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The Inventivity Pod
Judah Pollack, Author of The Net and the Butterfly
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Where do creative ideas come and how do we capture them? Judah Pollack, author of The Net and the Butterfly, talks frontal lobes, “genius lounges,” and the Rolling Stones. Born and raised in Manhattan, Judah made his way to the West Coast, where he advises organizations like Air BnB, Google, Sonos, and the U.S. Army.  

 

TRANSCRIPT:

 

Intro:

Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade, a podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida. The museum is named after James Robert Cade who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We’ll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them. We’ll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work, and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Richard Miles:

What do Keith Richards, Albert Einstein, and Archimedes all have in common? They all experience creative breakthroughs. The good news is that so can you, I’m your host Richard Miles and we’re pleased to welcome creativity expert and author Judah Pollack, the author of “The Net and the Butterfly” to Radio Cade, welcome Judah.

Judah Pollack:

Thank you so much for having me.

Richard Miles:

So Judah, if I got your book correctly, essentially you’re telling me I can become a lead guitarist for the Rolling Stones is that about right?

Judah Pollack:

No, no, I’m afraid there’s been a great misunderstanding. I think I’m in the wrong podcast. I got to go.

Richard Miles:

Damn it. Alright . Um, no, but you, you , uh, you use that as one of the great examples of sort of a creative breakthrough. And, and I love the, the sort of the metaphor, the extended metaphor that you use about nets and butterflies and , and in fact your first couple of chapters play out , riff off that metaphor. You talk about four wings, sort of four ways that creative breakthroughs happen. And then, you know, you talk about being on the hunt, how to actually catch and record those ideas and then a lot of the book that follows this sort of real practical advice on how to do both the creative breakthrough part and sort of the , the catching and recording part. So I know I’ve probably done tremendous injustice to your book, but walk us through sort of an, again, starting from the beginning, how, how do you see creative breakthroughs happening through the major categories and then what are we supposed to do about them when we have them, if we have them.

Judah Pollack:

Our brains have actually evolved a system to have breakthroughs, to see patterns in the noise. And the thing that it’s hard for us to get our heads around is it’s not a focused, rational system. And that’s very difficult for us because we like to be doing something on schedule, have a plan, and it’s important for that. That’s the executive function of your brain, which is literally a network of neurons at the front of your brain. Sort of like above your eyes. If you think of it that way, where you do everything like make a list, make sure to get to the airport on time, get a task done. It’s, you focus, you have discipline. Now this is also the part of your brain that goes quiet when you get drunk. So sometimes you don’t make great decisions, but you might also find yourself up on a table dancing and singing when you might not ordinarily be willing to do that.

Richard Miles:

This is just friends you’ve seen right Judah?

Judah Pollack:

I never, never me. So, the amazing thing is that not only does quieting frontal lobe, that executive network give you the ability to get on top of a bar and dance and sing, but it also gives a chance for this other network in your brain to come online. It’s the creative network technically it’s called the default mode network. We like to call it the genius lounge. It’s also a network. It has about 10 different brain regions and they all start talking to each other and get very creative, when you’re not focused on a problem and it’s, it’s utilizing and supporting the dance between these two systems, that leads to great breakthroughs, which is why all throughout history you have stories of somebody working incredibly hard. Like Keith Richards working incredibly hard to create a hit in 1967 on the rolling stones first American tour, but it was only when he fell asleep and then woke up, recorded the opening bars to the song satisfaction and then fell back asleep without even remembering he’d done it. That’s where the breakthrough came from. He woke up the next morning, turned on the recorder. He had about 30 seconds of those fantastic opening bars and then an hour of a tape of him snoring. And he, if he didn’t record it, he wouldn’t have remembered because it came from this more unconscious part of his brain, the more irrational part of his brain. That’s what we have a hard time accessing.

Richard Miles:

Judah tell me, is this somewhat similar to um, what’s the name of the book? Is it fast, fast thinking, slow thinking? I think Daniel Kahneman with kind of talks about this, these two major functions. One is sort of like heavily engaged and another one that’s more instinct almost. Is that something similar?

