Big Think Interview With Rainn Wilson

Question: Why do some people get creatively blocked?

Rainn Wilson: I think creative blocks come from people’s life journeys.  If you don’t know who you are or what you’re about or what you believe in it’s really pretty impossible to be creative. So I think a lot of times when people have "creative blocks" and I know my share of friends do as well if they’re at just some stuck point.  They’re not sure what to do with their lives or their writing or their photography or their filmmaking or whatever it is that they’re doing.  I think the best advice is you have to change your life up completely; to go on a trip, to go spend a year being of service.  Be willing to take some major drastic action to get you out of your comfort zone and go inside, not outside.  Our society is all about focusing on the externals, "These people like me, I'm successful because of these people, they view me as being good and we need to take that vision and instead of expanding it outwards we need to look inside ourselves.

I think meditation helps greatly with creativity.  It doesn’t.... If it’s a pure expression of yourself no matter what it is or what medium, it’s going to shine.  It’s going to resonate.  You could look inside of yourself and you could have a canvas and you could paint a dot in it, but if that is where your creative purpose is taking you then it needs to be that dot.  Again, we’re so focused on the externals about like well he did this and he already did this and tons of people are already doing that, I need to do something new and you’re just looking outwards all the time and you’re not taking that time and that is what... a trap of technology is to just always have our vision somewhere else, somewhere else, in the future, looking outside of ourselves. And I think taking the time in the morning to connect with your breath, that's where the purest impulse comes from.

Question: Is creativity for everyone? 

Rainn Wilson:  Creativity is absolutely for everyone.  I firmly believe this.  I think if you’re the driest accountant with the plastic pocket pen protector it’s in how you interact with the world.  There is artistry in everything that we do and there is expression in everything that we do and you see that in the game of chess as you...  I used to play a lot of chess and competitive chess and study chess and as you get to the grandmasters and learn their styles when you start copying their games like the way they express themselves through...  The way Kasparov or Bobby Fischer expresses themselves through a game of chess is it’s astonishing.  You can show a chess master one of their games and they’ll say "Yeah, that is done by that player." 

So it doesn’t matter.  It’s again, about that yearning to transcend.  There is a surrender to a power greater than one’s self as every artist or scientist or thinker talks about a certain point when it’s no longer like their brain.  It’s like the ideas are like streaming through them and that can happen with anyone.  If you’re a janitor you can do it through your work or on the side or how you are with people, but this is the mission of Soul Pancake is to show that everyone is an artist.  Everyone is creative in their own way and that that creativity is a great thing.  It’s a human thing and it needs to be nurtured and it can help us go down life’s path and help us to become deeper, richer, more satisfied human beings.

Question: You have over two million Twitter followers. How do you weild this great power?

Rainn Wilson: Two million followers is quite an enormous responsibility.  Technology, like anything else that mankind creates is a tool and that tool can be used for good or for evil, like a light saber. Technology is supposed to bring people together, streamline things and make life easier and in a lot of ways it does that.  However, technology can also disconnect you from other people and break down the social network, the real social network of family and friends and interpersonal communication, and isolate people, make them feel alone, make them feel small. So it’s a tool that needs to be used correctly. I use two million Twitter followers as a tool.  The reason I have Twitter is so people can get to know me as a different person other than Dwight.  I just realized all of the sudden like everything thinks I'm Dwight.  They think that I'm Dwight from the office and that I'm this kind of annoying, difficult, nerdy, creepy guy and they don’t know Rainn Wilson—although I'm a little bit nerdy, annoying and creepy.  I'm not as much as Dwight Schrute. And it’s a way for them to get to know my sense of humor and my passion projects like Soul Pancake... So that is the purpose that it serves, but I don’t want Twitter to be a time suck.  I don’t want it to take me away from my family and from what is important.  It’s just a tool that I use.

Question: What is one of the strangest real-world interactions that have resulted from your role as Dwight on "The Office?"

