Imagine: How Creativity Works

Posted by Jacob Klein

It isn’t often that a book compels me to write a review, much less post that review here on the Distilled blog.  But while reading Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer I found myself pausing frequently to properly absorb the cornucopia of ‘ah-ha moments’ and frighteningly actionable nuggets of wisdom that seem to apparate on every other page.

Some of the insights in Imagine are so applicable to the world of web marketing, consulting and general business-bettering that I frequently found myself folding back the corners of pages, knowing that our community would benefit greatly from theiir eir implementation.

I’d like you to consider a few of your greatest marketing achievements online or otherwise. Was there a single moment of clarity, an insight where it all became clear and your next steps became obvious?  Sure, you’d wrestled with the idea for a while but at some point it all hit you and your conclusion almost seemed too obvious to be correct.  

Perhaps you came up with the perfect landing page to nab that high volume, noncompetitive keyword.  Maybe you stumbled upon a better way to present some interesting data using an infographic.  These types of breakthroughs are often what separate good from great and can even end up defining our entire lives. We’d all love to be able to induce these events at our leisure. Imagine takes a look at some of the latest psycological and sociological studies on insight, intertwining them with real-life business achievements.  

Here are some of the major marketing takeaways from the book:

Creativity isn’t just another fixed statistic on the character sheet of life

“Not everyone can become an artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” – Pixar’s Ratatoullie

I won’t waste too much of your time trying to convince you that creativity is an invaluable trait for your company’s employees to posses.  The word creativity is synonymous with innovation and originality- intangibles that aren’t just the keys to winning the game in today’s fast-paced business world… theyare the game.

But are we stuck with the initial D20 roll we ended up with at birth or can we boost that stat with hard work, dedication and/or enchantment?  The answer, according to Lehrer, is that creativity isn’t really a statistic at all.  It’s more of an acquired skill that can be compounded through environmental factors, state of mind and an understanding of the phenomenon itself.

So many of us have been caught up in the idea that we aren’t creative.  Some of you may have even said they words “I’m not the creative type”.  One of the main takeaways from Imagine is that startling insights can come from anywhere at any time regardless of how artistic, dramatic or imaginative you consider yourself to be.  This fact becomes obvious as you read about several scientific studies where moments of insight are enhanced or depleted by changing environmental and/or mental variables.  Below are just a few examples touched on within the pages of Imagine.

Connections create insight

“Hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing” – TS Elliot

More often than not, an insight does not require the ponderer to reinvent the wheel.  Think of some of the most successful advancements of the past 20 years.  The iPhone, the hybrid car, the dry-erase board.  



Life-changing, right?

But were they truly original ideas or were they simply an evolution of an existing idea?  Steve Jobs didn’t need to invent the cell phone or micro-applications or even the touch screen himself.  He simply needed to be aware of those things and connect them in a way that functioned beautifully.  The advancement of human knowledge depends on our ability to take what others have discovered and connect it intelligently with other, sometimes unrelated concepts.

The book gives several examples of this occurring in the real business world:  A man working for a sandpaper company noticed that some of his auto repair technician customers had difficulty applying straight lines of paint to a car body.  The tape they were using contained overly-strong adhesive and ended up pulling up paint when removed.  Now, normally a sand paper salesman wouldn’t think twice about this issue but Dick Drew made the connection between sandpaper and tape which is that both are essentially a certain type of paper with a certain type of adhesive applied.  After months of experimenting with different types of glue Drew had invented what we now know as masking tape, transforming his “Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company” into one of the largest corporations in the world (3M Innovations, today), selling 10 times more masking tape than sand paper a handful of years after its invention.  Great ideas come from making connections, sometimes obvious, sometimes less obvious.

At Distilled we hire people from varying backgrounds who often posses little SEO experience.  Technical skills are relatively easy to develop but finding people with the intelligence, hustle and hunger for new knowledge as these are often the traits that matter in the end.  

