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David Burkus Debunks Everything You Thought You Knew About Creativity

David Burkus, author of The Myths of Creativity, shares new research on creativity, reveals the myths we all believe, and talks creative incubation.
by Ben Schuman-Stoler | Jul 28 2016

This is our second podcast in the Eureka! theme. Last week we spoke with Inventology author Pagan Kennedy, and we’re excited to build on it with David Burkus, author of The Myths of of Creativity. In this podcast, Ben and David focus on a concept called incubation.

According to creativity research, the incubation moment often occurs right before a Eureka, and the best part? Everyone can incubate. The only question is how. Get ready to find out.

David Burkus is a professor of management, bestselling author, and award-winning podcaster.

Ben Schuman-Stoler: Thanks for coming on the podcast, it’s cool that you had time to do it. We were talking a little bit earlier about your earlier book, The Myths of Creativity. You explain in your book that Eureka comes from the ancient Greek for “I have found it,” and this kind of idea of insight and revelation. But in your book, Eureka isn’t exactly debunked, it is maybe placed into a larger ,more complicated process than that “some idea struck me from on high.”

David Burkus: Yeah, the best way to say it is, we definitely debunk the original story of the Eureka. Archimedes in the bathtub probably never happened. It was written down 200 years after it would’ve had happened and I don’t know much about ancient tribal kings and all of that, but I’m pretty sure if anyone ran naked into the king’s chambers and screamed “Eureka!” they would have probably been beheaded. And you can’t find a lot of supporting evidence that it actually happened. Nor can you find a lot of supporting evidence for the story of Isaac Newton and the apple. The best story you find is Newton relating the idea that apples fall to the ground with gravity. You don’t find this incident where he got pegged in the head by a piece of fruit.

But those stories resonate with us. We’ve all had that aha moment. I think – well probably because a lot of those incidents happen in the shower – the only workplace-safe time to talk about bathing is when you’re talking about a great idea. You start any other story with “So I was in the shower” and you’re getting a call from HR. But if you finish the story with, “And then I had this great idea,” no one bothers you. And I think that speaks to us wanting the Archimedes story to be true, because we’ve all had that “Aha,” insight, Eureka-type moment.

You know, it turns out that it’s not this idea – like Archimedes would’ve believed and like we reinforce with the story of Newton and the apple – that the idea was out there floating somewhere and it got downloaded into your brain or you got struck by lightning and suddenly it just came to you. It was actually there all along.

What we find most often is that these “Aha” moments happen because what preceded them was a period of incubation, a period of stepping back away from the process. There’s a whole bunch of science we can dive into if you want to get super nerdy about why this happens, but as soon as we know that there’s a process, I love that – because then we can repeat it. We debunked the idea that you have to sit around and wait for your Eureka moment. What we do say is you can have that “aha” moment almost on demand as long as you’re willing to engage in the process.

BSS: So when you personally need to be creative, do you go through that process or do you have your own way”DB: Yeah I take a shower every time I need to be creative!

No, so, to dive into the process real quick – and then I’ll tell you how I apply it to me because I think everybody’s a little bit different but it might help you – is the research comes from a brilliant man by the name of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose name is just fun to say, but who also was one of the legendary figures in creativity research.

And what he did was study the most creatively prolific people in a variety of fields. How he settled on the list is actually pretty cool: He surveyed 100s of people in a bunch of different fields and said, “Who is the most creative person in your field?” and when their answers congregated around certain people, he then sought those people out, and asked them a pretty open-ended question: Describe your creative process.

When he looked at all the answers, he found that everyone was describing about a five-stage process. You had a period of research, figuring out the right question, understanding the background of the question, all those sorts of things. Then incubation, which was a time of stepping away from the problem at the front of your mind and letting it be back in the subconscious, working on something else. A lot of people who juggle projects find incubation happens naturally because if you just switch to a different project you’re incubating the one you were just on. Then that’s usually followed by the insight and interestingly enough, sometimes that insight is the “Aha.” Sometimes we’re in incubation and something clicks in the subconscious and it all comes together and we’re actually pulled out of incubation and into insight because of what happened in our brain. Other times we force it. We go into an ideation, a brainstorming, or just a big creative jam session, and when that happens after a period of incubation, the research supports that you have more and better ideas when you’ve had that period of incubation. Even as little as five minutes of pushing this idea back to our subconscious before we bring it back to the front of our mind can enhance the quality of the ideas we have. And then, in Csikszentmihalyi’s research, after that insight moment you have evaluation and elaboration, which are basically stages that say, you evaluate. Is that idea any good? And elaboration is putting that idea out there into the world.

