybe some combination?

AMABILE: First of all, you want to get rid of five of those 10 people because 10 is too many people to have on a team. There’s a lot of research on that. Five to seven tends to be the best size to really solve a complex problem. Later on, when you have to implement the solution, obviously can have much larger teams when you need them.

So let’s say you’ve got five people. They’re all good. They have skills. You’d probably do best to have them work together initially and talk about the problem and explore that problem and what some different angles might be. Make sure they kind of understand what mountain they’re trying to climb. And then let them go off and individually try to figure out different routes for climbing the mountain.

But then bring them back together and have them share their ideas. And ideally they will have that level of trust and openness to each other that they can they can really bring together the best pieces of thinking and you’ll sometimes see solutions emerge that later literally cannot be traced to any one individual, but they were true hybrids of the ideas of multiple individuals.

And what about brainstorming? Is that indeed an effective way to generate good ideas? The practice of brainstorming seems to have originated with an advertising executive named Alex Osborn — he was the “O” in the famous advertising firm BBDO. Osborn wrote about brainstorming in a 1942 book called How to Think Up.

Charlan NEMETH: Popular opinion often is that brainstorming is just sort of sitting around and saying whatever comes to your mind, but it’s not.

That’s Charlan Nemeth, a University of California psychologist who’s studied creativity in organizations.

NEMETH: When Osborn talked about the brainstorming technique, it had four very specific rules to it, and he thought they were very important ways to stop things that tended to get in the way of generating original ideas. And so one of them, for example, was emphasizing quantity — namely, you just go for as many ideas as you can, and don’t stop and analyze whether they’re good or not en route. The notion that you should build on others’ ideas.

But the one I paid attention to, and that’s the one which many people have treated as the critical rule, was “do not criticize the ideas of others.” And that has an intuitive plausibility, because you think if someone’s going to criticize you, you think, “I’ll just shut down. I’m not going to say anything.”

As a scholar, Nemeth is particularly interested in the role of dissent in organizations. So, this cardinal rule of brainstorming — no dissent, essentially — intrigued her. She designed an experiment to test whether the criticism that Osborn warned against actually does shut down creativity in a group.

NEMETH: What we did is we essentially changed that one rule and in one condition we had the regular rules, “do not criticize,” and in the other one we basically encourage them to debate, even criticize, the ideas of others. They thought that there would be no creativity, it would be worse than no rules at all. And the reverse was the case. When you permit debate, even criticism, you open that up. There were more ideas, and they were better quality ideas, when you welcomed this criticism and debate.

Nemeth also investigated the role of dissent in jury deliberations.

NEMETH: As I listened to these tapes over, and over, and over, and over again, what became clear is that when there was a dissenting viewpoint, particularly one that persisted, is that the nature of the deliberation was just much better. They considered more evidence, they considered more ways of looking at the same so-called facts. They were more inclined to look at the downside as opposed to the upside of a particular position that someone was espousing. And they evidenced all the things that really define good decision-making and that, you kind of hope you can train people to do, and dissent was doing that.

Nemeth argues that dissent is valuable in a decision-making process even when the dissenter turns out to be demonstrably wrong.

NEMETH: Because even when it’s wrong, it actually improves the quality of thought in decision-making. Dissent isn’t important for the information that it gives. It’s important because it challenges your thinking. When you’re interacting with someone who honestly believes something very different than yourself, and they’re willing to persist, and to even pay a price, you can’t easily dismiss them. Their challenge gets you to reassess your own position

Charlan Nemeth has a name for this kind of dissenter: “troublemaker.” Her most recent book is called In Defense of Troublemakers. A lot of the creatives we’ve been interviewing for this series embrace the troublemaker title; for some, it seems to be their animating principle. Like the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. He grew up in a labor camp, his family having been sent into exile because of his father’s poetry. Weiwei has been one of his generation’s most outspoken critics of China; he’s been arrested, beaten, detained — and finally gained his own sort of exile, a much more comfortable one than his father’s. He now lives in Berlin, which is where we spoke with him.

