Operating in the Zone a Drill Called Perfection; a Review of Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works

This is a guest post by Kristen Dalton. She’s a Journalist for Greater Media Newspapers covering the Greater Red Bank Area in New Jersey. She won the 2011 Williams Prize for Poetry and graduated from Lehigh University where she played basketball for the Mountain Hawks in the Patriot League (DI), helping them win two PL tournament championships while earning two NCAA Tournament berths and a WNIT bid.

We started off every basketball practice the same way: with a drill called Perfection.

It was a simple drill, really. Full court right hand lay ups. Full court left hand lay ups. Two-player passing into right hand layups. Two-player passing into left hand lay ups. Three-man weave. Michigan (another full-court layup drill). And finally, three-man shooting. That was the order, and only when everyone completed each section could the team move on to the next.

Everything was full-court, down and back, and they were all elementary drills to be doing at the Division I collegiate level. Yet everyone hated it. Everyone hated the drill because it had to be done perfectly. Any missed shot, any dropped pass, any untouched line meant your group had to sprint to the end of the line and do it again. Until everything was perfect.

The entire team had 8 minutes (or less) to complete all the components of the drill. If it was 8:01, everyone had to do Perfection all over again. On the bad days, we could waste a half hour of practice doing a drill that had did not remotely emulate playing a game in real-time.

Now, I understand the philosophy behind the drill: practice makes perfect. But my issue was even more straightforward: the game is not perfect. It requires you to be creative and rely on your instincts. So I had a hard time coming to grips with doing a drill that was counter-intuitive to the way I played the game. You’d be surprised how hard it became to make lay ups when you knew you’d have to do it all over again, and worse, sometimes be the only one. It was embarrassing, humiliating to fail so often at the easiest shot in the world. A shot that until then, you had never given a second thought to.

This drill unraveled those basketball instincts as mental doubts disrupted years of engraved muscle memory. This is also known as “choking,” “wearing a size two collar,” “caving under pressure,” and “the Boston Red Sox.”

Or as Jonah Lehrer says in his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works,

We are so worried about playing the wrong note or saying the wrong thing that we end up with nothing at all, the silence of scared imagination.

Creativity is about letting go. Say goodbye to the inhibitions that stifle our internal rhythms and prevent our innovative ways from surfacing. Lehrer spoke with composer Yo-Yo Ma about breaking through the barriers to true performance.

When people ask me how they should approach performance, I always tell them that the professional musician should aspire to the state of the beginner,” Ma says. “In order to become a professional, you need to go through years of training. You get criticized by all your teachers, and you worry about all the critics. You are constantly being judged. But if you get out onstage and all you think about is what the critics are going to say, if all you are doing is worrying, then you will play terribly. You will be tight and it will be a bad concert. Instead, one needs to constantly remind oneself to play with the abandon of a child who is just learning the cello. Because why is that kid playing? He is playing for pleasure. He is playing because making this sound, expressing this melody, makes him happy. That is still the only good reason to play.

This is why I turned to creative writing in the midst of my collegiate basketball career. I needed a creative space that countered the cookie-cutter operation of my school’s athletic program. There was a cognitive dissonance that unsettled me for years. It became clear fairly quickly that I didn’t fit the mold and would instead be modified to a much smaller role that sacrificed the creative, adaptive, run-and-gun style of play for a more slow and deliberate robotic scheme. And we were successful, won championships, went to the NCAA tournament twice. But in an effort to become perfectly efficient, there came the disappointing realization that we still hadn’t reached our truest potential. It also made it harder to come to terms with the individual sacrifices we all made.

For the first time, I realized success and potential could be mutually exclusive. The occurrence of one did not influence or result in the other.

Perfection was wrong about making mistakes. They are not failures, nor should they be punishable or embarrassing. If striving for perfection were going to turn me into a soulless basketball player then I’d rather pick up the pen and try to make myself a whole human being. So that’s what I did.

“There is something scary about letting ourselves go. It means that we will screw up, that we will relinquish the possibility of perfection. It means that we will say things we didn’t mean to say and express feelings that we can’t explain. It means that we will be onstage and not have complete control, that we won’t know what we’re going to play until we begin, until the bow is drawn across the string. While this spontaneous method might be frightening, it’s also an extremely valuable source of creativity” (Lehrer).

Most creative people understand this. They’re actively pursuing that moment of insight when neurons connect in unexpected places and open neural pathways that carry messages in new ways. They are the metaphors of our minds, bridging the gap between life as we know it and the life as we wish it to be. This requires an imagination, and our cells do this every day at the most basic level. It’s like making a pass that threads the needle: you can’t practice for it and no one can see it until it happens. You just have to be ready to make it happen. You have to be willing to look for new ways to say something, to create something, to fire a rope and rescue an unspoken emotion. A two-point lay up.

It is impossible to practice for these moments. They usually happen in the wake of mistakes.

So don’t suppress the quiet tug of your instincts for the sake of attaining perfection. You’ll never be successful fulfill your potential.

Instead, welcome the first mistake.

That’s what Yo-Yo Ma does.

Because then I can shrug it off and keep smiling. Then I can get on with the performance and turn off that part of the mind that judges everything. I’m not thinking or worrying anymore. And it’s when I’m least conscious of what I’m doing, when I’m just lost in the emotion of the music, that I’m performing my best.

Creativity is not the performance though. It’s the magic that makes you disappear. And even though everyone can see you, they’ll all be wondering where you went.

Kristen’s writing is featured in The Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania) and in 2009 had her article “Global Branding: Li Ning vs. Nike” published in the Lehigh Review. She is the creative writer and founder of Inspired Scribble, which is offering its first creative writing scholarship in June to a student enrolled in the AP Humanities class at Monmouth Regional High School.

7 thoughts on “Operating in the Zone a Drill Called Perfection; a Review of Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works

  1. Thanks for sharing, Kristen. I love this ending, “Creativity is not the performance though. It’s the magic that makes you disappear. And even though everyone can see you, they’ll all be wondering where you went.”

  2. Hi Rich, thanks for reading. Not sure if I know a Jill in the newsroom but there are a few competing publications in the area too. Either way, small world is right!

  3. Please tell Kristen Dalton from me, this is what I’ve needed to hear. I am a first-time novelist (may I call myself a novelist before finishing or publishing)? I got blocked for months, hoping detail is researched right! Narration, description, self-editing I do with ease. Allowing myself to MAKE-UP what attic/cave/house looks like is hard. I must break the fear that readers would call out anything ‘not true to region’ or era. It’s silly! http://cmriedel.wordpress.com/2012/02/06/my-anniversary-here/

  4. So glad to hear I could help in some way. The more mistakes, the merrier in the creative process. That’s how you open yourself to knew ways of thinking.

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