Sunday, August 30, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #60: Think Like You

OBSERVE: Think Like You
"If every fool wore a crown, we would all be kings."
—Welsh proverb

There are as many kinds of fools as there are people on this planet (just some of us are lucky enough to get paid for it). The last method to think like a fool that I'm proposing, but one that will generate many more, is to observe how you think foolishly, and then to do it on purpose instead of accidentally. You have your personal ways of playing the fool, some that may be close to the ones I've listed, and some that are distinctly your own.

You may be a fool for love, rush in where angels fear to tread, or you and your money are soon and often parted. The trick, as I've been doing for each entry in this series—and fools have done forever—is to see the best in the worst and turn your weaknesses into strengths. Figure out how your foolishness can help you solve problems creatively or at least to generate problems that challenge you in a worthwhile way.

This video has nothing to do with the topic today (or does it?), but I love it anyway (yup, fool for love of art and life). So I'll end with this, an Ode to Joy:

Think: How am I foolish? When am I foolish? Where? Why? How can this way of thinking help me solve this problem?

Previous "How to Think Like a Fool" Posts

FOOL's NOTE: Thanks for reading my musings these past few months. This blog will continue soon with more examples, observations, and ideas. I'll also make better links of the entries and create a master page where you can access them all in one place. I may even turn this series into an ebook if people are interested. Please leave comments or email me personally. I would love to hear what you think. And tell your friends and colleagues. Stay Foolish!—Drew

Saturday, August 29, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #59: Don't Think

OBSERVE: Don't Think
"Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain."
—Carl Jung
"Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again?"
—Winnie the Pooh
"Sometimes I think, and sometimes I am."
—Paul Valéry

My 3 1/2 year old neighbor Milo, sees me out on the porch quite often. He asked his mom, Francine, "Why isn't Drew silly all the time?"
Francine: Because sometimes he's thinking about how to be silly.
Milo: I don't have to think about being silly. I can do it anytime! Look—lao blao lao blao lao blao lao blao lao blao lao blao lao blao lao [accompanied by silly faces and movements].

If you've been following and practicing this series on how to think like a fool, you now have a lot of fool tools in your arsenal. Forget them all. Now is the time to trust, quiet or distract your chattering mind, and simply act like a fool. Be a fool.

You've always known how.


Next: How to Think Like a Fool #60 Think Like You

Previous "How to Think Like a Fool" Posts

Friday, August 28, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #58: Find the Best in the Worst

OBSERVE: Find the Best in the Worst
"Optimism - the doctrine or belief that everything is beautiful, including what is ugly."
—Ambrose Bierce
"Comedy is acting out optimism."
—Robin Williams
"Between the optimist and the pessimist, the difference is droll. The optimist sees the doughnut; the pessimist sees the hole."
—Oscar Wilde
"Donuts. Is there anything they can't do?"
—Homer Simpson

In today's world (and yesterday's and tomorrow's), things can be so horrible and depressing, that it seems foolish (ding!) to be an optimist. Yet optimists live longer, are more successful, and happier than pessimists. They also get more done, because they aren't stuck wallowing in despair.

Pessimists may see the world more realistically, but fools think realism's overrated (and just as selective as optimism). Fools don't just look for the pony in the proverbial pile of poop, they wrap the manure and sell it as extra dark chocolate. And make a bundle of money.

Fools make Pollyanna look like Eeyore.

The personification of the oblivious optimist is Harry Langdon. He's usually just too innocent to see anything else.

There's a moment in my piece "The Juggler," in which I keep trying to juggle, keep dropping, ignore each drop, and simply get a new ball from my case. (Step one: Ignore the worst. Move on.) And then, with a flash of insight, I change the game. I'm not trying to juggle, I'm trying to drop! (Step two: Transform the bad into something glorious.) I proudly throw three balls on the ground and bask in the applause.

You practice seeing the best in the worst as a temporary trick on your mind, a tool you can use to move ahead and make luck happen.