Ai WEIWEI: I always want to break the borders and to open a new area, even walking to could be dangerous or difficult areas. So I was born like this. Some would call it contrarian. You don’t want to follow the rules that much.

DUBNER: You’ve always been that way.

WEIWEI: Since I was born I would be seen as a son of the — enemy of the people. They see you are dangerous. They see you are someone who could have a potential to make big trouble.

DUBNER: They were right.

WEIWEI: They’re perfectly right. But I try to live up to that kind of conditions, too. I am not satisfied with what I did.

DUBNER: Your brother, is he a troublemaker like you or no?

WEIWEI: No, no. I’m their — they’re often worried about one troublemaker in every family.

But when I asked Weiwei about where his ideas come from, he didn’t have much to say.

WEIWEI: It only comes to me when interviews like this come. Yeah, I don’t really think that much about it.

Maybe that’s because he’s been dissenting since he was a young child; it may be that troublemaking, and the idea generation that comes along with it, are by now second nature. There was another artist I visited in Berlin; her name is Jorinde Voigt.

Jorinde VOIGT: Hello.

DUBNER: Hey. Hi. Stephen. Nice to meet you.

VOIGT: Good Morning. Jorinde. Come in.

DUBNER: How do you do? Yeah.

VOIGT: So let’s go that way.

DUBNER: Danke.

VOIGT: You’re welcome.

Voigt is a star on the German art scene. Her work combines painting, drawing, collage, and more — including musical and scientific notation. For years she was a serious musician, and she’s got a mathematical streak too. Her pieces are breathtakingly original, and engaging. I wanted to know where her ideas originate, so I started by asking about her daily routine.

VOIGT: On a typical day I get up at 5:00 a.m. Then for one hour I sit in my kitchen and in my garden and drink coffee and think about the day, the upcoming day. Then, I wake up my son and help him getting up, get dressed, get breakfast.

DUBNER: How old is he?

VOIGT: Seven, almost. By 7:30 a.m. we leave the house. I bring him to school and then I drive down to the studio, so I’m shortly before 8:00 a.m. at the studio.

DUBNER: So, can we go back to that hour in the morning when you just sit and think about the day?

VOIGT: Yeah.

DUBNER: Are you thinking about how to execute your ideas, or are you trying to think about what ideas you’ll work on?

VOIGT: No, it’s more being awake, but also waiting for myself, and observing myself and observing the pictures which come up in me. And then, also questioning them, a riddle, like that. It’s like I get riddles from — I always have pictures or abstractions in my head. I wake up with that. And then I have to find out why, and what it is, and how which questions I can ask, or how, what kind of actions, I could do to find out what it is.

DUBNER: So, where did those images come from?

VOIGT: I can only guess. I think they are kind of language, like a kind of communication from the intuition, I guess.

DUBNER: Do you think everyone could have such images, or do you feel that’s a talent of yours?

VOIGT: I haven’t had this always. When it started, I was very irritated, and I thought something is wrong with me. But then friends told me just it let go, don’t be afraid. And then I just accepted it. And then it started to be really interesting.

Maira KALMAN: You really have to listen very strongly to those moments.

That’s the painter and illustrator Maira Kalman. She too relies on her subconscious for ideas.

KALMAN: I think that plays an incredible role. And it’s a little bit inexplicable. It’s kind of the instinct and intuition, what you feel in your gut that nobody can explain, that you don’t know where it came from. An idea that appears from nowhere while you’re taking a shower or wandering down the street.

Kalman’s work is, on the surface, whimsical: old-world ladies in plumed hats; clever dogs with knowing eyes; but beneath the whimsy there’s a reservoir of deeper feeling.

KALMAN: Coming upon things, stumbling upon things — and that’s a very big part of my day, and my work is autobiographical, and it’s really about what happens to me. And I don’t know what’s going to happen during the day, but I’m keenly aware that many things might happen and do happen that will delight me and amaze me and enter into my work. Whether it’s somebody that I see on the street or some kind of meeting of someone or the chance of things.

