Tuesday, June 30, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #40: Do the Wrong Thing

PRETEND: Do the Wrong Thing
While sharing similarities with doing the opposite, trying a bad idea, and breaking the rules, doing the wrong thing lets fools break free from the constraints of culturally dictated proper behavior by pretending to be ignorant of etiquette. They act improperly to thwart authority and maybe even authoritarianism.

In his book Clowns, John Towsen describes the medieval practice of "...the Feast of Fools, a New Year's celebration where the minor clergy were allowed to usurp the functions of their superiors and engage in a wide range of blasphemous yet officially approved clowning." Everything gets turned upside down with reverent mockery.

You can get so caught up in being perfect, succeeding at all costs, and knowing you are right, that you effecively block yourself from creative solutions. Imagining and listing the wrong things to do in a situation frees you up to question whether they are truly incorrect or just what the daffy doctor ordered.

You are expected to eat with knife and fork at a steakhouse, but at an Ethopian restaurant, you eat with your hands.

Think: What's the right thing to do? What's the wrong thing to do? How many ways can I act improperly here?

Tomorrow: How to Think Like a Fool #41: Act Crazily

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Monday, June 29, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #39: Change Identity

PRETEND: Change Identity
"The mask which an actor wears is apt to become his face."—Plato

“Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you criticize them, you are a mile away from them and you have their shoes.”

—Jack Handey

Pretending, for the fool, is where imagination and play meet. Using tools common to actors and children, fools change their approach to a problem by make-believing they are someone else. By doing so, they tap into and practice characteristics they didn't think they had, bringing to life one of their many selves. When Harry Langdon, playing the roles of sheriff and photographer, needs to put out a fire in the short film "Smile Please", he puts on a firefighter's hat.

When I'm working on a routine, I often take some time to imagine how Buster Keaton or Harpo Marx or some other physical comic would act in that situation, and then I improvise as if I were one of them performing. I wouldn't win any look-alike contests, but I always come up with ideas I never would have conceived of without changing character. Then I adapt the ideas, if appropriate, to my own persona.

You put on a disguise, a mask, or a costume, and let them affect how you act and feel. Change how you move. Observe how others move and imitate them. Imagine a genius or a fool working on the problem and then act like that person. Think of a personality trait you think would come in handy, but which you don't think you possess, then play at having that trait, until you own it.

Of course, always choose wisely who you become:

Think: Who would I like to be? What part of my personality would I like to change? Who could best solve this problem? How will I change my identity?

Tomorrow: How to Think Like a Fool #40: Do the Wrong Thing

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #38: Be Serious

PLAY: Be Serious
"Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh."
—George Bernard Shaw

"Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious."—Peter Ustinov

"My work is a game, a very serious game."—M.C. Escher

This is the last fool tool under the category of Play and it's about being absolutely, deadly serious. Stand up straight! Wipe that smile off your face! Have fun!

In the past, I've spent all morning in my rehearsal studio figuring out ways to "accidentally" make a wooden easel fall apart, exploring intensely the variations and subtleties of unexpected destruction. Then I take a break and think how absurd this would look to someone peeking in my window from outside, especially because of how serious I look. How serious am I? As serious as a scientist. A funny looking scientist.

And then I remember something Steve Martin once sang: "I get paid for doing this."

Fools play, and when they play deeply, they temporarily forget they are playing. Their objectives become as important as the Holy Grail, no matter how mundane. The game becomes their whole world.

No matter what you are working on, as an experiment, treat it as if humanity's survival depended on your actions. Give little things the significance of a funeral. Inflate the worthiness and urgency of your goals as if you were on an ancient quest. See if this gives your efforts more focus and concentration.

Then step back and laugh.

Think: How can I play more seriously? How important can I make this? What if this were a life or death situation?

Tomorrow: How to Think Like a Fool #39: PRETEND:Change Identity

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #37: Make Music

PLAY: Make Music
George Carlin did a short routine where he vocalized film soundtrack music to accompany his life, "otherwise, it's all wasted time." (click link to listen to mp3 excerpt)

Add a soundtrack to your life, find the rhythms in your actions, play your problems like an instrument, sing away your troubles, dance to your inner drummer. You get the joy of making music combined with the quieting of brain chatter, so that playful solutions float to the top.

Be like Stomp or Ernie Kovacs and transform your world:

Making music is a simple way to turn everyday activities into a game, while tapping into your musical intelligence for new perspectives and insights. If you are too embarrassed to make music, listen to a film soundtrack on your personal musical listening device and act along with it as you go through your day. I personally recommend Ben Model's alternate silent film soundtracks.

Think: What's a way to make music with what I'm doing right now? Inner or outer soundtrack? Percussion? Make up a song about what I'm doing? Listen to the world as if it were a symphony?

