You ever get a metaphor wrong? You know, you hear an expression and then use it without really thinking it through? All these years, I've been thinking the term "lowest common denominator" was a pejorative term often used when critics speak dismissively of low-brow culture. But today I learned that I'm wrong.
I've been reading Andrew Hodges new book One to Nine: The Inner Life of Numbers. [Hodges also wrote Alan Turing: The Enigma.] In his chapter about the number Nine, Hodges discusses the term "lowest common denominator," a term that many associate with something that is "small and cheap." But we've got it all backwards:
"A lowest common denominator is generally a rather grand number! This term arises in the context of fractions p/q, where p is called a numerator and a q a denominator.
"To add 1/1 + 1/2 + 1/3 +1/4 + 1/5 + 1/6 + 1/7 + 1/8 + 1/9, the trick is to find the lowest common denominator from 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. That is the smallest number which can be be divided exactly by all of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 — which turns out to be 2,520. You are supposed to write 1/2 as 1260/2520, 1/3 as 840/2520 . . . 1/9 as 280/2520 and so add them up. [Amazing stuff: as it turns out the lowest common denominator is a special number.]
"In practice, few people add up fractions much more complicated than 1/2 hour + 1/4 hour, and I am not surprised that this complicated theory has left little trace on the collective mind. Probably the misuse of the metaphor [of 'lowest common denominator'] has arisen by people confusing it with the 'highest common factor' of a set of numbers, and this is typically something modest."
That's my lesson for today: over the years, the term "lowest common denominator" has gotten an undeserved bad reputation because it has been confused with something else.
Question: what other commonly used metaphors actually mean something quite different from the ideas we usually associate with them?
What are your favorite creative thinking books? Why?
Today is "Publication Day" for the 25th Anniversary Edition (fully revised, updated, and redesigned) of my book "A Whack on the Side of the Head." Naturally, I'm thrilled.
I got to thinking about my favorite creative thinking books. I've decided to list the ones that inspired me many years ago. So here goes (I'll limit myself to just five):
1. The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler. This is my very favorite "creative thinking" book. It came out in 1963, and I read it as a student in 1967. This is probably the best-written of all creativity books. Koestler, author of the landmark novel "Darkness At Noon," tackles the creative process with gusto. AOC is filled with great stories and anecdotes. Koestler coined the term "bi-sociation of matrices of thought" to describe the creative act, and he investigated it within the realms of science, humor, and art. I still read this book every couple years. Highly recommended.
2. Conceptual Blockbusting by Jim Adams. This book came out in the early 1970s (the edition I first read was published by the Stanford Alumni Association). Adams, an engineer and a practical academic, showed me just how interesting the creative process could be. It has a lot of classic "creativity" exercises in it. I was quite flattered when Adams wrote a blurb for the second edition of "Whack" in 1990.
3. Lateral Thinking by Edward de Bono (1973) This book made me think hard and deep about just what the mind is doing when it's able to get off the beaten path. A real classic mind-stretcher.
4. Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution by Paul Watzlawick (1974) . Watzlawick was an Austrian born psychotherapist who founded the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto. Many great (off-beat) stories and examples to support his ideas about "creative reframing." This book still sells well.
5. Applied Imagination by Alex Osborne (from circa 1953, currently out of print, unfortunately). Osborne was the "O" in the famed (1940s-1970s) ad agency BBDO. Thus, he worked with real clients and was in the position of seeing efforts succeed and fail. He coined the term "brainstorming." He's also sometimes credited with originating the SCAMPER creative technique.
* * * * * * * *
You may notice that there are no books on this list that are later than the mid-1970s. There are two reasons for this.
First, I wanted to share with you the books that inspired me to go into business for myself as a creativity consultant in 1977.
And, second, I wanted to leave plenty of room for your favorites! (There have been many, many very good ones in the past thirty years.)
So once, again: What are your favorite creative thinking books? What would you recommend? Why?
I just finished listening to The Peloponnesian War by Tulane Professor Kenneth Harl (36 lectures produced by the Teaching Company). This war was waged between the Athenian Empire and Sparta and her allies from 431 to 404 BC. I highly recommend this program: Harl does an excellent job of bringing this era to life.
This war has many features: the rise of terror tactics, ruinous plagues, large-scale sieges, out-of-control popular assemblies, ruthless butchering of civilian populations, breakdown of morality, cataclysmic sea battles, unscrupulous politicians, wasted military opportunities, court intrigue with the Persians, and the collapse of Athens' "Golden Age."