DUBNER: Well, it sounds like you’re trying to, as they say, create your own luck. You’re trying to create your own serendipity, which is a good way to be.

KALMAN: Yeah, and I don’t want to try.

DUBNER: So that sounds like a tricky balance to strike, though: you want to be open and observant and curious, but you don’t want to try too hard to be open, observing and curious.

KALMAN: No, you can’t do that, you’d fall down and never get up again. You just have to kind of allow that it’s going to happen, and say, that’s great.

So Maira Kalman gets her ideas from serendipitous encounters that she prepares herself to receive — but not too much preparation. Jorinde Voigt gets her ideas from images that present themselves in the early morning. I recently spoke with someone who needs to come up with multiple ideas every day.

Conan O’BRIEN: Hello, I’m Conan O’Brien, and I am theoretically an entertainer.

DUBNER: Among your entertainment products are what at the moment?

O’BRIEN: I have a podcast, Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend. And I also just finished an 18-city live tour that healed the nation And I have a program on T.B.S. at 11 p.m. called Conan. Don’t ask me how I came up with the name. It was — it’s a long story. And it involves narcissism.

O’Brien has been hosting a late-night show since the early 1990’s. Before that, he was a comedy writer — for The Simpsons and one season on Saturday Night Live. In every case, there’s a writer’s room: a bunch of people, throwing around ideas, shooting down most of them and building up the good ones. Coming up with ideas is a job; really, it is the job. Like all jobs, it can get a little routine. But lately, O’Brien’s been stretching himself — with a travel series called Conan Without Borders.

O’BRIEN: There was a period of time when President Obama was interested in friendlier relations with Cuba. And we saw this opportunity to jump in there, and I don’t think a late-night host had been to Cuba since Jack Paar. And our head writer Mike Sweeney said, “What if we went to Cuba?” And the minute I — when I do hear a good idea, I — it’s almost like an intuitive “yes.” Not only “let’s go” but “let’s go right now.” So we went with very little preparation.

O’BRIEN: Over here, I guess that’s Jesus on the left, is that correct?

RESTAURANT OWNER: Yes, you’re right. That’s Cristo.

O’BRIEN: Jesús.

RESTAURANT OWNER: And you know who’s this guy?

O’BRIEN: Uh.

RESTAURANT OWNER: That’s Karl Marx.

O’BRIEN: Wait, Jesus Christ and this is Karl Marx?

RESTAURANT OWNER: Yes, yeah.

O’BRIEN: That’s incredible. Because I don’t think Marx was a big fan of religion

O’BRIEN: And I think what you can see there is me really in the act of discovering things, discovering this place I’d never been to before, discovering these people. As a comedian, I’m probably funniest when I’m reacting in the moment. And that’s where I’m most comfortable. I like to kind of not know what’s going to go on. And it’s this crazy yin-yang of my career, where I am very cerebral. And I started my career as a writer, but I really — what I probably love most is being out of control and unprepared. So when you go to a foreign country, you’re often forced into situations where you can’t really know what’s going to happen.

I think as a comedian and as a personality I have a lot of humility, and it’s well-earned. Some comics, they come from a place of high status so they’re telling us and lecturing us about what the right way to think is. I think I come from the opposite side of things, which is I like to be in situations where I’m not in the power position, and where the other person has the authority. So if I’m in Cuba and I’m literally in a factory where they roll cigars all day, I will sit with one of the women and she will try and teach me, and I’ll be incompetent, and she gets the laugh. She’s in the high-status position and that’s the kind of —It’s not in my bones to want to go to countries and laugh at them.

So Conan O’Brien gets fresh ideas by going to Cuba, or Israel, or Haiti. The musician and writer Rosanne Cash sometimes gets her ideas in museums.

Rosanne CASH: Problems can be inspiring. If I can’t work something out in my life, I take it to language. I take it to melody. And sometimes, well, it all can be going to the Met and standing in front of that painting of Joan of Arc. That painting has inspired me. Sometimes they come out of nowhere, you think, and then it turns out that they came from the future. And I call those songs postcards from the future.