Judah Pollack:

I’m so glad you brought this up because just the other day I was like, we named it the wrong title. And so Daniel Kahneman talks about system one and system two,

Richard Miles:

Right, okay.

Judah Pollack:

And one of them is very sort of slow and methodical and one of them is very quick and as you said, instinctual. And so I realized we should have called it system three because this is actually very slow but very intuitive. It’s not rationally thought out. So whereas system one, the slow plotting rational system. Here we have a more slow system that’s very intuitive and instinctual. So it’s a mix of the two. And that is really where we get these sudden ahas. So the famous example would be in the shower and almost everyone has had an experience in the shower when they suddenly realize something, it’s a problem they’ve been having and might be something they’ve been working on. It could be a relationship there in the reason it works is because taking a shower gives your executive function just enough of a goal that it doesn’t have to really focus that hard on, right? We can shower with our eyes closed at this point, we can shower without really thinking about it. So our executive function is like, Oh I have something to do. And it kind of goes off to the side and that leaves space for your genius lounge to start working and start to put together novel concepts and then give you that breakthrough.

Richard Miles:

And just so we’re clear, you know, if, if take Keith Richards as an example, if he weren’t already a musician, right? And sort of thinking about this all the time, highly unlikely he would have come up with satisfaction, right? So this is a , you know, this preparation or I guess see the genius, you already have to have some geniuses in that lounge, right? And are there have to been , uh, you know, scientists for instance, I mean, if, if you’re not trained in biology, you’re unlikely to invent the next biotech drug, for instance.

Judah Pollack:

Yes and no.

Richard Miles:

Yes and no. Okay,

Judah Pollack:

So here’s , here’s ,

Richard Miles:

there’s still hope for me!

Judah Pollack:

There’s still hope for you. You might be Keith Richards and not know it. So we do have to have some sort of skillset , some sort of specialty, something we’re really good at, something that we’ve put our time and attention on and focused on. Then we have to pull back from that to allow this kind of fascinating, irrational, open-ended process to happen to then have the new idea. So stories like this are about like Dmitri Mendeleev who created the periodic table. He’d been working on a chemistry textbook for three years and I’ve been trying to figure out how to lay out the known elements. He fell asleep and in a fever dream, the image of the periodic table came to him. So here’s that combination where he had deep knowledge of the subject but then was able to come and learn something, bring something new. Now at the same time, cross-pollination creates huge breakthroughs as well. So a great example of this is a meteorologist at the turn of the last century who was up in the North pole and the Arctic working on something and he noticed one day how the icebergs floating on the water looked like jigsaw puzzles. Fast forward two years, he’s back in his study in London. He’s looking at a globe and he notices that the continents remind him of those iceberg jigsaw puzzles. So he gets it into his mind that maybe they were once connected like a jigsaw puzzle would be. And he goes, he’s not a geologist, he is a meteorologist. He studies weather , but he gets this idea. He goes and he starts steadying South America and Africa and he starts noticing the rocks. The flora and fauna are very similar. Low and behold, this person invents the concept of continental drift, which completely revolutionizes everything we know about the earth, the crust, geology. But he wasn’t actually a geologist. And in fact, in that situation it helped because he didn’t have the orthodoxy of the dogma to tell him that that was insane.

Richard Miles:

That reminds me actually of a, of an article in the Wall Street Journal that I read at least 10 years ago or more, and it was sounds like the setup to a joke, but basically it was a geologist sitting next to a political scientist at some dinner and they’re trying to figure out stuff to talk about. So the geologist is talking about his ability to, to , um, predict earthquakes based on a change that happened well in advance of an earthquake, subtle shifts deep below the earth. So the political scientist starts thinking, what, is there a way that you could apply that lesson to political science? And sure enough, he found what he thought was looking at economic data, not one or two years out from presidential election, but 10,15, 20 years out to see if that could accurately, accurately predict trends. And he found what he thought was a very strong correlation point being, you got this from a geologist and earthquakes, right? So nothing to do with political science whatsoever.