If you’re a fan of AMC’s Mad Men then you know that creative genius can come out of nowhere. At Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the best creative pitches are often arrived at accidentally, through sleepless nights, hard work and a bit of liquor (okay, a lot of liquor). Would anyone in your organization spend sleepless nights working on an idea that may or may not work?  Does your company even allow for that sort of thing?  At 3M today, each employee is given a certain percentage of their time to work on these hair-brained ideas.  They’re given the environment in which to make these connections.  They also rotate their employees across departments in an effort to maximize the effect. You’ve heard about the power of diversity for years now and these latest examples only lend more credence to the idea.

Creativity isn’t always about ‘making something out of nothing.’  It’s more often about connecting two or more already established concepts into one beautifully cohesive solution.

Environment Matters

“Creativity is the residue of time wasted” – Albert Einstein

If you buy the idea that creativity is not a fixed number per individual then it must certainly be affected by one’s environment.  We’ve all heard about how major technology corporations spend lavishly on amazing workplaces and many wonder– is it really worth it?  The answer is a resounding: ‘Yes‘ as far as Apple, Google, Pixar, Facebook and 3M are concerned.  

At Pixar, Steve Jobs helped design a building where employees are forced to interact across all departments with strategically placed and centralized bathrooms, large empty meeting places at the center of the complex and dedicated quiet zones for relaxing and day-dreaming.  

Google also gives their employees a certain percentage of their work time to dedicate to potential new projects and this expenditure of time has birthed products such as GMail and Google Images.

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg recommends creating a space within your work environment that is ‘neither Home nor Work’.  He refers to this area as a “third place”.  Here you are not constrained by the pressures of deadlines or the hum of the office but you are also not so relaxed as to be going about your normal “pants-optional” home routine.  This balance is important if you are considering creating a space like this for your creative teams.  

Imagine also gives several examples of the brain working differently when augmented with various substances.  Caffeine for instance increased ‘focus’ but caused test participants to fail more frequently at tests of insight.  Small doses of alcohol on the other hand allowed participants to think less literally and arrive at insightful solutions more regularly.  There are also examples of poets and musicians whose work can be differentiated on and off harder drugs.  This isn’t to say that drugs are a solution to becoming more creative but it does highlight the fact that the brain functioning on different wavelengths can cause insight scenarios.

Small talk, random encounters with other employees, and drunken walks along the river bank with yourShiba Inu are where these ideas often manifest.  Try allotting time for ‘disciplined day dreaming’ into your normal routine. Concentration doesnt solve all types of problems. Many solutions are found only when we stop looking and allow our mind to consider connections that we’d never normally consider.  

Brainstorming Methodology

The problems that face today’s businesses are becoming more complex.  So much so that it often isn’t probable that a single gifted human being could make a breakthrough on their own.  Much of the low hanging idea-fruit is now gone in many fields.  

One way we often deal with this problem is through the notorious ‘brainstorming session.’  The idea is that the combined experience of several participants will add up to more than the sum of its parts. There are several aspects of group-think that Imagine addresses.

The size of group matters.  If there are too many participants then you risk several or all members feeling as though they can just fade into the background while also becoming more susceptible to a herd mentality as objectors are less likely to speak up.  Too few though and  you fail to incorporate new ideas, diverse opinions, and you risk not having enough brain power in the room to complete the job.

Each day at Pixar, the animators hold a meeting in the morning to discuss three seconds of film from the day before.  They rip into each scene and debate things like the shade of orange Nemo’s finshould be.  The team is expected to give and take criticism especially well and to even get excited about the ways they can improve.  This acceptance of error reduces its cost.  ”We only get it right when we talk about what went wrong.” says Pixar. These positive cultural elements have a huge impact on the ideas that come out of a brainstorm.

Another brainstorming method suggests having participants brainstorm individually BEFORE coming to the group with the ideas.  This allows individuals to build out their own arguments beforehand while becoming excited to share them.  They’ll more than likely have ideas that are similar but come at it from a different angle.  It also allows everyone to have their own predetermined block of time within the meeting so as not to let anyone blend into the furniture.

