A Whack on the Side of the Head

Quiz: Five figures are shown below. Select the one that is different from all the others:

Quiz Question from the book 'A Whack on the Side of the Head'

We’ll look at the answer in a moment. A few months ago, I read a book entitled “A Whack on the Side of the Head.” Sounds painful? Actually it was one of the most enjoyable books I have ever read. The book discusses creativity and how important it is for us to be creative in everything we do. Unfortunately, we often get stuck in a train of thought and nothing save a mental “whack” on the side of the head will get us thinking those juicy, creative thoughts again. What can provide such a “whack”? Anything that jolts your thinking. A surprise. A paradigm shift. A paradox. Even a joke:

What is Beethoven doing right now? Decomposing.

The book’s author, Roger von Oech, argues that we get stuck in patterns of thought that choke off our creativity. Too often, we tell ourselves: be practical, avoid ambiguity, play is frivolous, be logical, to err is wrong, don’t be foolish, follow the rules, etc. While these suggestions may help us in some aspects of life, they quickly squelch our creativity.

How did you do on the quiz question above? States von Oech, “If you chose figure B, congratulations! You’ve picked the right answer. Figure B is the only one that has all straight lines. Give yourself a pat on the back!” I chose answer A. I was certain that I was right. Von Oech continues: “Some of you, however, may have chosen figure C because it’s the only one that is asymmetrical. And you’re also right! C is the right answer. A case can also be made for figure A: it’s the only one with no points. Therefore, A is the right answer. What about D? It is the only one that has both a straight line and a curved line. So, D is the right answer too. And E? Among other things, E is the only one that looks like a projection of a non-Euclidean triangle into Euclidean space. It is also the right answer. In other words, they are all right depending on your point of view.”

So I ask myself, why do we pick an answer and assume it is the only right one? Think about it… we go through 12 years of school where we are taught factoids about the world. We take hundreds of exams, all teaching us that there is one correct answer to each problem. The fact is that in the real world this just isn’t true. There are thousands of ways to increase profits in a company. I could be happy and successful in a variety of careers. There are many causes of global warming, both natural and unnatural. Indeed, believing in only one correct answer can be debilitating. As Karl Albrecht points out, if we are forever getting down to exclusively brass tacks, then we shall never have the opportunity to consider steel tacks, copper tacks, plastic tacks, sailing tacks, income tax, syntax, or contacts!

Another thing I learned was the importance of play. Do you every wonder why we get our best ideas in the shower? We do our best thinking when we aren’t thinking about thinking!

In this light, von Oech recommends finding some way to empty your mind, like playing with a small object. Taking his suggestion, I got some cardboard and built a dodecahedron to play with. It is more fun than I could have ever imagined.

To learn more about A Whack on the Side of the Head, check out the book on Amazon.