02/29/2012 02:34 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2012

Eric A. Olsen: Bright Ideas

By Eric A. Olsen

Maybe you remember the speech President Obama gave in Kansas last December, the one about innovation, how he went on and on about how the world is shifting "to an innovation economy and nobody does innovation better than America." I was reminded of it Sunday morning, when I opened the Sunday Review"section of the New York Times (2/26/2012) and saw the article about Bell Labs titled "True Innovation." It begins with a quote from Obama's speech: "Innovation is what America has always been about."

I was reminded how I thought, at the time I first heard the speech, what a grand vision it was. How rousing.

And I also remember thinking: if only it were true...

Apparently we don't do innovation better than anyone else these days. Apparently we've lost our creative mojo. An article in a recent Newsweek titled "The Creativity Crisis," for instance, tells us that research shows that for the first time, American creativity is declining, even while a survey of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 "leadership competency" of the future.

Of course, if creativity is declining in this country, it could be due in part to such notions as "leadership competency," as opposed to, say, coming up with few good ideas.

But our schools no longer seem interested in nurturing creativity in our children; education in the arts is being defunded nationwide, while Dubya's disastrous No Child Left Behind, "drill-and-kill" schemes have our teachers teaching to the standardized tests as if their lives depended on it. And certainly their jobs do...

Thus "corporate America," according to an article in the New York Times Magazine (12/19/2010), is turning to solutions such as an outfit called Jump Associates, based in California's Silicon Valley. Jump Associates charges $200,000 to $500,000 a month (a month!) to think "creatively" on a company's behalf, or $200,000 (I'm not making this up) for a one-day seminar for 25 company employees to teach them how to think creatively, complete with stretching exercises! The author of the article, David Segal, tells us that outfits like Jump have come up with what might be "a new discipline and is certainly an expanding niche."

I'm sorry, but these guys have most definitely not invented anything new, except perhaps a great way to make some big bucks, which, come to think of it, is pretty darned creative. . . .

I recently wrote a book with businessman (and novelist) Glenn Schaeffer titled We Wanted to be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. It's a collection of conversations about writing, the writing life, lit biz and more with 30 of our classmates and teachers at the Workshop back in the mid-70s, among them Jane Smiley, John Irving, T. C. Boyle, and Sandra Cisneros.

If there's a common theme running through the book, it's that creativity is a process and that this process can be learned, or nurtured (and it goes without saying at considerably less cost than $500,000 a month). And this process seems to be the same whether in the arts, the sciences, or business.

At the heart of this process is, of course, something a little mysterious and unpredictable, that blessed "aha!" when all the pieces fall together and you've come up with something good and new. A big part of the creative process is articulating this "aha!" to the outside world, selling it, at which point you might decide what seemed like a swell idea yesterday really, really sucks today, and then it's back to the drawing board. But then back to the drawing board is also part of the process. As is all the essential hard work leading up to the "aha!" After all, you have to learn what's not new before coming up with something that is. You have to do your homework.

The point being that however mysterious or unpredictable that "aha!" might be, one can certainly learn to make oneself available to it by sticking with the process.

One thing Glenn learned at Iowa was that he'd rather be rich, and that trying to write the next Great Gatsby was a lousy way to get that way. So after he left Iowa, his MFA firmly in hand, he went into business. And eventually thrived as a financier on the Las Vegas Strip developing some of the biggest stores of entertainment ever conceived, including Mandalay Bay and Luxor.

It may seem a little odd that a guy with an MFA in creative writing would end up making it big on the Vegas Strip, but it makes perfect sense to Glenn. As he points out in the first chapter of our book, what he learned at Iowa was directly applicable in the business realm. "Neuroscience tells us that our brains are hardwired to organize our existential states as ongoing narratives," he says, "draft upon draft of them. A concept in business, as in a story, must be told forcefully and simply, with consequential logic mixed with dramatic leaps. And innovation in business, which underpins value-creation in corporate strategy, is a matter of ingenious reassembly: part dominant logic, part practiced intuition; the language for your next business success already exists, typically inside the old one, only to be illumined or reassembled to make it new again. As with poetry, it's fresh perspectives that convince our hearts and minds."

Maybe what the nation needs right now are more MFAs in those corner offices and fewer MBAs.

Eric A. Olsen is a journalist, editor, and occasional novelist. His sixth non-fiction book, co-authored with Glenn Schaefer, is We Wanted to be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, a series of conversations about writing, the creative process, the lit biz, and more with nearly 30 classmates and teachers at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the mid-1970s. Visit Eric on Red Room, where you can read his blog and buy his books.