Judah Pollack:

And sometimes I think the phrase they use is edge abundance. Where where two disciplines meet right at that edge, you tend get a flowering of life. So, and nature has it all the time. If you look at deep sea water events where it looks like it’s too hot for anything to live, and then there’s just life blooming everywhere from the energy and the minerals coming out of the vent. So, and if you look at where two ecosystems meet, they can be incredibly rich and alive with life. And so the same thing can happen when you have disciplines meet and so know the famous Bell Labs building that had so many incredible inventions come out of it just as very long hallway and the unwritten rule was don’t close your door so that there could be all this crosspollination . Right? And then there’s a great article about, I think it was building 40 at MIT, which was basically an overflow building. So if they didn’t, they couldn’t figure out where to put you . They didn’t have room, they just shoved you in building 40. So building 40 had people from all different lines of work, all sorts of disciplines, and nobody cared what you did. So if you wanted to knock out the roof and build something above you, if you needed something larger, you could. And this became just an idea factory Bose , the sound system came out of there. Um, all kinds of things came out of there because of this. People just wandering in and be like, what are you working on? And bringing their different points of view.

Richard Miles:

So this is a perfect segue to want to talk about next . I mean, your book is more than just sort of an interesting observation of the way that the mind works and you know, how to, how to catch those ideas. Um, if you have an you do, right, you have, you have clients , uh , whether they’re companies, I don’t know if they’re schools or other entities that come to you and say they accept the premise of your argument and say, how do we make our employees or how do we make our company more creative? What are some of the sort of practical things or how do you start with a company like that? Do you say, okay, here are the 10 things you need to do or how long does it take to, there must be a period of diagnosis I imagine . Right?

Judah Pollack:

I wish I could say, here are the 10 things you need to do. Everybody wants that. And the heart, the difficult thing about this work is if you’re doing it honestly, it’s emergent, which is a word that complexity scientists love and everybody else hates. Um, but it really is about what emerges out of the system. And so how do you support the system to let things emerge as opposed to quashing them down? So there is an element of coming in and doing some diagnoses, but the diagnoses tend to be pretty similar, which is people aren’t talking , um , status gets in the way. Um, somebody of higher status is in the room. Other people stay quiet or they have to listen to the higher status person’s idea. Um, people think that that’s not what we’re here to do or it’s not for me to do. They just wait to be told , um, questions aren’t asked. So these are all elements that get in the way of this kind of work being allowed to happen.There’s this wonderful study I just saw. They connected , um, sensors to Wolf packs and track them over the course of a season. Then they plotted the different Wolf packs on a map and they gave each pack of color. And so I think it’s like white, yellow, purple, green, whatever. And the map is amazing because the Wolf packs never cross into one another’s territory. You would think humans had drawn boundaries and that they stayed within those boundaries for that reason, they don’t do it. And so this idea of territorialism of status, it actually stops us from cross pollinating . It stops us from talking to each other. And that is usually one of the biggest issues when it comes to any organization being more innovative.

Richard Miles:

So you’re not working with just any organizations, you know, you have an impressive client list including Airbnb, Google, Sonos and the U.S. Army. Do they come to you, Jonah when they are in crisis or did they come to you when you know they’re getting ready to launch an initiative? They want to move to the next stage? They want to be prepared or is it a mix of both?

Judah Pollack:

Um, some people come to me in crisis, but it’s not usually for the innovation work that usually has some, it’s something else is going on and it’s more uh , teamwork, facilitation, leadership stuff. When they come from the innovation, it’s more because they’re looking ahead into the future and they’re sensing that like we’re not really coming up with the new ideas, especially if you work on the West coast where I live a good amount and there’s this huge pressure to innovate all the time, which is a little absurd. But that’s a story for another time because nobody can do it all the time. But they’ll come in and they’ll have the sense of like, especially if they’re growing or if they’re, they’re sort of, they feel older and stagnant and like, what can we do? What can we do to shift this up? And what’s interesting about this work is that very often the, what can we do is not complicated. We, we kinda know the things that help make things more innovative. It’s understanding the nature of the culture you’re walking into in that company and what are the elements of that culture that are stopping you from doing those things? That’s where the rubber meets the road and doing this work.