But the big key one as it pertains to Eureka is the idea of incubation and insight coming hand in hand. The incubation almost always precedes the insight and if you know that that you can engage in research, deliberately go into incubation, and then come out of it with the “Aha.”

So the other part of your question was what do I do, and I actually treat email like my incubation. As an author, especially, I get a lot emails from people who’ve read the book and want to point an article to my attention, or people like you, who want to schedule something etc. Most of the emails I get on a day-to-day basis are not exactly the most creative, cognitively-demanding responses that I need to come up with. So they’re actually perfect for pushing to the back of my mind. I don’t get automatic notifications or any of that sort of stuff. I go to the well and get my emails when I want them. And usually what I do is I structure it at a certain point in the day where I actually need to be incubating.

Even today, I’m working on a piece about work-life integration vs. work-life balance, and I printed out all the stuff and I read all the research and then I went to my email inbox and answered a bunch of emails and then I started writing the article. So what that gave me was some time to let everything gel in the back of my mind, only about 30 minutes this time, before I actually jumped into the project.

What’s great is that it’s better than sitting under a tree and waiting to get pegged in the head by an apple or taking a shower, because I’m still being productive. I’m just juggling my tasks in such a way that I’m alternating between the ones that really demand creativity and the ones that don’t require higher-level thinking so that I can be incubating one while I’m working on the other.

BSS: So did you come up with any good ideas”DB: Yeah, I like where I’m at. I can’t figure out, to be totally honest, how to conclude the article. So I pushed it aside for a day and I’ll take it up again tomorrow and see if the conclusion – well, I can’t say if the conclusion comes to me because it’s already there somewhere in my head – but see if the pieces click together and we’ve got something to end it on.

BSS: This thing of, “It’s already in there,” it’s like, you already have the great idea, right”DB: Yeah, you already do. And there’s a bunch of different theories about why incubation works, but my favorite is selective forgetting. It’s a theory that says all the ideas and raw material is already there. But have you ever worked on a problem and think of the same wrong answer over and over again? What’s happening is, your mind functions in connections, that’s why you have to retrace your steps of what you were thinking about three or four times and follow that chain of thoughts again. We think in that chain and often we can get really stuck in a specific chain when it’s the wrong answer, so we take up the problem and we find ourselves at the wrong answer because we’re just retracing the same steps.

Incubation and selective forgetting basically say that when it’s in your subconscious, that chain is breaking apart and allowing new connections to form. So everything is there, you’ve just got the combination wrong. When you’re incubating and selectively forgetting, you’re opening yourself up to new possible combinations and one of them is probably going to be the one you need.

BSS: Your book makes the argument that everyone has this ability. It’s like a great blessing that we all have somehow.

DB: Yeah, and blessing is actually a good word for it because we tend to think there’s like a class of people who’re blessed with creative ideas and then there’s this class of people that aren’t creative. And the truth is, it’s a blessing we all have. We all have this capacity, we just have to understand how our own brain works and also get back into practice.

A lot of times when the people who say they can’t have great ideas, they’re not very creative – what they actually mean is that they haven’t been challenged to have one for the last five, ten, fifteen years because of whatever life and career choices they’ve made. And so the only thing that separates those people who would classify themselves as being super creative from those that aren’t is that level of practice. How used to this process are they? How familiar with it are they? And can they do it on demand or not”BSS: Are you still a professor, by the way”: I refer to myself as a recovering academic. I’m definitely still a professor. What I mean by that is that I’ve found that my strengths and my passions and what I want to do are more about bridging the gap between the ivory tower and the corner office and more about taking research and bringing it into the hands of the practitioners who need it, than doing the research myself.

So I’m a recovering academic because I’ve basically given up on running my own labs and doing my own studies and trying to publish in peer-reviewed journal articles and now I’m more fascinated with helping those academics get their word out there and appreciated by the people who need to hear the evidence-based information. Not unlike what we’re doing here today. We’re talking about a bunch of people’s different research on incubation that somebody needs to shout a little bit louder and that’s what I lend my voice to instead of doing the research as a whole. So that’s what I mean by a recovering academic, but I’m also still in the classroom, still teaching undergrad and grad courses in business.