Can we have an example?

CASH: My song “Black Cadillac.” I wrote this song, and it was about a funeral and death, and as soon as I wrote it I said to myself, “Oh no.” It’s like I knew. I wrote it in March. And my stepmother died in May and then my dad died in September.

Her dad was the country-music legend Johnny Cash.

CASH: Actually, before my dad died that year, I wrote a song called “September When It Comes.” I wrote the lyrics and then he died in September. And there have been other times. I’m not saying that I’m prescient or that it’s some kind of new-age peek into the future. But I’ve always thought that creativity happens in a non-linear way. Creativity is a lot of moving parts and you don’t necessarily go from A to B in a direct line. You might go to H and Z first, and then come back.

Jennifer EGAN: What I love about watching baseball is that I get a lot of ideas for fiction while doing it.

That’s the novelist Jennifer Egan. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her book A Visit From the Goon Squad, a sharp and spiky novel with multiple narrators, and which has absolutely nothing to do with baseball. But Egan has kids. So she started going to baseball games.

EGAN: We were just at the Beloit Snappers last week. Baseball is — I was just reading, actually, about how there’s this wish to speed up baseball — which I think is, I mean in my humble, very uneducated opinion, a terrible idea, because the whole point of baseball is that it’s slow. And it’s great people watching, watching baseball all over the country. Just watching the people who go to the games. It’s totally fascinating.

Just to be clear: baseball is not Egan’s only source of ideas for her writing.

EGAN: I try to imbibe material that feels interesting to me and then I’m sort of trusting to some unconscious part of me to respond to that in a way that will hopefully be fresh. So I guess I’m sort of trusting to both my unconscious in the sense of just leading me through a story, leading me through characters first and then a story, and then my conscious mind to recognize what feels familiar and what doesn’t.

The way I think about the relationship of my work to that other work is as a conversation. I’ll think, “Okay, this book is in conversation with these other books.” A Visit from the Goon Squad, looking back, is really in a conversation with certainly In Search of Lost Time, also serialized television like The Sopranos, which had a big impact on me, and frankly concept albums that I grew up on like Quadrophenia, Ziggy Stardust. I mean, beautiful stories told in pieces that sounded very different from each other.

So there are all kinds of things that a work can be in conversation with — and should be, really. But ultimately, sheer repetition is not only not desirable; it is absolutely the thing that I can’t tolerate from myself.

People-watching at minor-league baseball games. Museum visits or putting yourself in strange surroundings. All sorts of ways to generate ideas, or let ideas come to you. Or maybe you like to ask the really big questions, like “what is the underlying geometry of the universe?” That’s what got the astrophysicist Margaret Geller going. The same sort of question can also work for a poet.

Tracy K. SMITH: I am Tracy K. Smith.

Smith is the current Poet Laureate of the United States. Her father was an optical engineer who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. Smith’s best-known poetry collection is called Life on Mars.

SMITH: I usually have a large — I mean, a particular question in mind. Maybe it isn’t, “What is the answer to this thing?” but: “Why do we do this to one another? Why is it so hard to really love another person — not just strangers but the people we love? Why is it so hard to keep loving them sometimes? Why is it so hard to love ourselves?” Those kinds of questions. You can’t get an answer to that, but it can certainly set you in motion.

And then the way I often tend to write is to sort of speculate, “What if?” I mean, my book Life on Mars is really just a bunch of hypothetical questions: “What if the universe is like this? What if it’s like that?” I found that kind of pointing those questions back down at Earth can be useful in thinking about the real world, the social or the political world.

Saul PERLMUTTER: I was one of those kids who just always wanted to know how the world worked. See the owner’s manual. How does this whole operation happen?

That’s Saul Perlmutter, who also wanted to ask big questions.