But occasionally, to flip this fool tool, fools look for the worst in the best. Seeing the worst may be the critical eye you need to break the spell of an idea that's only good enough.

Think: Is the glass half empty or half fool? What's the best that I can see here? What's the worst?

Next: How to Think Like a Fool #59: Don't Think

Previous "How to Think Like a Fool" Posts

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #57: Ride the Opportunities

OBSERVE: Ride the Opportunities
"I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one."
—Mark Twain

My theatre show “Help! Help! I Know This Title is Long, But Somebody's Trying to Kill Me!” begins with a fool (me, of course) discovering that all the other performers in the variety show have been murdered. A dark start for a comedy, and it gets worse as the fool is threatened with his own demise if he doesn't do all the acts by himself. But the way this fool sees it, despite the danger and impossibility of the task, it's the opportunity he's always dreamed of, to fill the shoes of the world's greatest juggler, magician, ukulele player, etc. Of course he accepts.

(For those of you who haven't seen this already: my promo video for the show)

Fools look for an opportunity that they can grab—like when Buster Keaton grabs a passing car and gets whisked away in the movie Cops, temporarily saving himself—and then fools ride this moment to wherever it takes them, usually to another opportunity, and then another, and another. The occasion becomes a dream vacation for creative problem solvers where the final destination is a reimagined solution.

Psychologist Richard Wiseman has done a variety of studies on lucky and unlucky people, and has found that it's not just chance involved that makes the difference, but how you see the world and how you act on it. Luck doesn't just happen, but is made. Here's an excerpt from an interview with him in Fast Company magazine:

"What are some of the ways that lucky people think differently from unlucky people?
One way is to be open to new experiences. Unlucky people are stuck in routines. When they see something new, they want no part of it. Lucky people always want something new. They're prepared to take risks and relaxed enough to see the opportunities in the first place." How To Make Your Own Luck | Fast Company

To ride opportunities, you reframe chance encounters with people and events as lucky gifts to build upon, to take you to unforeseeable places, and to connect with the problem you are trying to solve. By embracing what may just be coincidences, you loosen an unnecessarily rigid control over your life, because you're not always that good at predicting the future anyway.

Think: Is this an opportunity? Is this? Why don't I jump on to see where it goes?

Next: How to Think Like a Fool #58: Find the Best in the Worst

Previous "How to Think Like a Fool" Posts

Monday, August 24, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #56: Listen to your Unconscious

OBSERVE: Listen to Your Unconscious
“Art is a marriage of the conscious and the unconscious.”
—Jean Cocteau

"The bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious."
—T.S. Eliot

Sometimes, when I'm looking for something I've lost (usually my keys) and I'm tearing the house apart, I'll get a sudden flash—a visual image of exactly where that object is, and most of the time it's correct. I'm no psychologist, but I am a professional fool, and with that knowledge I'd say that image was my unconscious mind doing work behind the scenes.

Fools' minds work like dreams, a surreal stumbling from ideas to images to words to songs to memories to impulses, with the flimsiest of connections. Just like dreams at night, this may just be random stimulation from the unconscious, or guided signs pointing towards possible solutions. Either way, fools dance with whatever comes up, allowing them to help break out of mindsets that are too logical and linear.

The surrealists championed the Marx Brothers, with Salvador Dali befriending Harpo and even writing a script for the Brothers. The Marx Brothers embodied surrealist theories without the intellectual baggage.

Definition of surrealism from the Surrealist Manifesto:

"Surrealism, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation."—André Breton

This scene from Animal Crackers has an anarchic dream-like feeling, where Chico and Harpo act impulsively, moment to moment.

To apply this fool tool, you listen to your dreams for random clues (remembering to write them down first thing in the morning), pay attention to thoughts and images that pop up unannounced throughout the day, and that you'd usually dismiss, and push things along by making a series of associations, whether with words, sounds, movements, or images. Just let one thing lead to another without censoring, and capture the first thing that comes to mind every time.