Forcing Insight can Prevent an Insight

Often our first instinct when tackling a tough problem is to grit our teeth, down another energy drink and concentrate as hard as we can.  The problem with this strategy is that this shifts attention away from the right hemisphere of the brain (the part responsible for moments of insight and unlikely connections) and towards our left (our more analytical hemisphere).  When our minds are in this clenched state we tend to only make obvious connections and ignore the more remarkable.  You’re able to work long and hard on caffeine, Adderall and Ritalin but you are less likely to have a breakthrough.

Keep a Positive Mood

Insights are more likely to occur when you are happy.  This supports the idea of developing a great workplace, appropriate amounts of time off and working with people you enjoy.   Test subjects in a German study were more likely to solve intuitive problems designed to meausure insights if they were in a positive mood. Subjects were shown a Robin Williams clip for positive mood and a boring or scary video for negative.

Become a Child

“One needs to constantly remind oneself to play with the abandon of the child who is just learning the cello because why is that kid playing? He is playing for pleasure.” – Yo Yo Ma

Subjects in a study were told to imagine themselves as 7 year old children.  They scored higher on tests designed to measure insight such as pondering alternative uses for a car tire.  Reverting to our childlike mindsets can help strip away inhibitions and normalcies that may be chaining us to the literal and keeping us from more abstract connections.  Try asking yourself the same silly questions that your 4-year-old daughter might ask you about your business.

Color Counts

In 2009 a study found that students were able to solve almost twice as many puzzles designed to measure insight when the walls in the testing room were painted Blue.  It is thought to encourage a more relaxed, right hemisphere of the brain mentality.  Conversely students in a Red room were more alert, attentive and better able to solve analytic problems.

Write a Haiku (give your insights structure)

Look at poets, who often rely on literary forms with strict requirements, such as haikus and sonnets. At first glance, this writing method makes little sense, since the creative act then becomes much more difficult. Instead of composing freely, poets frustrate themselves with structural constraints.

But that is precisely the point. Unless poets are stumped by the form, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they’ll never invent an original line. They’ll be stuck with clichés and conventions, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this is why poetic forms are so important. When a poet needs to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables or an adjective that fits an iambic scheme, he ends up uncovering all sorts of unexpected connections; the difficulty of the task accelerates the insight process.


“For years people believed that creativity was similar to other forms of cognition.  Whether divinely inspired or a natural “gift” but today as we learn more about the brain we’re finding how the “trick” works.” -Jonah Lehrer

“I don’t buy it, Jacob.  So we should just spend our time daydreaming in a blue room with a diverse group of lightly intoxicated people writing hiakus?!” 

The answer is yes, quite frankly.  If you work in a field where creativity, originality and inventiveness are important (and I’m struggling to think of a a field in which they’re not) you owe it to the future of your company to spend a bit of that time maximizing your most valuable resource.  It isn’t that you need to hire more “creative people”– your company needs to create an environment where moments of insight are more likely to occur with the (hopefully) wonderful folks you already have on the team.  Some of the above may be more or less effective for your particular niche than others but even a simple understanding of the nature of creativity can have a huge effect.



Storyteller: Create A Website With Content From (Virtually) Anywhere

As our content is scattered across sites like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, the idea of a single, standalone website is starting to feel a bit quaint. On the consumer side, we’re seeing that with products like and, which try to unify your various social identities in one place. Now a digital agency called Sparkart is tackling the problem from the brand and business side, with a product called Storyteller.

Sparkart founder and CEO Naveen Jain says that Storyteller “is not a toy” — you need basic development skills in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to use it, because you’re building sites that have the branding and functionality that you want. Right now, he says if website developers want to integrate content from other sites, they have to either manually integrate with the API of each and every site, or wait for their content management system to add the relevant upgrade or plug-in. Then, once they’re integrated, they’d have to keep track of any changes to the API and its policies. With Storyteller, on the other hand, they can access data from other sites while the platform does all the “heavy lifting.”