Tomorrow: How to Think Like a Fool #38: Be Serious

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #36: Fool Around

PLAY: Fool Around

First some "unconstructive silliness" from Monty Python:

By acting without reason, but with maybe one foot still grounded in reality, fools fool around, mess around, play around in casual frivolity. It's pure play and unstructured improvisation, without apparent goals, and the only rule is there are no rules. One dictionary even uses the word irresponsible in the definition.

It's that state of mind where you are not too serious, lightly detached, a little lazy, willing to be messy and make mistakes. You doodle around with your problem or an idea until something gells and more ideas take you by surprise--or you take them by surprise. You work from your instincts and impulses without censoring, seeing what comes to mind and body. By not focusing on finding a solution, accidents will happen that solve the problem anyway.

I'm not sure where this originates (I first heard it in a creative writing class taught by Daniel Keyes), but it's been taught as an approach to creative writing that writers should figuratively vomit on the page and clean it up later. The first part (vomiting) has been called Free Writing, and its principles can be adapted to any creative endeavor. I've found Gabriele Rico's clustering technique as a quick way into the fooling around state.

Think: Why not fool around for awhile and see what happens?

Tomorrow: How to Think Like a Fool #37: Make Music

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Monday, June 15, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #35: Secretly Cooperate

PLAY: Secretly Cooperate
[I apologize once again for the delay in postings. A family emergency took precedence, and may do so again. Thanks for the patience.—Drew]

Yesterday, I was out riding my bicycle, when a traffic light turned red. I stopped, grumbling about the law, but obeying it, even though no cars were coming. Really, though, I was catching my breath and appreciating a break from pedaling.

Your problem is your adversary, in a game that threatens its very existence. You draw energy from this competition, while secretly you cooperate with the problem by working with it instead of against it. Resistance is futile!

In stage combat, actors appear to be fighting, while in reality they are working together to provide a convincing illusion of dramatic conflict. In this way, no one gets hurt while the visual language of the choreography speaks with poetic metaphor.

A game of tag is less fun if we stand there and I tag you, then you immediately tag me, then I tag you again, and so on. Or else I'm it, and I never tag you because you're too fast and too far away. We play together to keep the game going.

A child may tease the person they have a crush on. Someone, when not just being a jerk, may play devil's advocate to strengthen someone else's position. A sailor takes his sailboat on a zig-zag course to go against the wind, using the power of the wind. It looks like they seek a win-lose situation, when it's actually win-win.

A tai-chi master absorbs the impact of his or her opponent to softly neutralize the energy of the attack, redirect it, and exhaust it. Injury only comes from tense resisting.

In the same way, you incorporate the given circumstances of a problem into the solution, instead of trying to eliminate them. For example, you may have the problem of always losing your keys. Next time you come home, you consciously lose them under a pile of dirty laundry, and with that absurd act, you are more likely to remember where you put them the next day.

Think: How can I secretly cooperate with my problem? What if I appeared to be fighting it while actually playing with it to win-win?

Tomorrow: How to Think Like a Fool #36: Fool Around

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Win a Free Copy of "Ignore Everybody" by Hugh Macleod

I have an extra copy of Hugh Macleod's fantastic new book, Ignore Everybody: And 39 Other Keys to Creativity. I'll send it to the person who leaves my favorite comment below on how they have used one of my How to Think Like a Fool concepts to creatively solve a problem.

How to Think Like a Fool #34: Use What's Handy

PLAY: Use What's Handy
"And if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with."
—Stephen Stills

When life gives you lemons, make incredibly sour lemonade—unless life gives you water and sugar, too.

Fools don't want to drive all the way to Home Depot to pick up the perfect tool or part. They enlist what's available, wherever they are, whatever they have. They think like MacGuyver and invent like Rube Goldberg.

In Buster Keaton's The Boat, his wife's pancakes prove to be inedible, but later provide a plug for a hole in the boat with the help of hammer and nails (which caused the hole in the first place). Later, he uses the hammer to nail himself to the floor while the boat is flipping over.

We often live with the myth that if we just had [fill in the blank], all our problems would be solved. Only being able to use what's handy forces you to be creative. You have to connect the unrelated, make and break rules, and transform functions of objects. The limitations take away the infinite options that take too long to consider. You begin to see the project as a whole, instead of its separate parts, as demonstrated here by the fool Nasrudin:

Why Don't You
Mullah Nasrudin went to the shop of a man who stocked all kinds of bits and pieces.
"Have you got nails?," he asked.
"And leather, good leather?"
"And twine?"
"And dye?"
"Then why, for Heaven's sake, don't you make a pair of boots?"
—from The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin by Idries Shah

But to always have handy what you might need, you could carry around a Fool's Aid Kit.

