A friend recommended a great book for getting your creative juices flowing – A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative, by Roger von Oech. It was originally published back in 1983, but I got my hands on a copy from the Ottawa library that was updated in 1998.

The first thing von Oech does is describe what creative thinking is and how it can be helpful. The keys are changing your perspective and playing with the knowledge that you already possess. He provides several exercises that give the reader an interactive experience and a chance to think creatively about different situations. His key focus is the following quote from Nobel prize winning physician Albert Szent-Gyorgyi:

Discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different.

The book then goes on to identify ten mental locks (attitudes that lock our thinking into the status quo and prevent us from being more creative) and talks about how it can sometimes take a “whack on the side of the head” to shake us up and force us to re-think our situation. These “whacks” can take the form of a problem or failure, a surprise or unexpected situation, or even just a joke or paradox you encounter. These ideas or situations can force you to abandon your usual thought patterns and explore alternative solutions. And they could be the best thing that ever happened to you!

Even if you don’t have your own “whack on the side of the head”, simply being aware of the mental locks von Oech describes can help you to overcome them in your efforts to think more creatively. I’ve summarized them here:

  1. The Right Answer: Our formal education tends to bind us into thinking that there can only be one right answer. The key here is to not stop after one right answer but to continue to brainstorm and look for other possible solutions (one might be even better than the first!). As French philosopher Emilé Chartier opined, “Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one we have.”
  2. That’s Not Logical: Here, von Oech separates thinking into two types, “Soft” and “Hard”. Soft thinking involves imagination and hard thinking involves logic and practicality. He emphasizes the need to explore both types of thinking when dealing with a problem and to use metaphors to help you generate new ways of looking at a thing or situation.
  3. Follow the Rules: This chapter explores the human desire to recognize patterns and form rules, some of which can become obsolete over time as the situation that created them changes. It is important to recognize when certain rules can be challenged and a restrictive pattern can be broken. Von Oech uses the excellent example of the QWERTY typing system. The keyboard layout that we use today was originally designed because typewriter keys tended to stick together if users typed too quickly. A typewriter manufacturer back in the 1870’s designed the QWERTY layout because it is one of the most inefficient layouts possible, placing frequently used letters like “O” and “I” (the third and sixth most used letters in the English language, respectively) where weaker fingers have to press them, effectively slowing down our typing speed. Now that we type using computers that can process much faster than any human would be capable of typing, that doesn’t really seem like a rule we need to be following any more, does it?
  4. Be Practical: We must all encourage our inner artist to come up with ideas and explore our imaginations without being hampered by our inner judge. To do this, you can cultivate your imagination by playing “what if” games where you can generate unique and impractical ideas without fear of judgement. Sometimes, these ideas can be stepping stones to building real solutions, and that’s where the judge comes into play.
  5. Play is Frivolous: Von Oech identifies that while some people get good ideas out of necessity, many people find that their best ideas come to them while they are in a free-thinking, positive state – that is, while playing. Take time to let a problem or question sit (or incubate) in your unconscious and generate ideas. “Learn to pause,” says poet Doug King, “or nothing worthwhile will catch up to you.”
  6. That’s Not My Area: The importance of “cross-fertilization” between specialty areas is clearly outlined in this chapter, which highlights the dangers of becoming too focused on boundaries. Von Oech encourages his readers to actively explore other areas to search for new knowledge and new ways of thinking.
  7. Don’t be Foolish: Here, we are reminded of the human need to conform and go along with the crowd. Unfortunately, this survival skill can lead to groupthink, where “group members are more interested in getting the approval of the others rather than trying to come up with creative solutions to the problems at hand.” The solution here is to not be afraid to be foolish, to laugh at a problem in order to loosen up and encourage creativity, and to reexamine your most basic assumptions.
  8. Avoid Ambiguity: Although ambiguity is frowned upon in society as the cause of a lot of miscommunication, it can actually stimulate creative thinking. As American General George S. Patton said, “If you tell people where to go, but not how to get there, you’ll be amazed at the results.” Von Oech encourages his readers to consult Oracles (or ambiguous random pieces of information, such as a word chosen randomly from a dictionary, or a dream you might have had). This interpretation of an ambiguous “sign” allows you to delve deeper into your own intuition to help you solve a problem.
  9. To Err is Wrong: Again, Von Oech is critical of our formal education for instilling in us the idea that to be wrong is bad. “Most people consider success and failure as opposites,” he says, “but they are actually both products of the same process.” This fear of failure can lead many people live a restricted life where they refuse to try new things. Innovation requires trial and error and it is important to recognize that success and failure both have their positives and negatives. Use failures as stepping stones to new and better ideas. As author James Joyce wrote, “A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.”
  10. I’m Not Creative: In the last chapter, the author describes a dangerous self-fulfilling prophesy – thinking you’re not creative means that you won’t be creative. Successful people, Von Oech says, take responsibility for their own performances and visualize themselves being successful. They don’t spend time generating excuses or reasons for losing. Thoughts play a big role in the actions you will take in your life.

This exploration of the ten mental locks preventing creative thinking takes up about three-quarters of Roger von Oech’s book. The last quarter emphasizes the importance of implementing your creative ideas by shoring up courage and support, dealing with excuses, slaying your “dragons” or fears, continuously trying new things and taking risks, having something at stake and being dissatisfied with the current situation, anticipating negative reactions and how you will deal with them, selling your ideas to others, setting a deadline for yourself and being persistent. Von Oech then goes on to explore his interpretation of thirty enigmatic epigrams from Heraclitus of Ephesus, an ancient Greek philosopher who inspires the author in his search for creative ideas.

Overall, I think A Whack on the Side of the Head is an excellent book to read if you’re interested in learning more about creative thinking and how you can open your mind to new and exciting ideas. Although this edition was published twelve years ago (and the original twenty-seven years ago), the ideas and solutions presented are timeless. My only critique would be about the ink drawings found throughout the book. Some of them are quite disturbing and distracting (such as a disembodied head on a rocking chair meant to symbolize pausing to let an idea percolate), although maybe that was the point. Either way, a great read!