This was, apparently, something that Sparkart created for itself, having built websites for 300 customers including Bon Jovi, The Killers, Slipknot, Keith Urban, Ultimate Fighting Championship, and America’s Cup. Jain says the agency will be using Storyteller for every website it creates going forward. The team gave me a quick demo of the product by building a Bon Jovi site — since I’m not a developer, the product is a bit hard to judge, but they did get a nice-looking website up with YouTube videos, Tumblr posts, and more, in just a few minutes.

Storyteller is launching today in an invite-only beta. Jain says that he eventually plans to spin the product out into a separate business, so that he can avoid the problems (as he calls it, “a Jekyll-and-Hyde effect”) that agencies face when they get into the product business.


Focus on building 10x teams

There are a lot of posts out there about identifying and hiring 10x engineers. And a lot of discussion about whether or not these people even exist. At Spool, we’ve taken a very different approach. We focused on building a 10x team.

We believe that the effort spent trying to hire five 10x developers is better spent building one 10x team.

10x matters because of the Economics of Superstars

The “Economics of Superstars” observes that in some industries, marginally more talented people/groups generate exponentially more value [0]

The Economics of Superstars phenomenon requires a distribution channel to move a large volume of goods. For superstar athletes, television enables endorsements and merchandise sales. For software developers, the Internet enables scalable distribution of digital goods.

Finding a way to be 10x better than median can now generate exponentially more value for people who make digital goods.

In software, the superstar is the team, not the individual

In the Economics of Superstars, if an individual has tremendous control over the outcome (points scored in a basketball game), that individual is the beneficiary. So Kobe gets a big chunk of the value he generates for the team, stadium, and advertisers.

Software development, however, is more like rowing. It’s a team sport that requires skill and synchronization. This applies at all scales. On a three-person boat, one person out of sync will stall your boat. As you get bigger, no single developer can impact your team’s performance, so again synchronization is key.

Making your team as efficient as possible is what determines long-term success. [1]

A bunch of 10x people != A 10x team

Most hiring processes assume that if you find a great developer and put them on a great team, the individual and team will do well. Good teams try to nail down “culture fit” but this is usually only based on whether the candidate gets along with the team.

Throwing together a bunch of great developers who get along does not make for a 10x team.

How to Think About Building a 10x Team

Building a 10x team is a different task than trying to make an existing team 10x more efficient. The hardest part about building a 10x team is that who you need next is a moving target because it’s a function of who is already on the team.

The following are the top three non-technical questions we (Spool) ask ourselves when considering a candidate:

  • Does this person extend the team’s one strategic advantage? Successful startups do NOT have world class design, engineering, sales, and marketing all at once. They tend to be phenomenal at one thing and competent at the rest. Eventually they upgrade talent for “the rest.” For example, Zynga first nailed virality with crappy graphics, then later upgraded their art teams.
  • Is there enough shared culture? – Communication overhead will cripple most teams. Hiring people with a common culture is the simplest way to solve this problem. For example, alums of a university tend to use the same  jargon, think similarly, know the same programming languages, etc.. They will communicate naturally and are free to focus on higher order problems. It’s not a surprise that Paypal was mostly UIUC, for example. At Spool we’ve consciously hired mostly Stanford alums because Curtis and I are Stanford grads.Update: I apologize if I gave the impression that we don’t value diversity. As you can read in the comments, we’ve gone out of our way to build a diverse team. But there are many things that don’t impact your success early that you can short-circuit by picking people who have a similar enough background. Goldilocks Principle ftw :)
  • Does this person make other people better? A friend once told me that the best hire he made was a mistake. Had he properly screened this candidate’s technical ability, he wouldn’t have hired the candidate. But it turned out this engineer was so driven that he immediately made everyone else on the team more driven. Just by hiring him, the team became more productive, which far outweighed that individual being an average engineer. It’s sometimes worth trading off some technical ability to get a multiplier for your whole team.

What sorts of people make other people better?

When we were building Spool’s founding team, we looked for people who were technically solid but especially good at making other people around them better. The following are the types of people we identified that do this. There are probably others.