Think: What do I have handy right here, right now? How can I use these to solve the problem?

Tomorrow: How to Think Like a Fool #35: Secretly Cooperate

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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #33: Use More Effort Than Necessary

PLAY: Use More Effort Than Necessary
Fools read a book on thermodynamics when they want to fix the furnace. They run like mad to catch a turtle. They push on a door with all their might when the door reads PULL. They lift a feather with the moves of an olympic weightlifter. They overexert, over-prepare, overshoot, and overbite.

By doing so, they live in a heightened state of play, outside the comfort zone, on the extreme edges where there are new ideas under the sun. It's exaggeration in action, and making things more difficult in hindsight.

You use more effort than necessary when you need a jump-start to go from an object at rest to an object in motion; when you are too cautious and careful to make an impact; when the goal is faraway; when you don't really know how much effort it will take; when success was worth the excess energy expenditure and inevitable exhaustion.

On the other side, fools also succeed by using less effort than at first seemed necessary. A little push of a snowball has big consequences when it reaches the bottom of a snowy hill.

Think: How much mental or physical effort does this need? Can I double or triple it? How hard can I push myself? Or what if I used a miniscule fraction of effort instead?

Tomorrow: How to Think Like a Fool #34: Use What's Handy

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Monday, June 8, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #31: Compete with Yourself

PLAY: Compete with Yourself
Continuing on with the concept of fools playing games, here they take on their most formidable opponent—their own selves. It's the only fair competition, because they are evenly matched, and even when they lose, they win.

Some people play even chess with themselves.

Similar to being in front of an audience, competition can give you an adrenaline boost or cause anxiety or both. Ideally, competition encourages you to perform at your best and push yourself beyond your self-imposed limits.

Psychologists theorize that we don't have one self, but many selves that come into play depending on the circumstances. If this is the case, we have a whole team of players available to us, pitting the better ones against the worst ones.

If crowds have wisdom, then why not draw upon the wisdom of the crowd inside your head? Your own diversity of opinions leads to personal group genius.

Here are some ways to use the idea of use self-competition (some that would also fit under the FoolThink categories of Imagine and Pretend):

  1. Set a numerical goal. Come up with 25 different ideas, for example.
  2. Set a timer and see how many solutions you can come up with in 15 minutes.
  3. Set a stop watch and see how quickly you can come up with a solution.
  4. Try to beat your past selves by bettering your best times.
  5. Provide conflict by interfering with your efforts. Make things more difficult!
  6. Imagine that any second someone could come into the room and foil your activity. Be absolutely quiet so they don't hear you.
  7. Take turns with different aspects of your personality. Have your angry side work on a problem, then your calm and relaxed side.
  8. Try to make each attempt to solve a problem qualitatively better than the one before it.
  9. Picture someone else working on the same problem. Don't let them win.
  10. Decide on a reward if you solve the problem within set limits. Or implement a foolish punishment if you don't—hop on one foot for twenty minutes.

Have fun playing with yourself!

Think: What am I competing for? How will I compete with myself? Which parts of me will I tap into?

Tomorrow: How to Think Like a Fool #32: Use More Effort than Necessary

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Saturday, June 6, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #30: Make and Break the Rules

PLAY: Make and Break the Rules
"Rule Six: There is NO... Rule Six."
—Monty Python

Fools look for games everywhere. If they can't find them, they make them up. If they get bored, they add new rules. If they aren't getting what they want, they break the rules. If that's not enough to win, they'll start a brand new game.

Games have goals, strategies and tactics, limited time and space, fun (essential!), and rules. The rules give structure that frees you up for creative expression. Too many choices lead to indecisive paralysis. Too many rules, and the thrill is gone.

Look at your problem as a game, figure out what the rules are, then go from there.

In a stage play, fools can be participants in a story, then suddenly step outside the action, break the imaginary fourth wall, and comment on the events as if they were members of the audience. In a similar way, you can be utterly immersed in a game, then stop and see it for what it is, just a game, one you most likely invented yourself, and with arbitrary rules ready to be challenged, broken, and changed.

Finally, learn from a master (click thumbnail to enlarge):

Think: What game am I playing? What are the rules? What rules can I make up? What rules can I break? How do I get out of this game and start a new one?

Tomorrow: How to Think Like a Fool #31: Compete with Yourself

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Thursday, June 4, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #29: Act without Reason

PLAY: Act without Reason
Despite what you may believe, foolish thinkers are quite rational. They have their own logic and reasons, often built on questionable premises, that only look irrational from the outside. But sometimes, they take motive out of the equation, just because.

Still, there may be reasons hidden behind their nonsense.

