Tim Harford: How Can Chaos Lead To Creative Breakthroughs? How can a broken piano, an ugly font, or a disrupted commute spark creativity? Tim Harford explores what happens when we allow obstacles to fuel our creativity instead of hindering it.

Tim Harford: How Can Chaos Lead To Creative Breakthroughs?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So I want to begin the show today with a story, and it's about something that happened in Cologne, Germany, in 1975. It's a story about the legendary jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, but it doesn't actually start with him.

TIM HARFORD: I think of this actually from the point of view of Vera Brandes in many ways.

RAZ: This is writer and economist Tim Harford.

HARFORD: Vera Brandes was this young girl, 17 years old, who had somehow managed to persuade Keith Jarrett, who was already a big star at the time, to come to Cologne. And she had persuaded the Cologne Opera House, which is a big venue, 1,400 seats, to host Keith Jarrett.

RAZ: Wow.

HARFORD: And she was just - she's just a kid, but she loves jazz. And so she's hugely ambitious, and her skills and her experience do not match up to make this happen.

RAZ: Yeah.

HARFORD: And there's some miscommunication, and when she takes Keith out onto the stage for the rehearsal to meet the piano, it's the wrong piano. It's a rehearsal model. It's from some little corner somewhere - wasn't even a grand piano. Vera said it was like half a piano. And the keys were sticking. The pedals didn't work. The felt was all worn away in the upper register, so the upper register sounded very harsh and tinny. And because it's not a grand piano, it's not loud enough. So there are a lot of reasons why this is a bad piano.

RAZ: So for people who don't know anything about Keith Jarrett, like, what do you know about the kind of person he is?

HARFORD: Well, he's famous for his perfectionism. I mean, in many ways, he's a very freethinking musician. He does these entirely improvised concerts. He walks out on the stage. He sits down at the piano, and he just plays whatever comes into his head. And so that sounds as though this is a very loose, freethinking, flexible person, but he has a reputation as insisting that everything be perfect. So the perfectionist meets the world's worst piano, and it's a sellout concert. Everyone's going to be there in a couple of hours. There is no way to get a replacement. It's pouring with rain in Cologne at the time. And basically Jarrett said, I won't play. I'm not going to play. So this is not going well - right? - for Vera.

RAZ: Yeah.

HARFORD: This is not going well at all. So she goes out. She finds Keith Jarrett. He's sitting in a car waiting to be driven back to the hotel. And she goes and knocks on the window, and he looks out, and he sees this 17-year-old kid drenched in the rain, and she just begs him to play. She begs him. And I think at that moment, he just feels sorry for her. And he realizes she's just a kid. Fourteen hundred people are about to show up at this concert, and there's going to be no concert. And he says, never forget. Only for you. And he agrees to play.

RAZ: Wow.

HARFORD: This is a man who hands out cough drops to the audience so they do not disturb the performance.

RAZ: (Laughter) Yes.

HARFORD: I don't know what exactly was going through his head, but, yeah, he sits down, and away he goes.


HARFORD: And it's magic.


HARFORD: It is an absolutely astonishing performance. And it's - within moments, it's apparent that he's producing something astonishing.


HARFORD: It was supposed to be a disaster. He's given this unplayable piano. And he doesn't just cope. He doesn't just produce a decent performance because he's a genius. He produces what many people think of as his best performance.

RAZ: You must have read accounts of that - obviously, of that night. Did people in that audience know that they were watching something extraordinary?

HARFORD: Well, I think they were spellbound. Whether they knew that it was particularly unusual - maybe they thought it's always like this. I don't know. But, certainly, the music has stood the test of time because Jarrett and his producer, Manfred Eicher, decided they were going to record this concert as a cautionary tale. This is - as a demonstration, they have documentary evidence of what a disaster sounds like. If you don't give Keith the right piano, this is what you get.


HARFORD: They never expected that the music would be releasable as an album, let alone "The Koln Concert" album, which is the bestselling jazz piano album of all time.


RAZ: So what was the spark that jump-started Keith Jarrett's creative energy that night? What allowed for that breakthrough? Because at the heart of any great achievement is creativity. But is it a force that can be cultivated, that can be teased out to help anyone create something unforgettable.


RAZ: Well, that's what we're going to explore on the show today - ideas about jump-starting creativity. Here's more from Tim Harford on the TED stage.


HARFORD: Keith Jarrett had been handed a mess. He'd embrace that mess, and it soared. But let's think for a moment about Jarrett's initial instinct. He didn't want to play. Of course. I think any of us in any remotely similar situation would feel the same way. We'd have the same instinct. But Jarrett's instinct was wrong. And I think our instinct is also wrong. I think we need to gain a bit more appreciation for the unexpected advantages of having to cope with a little mess.