Rainn Wilson:  One of my favorite memories of Dwight was being in the Detroit Airport and this really overweight, crazy-looking bedraggled baggage handler comes running up to me and he is like, “Yo, Dwight, Dwight, yo, yo.”  And he is like running from a long distance and he is holding out his phone and I was like okay he is going to ask to take his picture and he holds up his phone right to my face and on it, it says, “I can and do cut my own hair.”  And it says like, “From Katy.”  And he goes, “You don’t understand. My daughter and I...”  I don’t know why he talks like this.  He is from Detroit.  I don’t know why.  Maybe he was from the Bronx or originally or it’s just my characterization. And he goes: “My daughter and I, we exchange Dwight texts all day long. It’s awesome. You’re awesome. You bring us together.”  And that is what I think about is I think that doing comedy and playing Dwight is a service. Not to get grandiose about it, but I have a talent for playing oddball characters and I can make people laugh and that can help bring families together and people will really enjoy it and it puts a smile on their face and I think that is a really great thing.  I try and remember that.

Question:  Is it hard to play the same character for seven years in a row?

Rainn Wilson:  Yeah, it’s an interesting challenge.  We’ve done 139 episodes at this point or something like that and you have to remember at the beginning of each new episode this is fresh.  This is... you’re discovering these moments for the first time.  You can’t phone it in.  You can’t clock it in.  You need to keep things scintillating and in the moment and really listen and really kind of like tap back into those instincts of like what would Dwight do, how would Dwight look at this.  You have to think as Dwight, see the world through Dwight’s eyes and it does definitely take a little focus and concentration to keep sustaining that.

Question:  Has the character of Dwight evolved since "The Office" began?

Rainn Wilson:  You know it’s interesting.  I look back on some season one and I realize that the character is pretty much the same as when I started him.  I think that he has evolved as a person over the last seven years and that has been an interesting thing.  I think he is not so much Michael’s sycophant anymore.  He is pretty separate and independent from Michael.  They’ve had some falling outs.  He is no longer interlocked with the character of Michael Scott, so he has matured.  He is more confident.  He is more socially confident.  He is more confident for women.  He has become a little bit more of the alpha male kind of testing his limits in the office, in the workplace and I think that has been interesting, but the character in terms of the acting is really the same I think from season one.

Question:  Would you hire Dwight Schrute?

Rainn Wilson:  I would hire Dwight.  Yes, I would, in a heartbeat.  He would do anything.  I could hire him for any job imaginable and he would morph himself to the task.

Question: How did your experiences growing up in a sort of unconventional family inform who you are today?

Rainn Wilson:  Well, I grew up a very dorky, weird looking kid in suburban Seattle and to make matters worse another way in which I didn’t fit in was my parents were Baha’is, members of the Baha’i faith, and I grew up a member of the Baha’i faith. And one of the great things about that was that I had a very Catholic—from the original use of the word Catholic—view of religions.  We soaked in all kinds of different beliefs.  Jehovah’s Witnesses would knock on the door.  We would invite them in and discuss the Bible with them.  We would have Buddhist monks traveling through town stay with us.  We had books on Sufism and Sikhism and I knew about all of these things and I was raised to think about philosophy and religious thought and the soul and the spirit of humankind in a different way, also really socially progressive teachings of the Baha’i faith, the equality of men and women, the elimination of racial prejudice, the equality of science and religion, so it was a big cauldron of big ideas in my household. And we were weird and unhappy family, but nonetheless that was a really positive thing that came out of it. 

Then when I moved to New York in my 20s, I really abandoned all that—and so many people do that grow up in religious households.  They just abandon the way of their parents.  I decided there couldn’t be a God, that there was so much suffering in the world.  Religion perpetrated so much evil.  I wanted to do my own way and take my own journey and what I did was I became an artist and I just focused on being an actor and all of my attention just went to... and my kind of my fervor went to theater and acting and I really thought with my friends that went to school down at NYU we would do little basement productions of Hedda Gabler or whatever and we really thought we could change the world.  If we did the right piece of theater in the right way with the right audience we could touch people’s hearts and we could just blow their minds and just open things up completely.