This is the first time I'd returned to this era since 1969-70 when I studied this war as a student (and even read Thucydides in the original Greek). In the intervening four decades, I've found that my perspective has changed considerably.
In the late 1960s, against the backdrop of the Cold War, it was customary to see a democratic and vibrant Athens in the role of the United States, and a stolid and secretive Sparta as a proto-Soviet Union. It was all too easy to downplay Athens' slavery and aggressive colonialism and play up Sparta's adherence to strong military values and deep suspicions about the outside world.
This time around I saw Athens in a less favorable light, and Sparta in a more positive way.
Athens greatly exploited (often cruelly) the member cities of her empire. And she used the slaughter of civilians to intimidate both foes and wavering allies.
And Sparta, after all, did win the war. And she did it because she proved to be the more flexible: she was able to build a fleet (quite an achievement for a land-locked power) and defeat Athens at her strength — on sea.
Also, for all the glory of the Athenian democratic popular assembly, the leaders it produced (after Pericles) tended to be weak, vacillating, and corrupt. Many of the Spartan leaders, on the other hand, e.g., Brasidas and Lysander, turned out to be more flexible, imaginative, and effective.
As companion reading material, I read Victor Davis Hanson's book, A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and the Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. I also re-read Book VII of Thucycides' Peloponnesian War (which deals with the failed Sicilian Expedition).
Hanson does a fine job of exploring how the two sides waged war. I came to understand the details of hoplite warfare, Greek cavalry tactics, and how two-year long sieges were conducted. Especially eye-opening is his description of life (cramped conditions, darkness, stench) aboard a Greek trireme (ship) and the terror that must have been a part of naval combat.
For me, the saddest and most sobering part of this entire story is the saga of the Athenian Expedition to Sicily. I kept thinking, "Why?" If you want the whole cocktail of hubris, strategic over-reach, poor leadership, bad timing, meddling politicians, and the bloody annihilation of an entire navy and army, it's all right there for you in the Athenian attempt to subdue Syracuse.
All in all, I'd say there is much to be learned from these events of nearly two-and-a-half millennia ago that can be applied to understanding what is happening to today. That is, after all, one of the reasons one studies history.
I'm a long time fan of writer and playwright David Mamet. His films stand out for their stylized, pithy dialog and intricate plot twists. Glengarry Glen Ross (winner of the Pulitzer prize) is a classic. If you've never seen House of Games, Things Change, Heist, Wag the Dog, Oleanna, or The Spanish Prisoner, you should rent their DVDs.
Mamet was interviewed recently by Robert Hughes in the WSJ. Several of his answers dealt with his own creative process.
WSJ:How hard is plot for you?
Mamet: I once worked for a summer laying sod.
This is the only thing I've ever done that was harder than that. You've
got to get over your own cleverness. You have to become extraordinary
analytical, and throw out all the stuff you love to get there.
Sometimes it doesn't make sense. You stare at that sheet of paper for
years and know there's something hiding in there.
WSJ:When you begin writing, do you have an idea where it's going to go?
Mamet: You've got to get in there and start
mucking around. After a while the material is going to correct you. You
have to listen to it, and extract the play that is hiding in your
subconscious. If it can't trick you, it can't trick the audience. You
have to follow your unconscious thoughts so that eventually you're
encased in a structure that, as Aristotle says, is surprising and
WSJ:Are you ruthless with your own rewriting?
Mamet: Oh yes. I don't care. I do it for a
living. If something doesn't work, I'm going to throw it out. What
pleasure is there in saying I'm right and the audience is wrong?
I'm no Mamet. But I will say that my writing experience (books and other products) is similar to his in this regard. Almost every time I've been stuck, it's usually because I've been in love with a particular idea, theme, metaphor, or quote. Only when I've "thrown out the stuff I love" (as Mamet would put it) do things begin to flow in a constructive way.
What can you "beloved ideas" can you throw away? What might that open up?
I've been listening to a Shakespeare course (from the Teaching Company). In a lecture about the play Henry V, the author Peter Saccio makes an interesting aside.
"You can learn a lot about a culture and an era by examining the self-help books that were popular during that time."