You might not have to work that hard, by allowing yourself to be occupied with anything but your problem—or just get a good night's sleep:

"The researchers believe REM sleep allows the brain to form new nerve connections without the interference of other thought pathways that occur when we are awake or in non-dream-state sleep." BBC: Problems are solved by sleeping

Think: How can I tap into this part of my mind? What is my unconscious telling me? How does this information relate to my problem?

Next: How to Think Like a Fool #57: Ride the Opportunities

Previous "How to Think Like a Fool" Posts

Saturday, August 22, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #55: Follow and Trip Assumptions

OBSERVE: Follow and Trip Assumptions
Elmer Fudd shoots into a rabbit hole and assumes that he's rabbit hunting. Bugs nonchalantly walks up to him and asks, "What's Up Doc?" putting Elmer's assumption into complete doubt. In one sentence, Bugs makes Elmer aware of his assumption and challenges it at the same time, which sets the stage for proving him wrong.

Assumptions do a lot to frame reality. They are the rules of the games, and usually the ones least likely to be questioned. An assumption can be as entrenched as a long held belief, or as fleeting as a wild guess—but because you're the one who made the guess, you give it extra weight. The most difficult assumptions to get rid of are the ones that are true, and those very likely block an imaginative answer to a problem (I assume).

Like kids, fools ask, "Why? Why? Why?" and the assumptions reply, "Because! Because! Because!" until they are finally worn down by the fools.

Because fools love obstacles, and assumptions are the biggest ones there can be, they'll live with their assumptions longer than necessary. They'll make them visible, follow them around in spy mode, even after the assumptions outlive their relevance, and if the self-consciousness doesn't eventually trip them up, then fools confront the assumptions, interview them, deny them, play with them, and then knock them over.

Ironically, it was assumptions that kept me from finishing this entry. I assumed that it had to be different from all the other creativity advice that encourages people to challenge assumptions. I assumed that this would be easy to write, because I trip up my assumptions all the time. I assumed that I'd finish it in a short amount of time. It wasn't until I asked what my assumptions were about writing this, that I was able to set them aside and just finish this.

List all the assumptions you have about a problem or project. Watch how they affect your approach to that problem or project. Tap into your inner Bugs Bunny, and question them. Keep the ones that help, get rid of the ones that don't, and use any ideas you got from temporarily or permanently abandoning them.

Think: What do I assume? Why do I assume this? What if my assumption is wrong? How can I change my assumption?

Next: How to Think Like a Fool #56: Listen to your Unconscious

Previous "How to Think Like a Fool" Posts

Monday, August 17, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #54: Pay Attention to the Unnoticed

OBSERVE: Pay Attention to the Unnoticed “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it.” —Neil Gaiman

The fool is in the details. Fools imagine that the world is a series of magic tricks to be figured out, if only they look where no one else is looking.

You spy, misunderstand, look for laughs, and change your perspective. Now it's time to go farther and/or deeper. You pay attention, not just to the obvious things that first capture your fancy, but to the things you missed, overlooked, ignored. Those are the missing pieces that will complete the puzzle.

Whenever you wonder, why didn't I think of that, then somebody else paid attention to the unnoticed before you, and it only seems obvious in retrospect.

In rehearsal and performance, an actor gets the chance to revisit scenes over and over, and see beyond the superficial. Today I ran through one of my pieces, made notes, and then ran through it again to focus on other things. I'd look in a different direction, or spend more time with a prop than I usually would. From there I found comic possibilities I would have skipped past otherwise.

The reason Chaplin's character is able to stay one step ahead of the criminal and the cops in this clip from The Circus is that he is aware of what they initially ignore. And the director/writer/performer Chaplin would not have been able to create this piece if he hadn't spent time exploring the all possibilities of a funhouse hall of mirrors.

Think: What did I notice? What did I miss? What did others notice and miss?

Next: How to Think Like a Fool #55: Follow and Trip Assumptions

Previous "How to Think Like a Fool" Posts

Friday, August 14, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #53: Change Your Perspective

OBSERVE: Change Your Perspective
"When the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail."—Abraham Maslow
"People who look through keyholes are apt to get the idea that most things are keyhole shaped."—Author unknown

Why do fools learn to walk on their hands? One reason is to change how they see the world.