And I also focused on my career as an actor a great deal and I became very me-focused and me-centered, just myself and my career and what is next and how do I get a better agent and how do I get into TV and movies and then I you know I felt a yearning. I came to a crossroads.  I hit bottom, in a way.  I was really unhappy, and realized that I just wanted something more about.... from the experience of being alive.  I was like I was doing great plays.  It wasn’t changing the world.  I was getting good agents and doing film and TV and I wasn’t happier.  I was like "Wow, there is an unease inside of me." And that led me back on my kind of more spiritual path to the Baha’i faith in a new and fresher way and a more realized way and I came to also understand at that point that there was no difference between being devout and being an artist.  There is no difference between creativity and spirituality and philosophy and that is what Soul Pancake, the book, and SoulPancake.com are about is: it’s all about human expression and it’s all about seeking to transcend.  It’s about that yearning and whether it’s through science or through art, through service, through worship it’s the human experience of longing to connect with people, to connect with the energy throughout creation and we compartmentalize all of these things and I realized it’s all the same thing.  I play Dwight.  That is just much me being of service and worshiping as if I'm on my knees in some temple somewhere or bowing my head in prayer to God in some way.  It’s really all just the same thing.

Question:  What keeps you up at night?

Rainn Wilson:  Boy, I sleep like a log.  I always have.  I just I hit the pillow and it’s like [snore sound].  What keeps my wife up at night is my horrific snoring, which I got to get taken care of.  I need to get those nose strips.

Question:  What do actors know about communication that the rest of us don’t?

Rainn Wilson:  I don’t think actors know diddlysquat about communication.  I really don’t.  I think that actors are terrible communicators as people by and large.  I think our tendency is to kind of be self-centered and tune people out and just kind of get really me-focused, so I think communication for actors is a big challenge actually.  I'll tell you.  I'm a much better listener when I'm acting than I am as a person in real life because you learn as an actor that listening is so important.  You have to really key into what the other person you’re acting with is saying and how they’re saying it and react in the moment to what is going on.  I'm much more "in the moment" when I'm acting.  I can be in my life I'm just like uh, and then I'm acting and going foom.  You know I just zero in and clock in and I've noticed that about a lot of actors.  A lot of actors are just like la la la—they’re never really connected and then they’re in the scene and then boom.  They’re looking you in the eyes and they’re just really focused.

Question:  "The Office" relies heavily on embarrassing moments for humor. Why are we so into awkwardness in humor?

Rainn Wilson:  Our show is the most kind of awkward, embarrassing and kind of real show on TV that deals with that color of comedy.  I think we’re the best in that genre, which we inherited from the brilliant English show, but what is so interesting to me is how much young people like that kind of humor.  They love it.  Older people, they don’t like it.  They’re like, “I can’t watch it. It’s too awkward. It’s too painful. The people are too gross. They’re weird. They’re mean and it’s awkward. I can’t stand it.”  Young kids I mean down to 9, 10, 11, 12 year-olds they eat it up.  They love "The Office."  They have it memorized.  They love that kind of awkward humor. 

I don’t know what it is, but it seems that Ricky Gervais was able to just capitalize almost on a generational shift with an understanding that so much of the comedy is not in the set up, set up, punch line.  There is very few "jokes" on our show.  It really is behavior, characters behaving and the reactions to that behavior.  You know Dwight will do something stupid, but the laugh is on Pam watching it or Jim seeing it and then turning to the camera because that is I think how young people... that is how young people feel today.  You know they’re seeing all this absurdity and it’s like if they could young people would just be like and just look at the camera, so it’s less say a comedy of awkwardness and more a comedy of reactivity. 

Question: Do you have a similar sense of humor?

Rainn Wilson:  I really like the stuff that is very absurd and very real at the same time.  I think Anton Chekhov is the greatest comedy writer of all time.  I think he would make a great addition to The Office staff. If you look through Chekhov plays there is a lot of awkward pauses in there. His mixture of pathos, absurdity, truthfulness and whimsy is just mixed together perfectly.

Question:  What big idea are you most excited about in 2011?

Rainn Wilson: In terms of big ideas I think that there is another revolution coming.  I'm not sure what it’s going to look like, but I think it’s going to be very interesting and it’s going to unfold over the next 10 years. And I think it needs to be a spiritual revolution because I think that our systems are broken.  I don’t think that our political system will ever work.  I don’t think no matter how great a man...