Richard Miles:

So, so how does one, get to become a creativity expert. Sounds like a great gig. A lot of fun. I mean, what at what point in your life do you say this is my calling or what?

Judah Pollack:

I have found that most of the people I talk to in this line of work, not just creativity work, but like the consulting in general. All of us say the same thing and you’re like, I have no idea how I got into this. Yeah . Nobody tells you this is a job. Um, you don’t really know it exists. I really fell into it very randomly. Um, I’ve always been interested in the creative process. Um, what goes on for myself when I’m being creative, what seems to go on for others and some of the myths around creativity. Um, like if you want to be a writer, you need to be an alcoholic or you know, if you want to be an artist, whatever that huge word means to people. Um , you have to be somewhat crazy or selfish or have a temper or narcissistic or if you want to be an innovator, you have to be slightly weird or awkward or adversarial or, so we have all of these myths built up around what it means to be creative in these ways. And I just started getting interested in how is it possible to do it and still be a healthy human being. Is that possible? And then when I stumbled upon some of the brain research, I was like, Oh well, well hang on, we know what the mechanisms are. We can just kind of mirror those so that that’s, it just sort of fell from there.

Richard Miles:

So what were you like as a kid Judah? I mean, did , were you drawn to a particular subject? Were you good at school? Did your teachers love you? You know , uh , I mean, give us the whole package here.

Judah Pollack:

I was a weird kid. I’ll be honest with you. My four older brothers , super sociable. My father is always like, you take care of your , your younger brother. So my brother, the super sociable, older brother would have to take me with him and I was just quiet and odd and socially awkward and I like go into the corner and like play with something and just kinda be curious how it worked or what it was doing or, or why things came together the way they did. I studied a lot of stuff. I observed a lot. My teachers liked me, but they didn’t necessarily understand me. Um, so people would very often try and give me direction that I didn’t necessarily ask for. I knew I was kind of lost. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself, but they didn’t bother me. And so I think when I, so I think when I came upon this research that said, like, the way to be innovative is to let yourself be a little bit lost for awhile . I was like, that’s right.

Richard Miles:

I can do that.

Judah Pollack:

I love this, this is perfect.

Richard Miles:

Yeah. Um, so , Judah, I know your , your dad was a defense attorney. What did your mom do? Uh , my mom took care of us in the early years and then she did a lot of volunteer work. She took a whole lot of classes at the new school for social, social research in New York around everything and everything, which is where he grew up in New York, in New York, Manhattan?

Judah Pollack:

In Manhattan. Okay. And so she would take these classes and then come home and tell us all about this. So it kind of kept it, kept the whole dinner table lively in terms of that. And then she also would volunteer a lot. So working at soup kitchens and teaching , um, Chinese immigrant women how to read and doing all kinds of things like that.

Richard Miles:

So Judah, let’s come back to your , uh , some of your, your work that you do with clients , um , and without asking you to violate any nondisclosure agreements or, you know, face possible lawsuits right after this podcast, you know, what, what client would you say has experienced the biggest breakthrough on the innovation side? I’m not, not, you know the crisis. And then what is sort of been your most interesting naughtiest client? Interesting. Read, nutty client or story.

Judah Pollack:

