Consider the tale of Don Lee, who worked as a computer programmer before deciding to embark on a life of inventing cocktails. At this he has succeeded: he is currently the head mixologist at one of David Chang’s restaurants. Lee’s creation of a bacon-infused cocktail, Lehrer notes, can be attributed to the fact that Lee is an “outsider.” “It’s a parable about the benefits of knowing less—Don was a passionate amateur—and the virtues of injecting new ideas into an old field.” This story is only a slight variation on the previous discussions of horizontal thinking, conceptual blending, and the glories of the right hemisphere. Lehrer concludes the chapter by noting that “knowledge can be a subtle curse.
This alleged curse is Lehrer’s contribution to the contemporary fashion of non-knowledgeable thinking—intuitionism, “blinking,” and so on. But some questions are bound to occur to the reader. Have most delicious alcoholic drinks been invented by outsiders? And what does the success of Don Lee tell us about anything other than the success of Don Lee? It is often the case that a certain epistemological advantage may be found on the periphery; but even if you accept Lehrer’s argument about the importance of outsider thinking, it is hardly the only sort of significant thinking there is. There is absolutely no reason to attribute Lee’s success to his outsider status. The brain research is irrelevant: maybe the guy simply knew his drinks, and would have been even more successful had he entered the field earlier in life. And if Lee was just trying all kinds of unconventional combinations, tossing ingredients into the booze until something tasted good, then luck or probability also had something to do with it, as in the old joke about the monkey who types. (Lee is described as resolute in his drink-making—he “refused to get discouraged”—which contradicts Lehrer’s previous warnings about the value of taking time off, but never mind.)
Lehrer cites several studies in this chapter—that living abroad makes you better at problem-solving; that subjects performed better on tests when they were merely told that the tests were conceived overseas. He also describes creative breakthroughs that were the result of scientific work outside of the scientists’ particular field. Sometimes chemists solve physics problems, and biologists solve chemistry problems, and so on. Sure. But sometimes chemists also solve chemistry problems. Indeed, they do so more frequently than biologists.
Lehrer’s slippery language is crucial to his method. He writes, “The people deep inside a domain—the chemists trying to solve a chemistry problem—often suffer from a kind of intellectual handicap.” A page later he notes that “the young know less, which is why they often invent more.” In both cases, the crucial, slippery word is “often.” In the first instance, Lehrer is just stating an obvious fact—a fresh look may be useful, an outsider can see what an insider may overlook—but one which does not explain much. In the second instance, the “often” completely destroys the point of the sentence. Do the young invent more, or not? No doubt in the entire history of humanity, the young have “often” come up with inventions. But how often, exactly? And what does he mean by young? In the ancient and medieval and early modern centuries, and even into the nineteenth century, thirty or forty was not young. Their dates of birth are not all we need to know.
The problem keeps recurring. Of a surfing expert with Asperger’s, Lehrer writes, “Clay’s ability to innovate in surfing is rooted in a defining feature of his mental disorder.” Is Lehrer saying that Clay’s surfing expertise is the result of his disease, or merely that certain properties of the disease may lead to success in fields like surfing? Are there an unusually high number of surfers who suffer from Asperger’s? We are not further enlightened.
Lehrer may want us to believe that creativity is essentially abnormal, medically or socially or intellectually; but the history of creativity is riddled with geniuses who worked within the conventions and in the centers. So, perhaps sensing that he has made himself a hostage to fortune, Lehrer also assures us that sometimes rest and relaxation, or outsider status, or a lack of knowledge, is not really the secret to creativity. Sometimes the secret is, in fact, hard thinking. In a brief discussion of Auden, he writes that “September 1, 1939,” feels as if “it were composed on the back of a cocktail napkin,” but assures us that this “ease” is an illusion, and that the poem required a lot of hard work. This is one of the features of Lehrer’s genre: make an absurd claim, and then act as if you alone have the insight to knock it down. It is ridiculous and condescending to conclude from even a perfunctory reading of Auden’s poem that it could have been jotted down on a cocktail napkin. Lehrer goes on to say that sometimes inventions do not come until one can “think no more,” and that an obsessive focus is crucial. Uh-huh. So the lesson of Lehrer’s hot book is this: creativity comes from intense thinking, or it doesn’t.