BSS: Did you get to take The Myths of Creativity approach, or Csikszentmihalyi’s process to companies? And if you did, how was it different from dealing with students as opposed to dealing with corner offices – or open floor plans, whatever it is!

DB: Dealing with students, it’s actually a lot easier to build incubation time in because you usually have a Monday-Wednesday-Friday class. I’ve found that when I start working with organizations, if I can, is I’ll try and structure whole day-long workshop or two-day long whatever we do, in such a way that I have control over when we take breaks and where we are, so that we can work incubation into it. That’s just one of the ideas of The Myths of Creativity.

You hinted at the open offices and that sort of stuff. That comes from the new book, Under New Management. The Myths of Creativity deals with what are the myths and misconceptions we have about either becoming or being a creative professional, and Under New Management deals with all of these firms that’ve had to do management a little bit differently because they manage knowledge work organizations or creative work organizations. They do things a little bit differently. One of them is, like you said, the trend to the open office, which is an interesting one because if you’re always in an open office and always having conversations and always being interrupted you’re probably not carving in enough incubation time, which is what I argue, that we probably need to close them a little bit. We need to open up severely closed offices for sure but we also need to close full open ones because we need to carve in that space.

I don’t want to say that Under New Management is The Myths of Creativity applied to business, but they both deal with this bigger issue of, as the nature of work changes and the type of work we all have to do – we probably have to rewrite a lot of rules and a lot of conceptions that we had about how it’s supposed to work with how it actually does work based on research.

BSS: The transition that I wrote down to try and get from the first book to the second book was “Because employees have to make so much of their own decisions now, they have to be creative, they have to be able to find these ideas, they have to be able to think creatively. Not just management but also the employees and the management has to be able to push that.”

DB: Totally. There was a time where the only people that had to be creative were senior leaders and management and you could just tell labor, this is how the factory’s going to run. Just do it. That doesn’t work anymore. We made that shift from industrial to knowledge work and most employees know more about how to do the work that they’ve been assigned to do, but because of that they’re also required to think about it in a more creative way than ever before. When that happens, management becomes more of a supportive role than a demanding role, and that’s really what Under New Management is about. It’s about what policy- and practice-changes do we have to make now that we’re asking everyone in the workforce to do more knowledge work in their everyday work. We can’t use the same old rules that we used for managing a factory.

BSS: In The Myths of Creativity, when you talk about incubation, you talk about this University of Sydney research that showed people had the most ideas when they were interrupted, forced to work on something else. You made the connotation that they should be encouraged to let their minds wander. So what’s a policy that we could write for a company to encourage mind wandering”DB: You’re putting me on the spot. I’m going to actually pivot, if I can, and I shouldn’t tell you, I’m supposed to masterfully pivot like a politician but I can’t do that. One of the other myths that we talk about in The Myths of Creativity is the Expert Myth, meaning that the best ideas always come from the most knowledgeable people. That turns out not to be true. Often disruptive innovations and things like that happens when people go from a field they are an expert in to a relatively new field and bring their expertise with them to a place that hasn’t tried it before, or see something from a different field and bring it into a field that they’re an expert in. We find, in terms of organizations, that one of the biggest blockers to allowing that to happen is that traditional org chart, traditional reporting relationship. The idea that your team is defined as whoever your manager is and the ten people who report to her, and that’s a team. That doesn’t really work well when we’re trying to come up with lots of innovative ideas. Most teams need to be built on the project level, not the old org chart. Or, as I say, we probably need to be writing the org chart in pencil so that we can keep erasing and rewriting it as the needs demand and as we need different people on the team.

So that’s one idea. That gave me a little bit of time to think about incubation. One of the things I also talk about in Under New Management is actually, ironically because I told you I use email to incubate, but is that many companies are putting limits on nighttime and weekend email or even internal email entirely, some are banning it outright. And the reason is that it’s forcing people to think about work 24/7, right? So while we tend to think about work-life balance as, you need time to rest and re-charge, the truth is that time you’re playing with your kid or you’re interacting with your spouse, your partner, that’s also time you’re incubating about work. So actually letting people plug out of the organization – you know, if you have a smartphone you take your work home with you every night – well the incubation research suggests that you shouldn’t be doing that. You shouldn’t be taking your work home with you. So drawing bigger boundaries on the digital world so that people actually have time away from work makes work better.