If you cloned JFK and Abraham Lincoln and made them president it wouldn’t matter.  Our system is just too corrupt and too broken.  I think that science is corrupt and broken.  I think health and nutrition.  I think the economic systems, the international relations, the environment, everything, the engines of everything are broken.  There are some good ideas there behind and some good intentions, but these are going to break down more and more and more.  We’re going to see these wild pendulum swings between democrat, republican, tea party, right, left, right, left.  It’s going to swing every election because people are scrambling for answers and it just it doesn’t work, so the young people are going to need to like they did in the 60’s, they’re going to need to take the reins here and really look at the world in a fresh new way and say you know enough is enough, you guys screwed it up, we need to take our planet back and I think part of that journey, part of that revolution needs to be spiritual.  I think that the word spiritual is a very loaded, weird word, but I think it needs to be with a heart-based wisdom and this heart-based wisdom needs to go hand in hand with science and with social activism and love for our planet and love for our whole human family that spans the whole globe and this may sound very high and mighty or airy-fairy, but it’s going to have to go to that or else we’re just all going to destroy each other.

Recorded November 11, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

Directed & Produced by Jonathan Fowler

A conversation with the actor.

Hack your brain for better problem solving

Tips from neuroscience and psychology can make you an expert thinker.

Credit: Olav Ahrens Røtne via Unsplash
Mind & Brain

This article was originally published on Big Think Edge.

Problem-solving skills are in demand. Every job posting lists them under must-have qualifications, and every job candidate claims to possess them, par excellence. Young entrepreneurs make solutions to social and global problems the heart of their mission statements, while parents and teachers push for curricula that encourage critical-thinking methods beyond solving for x.

It's ironic then that we continue to cultivate habits that stunt our ability to solve problems. Take, for example, the modern expectation to be "always on." We push ourselves to always be working, always be producing, always be parenting, always be promoting, always be socializing, always be in the know, always be available, always be doing. It's too much, and when things are always on all the time, we deplete the mental resources we need to truly engage with challenges.

If we're serious about solving problems, at work and in our personal lives, then we need to become more adept at tuning out so we can hone in.

Solve problems with others (occasionally)

A side effect of being always on is that we are rarely alone. We're connected through the ceaseless chirps of friends texting, social media buzzing, and colleagues pinging us for advice everywhere we go. In some ways, this is a boon. Modern technologies mediate near endless opportunities for collective learning and social problem-solving. Yet, such cooperation has its limits according to a 2018 study out of Harvard Business School.

In the study, participants were divided into three group types and asked to solve traveling salesman problems. The first group type had to work on the problems individually. The second group type exchanged notes after every round of problem-solving while the third collaborated after every three rounds.

The researchers found that lone problem-solvers invented a diverse range of potential solutions. However, their solutions varied wildly in quality, with some being true light bulb moments and others burnt-out duds. Conversely, the always-on group took advantage of their collective learning to tackle more complex problems more effectively. But social influence often led these groups to prematurely converge around a single idea and abandon potentially brilliant outliers.

It was the intermittent collaborators who landed on the Goldilocks strategy. By interacting less frequently, individual group members had more time to nurture their ideas so the best could shine. But when they gathered together, the group managed to improve the overall quality of their solutions thanks to collective learning.

In presenting their work, the study's authors question the value of always-on culture—especially our submissiveness to intrusions. "As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well," Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.

These findings suggest we should schedule time to ruminate with our inner geniuses and consult the wisdom of the crowd. Rather than dividing our day between productivity output and group problem-solving sessions, we must also create space to focus on problems in isolation. This strategy provides the best of both worlds. It allows us to formulate our ideas before social pressure can push us to abandon them. But it doesn't preclude the group knowledge required to refine those ideas.

And the more distractions you can block out or turn off, the more working memory you'll have to direct at the problem.

A problem-solving booster

The next step is to dedicate time to not dealing with problems. Counterintuitive as it may seem, setting a troublesome task aside and letting your subconscious take a crack at it improves your conscious efforts later.

How should we fill these down hours? That's up to you, but research has shown time and again that healthier habits produce hardier minds. This is especially true regarding executive functions—a catchall term that includes a person's ability to self-control, meet goals, think flexibly, and, yes, solve problems.

"Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work," writes John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington.

