Learning from Houdini – Part 2

milk can escape

Harry Houdini was a genius at using limitations to his advantage.
One of his most daring escapes, from inside a locked metal container filled with milk,
was actually safer inside the can than outside. Inside, Harry had good visibility and enough oxygen to pick his handcuffs and unlatch the lid. Not that you or I could do it, mind you, but Harry realized that escaping from within a locked can was safer and more reliable than being, say, strapped to the outside of the can or other heavy object and being thrown into a lake (although he did that, too). Always the consummate showman, Harry looked for challenges that were the most reasonable risk that still yielded drama and a rapt audience. If you want to be an amazing problem solver, start by taking a few more calculated risks. Then you’re ready to expand your perspective and move past limiting beliefs like the following:

6. That’s Not My Job!

In an era of hyper-specialization, it’s those who happily explore completely unrelated areas of life and knowledge who best see that everything is related. This goes back to what ad man Carl Ally said about creative persons—they want to be know-it-alls.

Sure, you’ve got to know the specialized stuff in your field, but if you view yourself as an explorer rather than a highly-specialized cog in the machine, you’ll run circles around the technical masters in your field and find lasting success.

7. I’m a “Serious” Person

Most of what keeps us civilized boils down to conformity, consistency, shared values, and yes, thinking about things the same way everyone else does. There’s nothing wrong with that necessarily, but if you can accept that it’s actually nothing more than “groupthink” that seeks to smooth the hard edges of society, you can then give yourself permission to turn everything that is currently accepted upside down and shake out the illusions. Only then will you consistently think and express yourself as a passionate, unique individual.

Leaders from Egyptian pharaohs to Chinese emperors and European royalty have consulted with fools, or court jesters, when faced with tough problems. The persona of the fool allowed the truth to be told without the usual ramifications that might come with speaking blasphemy or challenging ingrained social conventions. Give yourself permission to be a fool and see things as they really are. A related approach is to play the role of “devil’s advocate” and entertain the view that runs counter to conventional thinking. The greatest inventors, leaders and ceos in history have all run afoul of popular opinion at critical times in order to create something truly groundbreaking.

8. Ambiguity Is Annoying!

We rationally realize that most every situation is ambiguous to some degree. And although dividing complex situations into black and white boxes can lead to disaster, we still do it. It’s an innate characteristic of human psychology to desire certainty (or at least the illusion of certainty) but it’s the creative thinker who rejects the false comfort of clarity when it’s not appropriate or conducive to expansive thinking.

If you’re looking to innovate, then ambiguity is your best friend. The fact that most people are uncomfortable exploring uncertainty gives you an advantage, as long as you can embrace ambiguity rather than run from it.

9. Being Wrong Is Bad

We hate being wrong, and yet mistakes often teach us the most. Thomas Edison was wrong 1,800 times before getting the light bulb right. Steve Jobs had as many flaming product and entrepreneurial failures (remember the Apple “Cube” or the firm “Next”?) as he did soaring successes. The greatest strength of both men was that they were not afraid to be wrong and valued the information gleaned with every misstep.

The best thing we can do is learn from our mistakes, but we have to free ourselves to make mistakes in the first place. Just try out your ideas and see what happens, take what you learn, and try something else. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen if I’m wrong?”
Rarely are the consequences earth shattering or life threatening.

10. I’m Not Creative

Denying your own creativity is like denying that you’re a human being. We’re all limitlessly creative, but only to the extent that we realize that we create our own limits with the way we think. If you tell yourself you’re not creative, in time it becomes true.

In that sense, awakening your own creativity is similar to the path reported by those who seek spiritual enlightenment. You’re already enlightened, just like you’re already creative, but you have to strip away all of your delusions before you can see it. Acknowledge that you’re inherently creative, and then start tearing down the other barriers you’ve allowed to be created in your mind.

This post was inspired by Roger von Oech’s A Whack on the Side of the Head, which is a great primer for battling mental blocks. Thanks also to Brian Clark, founder of Copyblogger, for the bones of this article.

Learning from Houdini – Part 1

Houdini Eyes copy

Think inside and outside the box, like Harry Houdini did.

