Lecturehop: What Columbia Can Learn from Jeff Bridges

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Smart and cute, definitely a keeper.

Many of us could take a page out of Jonah Lehrer’s (CC ’03) book. And we’re not just talking about his most recent oeuvre, Imagine: How Creativity Works. After graduating from Columbia, Lehrer went on to be a Rhodes Scholar, become a contributing editor for Wired and NPR’s Radiolab, in addition to publishing three books in the past four years. His reputation preceded him when he walked into William and June Warren Hall yesterday at noon to discuss grit, J.K. Rowling, and cities. Pining for Proust, Briana Last covered the talk. 

Jonah Lehrer began his discussion on creativity by identifying one of its biggest mysteries: what is so different about the “epic creators” of the world, the Dylans, the Picassos, and the Woolfs. “For decades it’s been unclear what separates them from you and me,” he said, “You give them an IQ test and it turns out they’re not smarter than the rest of us. They have perfectly average intelligence. You give them a battery of old-fashioned personality tests…and once again they look pretty ordinary.” Throwing all of these traditional markers away, Lehrer describes the new scientific approach to understanding the success of these geniuses and, of course, Jeff Bridges. It’s called grit.

The personality trait first discovered and tested at West Point in order to boost soldier retention, grit has almost nothing to do with talent. Grit “mediates practice,” it identifies how single-minded you are in your goal, how you react to your own frustrations and failures. J.K. Rowling kept perfecting the Harry Potter story in between her baby daughter’s naps despite the rejection she received from every publishing company that saw her manuscript. Dean Snider persistently called on Lehrer to speak at Columbia until he finally did. Now that’s grit.

According to Lehrer, if we “choose easy and work hard,” that is, “choose things that feel like play” and develop them with commitment, we can build up our own grit. But, Lehrer stopped himself from turning the talk into a motivational speech. He shifted the conversation to the topic of  how creativity can be fostered in public spaces. “Physical location matters,” and because “creativity is not about efficiency,” he posited, “It’s still the human friction that sparks.” Geography will never be made obsolete, and that is why according to him, despite technological innovation, more and more people are moving into cities. As Skype business calls have gone up in recent years, so too has attendance of business conferences.

And if cities are models of the perfect way to spark creativity, where do universities fall?, Dean Snider inquired during the question and answer session following the talk. “The advantages universities have is that they have a density of human capital,” Lehrer said, but he quickly caveated this remark that they also provide serious stopping blocks to the sharing of ideas: “They’re about discipline and boundaries. They come up with all sorts of rules; they have hierarchy and bureaucracy. They tend to discourage people from crossing those boundaries, which is a bad idea.”

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  1. Anonymous  

    Warren Hall and Dean "Snider" buddy

  2. Anonymous  

    Methinks this is a very silly man. Good luck to him, and all, but gee, that's a silly theory of creativity.

  3. correction

    It's West Point.

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