Um , so I’ll start with most interesting. This was a really fascinating thing that happened. I think , um, I think I was about a year and a half ago, so I was working with the army. I was working with a PSI ops group, which is psychological operations. And we were talking about shadow. And shadow is a psychological concept about the part of ourselves that we just don’t notice or pay attention to or think about or see. Um, it’s the part of us that comes out when we get really angry and then like two hours later we’re like, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what came over me. That’s the part of you that’s shadow. And I just, it was sort of an offhanded comment about how nations can have a shadow too . And so we got into a very long discussion about what the shadow of Russia and Iran might be. And in order to do that we had to look at first their conscious selves . How do they see themselves? What’s, what’s good? How did , when they, when they feel good about themselves and feel like they’re being misunderstood as nations, what do they look at and talked about, you know, Iran’s ancient history and all their inventiveness and their poetry and their architecture and their sort of passion for luxury and beauty in life. And then we said, okay, so that’s how they see themselves and. Now let’s talk about what’s, what’s the shadow side of that that’s going on right now? What is weld up? And the conversation was just, it was fascinating, but it’s also fascinating watching these PSYOPs soldiers start to really pick up on it and start to realize that if you want to influence another country, you have to actually understand these two sides of the country. And it was very gratifying for me to be like, you know, you need to know this. You’re doing important work. Um, but they were fascinated by it to actually do a sort of a psychological breakdown of an entire country and then how you might communicate to that country based on that. And so when I get to get into, into conversations like that, I find it fascinating and it’s, it’s not doing the actual like innovation work, but it’s using the innovation concepts and putting them into play. Um , and so that, that was, yeah, that was a fascinating experience.

Richard Miles:

So now that you’ve revealed the secrets of the U.S. army, I think I can hear a black helicopter landing just outside of Heartwood soundstage. So they’ll, I’ll vouch for you Judah .

Judah Pollack:

They don’t make me sign an NDA. Everyone in Silicon Valley makes you sign an NDA, but the army is like ,

Richard Miles:

Alright, one final question, Judah , we’ve talked a lot about companies being clients and organizations, but I think everyone would like to know that. I think everyone in theory would like to be more creative and have those creative breakthroughs. I’m sure you get asked this a lot, probably at every cocktail party go to , if somebody wants to have that creative breakthrough, what’s, what’s the advice that you can give them in a couple of minutes?

Judah Pollack:

Number one, you are creative. No matter what you may have been told, no matter what you may believe, no matter what your experiences may have been, you have the same creative mechanism in your brain as the most creative person you can think of. Everyone is born with it. It’s just a question of building up the muscle. So the second piece is allowing yourself to build up the muscle, which means allowing yourself to be ridiculous sometimes not in public. You don’t have to get drunk and get up on the table and dance, but allow yourself to draw your idea. Most innovators I talked to draw a lot. They don’t draw well. This isn’t stuff they’re showing anybody not going to a gallery or museum, but by drawing, they actually access a different part of their brain and force themselves to imagine what they’re trying to do in a different way. And visual thinking is something that’s common across most creative people and innovators. But let yourself do things like that that might seem silly or it might seem ridiculous. Read about things you would never read about. Watch things you would never watch. Open yourself to information you just don’t know a lot about. Study the history of whatever you’re interested in. Talk to people in adjacent fields. Just let this information come in. Get lots of it because that’s what you’re going to need. These are like the Lego pieces that you’re building up in order to build whatever your new concept is and then stop. Let your mind wander. Go for a bike ride, do yoga, take a walk, watch a movie. Whatever it is that you do, let yourself do that and get into this rhythm of taking in this information. Very consciously writing it down, organizing it, and side note writing is really important using your hands as opposed to typing gets into your brain in a different way. So trying to get used to just taking notes if you can. So take those notes but then have the discipline to back off. Have the discipline to chill out, have the discipline to let your mind wander. That is actually the key component that gets lost in our go, go, go, do, do, do world.

Richard Miles:

Great advice Judah. And for listeners who are trying to write all that down, you don’t have to because you can buy Judah’s book, “The Net and the Butterfly” available, I’m sure everywhere, right?

Judah Pollack:

Everywhere.

Richard Miles:

Everywhere. Amazon, your local bookstore, et cetera, et cetera. Judah , great to have you on the show. Um , good luck with the book and um , hopefully we can have you back one day.

Judah Pollack:

I would love to you , thank you so much.

Richard Miles:

I am Richard Miles.

Outro:

Radio Cade would like to thank the following people for their help and support. Liz Gist of the Cade Museum for coordinating inventor interviews. Bob McPeak of Heartwood Soundstage in downtown Gainesville, Florida for recording, editing, and production of the podcast and music theme. Tracy Collins for the composition and performance of the Radio Cade theme song featuring violinists Jacob Lawson and special thanks to the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville, Florida.

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