That’s one of the ideas my previous pivot allowed me time to think about.

BSS: Pivot for the pivot! It’s like opening the closed office and closing the open office. We’re doing contortionist podcast answering here.

DB: Well you know what? Not to get super meta, but what I needed to do was pivot to something I knew how to talk about so that I could be incubating the answer to your question. And that’s exactly what you just witnessed.

BSS: It’s like a proto-incubation phase, when you can nest incubations inside of other incubations.

DB: Totally, we just inceptioned the whole thing.

BSS: This podcast just broke, the screens are cracking.

DB: The top is spinning and spinning and spinning and we’ll cut out before we let you know if it falls over.

BSS: So what’s new since your book came out that you wish you could’ve put in there. I mean The Myths of Creativity.

DB: I wish I could’ve put in everything from Under New Management! No, I mean, I see every book as that through-line. You write one book and that gives you a question. And you chase that rabbit hole down and out comes another book.

In terms of updating The Myths of Creativity, the research on incubation and Eureka hasn’t really changed. The most interesting research that’s changed a little bit is, we’ve gotten a little bit further on this idea I talk about at the very end of The Myths of Creativity. This idea of the Mousetrap Myth. The Mousetrap Myth is if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. That sounds great but it’s a total myth. Great ideas are rejected all the time.

At the time, there was some really interesting research by Jennifer Mueller, I think she was at the University of Pennsylvania at the time. I do not know if that’s where she is any more. But it’s really interesting research that shows that even if we say we want creative ideas, when we’re presented with them we’re more likely to turn them down – especially in periods of uncertainty – in favor of the status quo. She did a follow-up study that came out after the book was published that shows that if you’re in a management role, you’re actually even more likely than if you’re in an employee role, to turn down creative ideas. And in fact, they’ll survey customers and see what customers want and then they’ll survey managers and see what managers want and see what managers think are the creative ideas that customers want and there’s a huge disconnect there.

I think that’s really interesting and highlights what we were talking about earlier, the idea that the people on the front lines are asked to do more and more of the creative work and maybe that’s a good thing because maybe they have a better ear to the ground on what the customer wants than does the manager. That’s what that later research supports.

I wish I could’ve put that in the book but obviously I didn’t know it existed because it was only on Jennifer Mueller’s computer. But once it got published it was like, aw man, I wish I could’ve included that one.

BSS: It’s like she waited for you to publish it.

DB: Totally. Well, and I have it on good authority she’s working on her own book about the implications of both of those studies. So I also wish I could’ve read that book, but that one won’t come out for years, so.

BSS: I had this idea of a marketplace where authors who are working on books at the same time could be updating each other. You wouldn’t have to give away your trade secrets or anything, but while you’re working on a book, and everyone has a general idea of what everyone else is working on, and if you had it like a big network of all the authors – and you could do it in fiction, too – people could see what everyone else is working on and could say, well actually, I should wait six months because it looks like this person is about to finish this one thing that I need to make my argument.

DB: I don’t know if I told you this, but The Myths of Creativity came out the day after the Kelley brothers’, the founders of IDEO, Creative Confidence came out. Talk about sucking all the air out of media attention for The Myths of Creativity! It’s a great book, I don’t want to put it down, but it’s like, man if I knew that, I would’ve waited a month or put it out a month earlier. So yeah, you’re totally right.

BSS: But, you now, I watched your Google talk the other day, and back then, though it wasn’t that long ago, you said you wanted to start a conversation about creativity or at least about The Myths of Creativity, and you did! That was a success. Here we are talking about Eureka and who am I going to look up to try and talk about this”DB: Yeah, and the other thing is conversation. I knew from the beginning because there’s another myth in the book called the Originality Myth, which says that when we think we’re the only one who’s had the idea we’re wrong. I love that that book came out, and I love that six months later Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. came out. All of these different books that are talking about the process, and let’s get rid of the mystery and talk about what is replicable, what can everybody do. I love being a voice in that conversation but I wouldn’t want to be the only voice, especially when there are such great voices like those three talking about it. That word conversation is key.