One such study, published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience, analyzed data collected from more than 4,000 British adults. After controlling for variables, it found a bidirectional relationship between exercise and higher levels of executive function over time. Another study, this one published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, compared fitness data from 128 adults with brain scans taken as they were dual-tasking. Its findings showed regular exercisers sported more active executive regions.

Research also demonstrates a link between problem-solving, healthy diets, and proper sleep habits. Taken altogether, these lifestyle choices also help people manage their stress—which is known to impair problem-solving and creativity.

Of course, it can be difficult to untangle the complex relationship between cause and effect. Do people with healthy life habits naturally enjoy strong executive functions? Or do those habits bolster their mental fitness throughout their lives?

That's not an easy question to answer, but the Frontiers in Neuroscience study researchers hypothesize that it's a positive feedback loop. They posit that good sleep, nutritious food, and regular exercise fortify our executive functions. In turn, more potent executive decisions invigorate healthier life choices. And those healthy life choices—you see where this is going.

And while life choices are ultimately up to individuals, organizations have a supportive role to play. They can foster cultures that protect off-hours for relaxing, incentivize healthier habits with PTO, and prompt workers to take time for exercise beyond the usual keyboard calisthenics.

Nor would such initiatives be entirely selfless. They come with the added benefit of boosting a workforce's collective problem-solving capabilities.

Live and learn and learn some more

Another advantage of tuning out is the advantage to pursue life-long learning opportunities. People who engage in creative or problem-solving activities in their downtime—think playing music, puzzles, and even board games—show improved executive functions and mental acuity as they age. In other words, by learning to enjoy the act of problem-solving, you may enhance your ability to do so.

Similarly, lifelong learners are often interdisciplinary thinkers. By diving into various subjects, they can come to understand the nuances of different skills and bodies of knowledge to see when ideas from one field may provide a solution to a problem in another. That doesn't mean lifelong learners must become experts in every discipline. On the contrary, they are far more likely to understand where the limits of their knowledge lie. But those self-perceived horizons can also provide insight into where collaboration is necessary and when to follow someone else's lead.

In this way, lifelong learning can be key to problem-solving in both business and our personal lives. It pushes us toward self-improvement, gives us an understanding of how things work, hints at what's possible, and, above all, gives us permission to tune out and focus on what matters.

Cultivate lifelong learning at your organization with lessons 'For Business' from Big Think Edge. At Edge, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in career development and lifelong learning. Heighten your problem-solving aptitude with lessons such as:

  • Make Room for Innovation: Key Characteristics of Innovative Companies, with Lisa Bodell, Founder and CEO, FutureThink, and Author, Why Simple Wins
  • Use Design Thinking: An Alternative Approach to Tackling the World's Greatest Problems, with Tim Brown, CEO and President, IDEO
  • The Power of Onlyness: Give Your People Permission to Co-Create the Future, with Nilofer Merchant, Marketing Expert and Author, The Power of Onlyness
  • How to Build a Talent-First Organization: Put People Before Numbers, with Ram Charan, Business Consultant
  • The Science of Successful Things: Case Studies in Product Hits and Flops, with Derek Thompson, Senior Editor, The Atlantic, and Author, Hit Makers

Request a demo today!

How AI learned to paint like Rembrandt

The Rijksmuseum employed an AI to repaint lost parts of Rembrandt's "The Night Watch." Here's how they did it.

Credit: Rijksmuseum
Culture & Religion
  • In 1715, Amsterdam's Town Hall sliced off all four outer edges of Rembrandt's priceless masterpiece so that it would fit on a wall.
  • Neural networks were used to fill in the missing pieces.
  • An unprecedented collaboration between man and machine is now on display at the Rijksmuseum.
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CRISPR therapy cures first genetic disorder inside the body

It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

Pragmatism: How Americans define truth

If something is "true," it needs to be shown to work in the real world.

Credit: Gene Gallin via Unsplash
Culture & Religion
  • Pragmatism is an American philosophical movement that originated as a rebuke to abstract European philosophy.
  • The pragmatic theory of truth argues that truth and reality only can be understood in their relation to how things work in the real world.
  • The trouble is that the theory devalues the term "truth," such that it only applies to one particular moment in time. But Charles Sanders Peirce offers a clever way out.
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