So let me give some examples. The psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer a few years ago teamed up with high school teachers. And he asked them to reformat the handouts that they were giving to some of their classes. So the regular handout would be formatted in something straightforward, such as Helvetica or Times New Roman. But half these classes were getting handouts that were formatted in something sort of intense, like Haettenschweiler, or something with a zesty bounce, like Comic Sans italicized.

Now, these are really ugly fonts, and they're difficult fonts to read. But at the end of the semester, students were given exams. And the students who'd been asked to read the more difficult fonts had actually done better in their exams in a variety of subjects. And the reason is the difficult font had slowed them down, forced them to work a bit harder. And so they learned more.


HARFORD: These disruptions help us solve problems. They help us become more creative.


RAZ: I mean, I think when people hear the word creativity, they often think that it's someone else who has that or it's this elusive thing that is, you know, gifted to people with talent. But I suspect that's not right - right? - that creativity actually is just a - like, a skill, like any other skill.

HARFORD: Well, having - I'm not a creativity researcher, but I have read a lot of creativity research. And one of the most obvious things is that nobody agrees what this thing is.

RAZ: Yeah.

HARFORD: And people have lots and lots of different ways of talking about it and lots and lots of different ways of measuring it. But I tend to agree that creativity is different from talent. It's different from technical skill. If you're always starting in the same place, your skill and your abilities and your habits just become a cliche. And if you are - if you want to go somewhere different, suddenly, the skill will find a new way to express itself. And you'll reach new heights.


HARFORD: What's the best way to finish somewhere different? The best way to finish somewhere different is to start somewhere different.


HARFORD: So I want to talk about somebody from the world of rock 'n' roll. His name is Brian Eno. He is an ambient composer, rather brilliant. He's also a kind of catalyst behind some of the great rock 'n' roll albums of the last 40 years. So he's worked with David Bowie on "Heroes." He worked with U2 on "Achtung Baby" and "The Joshua Tree." He's worked with Coldplay. He's worked with everybody. And what does he do to make these great rock bands better? Well, he makes a mess. He disrupts their creative processes. It's his role to tell them that they have to play the unplayable piano. And one of the ways in which he creates this disruption is through this remarkable deck of cards. They're called the "Oblique Strategies." He developed them with a friend of his.

When they're stuck in the studio, Brian Eno will reach for one of the cards. He'll draw one at random, and he'll make the band follow the instructions on the card. So this one - ah, change instrument roles. Yeah, everyone swap instruments - drummer on the piano - brilliant, brilliant idea. Make a sudden, destructive, unpredictable action. Incorporate. These cards are disruptive. The musicians hate them.


HARFORD: So Phil Collins was playing drums on an early Brian Eno album. He got so frustrated, he started throwing beer cans across the studio.


HARFORD: But the thing is, just because you don't like it doesn't mean it isn't helping you.


RAZ: You know, just imagining Phil Collins throwing a beer can across the room is enough for me to want to jump-start creativity.

HARFORD: Yeah. He was just so frustrated.

RAZ: Yeah.

HARFORD: The way we've been discussing this, it sounds as though this is a very refined plane for people to be on. And, you know, Keith Jarrett, David Bowie - I mean, these are geniuses. And I'm not a genius. I mean, maybe you're a genius, Guy. I don't know. I'm not. And I think most of the people listening to this will be thinking, I - this doesn't apply to me. But actually, it - this is true, I think, on a very everyday scale. And there's a wonderful example from London that could not be more everyday, where, a few years ago, the London Underground suffered a partial shutdown because there was a strike. It was a labor dispute. And the shutdown lasted two days. So for those two days, everybody who was used to commuting around London probably had to find a different way to get to work.

And so three economists got hold of the dataset and looked at what people had done. And they found that a very large number of people commuted to work exactly the same way every day. And then during the strike, they changed. They found a different way. And then a substantial minority of them never changed back. So they realized - because of a 48-hour shutdown, they realized they had been doing it wrong their entire lives. And it was only when the disruption comes in and says - no, you can't do it your normal way; you have to find a new way - tens of thousands of people went, wow, actually, the new way's better. I always think of that. How many things do we do in our lives - not these soaring feats of creativity, just everyday things - how many things do we do that, if we were forced to do it differently, we would never go back?


RAZ: That's Tim Harford. He's an economist and a writer. Tim will be back later in the show with another idea on how to jump-start creativity. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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