Quick, name the top five magicians of the early 20th century! Ok, how about one? Yep, Harry Houdini is still one of the most recognizable names in magic, more than 80 years after his death on Halloween, 1926. Harry is still famous because he was not only an unapologetic self-promoter but also a daringly original performer. While most of us struggle to be creative and think “outside the box”, Harry often found inspiration in constraints. Harry loved limitations of all kinds – handcuffs, chains, ropes, packing crates, straitjackets,  you name it. He escaped from all of them and created a new form of entertainment called “escapology”.
Instead of fighting limitations, welcome them. Constraints in time, resources, even limited views of the world can increase your focus and allow you to work within yourself. Which is not to say that expanding your mind and world view are to be avoided. Quite the contrary. But by first tackling  a narrow, definable task with a specific goal, you build confidence and momentum that can be applied to tackling those larger, sprawling challenges. That said, be aware of the limiting assumptions and self-talk that can derail your problem solving and resolve to move beyond them:

1. Trying To Find The “Right” Answer

One of the worst aspects of formal education is the focus on the correct answer to a particular question or problem. While this approach helps us function in society, it hurts creative thinking because real-life issues are ambiguous. There’s often more than one “correct” answer, and the second one (or eighth one) you come up with may well be better than your first.

Many of the following mental blocks can be turned around to reveal ways to find more than one answer to any given problem. Try reframing the issue in several different ways in order to prompt different answers, and embrace answering inherently ambiguous questions in several different ways.

2. Logical Thinking

Not only is real life ambiguous, it’s often illogical to the point of madness. While critical thinking skills based on logic are one of our main strengths in evaluating the feasibility of a creative idea, it’s often the enemy of truly innovative thoughts.

One of the best ways to escape the constraints of your own logical mind is to think metaphorically. One of the reasons why metaphors work so well in communications is that we accept them as true without thinking about it. When you realize that “truth” is often symbolic, you’ll often find that you are actually free to come up with alternatives. As Neil Young sang, “Love is a rose, so you better not pick it. It only grows when it’s on the vine.”

3. Following Rules

One way to view creative thinking is to look at it as a destructive force. You’re tearing away the often arbitrary rules that others have set for you, and asking either “why” or “why not” whenever you’re confronted with the way “everyone else” does things.

This is easier said than done, since people will often defend the rules they follow even in the face of evidence that the rule doesn’t work. People love to celebrate rebels like Richard Branson, but few seem brave enough to emulate him. Quit worshipping rule breakers and start breaking some rules for yourself.

4. Being Practical

Like logic, practicality is hugely important when it comes to execution, but it often stifles innovative ideas before they can properly blossom. Don’t allow “the editor” part of your personality into the same room with your open, free, inner artist.

Try not to evaluate the actual feasibility of an approach until you’ve allowed it to exist on its own for a bit. Spend time asking “what if” as often as possible, and simply allow your imagination to go where it wants. You might just find yourself discovering a crazy idea that’s so insanely practical that no one has thought of it before.

5. Play Is NOT Work

Allowing your mind to be at play is perhaps the most effective way to stimulate creative thinking, and yet many people disassociate play from work. These days, the people who can come up with great ideas and solutions are the most economically rewarded, while worker bees are often employed for the benefit of the creative thinkers.

You’ve heard the expression “work hard and play hard.” All you have to realize is that they’re the same thing to a creative thinker.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of “Learning from Houdini”…


Melody’s Miracle

Melody Gardot

Can music heal a broken brain? Even save a life?
Ask Melody Gardot. Nearly 10 years ago, as a college student in Philadelphia, she was riding her bike through an intersection, when a Jeep ran a red light. “And the next thing is, I remember I heard this sound, and I thought, ‘Who is that? What is that?’ And I realized that it was me screaming,” Gardot explained. The accident fractured her pelvis, damaged her spine, and Gardot suffered a traumatic brain injury that affected her memory, her speech, and left her hypersensitive to light and sound.
“My mother dropped a dish on the floor one day and the sound made me collapse,” Gardot said.The prognosis at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey was not good. When he first saw her, Dr. Richard Jermyn didn’t think she would recover. “I had hope,” he said. “And as I told Melody at the time, I said ‘Your brain is like a computer. And your computer’s still intact. Your hardware, your memory, it’s there. But you can’t access it.’ That’s what a brain injury does – It takes away your ability to access.”Therapy and drugs had failed. In desperation, Dr. Jermyn suggested Melody try music. As it turns out, she had played piano in college. “It’s a different part of your brain that perceives music,” said Dr. Jermyn, who recalled Gardot returned to him to say, ‘”The music is there.'”