  • The Lead Engineer  sets the technical standard. She will conduct the hardest interviews and will generally work technical magic. She will raise everyone’s technical bar. This is usually what someone says when they mean 10x developer.
  • The Hustler will bend the rules a little when need be, find loopholes in a system, find people you need to find, hack together systems to extract data, and set the standard for just getting things done. She challenges everyone’s thinking about how to get things done.
  • The Little Engine That Could refuses to lose. She manages to do great things through sheer determination. Sometimes she will tell you about this in an interview, but many times you will need to dig into someone’s background to get a read on this. She makes everyone else more driven, focused, and makes them believe great things are possible.
  • The Teacher soaks up and disseminates information. A teacher is constantly learning new technologies or synthesizing large amounts of information. She then distills the critical points and actively shares them with others. She makes everyone more productive almost immediately. This adds up tremendously over the years.
  • The Anti-Pinochio  is willing to call b.s. on anyone, including the CEO. She is great at spotting b.s. and willing to ask questions of anyone. This keeps a team honest and a company transparent. This is different from being an asshole or a heretic.
  • The Energizer Bunny throws herself into a task fully and doesn’t have an off switch. She gets everyone to give 100% and is so enthused that everyone else becomes enthused. She sets the bar for effort and make everyone want to work harder just so they don’t disappoint her. This extends outside work too. She’ll be the first person at the party, the last one to leave, and will make everyone have more fun every day. Happy, enthusiastic teams are productive teams.
  • The Heart – this is the person on the team that everyone misses when she’s not around. She’ll bring cookies in for the office, she will remember birthdays, she will make people feel better when they’re down, and she will make people do great things because she’s just so lovable. People want to come to work to see this person everyday. Just having people look forward to showing up every day is a huge productivity boost.
In the following diagram, each color is a team-member rated from 1-10 on these characteristics. You can see that there’s a big hole with no color. I would gladly say no to a traditional 10x engineer to get one person with tremendous grit/determination on this team.

These personalities all play off each other. For example, a Teacher loves working with an Energizer Bunny because there is someone around to soak up all of that knowledge she shares. Or a Hustler and Lead Engineer can combine to uncover a new distribution channel because they iterate fast and are ruthless. As a result of having these people, you get massive productivity gains from complementary personalities and abilities. Combine these with your favorite/appropriate software development methodologies and you’ve got a killer team.

I’m sure there are other people who have techniques for building 10x teams. And the dynamics of what makes for a great team are going to be different across industries and stages of company. If you’re reading this and have thoughts, please do leave a comment. I’d love to incorporate it into our hiring practices.


Thanks to Curtis SpencerChristine TieuAditya KoolwalChandra PatniDaniel WitteShazad Mohamed,Blake Scholl for reading drafts of this and providing input.

[0] – More on the Economics of Superstars

For example, Kobe Bryant is in the 99.999th percentile of ability, while the median NBA player is in the 99.99th percentile. For that small percentile improvement in ability, Kobe Bryant generates millions more in ticket sales, merchandise, concessions, and tv advertising for his team. This pattern repeats every where and is starting to appear with software development teams and startups. If you’re good, you can be Facebook, Google, Dropbox, etc. If you’re not, you can’t get a series A to get off the ground.

[1] Evidence building 10x teams matters more than finding 10x individuals

[2] – “Crazy” offers from Google/Twitter/Facebook/etc.

Historically, engineer/product manager/designer salaries have been relatively constrained (red line below). This is because we lacked an efficient distribution mechanism to take advantage of their special talents, so teams had to be very large to achieve scale and no individual could easily have massive impact.

