Kick your un-creative butt into high gear

Based solely on the fact that Stefan Sagmeister dropped his name in a sentence to this effect: he helps me get ideas – I picked up “Creativity Workout: 62 Exercises to Unlock Your Most Creative Ideas,” by Edward “master of creative thinking” De Bono. It’s basically a book of exercises to help you generate ideas, whether you’re looking for business solutions or a little kick in the pants in a creative project. All the exercises are based on tables of random words that you select randomly, the idea being that in order to think outside the box you need to approach your problem from the outside as well. De Bono posits that totally unrelated words will shed new light and lead to active ways of thinking and creative solutions.

When I read through his introduction and discovered that this was the concept for the entire book, I was pretty let down. It seemed so hokey, like problem solving tricks your fourth grade teacher might use in class. But no matter how much I cringed at De Bono’s self help speak, I just kept thinking: Sagmeister. Sagmeister does this stuff, so who was I to turn my nose up at it without even trying it out?

So I turned to Exercise 1: Random Input, which De Bono claims “was used by a group of workshops to produce 21,000 ideas in one afternoon, for a steel company.” Okay, first, that’s ridiculous. What’s anyone going to do with 21,000 freaking ideas? Who’s going to sort through that mess? But, okay, deep breath. Putting my natural inclination towards pessimistic thinking aside, I moved onward. Step one is to “clearly define your focus. It is important to be very clear about the focus. If you do not know what you are shooting you are unlikely to hit the target.” So, what problem did I need to solve? Well, I had one week to write a new story for a grad school deadline (I’m studying fiction), so I decided to use Exercise 1 to come up with a story idea, which, as a writer, feels so cheap and disingenuous, but enough hating, Perrin. Let’s just do this thing.

Step two is to pick a random word from the tables in the back of the book. De Bono actually provides methods for choosing random words, but I just close my eyes and jab a finger at the page. I chose: trumpet.

Step three is to use that word to “stimulate new ideas for the defined focus.” Gee, thanks for the direction, Edward! He also provides a note of caution: “There is a need to be disciplined and focused. It is never a matter of messing around and hoping an idea will somehow emerge.”

So, I know this is just a coincidence, me picking the word trumpet, but I do have an uncanny love of the trumpet. It started when I saw Montgomery Clift play the trumpet in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. Not the sad trumpet scene, though that’s a beautiful moment. I’m talking about when he’s in the bar and grabs the trumpet out of the hands of the guy who’s squealing out a few, weak notes beside him, saying “Why don’t you learn how to play the bugle?” Then he holds it tight and plays it loud and mean. He stands, slowly, arcing his back like a cat and handles the instrument possessively, like he would a woman. That’s the moment when I got hooked. It’s seriously incredible. So yeah, okay DeBono, I could definitely get a story out of that.

But, to be fair, I could probably muster up a story out of most of the random words. Not because I’m an amazingly versatile writer, but because storytelling is quite a different matter than say, finding business or design solutions. To see whether DeBono’s methods work for business managers, designers and more technically-minded problem solvers, I asked some, specifically the manager of a national escrow company, a sustainable designer and a race car pit chief. Stay tuned for more Creativity Kicks, in which I explore more dubious sounding exercises like Grouping (using groups of random words), Odd Man Out (one of these random words is not like the others) and Pairing, which involves the ingenious idea of using not one, but two random words – together! Sorry for the snark, De Bono, but I’m not totally sold on you yet.

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