A whack on the side of the head

I’ve just finished reading A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech. It’s a book on creative thinking, an old one at that it’s at its 25th anniversary edition. And it suggests that sometimes we need a whack on the side of the head to get the ideas rolling, if not get us out of the rut brought about by certain mental locks. These mental locks refer to a mindset or attitudes that keep us thinking the same way we normally do. They keep us from going out of the box. Although most of these mental locks are necessary in our day-to-day life, they do get in the way when we’re trying to get creative.

These mental locks include:

  1. The right answer
  2. That’s not logical
  3. Follow the rules
  4. Be practical
  5. Play is frivolous
  6. That’s not my area
  7. Don’t be foolish
  8. Avoid ambiguity
  9. To err is wrong
  10. I’m not creative


1. The right answer

We musn’t be limited to a single right answer or a single plan. We need alternatives, contingencies. We achieve this by shifting perspectives, asking “what if”, reversing the problem, etc. But before we can even go about those items, the first step is acknowledging that there can exist more than one right answer.

2. That’s not logical

This section reminds me of the R-mode thinking which I read about in Pragmatic Thinking & Learning. Here in this book, the author divides thinking under two categories: (1) Soft thinking which is “metaphorical, approximate, humorous, playful and capable of dealing with contradition”, and (2) Hard thinking which is “more logical, precise, exact, specific and consistent.” Another way he puts it is that “Soft thinking tries to find similarities and connections among things, while hard thinking focuses on their differences. As with the other book, metaphors are brought up. One of the importance of metaphors is that it is effective in making complex ideas easier to understand.

3. Follow the rules

Back in the ancient days, Latin texts were originally written scripta continua or without spaces between words. This wasn’t much of a problem to the then intended readers as they were sufficiently familiar with their own language. However, later on, other monks and priests with a weaker grasp of Latin couldn’t quite easily tell where one word began and where the other ended. To remedy this, they inserted spaces in between words which made the texts more readable. The point of this anecdote is that challenging the rules or the norm can bring forth advancement.
“Creative thinking involves not only generating new ideas, but also escaping from obsolete ones as well.” Consider that it is possible that some rules may have outlasted their necessity (i.e., the Aslan Phenomenon) and have become impediments instead of being helpful.

4. Be practical

We musn’t be quick to dismiss our imaginative creative ideas. Instead, we must continue to cultivate our imagination, and learn to build upon our ideas found through our imagination.

5. Play is frivolous

We musn’t rule out play as a source of ideas. Instead, we should consider play as a way to stimulate our minds. The author quotes a software developer named Rick Tendy: “I never try to solve a problem by trying to solve it.” Sometimes, one good strategy when we’re stumped is to back off and cut ourselves some slack. Afterwards, we can return to the problem with a fresh perspective and hopefully with more energy to tackle the problem.

6. That’s not my area

This is a restrictive, if not defensive, mindset. There’s more to life than our own areas of specialization (assuming we even have a specialization). There’s always something new to learn in and out of our areas of work. And who know how some inputs from another field can apply to our own problems.

… often the best ideas come from cutting across disciplinary boundaries and looking into other fields for new ideas… And to give a corollary, nothing will make a field stagnate more quickly than keeping out foreign ideas.

7. Don’t be foolish

One of the fool’s tools is humor. What humor does is it loosens us up and it establishes an environment in which people can be creative. Just try watching an episode of “Whose line is it anyway” wherein the comedians do improvisational comedy. As with metaphors, humor allows our minds to establish connections between two things initially perceived as dissimilar. These connections may very well be a hint to a solution. Ever saw House or CSI wherein an obscure clue paved the way to a solution. As the author wrote: there’s a close relationship between the “haha” of humor and the “aha” of discovery.

8. Avoid ambiguity

With regard to communication, it is important to avoid ambiguity. At work, clarifications require an additional overhead, and dissemination of ambiguous information to many members of the team can be quite costly. However, there’s a line between clarity and spoonfeeding / specificity. Too much specificity can be stifling, and doesn’t allow for you to have your own ideas or own approaches to a certain task or problem.

9. To err is wrong

We fear making mistakes for very obvious reasons it can be embarrassing, it can reflect in our annual raises or performance bonus, there’s many things at stake, etc. But the thing with mistakes is that they must also be perceived as opportunities to learn. I’m not saying go on ahead and actively make mistakes to learn from. What I’m saying is that if the mistake couldn’t be avoided, at least learn from it.

10. I’m not creative

How we regard ourselves can impact upon our performance. If we go on right ahead and think that we aren’t creative, then we’ve pretty much already given up without even trying. The author mentions a study made by a team of psychologists on engineers from a major oil company. What triggered this study is the concern on the lack of creative productivity among the engineers

After three months of study, the psychologists found that the chief differentiating factor that separated the two groups was: The creative people thought they were creative, and the less creative people didn’t think they were.

So if you think you’re not creative, dump the defeatist attitude and then try to be creative.

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