Head and heels
"When you die Mulla," asked a friend, "how would you like to be buried?"
"Head downwards. If, as people believe, we are right way up in this world, I want to try being upside-down in the next."
—From The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin by Idries Shah

Fools look at the world sideways, upside-down, close-up, and faraway. They might pretend to be shorter or taller than they really are. They'll put on rose-colored glasses and then go look at roses. One will even drop his pants, put his foot in a bucket, and walk on a big ball. All these help them to break out of the habitual ways of perception.

In Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards has her students draw pictures that have been turned upside-down, so that the students are less conscious of the meaning and more aware of shapes and shading, causing a shift of consciousness. The psychologist Robert Ornstein has said that he reads drafts of his writings in reverse, so that he can catch things he would have missed otherwise. I just sang this blog entry to myself and made some changes.

You observe the world from a different perspective or point of view. You do this physically or imaginatively. And suddenly the information you take in becomes much more present and useful. But it can be exhausting:

Think: What can I do to change my perspective? What would happen if I looked at a hammer through a keyhole?

Next: How to Think Like a Fool #54: Pay Attention to the Unnoticed

Previous "How to Think Like a Fool" Posts

Thursday, August 13, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #52: Look for Laughs

OBSERVE: Look for Laughs
“The biggest laughs are based on the biggest disappointments and the biggest fears.”
—Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

"Man alone suffers so excruciatingly in the world that he was compelled to invent laughter."
—Friedrich Nietzsche

"Dad always thought laughter was the best medicine, which I guess is why several of us died of tuberculosis."
—Jack Handey

"Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward."
—Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Today, I installed a bike computer (a fancy name for a speedometer) on my bicycle. As with any task that involves following obscure instructions, I used many swear words (as taught to me by my father when he would assemble anything). And then I made a seemingly irreversible action, attaching the sensor in the wrong direction with plastic zip ties. Instead of giving up, I started to laugh. That was just enough to keep me going. I tried different ways to loosen the zip tie, but it was not designed to be loosened, and I kept laughing, because I knew I would not find a solution if I wallowed in despair. I finally tried inserting a thin sewing needle into the zip tie—and it worked! I can''t explain why I found this situation funny, but I would have given up if I hadn't.

Fools deal in humor. They smuggle it in by looking for laughs. The world is the set-up and they provide the punchline. It's all a big joke to them. Even if you don't see them laughing out loud, you can bet that they are laughing inside, where it counts.

Looking for the funny in anything and everything will, if nothing else, make you feel better, but it can also stimulate creative thinking. Psychologist Alice M. Isen did a study where 20% of participants were able to solve an assigned problem after watching a serious math film, but 75% were able to solve it after watching a comedy film.

Here's a series of steps you can try:

  1. Pick something and decide, that's funny.
  2. Act like you are stifling a laugh, trying not to crack up, with appropriate mouth and facial expressions. Hold your breath.
  3. Snicker. Chuckle. Laugh.
  4. Now, retroactively figure out what was funny about it...
  5. Or how that could be funny or funnier.
  6. Laugh again.

Cultivate your personal sense of humor. Observe what you makes you laugh, and the things that you do that make others laugh. Take time to remember things that have made you laugh in the past.

Think: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha?

Next: How to Think Like a Fool #53: Change Your Perspective

Previous "How to Think Like a Fool" Posts

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #51: Misunderstand

OBSERVE: Misunderstand
By misunderstanding, I specifically mean the act of forgetting to stand underneath someone when they were supposed to be standing on your shoulders. What did you think I meant??

"It is by universal misunderstanding that all agree. For if, by ill luck, people understood each other, they would never agree."
"The world only goes round by misunderstanding."
—Charles Baudelaire

You've been spying on the world, collecting data. Now what do you do with that information? How do you use it to solve a problem foolishly, creatively, joyfully?