For example, during ElizabethanTimes (especially the 1590s), the top best-selling self-help books dealt with death, namely the correct way to approach death. This, in great part, reflects the deadly "London Plague" of that decade.
Best-selling self-help books during the Victorian Era dealt with proper etiquette. This is because a number of people had made substantial sums during the Industrial Revolution, and they were able to buy themselves a higher class lifestyle. One thing they needed to fit in was knowledge of the proper manners of their new class.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, this genre produced best-sellers dealing with improved sexual performance and also consciousness-raising. (Picture from Alex Comfort's The Joy of Sex.)
The 1990s produced a number of money-management and wealth-building guides. And this certainly reflects the "go-go" aspects of that decade.
Which brings me to my question:
As you look at the how-to/self-help best-sellers of 2007, what do they tell us about our era, our life-style, and our hopes, desires and frustrations?
I just read Fake Steve Jobs' new book "Options: The Secret Life of Steve Jobs." Here's my verdict: it's really, really funny. Indeed, it reminds me of some of Christopher Buckley's best work (Thank You for Smoking and God Is My Broker).
Many of you know the blog by Fake Steve Jobs (who in real life is Daniel Lyons, a Forbes editor). The book is in a similar vein but much funnier and obviously more developed. The narrative deals with a year in the life of Fake Steve Jobs. The centerpiece is the options backdating investigation by the Feds into Apple and Jobs himself. But there are Fake Steve's insights into management philosophy, engineering, love, drug use, product development, and being a creative genius (just like Mozart!).
The Fake Steve Jobs character is a riot. I have no idea how close this character is to the Real Steve Jobs, but FSJ seems to conform to the many myths, bizarre stories, and stereotypes a number of us in the Valley have about the Real Steve. [I met the Real Steve Jobs several times in the early 1980s when he was Apple's Chairman, once in his office and again when he spoke at a conference I produced. He was cordial to me, but his "reality distortion field" was already fully developed then.]
Fake Steve's supporting cast is impressive: Larry Ellison, Bono, and Al Gore. They all seem like "letchtards." And then there are others: Hillary Clinton, the "Googletards," Arnold, John Doerr, and a couple of characters who greatly resemble Andy Grove and Tom Perkins.
Here's a sample from the book and it describes Fake Steve's new product development philosophy:
"Anyone can make a phone, just like anyone can make a computer. But that's not good enough for Apple. Part of what makes us different—and, yes, better—is the way we create products.
For example, we don't start with the product itself. We start with the ads. We'll spend months on advertisements alone. This is the reverse of how most companies do it. Everybody else starts with the product, and it's only when it's done do they go, "Oh wait, we need some ads, don't we?" Which is why most advertising sucks, because it's an afterthought.
Not here. At Apple, advertising a a pre-thought. If we can't come up with a good ad, we probably won't do the product. Once we've got the ad campaign, then we start work on the product. But we don't start with the technology. We start with the design . . . . "
I recently posted about the challenges of predicting the future in my review of Nassim Taleb's book, The Back Swan. Another person who has had a long interest in the underlying patterns in how things change is fractal geometrician Benoit Mandelbrot.
Mandelbrot studied the historical data of some of the world's great rivers, in particular the Nile. He characterized the patterns he saw by borrowing from stories from Genesis: the "Joseph Effect" and the Noah Effect.
The "Joseph Effect" — after Joseph's interpretation of Pharaoh's dream of seven fat cows and seven gaunt ones to mean that there would be seven prosperous years followed by seven lean ones — describes persistence. He discovered that trends tend to persist; that is, if a place has been suffering drought, it's likely it will suffer more of the same. In other words, things tend to stay the way they've been recently. Some examples:
Healthy people tend to stay healthy;
Winning teams tend to keep on winning; and,
Products that have been successful for the past five years will probably be successful next month.
On the other hand, the "Noah Effect" — after the story of the Great Flood — describes discontinuity. Mandelbrot found that when something changes, it can change abruptly. For example, a stock priced at $40 a share can quickly fall to $5 without ever being priced at $30 or $20, if something significant triggers its collapse.
As science writer James Gleick put it:
The "Noah" and "Joseph" Effects push in different directions, but they add up to this: trends in nature are real, but they can vanish as quickly as they come.
Thus, we can expect what's been happening to continue to happen, but we should also expect the unexpected.
Questions to think about: What patterns describe the flow of your current situation? Where do you see "Joseph" or "Noah" at work in the world around you?