BSS: So if you could interview one person dead or alive to speak about creativity, who would it be”DB: Probably Walt Disney. Not in the sense of how did you think to come up with Snow White, but I am fascinated with Disney World. Everyone talks about how he saw it and then Roy Disney built it, and I would just love to dive into more of that. From a business standpoint. They always said we don’t make movies to make money, we make money so we can make more movies. I get that from a creative work standpoint, but from an amusement park or resort, that’s a business that you really have to do a strong business case for and I would just love to get the inside story behind how they did that and basically change the whole world of amusement parks and that sort of stuff. My wife and I went to Disney World alone without our kids for our 10-year anniversary because we love this place so much. And we did a tour behind the scenes. I’d just love to hear more about that. So yeah, let’s go with Walt Disney.

BSS: That’s cool you didn’t say Steve Jobs or Picasso or something.

DB: Jobs is an interesting one. Jobs is a Rorschach test. You see in Jobs whatever you want to see about Jobs. I worry that we do the same sort of thing with Picasso and a bunch of other historical figures. Those answers would be great but again, it’s the idea that I would want to go find out things that I can’t find out anywhere else. I’d want to know what the real Jobs is like because so much writing on Jobs – same with any artist like a Picasso, and probably same with Disney too, which is why I want that inside-track view – because so much of it is just a reflection of what the person writing the article or the book about the historical figure is, it’s more a reflection of them than the person they’re writing the book about.

BSS: I was looking at some of the creativity books that’ve come out recently, looking if anyone had spoken about athletes. They act instinctively, in the moment, and create something new or sometimes do something no one’s ever done before. Do you know anything in the research”DB: From an individual level, I don’t. Keith Sawyer is a researcher in creativity with a book called Group Genius which is about a bunch of different fields where people have to improvise and interact and find their way into creative solutions. I think it includes a little bit about athletics, especially basketball I want to say (that might not actually be in the book, I might be including that from an article I read about a section of Group Genius) but Sawyer’s background comes from jazz and improvisational comedy, so he’s looking at when you have to make a quick, on-the-fly improvisational decision for a whole group. So I’d recommend you start there. I don’t know that they’ve done anything on an individual level but it definitely deals with the improvisation issue that you’re talking about.

BSS: We’re basically out of time but I wanted to ask quickly how the new podcast name, new format, and things are going.

DB: From Radio Free Leader? True to the Originality Myth, I started a podcast and the original name of it was trademarked to someone else, and I found that out via a very nicely worded letter from an attorney. And so we had to change, and so we did. That’s basically the story on it. I wish them well. Interestingly enough it wasn’t a podcast, we probably could’ve made the argument that these are two different products but honestly it wasn’t worth it. The interesting thing about creativity is that if I came up with one good name I could probably come up with another one and this time I’d actually checked the trademarks, so that’s what we did and that’s why we changed it to Radio Free Leader and our trademark application is pending, so that’s good news too.

BSS: So I won’t just quickly name mine Radio Free Leader, I promise.

DB: I mean you can, but expect a nicely worded letter from my attorney.

BSS: Can you give me a tip? What should I not do? What’s the one mistake I should not make, podcast-wise? Besides, like, starting an interview before everyone’s recording.

DB: So here’s my best advice, and I feel bad for this, but my best advice is totally ignore the press briefing that gets tucked into review copies of books. We do it for lazy journalists, I’ll be honest. We ship them a book, but then we also ship them a ten-page document with the talking points from the book. Don’t do that. Read it. The best interviews I’ve ever been on, and the best interviews I’ve ever done are when you read into the book and you find something that nobody is asking that author and you dive into that for 30 minutes. Not unlike we did here. I very rarely get to spend a full 30 minutes just talking about incubation, but it comes from you looking at it and you deciding what you wanted to do. Ignore the bullet points, ignore all of that stuff that we do for lazy journalists and just dive into asking the questions you would want to ask from that author. The conversation that comes from it is way better – which, by the way, you’ve already done, and that’s why this has been such an awesome interview, even if we didn’t hit record right off the bat.

BSS: Even if we’re both actually recording ourselves under our showers!

DB: Right, I’m actually under a tree, waiting to get hit on the head by a piece of fruit.

BSS: Awesome. Look, thanks again, we’re out of time, I hope you think of us when your next book comes out and we can do this again.

DB: That’d be great. Thank you.

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