But we are experiencing the beginnings of a world where the Economics of Superstars applies for small 10x teams because a small team can use Internet distribution as leverage. What is really interesting is that retention packages now are not about the individual. They are about keeping 10x teams together. The people who are really getting great retention bonuses are the people who make 10x teams possible. They are either the leaders in a product or engineering organization that know how to build 10x organizations, or they are the employees who make everyone around them better, or they are key employees whose departure would be seen as a signal that the team is no longer a 10x team. These packages are also a defensive move to prevent competitors from acquiring the building blocks that enable 10x teams. Losing key members of a team will result in other members leaving, and will enable the competitor to aggregate a team that operates like a 10x team. It’s not about the individual; it’s about team dynamics.

Another example from Google is how well they reward great teams and keep them together. Google’s Founder Awards disproportionately reward the best teams internally for exceptional accomplishments.

It seems like we’re moving to a world where a great team of developers can make $300k+/year each. But not by just walking in the front door — it really messes with team dynamics and manager-employee dynamics to hire people with those sorts of salaries. But rewarding a team and keeping great teams together is much easier to justify.

How the Economics of Superstars will play out for 10x Teams

[3] – More on Talent Acquisitions: Talent acquisitions are like record contracts

Startups eliminate the guess work that a large organization has in identifying teams with 10x ability. The startup ecosystem is as close to a meritocracy as we have — no bureaucracy, no legal department, no recruiting pipeline, minimal funding required to get started, etc. If a five-person team manages to build something and get any traction, they’ve accomplished something tremendous.

Identifying startups with 10x teams, is like a scout going through YouTube to find the next great band. If you find raw talent and give it the right platform (publicity, marketing, new instruments), you can turn that talent into something huge. Industries that have recognized their industry operates under the economics of superstars take these bets regularly – think about the English Premiere League, NBA, music industry, film industry, publishing industry, etc. If a bet pays off, you get Ronaldinho or The Beatles. Would you have given the following talented band $1 million/year and have full rights to all of the revenue they generated?

The Beatles before they were The Beatles

(This is The Beatles before they were The Beatles)

Again, because software is complex and you need teams to execute, the value aggregates in the team, not the individual. You rarely see Google hiring random individuals for $2.5 million over 4 years. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Groupon, etc. are paying to keep teams together and working on the things they’ve developed expertise in. These acquirers understand that it’s about finding 10x teams and giving them the resources of a bigger company. $10 million for four people over 4 years is worth it for many acquirers, because the incoming team has to be marginally better and the result will be exponential value generated for the acquiring company .


Getting agreement for your homepage

Paul Boag


Social media, search engines and deep linking have all reduced the importance of your homepage. However, that doesn’t stop everybody from wanting their content on it.

Many home pages have become unusable because of demands from across the organisation to be featured on this page. This damages your brand, drives users away and demoralises those working on the site.

How then can you persuade stakeholders not to over burden the homepage?


Users have limited attention and that I am going to represent this fact my assigning the group 20 points of user attention.


One of the approaches I use is to run a homepage workshop.

Admittedly calling it a workshop makes it sound fancier than it is. Essentially I get all those interested in having content on the homepage in a room together and run through a fairly simple exercise.

I start by explaining that users have limited attention and that I am going to represent this fact my assigning the group 20 points of user attention.

Each element added to the homepage costs a minimum of 1 point of attention. Logo, search, navigation, news, products all cost 1 point to add to the page.

I allow them to add elements to the homepage using their points. I then show them the Yahoo and Google home pages.


Yahoo homepage



Google homepage


I ask them which they feel is more effective and without fail people say Google. When you ask why, they will tell you that it is clearer and more obvious what to do.

I then tell them that they have just created something like Yahoo. Yahoo has spread users attention, while Google has focused all of their points on search.


They should spend more points on elements that they want users to pay more attention to.


I ask them to reassign their points. This time they should spend more points on elements that they want users to pay more attention to. For example Google has spent the vast majority of its users attention on the search box.

This is where things get interesting and you should sit back and watch. Allow those involved to discuss and debate how to best spend their points. They will quickly discover that in order to focus attention on more important things it means dropping some elements entirely.

Essentially you are forcing them into prioritising their content and teaching the importance of visual hierarchy. It also prevents you from being the piggy in the middle who receives contradicting requests about what should be most important on the homepage.