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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!

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So I heard about this book called The Technique of the Love Affair, first published in 1928 anonymously to protect the identity of its twenty-something author Doris Langley Moore. It’s both a parody of Plato’s Symposium (a dialogue in which ancient philosophers, including Socrates, discuss various topics) and a pragmatic guide to “conduct[ing] – with grace and restraint – successful love affairs”. I had to read it!

It’s actually quite entertaining and, sadly, something that I wish I’d read earlier (it might of saved me a lot of heartache as a love-sick teenager). Although some may argue that the main character, Cypria, treats love affairs (this term for her includes relationships that are strictly flirtatious and platonic as well as love and marriage) with a cold and calculating distance, she’s actually quite astute at pointing out some behavours typical of the male and female genders and how they can work in your favour or, in many cases, result in disaster. Think of it as He’s Just Not That Into You from the perspective of a flapper from the twenties, and yet somehow more empowering than the former could ever be. Yes, despite the encouragement of “traditional” female behaviours (acting dumb and flighty, liking and wanting pretty things, playing hard to get, etc), Cypria serves as a stronger role model for female ingenuity and strength than anything published today. Funny that.

I won’t reveal any of the tips and tricks to landing and keeping a man here, as my husband reads this blog and I don’t want him to suspect when he’s being “played”. But trust me – it’s worth the read!

A few weeks ago I wrote about some books I’d taken out of the library. This is the first “book report” on one of those books. “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – And Why” by Amanda Ripley.

For any of you who like your books non-fiction and thought-provoking, totally check this one out. It is divided into three sections, each elaborating on one of the three stages a human being goes through when reacting to a disaster. As Ripley explains, “in every kind of disaster, we start in about the same place and travel through three phases”. These phases are: denial, deliberation and the decisive moment.

In each of these sections, Ripley provides fascinating glimpses into the experiences of survivors of some of the most dramatic and traumatic disasters in recent memory, as well as explaining the science and psychology behind many of our more puzzling behaviours. From the stairwells of Tower 1 in the World Trade Center to the crush of the hajj crowd in Saudi Arabia to the floor of a classroom at Virgina Tech, each story proves just as interesting as the last.

Interesting too are some of the facts she presents. “After 9/11, many thousands of Americans decided to drive instead of fly…But something terrible happened in the name of common sense. In the two years after 9/11, an estimated 2,302 additional people were likely killed because they drove instead of flew” (p. 34).

But the crux of Ripley’s book is that, with the right knowledge and practice, everyday people can and do survive amid a disaster. For some, it is because of natural advantages they possess in their brain and in their emotional makeup. For others, it can be a simple awareness of how they should react in a life-or-death situation, and why. According to Ripley, authority figures and governments are missing the boat when it comes to disaster-preparedness. Instead of trusting that with the right background information people will make informed decisions and behave properly, governments instead shelter the public from any details they think will scare or panic them. “In fact,” she says, “I think that the mistakes the public makes in calculating risk are primarily due to this pervasive lack of trust on behalf of the people charged with protecting us.”

Ripley is a big proponent of organized drills and practice sessions to engrave a disaster plan into our memories so that when the time comes, we act automatically and without thinking. In the end, though, it is up to us to become informed about the disasters that we may face, from airplane crashes to house fires, and to be aware of how our bodies and our minds may react. Take the story of Tilly Smith, an English schoolgirl who was vacationing with her family in Thailand in 2004. They were on the beach when the tide suddenly rushed out. Fish flopped around on the sand and on the horizon, the water started to bubble strangely as the boats bobbed up and down. While the other tourists stared out in stunned wonder, Tilly rushed to her mother’s side and said “Mummy, we must get off the beach now. I think there is going to be a tsunami.” Her parents began warning other tourists and then alerted the resort staff who evacuated the beach. And so, a ten-year-old girl saved countless lives from the knowledge she had acquired in her geography class a few weeks earlier. “In the end, the beach was one of the few in Phuket where no one was killed or seriously hurt.” (p. 49).

There’s something so exciting about bringing a pile of books home from the library (or from a bookstore, for the less stingy). So full of promise. All that knowledge, adventure or fun just waiting for you to discover. I usually can’t decide which to crack open first. I just want to stay in one spot, curled up with a bottomless cup of tea or hot chocolate and read them the whole way through, one after the other, forsaking all other responsibilities and reality.

Unfortunately, I do have a life to live and a writing class to go to tonight, so that won’t be possible. This is what I’ve brought home today:

1. Organizing for Your Brain Type by Lanna Nakone. I’ve been reading up on organizing styles and methods in anticipation of starting my own personal organizing business and this one puts a different spin on it. The author draws on the science of brain function and her experience as a professional organizer to offer advice on organizing by breaking the reader down into one of four “style” groups that rely on a particular section of the brain: prioritizing (frontal left), innovating (frontal right), maintaining (posterior left) and harmonizing (posterior right).

2. Greener Pastures: How to Find a Job in Another Place by Andrea Kay. Joe and I are considering the possibility of relocating in the next 2-5 years and this book looks like a great way to get acquainted with how to search for work in another part of the country. Although it’s American in origin, I’m hoping most of the lessons will be universal. It also deals with the emotional and financial issues of finding and moving to a job in another place.

3. The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – And Why by Amanda Ripley. The author is a journalist for Time magazine who, after covering a series of devastating disasters, set out to report on human response to history’s epic disasters, interview experts about the brain and its response to trauma and fear, and undergo realistic simulations to see how she herself would respond to a crisis. Call me crazy (or perhaps a pessimist lol), but if or when an Armageddon-like disaster (natural or man-made) happens in my lifetime, I want to be prepared!

Hmm…which to delve into first? My tea’s ready, so I have to choose quickly!

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My name is Sonya. I live with my husband and our cat in the suburbs of Ottawa. I started this journal to document my thoughts and experiences and share them with friends, family and anyone else who happens to pass this way. My hope is that it will help to keep me focused on the simple things I value most in life and, above all, keep me writing.

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