I had such a schadenfreude experience reading Christopher Chabris’ review of Imagine by Jonah Lehrer. Not only does he demolish the research and scholarship of Lehrer’s work, but like any good scathing book review, it’s well-written and tight in its criticisms.
Outside of this initial reaction, I was struck by how much of what Chabris excerpts is really not about imagination or creativity, but instead simply about serendipity. Consider the first anecdote pulled out from Lehrer’s book:
Have you ever wondered how Nike came by its famous slogan “Just Do It”?” Neither have I, but it’s an interesting story. Dan Wieden was searching for a tag line to unify a series of ads his agency was making for Nike. Late one night he suddenly thought about the convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, whose last words before his execution were “Let’s do it.” Sitting at his desk Wieden turned that phrase over in his mind until it became “Just do it.” Accolades ensued.
Reflecting later, Wieden realized he’d thought of Gilmore because someone at work had mentioned Norman Mailer recently, and Wieden knew that Mailer had written a book about Gilmore. Without that serendipitous chain of associations, Nike might have wound up with a different slogan: “A sneaker is forever”? “Got kicks”?
First of all, I had no idea that Nike’s iconic motto was derived from the last words of a convicted murderer. You can call this a novel source of creativity but the reality is, it’s an unlikely coincidence and connection which fostered this from Gilmore (murderer) to Mailer (biographer) to colleague (of Wieden’s) to Wieden himself (at his desk).
After reading this, I was enthralled by this fascinating snippet about how Pixar nearly deleted Toy Story 2:
(video share via Kottke)
My takeaway from this video — besides not to neglect the power of rm* in Unix-based systems — is the serendipity of how the film was saved. You can thank then-new-mom Galyn Sussman who was supervising technical producer on the film. In order to work from home with her new baby, she was taking home large chunks of the film each day to review from her computer there. It’s a crazy story and it’s a great story since years of lost work were recovered.
Both of these examples make me reflect on how much of life really is luck and serendipity. Wieden certainly was creative by relating the disparate threads in his life (Gilmore’s comment back to his client, Nike, via Norman Mailer). But he was the beneficiary of good luck to have heard those things in the first place.
The Pixar team did what they could to arrest the data deletion in progress (eventually unplugging the machine entirely) but they were saved not by their ingenuity but by the luck and serendipity of a member of their team doing an inadvertent file backup.
Update 7/30/12: Um, Jonah Lehrer fabricated quotations from this book and has has resigned from The New Yorker; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (who published Imagine) is pulling the book from shelves. Well, then.