PERLMUTTER: And I guess the places that looked like they were asking those kinds of questions were physics and philosophy. And at the beginning I always thought that I might study the two of them, until I discovered of course that either one of them would take up all your time.

And which did he choose?

PERLMUTTER: I’m a professor of physics and I study cosmology.

Perlmutter’s at the University of California, Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. In 2011, he won a Nobel Prize for helping to discover, contra the belief of earlier physicists, that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. One possible explanation for this acceleration? Dark energy, a largely unknown force that may make up 70 percent of the universe. And this is meaningful to know why?

PERLMUTTER: This is one of these really weird aspects, I think, of basic science, that almost every time we’ve learned something really deep about how the world works, it’s ended up not only providing us with a huge philosophical satisfaction, but somehow it makes us more capable. We seem to be able to do things differently as we learn these odd ways in which the world is actually built and constructed.

I mean, a good example of this is Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. It was talking about things like what happens when clocks travel near the speed of light. I mean we’re never going to get one of our clocks — well, at least as far as we know — we’re not going have any of our clocks near the speed of light. And it seems like these were the most abstract concepts that you could have been working with. And yet, every cell phone in our pocket that uses G.P.S. all those measurements are being corrected by what we learned from Einstein’s theory of relativity, because of those explorations. And you could never have guessed it. Right now, we cannot think of anything that dark energy is likely to affect except our poetic vision of the world.

DUBNER: Especially for someone who started out thinking about studying philosophy, I’m just curious whether that fact alone, that dark energy comprises, you say, roughly 70 percent of our universe, and we have no idea what it is. Isn’t that — does that present you with a bit of a, if not an existential dilemma, at least a kind of mind-scrambling question that is a little unsatisfying to go to bed every night not knowing what it is? I mean, it didn’t bother me until you told me, because I didn’t know anything about it. But now I feel like, “Wait a minute: 70 percent, we really don’t know?” And you actually know this stuff so I’m curious whether it weighs on you in some way.

PERLMUTTER: Weirdly enough, I think for me it’s one of the real pleasures of life. The idea that there are huge unknowns for us to to explore. A lot of what you do in cosmology is mind-boggling, and you have to enjoy having your mind completely boggled — that just the idea of imagining infinite space is already something that I think we just have a very hard time getting our heads around. And then having an infinite space expand so that it’s not that it’s expanding into anything. It’s just that there is more distance between everything in that space. And that’s bizarre too.

And for some of us, that’s just a scary feeling to — I have, one of my siblings doesn’t like to even think about this stuff. It just gives her the willies. Whereas for me, I just find there’s a real pleasure in feeling like us puny humans working with the bit of the senses that we have and living in this sort of a happy medium somewhere in between the huge and the really really microscopically and subatomic tiny, have been able to use our little senses to figure out stuff that’s happening on this ridiculously big scale. And then on this ridiculously tiny scale. And that the two have something to do with each other. I just find that it makes it feel like we’re right in the mix — in the thick of things, that we’re getting to play with the universe.

DUBNER: I’m convinced now. I love your way of looking at it because you’re right there is a — potentially — downside of that puniness but the way you’ve expressed it, we’re punching way above our weight by being able to even ponder what’s going on so many dimensions beyond. So, that’s encouraging.

I was encouraged by Saul Perlmutter’s ability to somehow blend the incomprehensibly vast and the incomprehensibly tiny into some sort of porridge that feels just right. I was also inspired by something else he talked about: his willingness to have his mind boggled. That’s his route to coming up with creative ideas. As we heard today, there are many routes. Asking big questions, sure, but also paying attention to the tiny, serendipitous details in your world. Keeping an ear out for the dissenting voice — and sometimes being that voice. Figuring out how the limits that are placed on you might actually free up your creative thinking. All of these are good ideas for generating ideas; there’s no formula. But, as we noted earlier: the idea is just the beginning.

*      *      *

Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica and Stephanie Tam. Our staff also includes Alison CraiglowGreg RippinHarry Huggins, and Zack Lapinski; we had help this week from Nellie Osborne. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple PodcastsStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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