Creativity & Focus

I read some very heartening research the other day.  Apparently, scientists wanted to track people’s level of distractability.  After all, in the cubicle farms that pass for offices these days, you’d better be able to tune out Muriel’s bitchin’ from across the row and Joe’s fantasy football conversations a couple of partitions to your left.  Given the working environments most companies put their people in, it stands to reason that they would want to hire people who can focus even in the midst of a hurricane.

Those kinds of people exist.  Only problem is, it turns out they’re not particularly creative.

I’ll pause for a moment while you picture my grin slowly spreading from ear to ear when I read that.

C’mon, you’re grinning too, aren’t ya?

Let me quote from the essay I read, “Don’t Pay Attention” by Jonah Lehrer.  I’m guessing that some version of this essay will form part of his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works; I read it in an essay collection called End Malaria (so named because the proceeds from the book’s sale go to a nonprofit whose mission is to…you got it).

Anyway, here’s Lehrer describing the results of a test administered to 86 Harvard undergraduates – hardly an underachieving bunch:

“The test was designed to measure their level of ‘latent inhibition,’ which is the ability to ignore stimuli that seem irrelevant, such as the air-conditioner humming in the background or the conversation taking place in a nearby cubicle….Those undergrads with low levels of latent inhibition – who had a tougher time ignoring unrelated stuff – were also seven times more likely to be rated as ’eminent creative achievers’ based on their previous accomplishments. (The association was particularly strong among distractable students with high IQs.)  According to the scientists, the inability to focus helps ensure a richer mixture of thoughts in consciousness.”

So that’s an interesting problem for Corporate America, isn’t it?  Hiring smart, creative people is a laudable goal – but if you want them to stay creative (presumably they’ll always stay smart), don’t plant them in a cube farm.

Maybe treat them like grownups and let them work wherever it suits them.  It’s one of the joys of being self-employed.  That, and having a window next to my desk that I can look out of whenever I please. Though my office isn’t a completely distraction-free zone: my cat sometimes snores.

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