Gardot never gave up. Slowly . . . it would take years . . . music therapy began to rebuild the neural pathways in her brain. From the wreckage of the accident, a musical career was born. When her songs were posted on MySpace in 2006, word spread quickly.

She said when she went onstage, “The first maybe half a dozen times experiencing this, that was the only 30 minutes in my life that I did not feel pain for that moment. And it was addictive.” She still has to wear dark classes because of her sensitivity to light, and carry the cane to counter occasional attacks of vertigo. But she wears her disability with style. During a CBS interview, Gardot wore a white fedora, skin tight black mini skirt, fishnet stockings and stop-you-in-your-tracks stiletto heels.”These are like Corvettes,” she said. “I don’t drive so well. So instead of collecting cars, I collect shoes.”

Not the most practical footwear for a singer who at 28 needs to walk with a cane. Her singular style coupled with that bourbon smooth voice can make you forget Melody Gardot lives with almost constant physical pain. For her part, Melody shrugs it off. “I went to the school of hard knocks. I don’t mess around.”

Melody has produced three albums on Verve Records. Worrisome Heart, 2008, My One and Only Thrill, 2009 and The Absence, 2012. Although Melody isn’t a mega star in the US (yet), her album My One and Only Thrill went double platinum in France.  She’s sold more than 200,000 copies there, and counting. The French call it “Renaissance” – a rebirth. It’s not much of a stretch to say that Melody Gardot has been born again.

Feline Philosophy

Gidget.Gizmo 1
The wisdom of the universe resides in cats. 
It seems that whenever I’m letting stress overwhelm me or I feel the need to control my world, a cat appears. It could be a stray looking for milk, a feline who just adopted one of our neighbors, or the feral kittens that my wife and I discovered living in a crawl space next to our outdoor deck in May, 2010.
Hearing their mewling calls – often frail and pleading, sometimes insistent, shocked me out of my self absorption and once again put life and my place here into perspective. “At this moment,” the universe prodded, “Your role, and that of your wife, Christine, is to protect these little furballs, give them medical treatment, food and love. After that, we’ll see how the story unfolds.”  I sigh, then silently agree. I consider this a small karmic repayment for our wonderful life, one that was made even richer in the 1980s, courtesy of a 14-pound furry Buddha with golden eyes.
The kids in the neighborhood named him Peanut because his long silky coat was the color of peanut butter. A neighbor who owned Peanut decided one day that he was no longer the preferred house pet and cast him into the outdoor world. He didn’t seem to mind, stopping by our house for food, a few strokes of the head and a sunny spot to lie in. A few months later, the realities of a bitter winter and predators set in. Christine and I discovered Peanut limping through 6″ of fresh snow, leaving blood stains with every foot step. At that moment, he became our cat. We quickly discovered that Peanut was not a cat at all. He didn’t meow, loved getting wet and taking rides in the car (straddling my lap as I drove and sticking his nose out the window), and was in fact an old soul brought into our lives to teach us how to live. Peanut lived to the ripe old age of 15 and taught us many lessons, including:

Meditate often – How often do you meet a stressed out cat? Even by cat standards, Peanut was mellow. His lesson: When the stress of the day bears down, get up, stretch, look for a snack, then find a warm spot to close your eyes and think of nothing. This is the essence of successful meditation, being completely present in the present. Relax, slow your breathing and make soft purring sounds.

Conserve your energy – There’s no need to expend valuable energy worrying about “what if.” Store your precious energy and use it when the time is right to take a leap into an exciting new adventure.

Enjoy and appreciate every moment – Peanut was a big John Lennon fan. He would listen to John and the rest of the Beatles for hours on end. When I recited John’s mantras “All you need is love” and “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans,” Peanut would wink approvingly. I could go on and on about our first feline philosopher, but our current house Buddhas, Gidget and Gizmo, whom we rescued from under the deck nearly three years ago, are reminding me that it’s time for dinner…