Your marvelous intellect can get in the way of puzzling out answers. Luckily, you also have intuition, so if you take purpose out of your actions, other parts of your brain can kick in while you relax the struggle to figure things out.

Meaningless acts also befuddle your inner critic, reducing that interfering voice to, “This makes no sense!"—which you already knew and was exactly what you were going for. Success!

When you do things for their own sake, you'll become more present, which can be a very pleasurable place to live. And when people ask why you have lobsters in your hair, you can truthfully say, "No reason."

There was an old man of Blackheath,
Whose head was adorned with a wreath,
Of lobsters and spice,
Pickled onions and mice,
That uncommon old man of Blackheath.

There was an old man in a garden
Who always begg'd every-one's pardon;
When they asked him, 'What for?'
He replied, 'You're a bore!
And I trust you'll go out of my garden.'
Edward Lear

Stop Making Sense!

Think: What can I do for no reason? What can't I do for no reason?

Tomorrow: How to Think Like a Fool #30: Make and Break the Rules

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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #28: Manipulate Time and Space

PLAY: Manipulate Time and Space
One of the seemingly magical things about theatre (and film) is how time and space can be manipulated before our eyes. In Henry V, Shakespeare refers to this ability to create large events in a small stage over a limited amount of time:

“Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?”
William Shakespeare, Henry V, Prologue

With the imagination of an actor, the illusionary skills of a mime, and the power of a film editor, fools alter the laws of physics to change perceptions and explore new sources for ideas. As a side benefit, they get to look silly using them.

When you play, you can do something backwards, in fast motion or slow motion, change the sequence of events, do a small actvity in as large a space as possible, or do something that takes a lot of space in a tiny area. Play as if you're in a different space and keep changing it. Stop time. What if you jumped forward an hour, a week, a century? Act like you're caught in a surreal, dreamlike world.

Just don't cause a rift in the time/space continuum. Thanks.

Here's one of my favorite cartoons—Daffy Duck in Chuck Jones' Duck Amuck, partly inspired by Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr.:

Think: What can I do differently with time or space? How can I shape, change, and mess around with them?

Tomorrow: How to Think Like a Fool #29: Act without Reason

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #27: Do the Opposite

PLAY: Do the Opposite
"The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.”—Niels Bohr

A deceptively simple concept, doing the opposite means that when you usually turn right, go left—up is down, black is white, war is peace...

Your habitual ways of doing things aren't helping you—they're what got you into this mess in the first place. When what you've always done isn't getting you any closer to a solution, taking a contrarian view breaks you out of the block of ice you didn't even realize surrounded you. And if everyone you know is jumping off a cliff, maybe it's time to go jump in a hot air balloon.

Doing the opposite will make you aware of your habits, which gives you a chance to break them, or change them, or even decide to keep them.

This Fool Tool has some wiggle room to be creative. The opposite of standing up could be lying down, sitting down, curling up in a ball, standing on your head, standing down, falling over, or even pu gnidnats. You make the rules and declare today Opposite Day.

Fools hold the toothbrush still and move the body. They skate on banana peels, drink from empty bottles, and ride stationary bikes on bike trails. They write with erasers, eat garlic to hide bad breath, and dance to silence.

Think: What do I always do? What's the opposite that I can do? What's another opposite?

Tomorrow: How to Think Like a Fool #28: Manipulate Time and Space

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Monday, June 1, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #26: Make Fun

PLAY: Make Fun
Make fun of, make fun to, make fun out of, make fun with, make fun not war.

Fools don't wait to have fun, they proactively, preemptively make fun. And not in the usual places. For some people, it's easier to make fun while at a party, or playing a game, or on vacation. Fools invest their personal playfulness into the boring, the frustrating, the taxing—even taxes!

It's within the spirit of play that ideas are discovered and developed, and it's the joyful energy of fun that fuels that play.

Fun can be very personal. What's fun for you could be hell for me (cough-football-cough). You do what's fun for you and connect it with whatever you are working on, in a multitasking extravaganza. If you enjoy gargling songs, do that while looking for your lost car key.

Or you just make fun with the raw materials of your problem, nothing added but a mischievous feeling, perhaps inspired by remembering an image that brings you mirth. One of my clown/movement teachers, Sigfrido Aguilar, would instruct us to bring up a sense of cracking-up laughing, but trying to hold it back by remaining neutral in face and body, expressing it with the eyes only, to create a powerful comic stage presence.

Here's another Harpo Marx clip. If the quality is good enough on your computer, watch his eyes and face, appearing as if he were possessed by an insane imp, restraining it and channeling it as best he could.

Think: How do I make fun? How have I made fun? How can I funnel the fun into my work and life?

Tomorrow: How to Think Like a Fool #27: Do the Opposite

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