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A Whack on the Side of the Head

Author: Roger von Oech
Copyright: ©1983,1992
Publishers: Creative Think, Menlo Park, CA
Book Review by: Cathy Bernatt

A Whack on the Side of the Head

In our day to day lives, we seldom have a need to think outside the box. We tend to do more of the same thing day in and day out. When situations arise where we need to think outside the box or draw on our creativity, many people cannot do so. The reason why according to Roger von Oech is due to mental locks. "The hallmark of creative people is their mental flexibility. They are able to shift in and out of different types of thinking depending on the needs of the situation at hand. Sometimes, they're open and probing, at others, they're playful and off-the-wall. At still others, they're critical and fault-finding. And finally, they're doggedly persistent in striving to reach their goals." (von Oech, p. 167) These four types of thinking translate into four roles, the explorer, the artist, the judge, and the warrior. The Whack Pack, a deck of cards that comes with the book, can be used as an oracle. Ask a question and choose one card from each role, then let your mind travel down different roads. In his book, A Whack on the Side of the Head, von Oech describes ten mental locks and focuses on strategies of how break these locks and free our creative souls. A quote by Neil Postman captures the problem von Oech is trying to solve: "Children enter school as question marks and leave as periods." We need to recapture the magic power of the question!

Summary of major themes/concepts/ideas & Interpretation:
The ten mental locks are: { 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}

I will summarize the gist of each and what von Oech recommends we do to break the locks.

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Throughout our traditional education system, we are rewarded for "the right answer."

In mathematics and the sciences, the right answer is clear and there is usually only one. But in liberal arts subjects and most of the rest of life, there are many possible answers to questions depending on many factors. There is a Harry Chapin song called "Flowers are Red" which captures the danger of this mental lock in killing our creative spirit. It is the story of a little boy is painting flowers all colours of the rainbow in art class when his teacher scolds him, telling him that "...flowers are red young man and green leaves are green. There's no need to see flowers any other way than the way they always have been seen." After being punished, the little boy "learns" the right or acceptable way to paint flowers. He goes to another school where the art teacher does not suffer from "the right answer" mental lock-she sees all colours of the rainbow and encourages the boy to express his true spirit. But for the little boy it is too late. He can only paint flowers red. The key von Oech tells us is to not look at life as a series of problems that need to be solved but rather as opportunities. Ask "what if...". In this way second, third, tenth possible right answers may appear. Or change the question. "Different words bring in different assumptions and lead your thinking in different directions." (von Oech, p. 30)

When we are stuck in the "That's Not Logical" mental lock, the most unfortunate consequence von Oech tells us is that we may fail to be open to the intuitive hunch. Oech defines two types of thinking, soft thinking and hard thinking. Soft thinking is like a floodlight, searching for similarities and connections in things, whereas, hard thinking is like a spotlight, looking for differences in things. In the creative process, when gathering ideas, there are two phases that should operate at different times in the process: the imaginative phase which uses soft thinking and the practical phase which applies hard thinking. In the imaginative phase we "think something different" and in the practical phase our focus is on "getting something done". (von Oech, p. 38) The best soft tool to fight off logical thinking if using metaphors to describe problems or concepts. He leaves us with an exercise to write our own metaphors for life.

"It's difficult to be innovative if you're following blind assumptions." (von Oech, p. 57) To be innovative and overcome the mental lock of "Follow the Rules", we need to play devil's advocate and not get caught in what von Oech terms the "Aslan Phenomenon". This is the phenomenon whereby we continue to follow rules long after they have any value-changes have taken place but we don't reexamine the rules and change them to flow with new information, development and so on. "... creative thinking involves not only generating new ideas, but escaping from obsolete ones as well." ." (von Oech, p. 61)

Picasso said that, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist after growing up." (von Oech, p. 81). We are told from the time we enter school and sometimes much earlier to be practical, stop daydreaming...,A dangerous habit is to shoot down others ideas, to find flaws immediately. In doing so, we kill the opportunity for newness, for the creative and innovative to emerge. We need to fight our "negative" framework and listen to ideas with an open mind searching and exploring all the positive ramifications first. There is a time for the practical, hard thinking mind of the judge to enter when we are ready to talk about the reality of "what is". Until such time, however we need to do as much "what-iffing" as we did so freely as children. The provocative answers to "what-iffing" can give us stepping stones to new ideas. A great suggestion von Oech makes is that at the same time we veto or shoot down someone else's idea, we must come up with an alternative idea that both people like. This puts a constructive, positive spin on the judge and requires us each to stretch our minds outside the box and remain open.

Creativity requires incubation. Framing a problem as a question is like planting a seed. Once the seed is planted, we need to step back and give the seed a chance to begin growing, spread out its root system. How can we best do this? Play, play, play. Do anything you want but don't focus on the problem. Answers will come in the strangest places, at the oddest times. Companies that live a mission that promotes creativity often give their employees freedom to play, knowing it is the results of playtime where great ideas often emerge. They are not stuck in the mental lock that "Play is Frivolous".

Tunnel vision or living in the world with the attitude, "That's Not My Area" is a recipe for stuckness and zero creativity. Journeying off the beaten path, creating project teams with members from diverse disciplines, having lunch with someone in a world totally different from your own are all ways to attack this mental lock. Keep a notebook close at all times to write down ideas which come whenever, whereever.

"There is a close relationship between the "haha" of humor and the "aha" of discovery." (von Oech, p. 119) So be foolish von Oech recommends. Be stupid, reverse your perspective on things, learn to laugh at yourself. Although playing the fool may not solve problems, it gets us out of ruts and we often learn important things if we break out of the "Don't Be Foolish" mental lock.

When the judge is at work, clarity is most often desirable, ambiguity least so. This mental lock is "Avoiding Ambiguity". However, when the artist is at work, ambiguity is another method for helping us to access our creative, imaginative spirit. The oracle is a tool many cultures have to help "...make sense of ambiguous situations". The Whack Pack, a deck of cards can act as an oracle. To use it we need three things: 1. A questions to ask the oracle 2. A way to generate a random piece of information 3. An attitude that interprets the resulting random piece of information as the answer to the question. (von Oech, p. 138-139) Another tool we can use is to listen to our dreams. Often inside our dreams are answers to problems.

"To Err is Wrong" is wrong when it comes to developing our creative ability. Making mistakes is a critical part of learning. Edison knew 1800 ways not to make a lightbulb.

Taking risks requires exercising our "risk muscle" so that we stay flexible and minimize our fear. As Suzanne Jeffers says, feel the fear and do it anyways. Stepping outside our comfort zone and risking being wrong is where the greatest of ideas emerge.

The self-fulfilling prophecy has much power. If we are mentally locked into thinking, "I'm Not Creative", chances are high, we won't be. Unlocking the last mental lock requires believing in your ideas and then using the tools suggested in overcoming the other nine mental locks to being creative.

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