You misunderstand.

Farces and other comedies begin with misunderstandings. (So do some tragedies—Oedipus marries a woman who is his mother—comic gold). One misunderstanding upsets the balance, leading to more misunderstandings and conflicts that tumble into controlled chaos. Which is often what happens in the mind of an innovator, until balance is reached again with a realized idea.

Fools misunderstand on purpose. They transform meaning, similar to when they transform objects or change identity. By doing so, they manipulate their perceptions of the world, and formerly impenetrable insights become available. It's a bumpy ride, but it's the only way to get there.

One of the easiest ways to misunderstand is to take something literally. When Harpo hears a gambler say cut the cards, Harpo pulls out a hatchet and cuts the deck in two.

Think: What does this mean? How can I misunderstand this? What else could it mean? How can I take it literally?

Next: How to Think Like a Fool #52: Look for Laughs

Previous "How to Think Like a Fool" Posts

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #50: Spy on the World

OBSERVE: Spy on the World
"'What kind of man are you?' he asked. 'I am a clown,' I said, 'and I collect moments'"—from The Clown by Heinrich Böll

I sit out on the front porch, apparently working on the computer, but really, I'm a spy. Most people don't even notice me as they pass by, but I watch them and overhear their conversations. They have such interesting, individual ways of walking. With a little exaggeration, they could be like living Commedia or cartoon characters. I imagine myself walking like them and what ways that would change how I feel and how I see the world. I am collecting moments, filing away details that I may never use, until the right problem comes along to apply my findings.

To think like a fool, fools need foolish things to think about. Fools take time to observe the world, and because they risk, imagine, play, and pretend, fools become spies, with the world as their focus. Instead of spying on the enemy, they spy on everything.

Playing at spy or private detective has also been the subject of many a comic film performance, including Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr., Chico and Harpo in Duck Soup, and Laurel and Hardy in Do Detectives Think? (among others).

Whether you use the image of a spy, or a fly on the wall, or a detective looking for stray clues, or an alien from another planet gathering information, the idea is to stand back unobtrusively, take your time, and pull in as much as you can with heightened awareness.

Use multiple senses, combining them without judgement. You can analyze later. Engage your senses in unorthodox ways—touch with your elbow, for example—just don't get caught. Experience things as if for the first time. Learn to be a wallflower. Blend in, become invisible. If you are really brave, follow people and subtly mimic them without being noticed. Just don't blame me if you get beat up.

Think: How will I spy on the world? What do I see, hear, feel, taste, smell? What's noticeable? Remarkable?

Next: How to Think Like a Fool #51: Misunderstand

Previous "How to Think Like a Fool" Posts

Saturday, August 1, 2009

How to Think Like a Fool #49: Play Yourself

PRETEND: Play Yourself
"Clown characters are not created, they are uncovered."—??
The foolish take on the concept of pretending (and the last entry in this category), is that fools pretend to be themselves. By doing so, fools take on the most difficult of roles, because there's no bigger fool than oneself.

The great clowns of silent cinema, like Chaplin or Keaton, go beyond the idea of an actor playing a character, as if they have tapped into the essence of their personalities to project a partially transparent persona—what the movement and theatre teacher Jacques Lecoq called one's personal clown: our ridiculous side that we so often try to hide.

Which of your selves do you choose? Observe yourself in all your imperfections—it may be part how others see you or just how you see yourself. Pick a mannerism, habit, idiosyncratic thought, or personality trait. Exaggerate it. Make a caricature of yourself in action. Become the cartoon version of you.

Self mockery leads to self discovery. This heightened awareness gives you the ability to step away from those parts of you that are unessential and accept what doesn't need to be changed. By embracing the parts you may normally hide, you often find they are just what was needed to solve a problem. You are already creative. It was you all along.

Think: Who am I? If I were to play myself in my life story, how would I act? If someone just like me were to solve this problem, how would I do it?

Next: How to Think Like a Fool #50: OBSERVE: Spy on the World

Previous "How to Think Like a Fool" Posts