It seems like yesterday that I picked up a book on creativity and said, “Wow! I wish I’d written this book.” It was fun, practical and wise. Actually however, it was twenty-five years ago and the book was Roger von Oech’s, A Whack on the Side of the Head. The fact that it has sold a zillion copies in 17 languages and spawned the extremely popular “Creative Whack Pack” card deck only added to my writer’s envy. However, after meeting Roger in online chat rooms and later in person, I’m convinced that no one but Roger could have written this book … his mind is a labyrinth of curiosity and questions and he has deeply explored subjects that I had never heard of until I met Roger … one tongue-tangling example … rhombic triacontahedrons... something Roger calls “geometry’s most beautiful shape” and forms the basis of his new “Ball of Whacks,” a three-dimensional, magnetic creativity stimulator that fascinates people of all ages.
As you read Roger’s book, you’ll find examples and stories unlike any other business or management book you’re likely to pick up. Where else would you read that if you’d lived 5,000 years ago you would have had a different North Star? When Paul Williams of http://idea-sandbox.com asked me to participate in the virtual tour for the 25th Anniversary Edition of Roger’s book, I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask Roger some questions that had been lurking in the back of my mind.
Q: Roger, think back to before your book was written. There were very few books on creativity, much less on the practical application of creativity. And none of the existing books had achieved any level of general popularity. What were you thinking? Why did you write the book and what were your expectations for it?
A. Back then, most "creativity" books were fairly boring. I felt that a book about creativity should be fun, informative, and interactive. That's what motivated me to write "Whack." When I began writing it in 1981-82, I had already been doing creative seminars with corporate America for five years. Thus, I had a pretty good sense of what ideas would resonate in a book. In addition, I picked up a lot of stories and examples from seminar participants. These helped to give the book additional vitality.
"Whack" was originally self-published (the big publishers turned it down). After it sold 30,000 copies in about four months, I was able to do a deal with Warner Books. They did a first printing of 110,000 copies and sent me on a 27-city book tour in 1983. It's been a consistent seller ever since. I'm particularly excited about this new 25th Anniversary Edition. I hope it reaches a new generation of creative thinkers!
Q: When did your interest in creativity and the principles of creativity begin? Is there a particular event or person in your life that fostered that interest?
A. Ever since I was little, I've been interested in ideas and how people get them. I'd have to thank my parents for giving me support and encouragement when I'd try some "odd-ball" project. That helped give me the self-confidence that every creative person needs. Having a creative teacher every couple of years or so also helped.
Q: You’ve said one way your thinking has changed over the past twenty-five years is your increased appreciation for constraints and limits in stimulating creativity. I’ve found this to be one of the hardest areas for people to deal with and they often push back with the cliché, “Think outside the box.” How do you get people to focus on constraints and limits in a way that stimulates creativity rather than shutting it down?
A. I think anyone can write "free-verse" poetry. But to write a 14-line sonnet with its rhyming rules really forces one to look more deeply for ideas. Similarly, new products with no "real-world" constraints probably aren't going to go very far. A new idea or product has to conform in some ways to existing manufacturing or distribution protocols. These constraints force the innovator to think and look more deeply for opportunities.
Here's an example from an outside area. The other night I watched Roman Polanski's 1962 film, "Knife in the Water." One of the DVD's special features had an interview with Polanski and his screenwriter. They both said that by forcing themselves to stick with Aristotle's "three unities for a good tragedy" (all action takes places within 24 hours; all action occurs in the same place; limited number of characters), they had to think more deeply about plot and character rather than taking cheap cinematic shortcuts. They felt these limits helped to produce a better film. I agree with them.
Q: There are lots of techniques and tools for stimulating creativity these days but most people find a few that are most powerful for them. When you start a new project or want to really open up your creativity, what tool or technique do you find yourself using over and over again?
A: I use this simple strategy: "Look for the second right answer." That's become my mantra over the years. This technique allows me to play with a problem or idea until I find something I'm really passionate about.
Another strategy I try to follow is: "Don't fall in love with ideas." I find that when I'm working on a project (writing a book, designing a product, etc.) and if I'm "in love with" a particular part of it, that's a sure sign I'm not looking for alternatives. "Kissing" ideas "goodbye" is a great technique to open up your thinking. As Mark Twain put it, "One of life's most over-valued pleasures is sexual intercourse, and one of life's least appreciated pleasures is defecation." There's a real joy to "letting go," and this certainly applies to ideas.
Q: You’ve expressed a continued fascination with the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, even to the point of writing a book about him (“Expect the Unexpected”). If Heraclitus were with us today and thinking about all of our challenges such as global warming, international conflict, and financial imbalances, what would he say?
A: He'd say something along the lines of: "Stop whining. Don't be so arrogant to think that your problems are unique. There will always be conflict. The universe runs on conflict. Human beings have always been faced challenges and they always will be. Use these challenges to come up with some new approaches."
Q: What’s next for Roger?
A: I'm currently in the midst of designing a followup product to the "Ball of Whacks." It's close to being finished. I'm working with my Chinese manufacturer on the tooling right now. It's been a kick to enter into a whole new business (creative mind manipulative tools; http://creativewhack.com ). I've learned a lot more about manufacturing, dealing with the USPTO, distribution, etc. It's been quite a learning experience. Plus, the Ball of Whacks has helped me reach a whole new audience.
I'm still doing some speaking and seminars as well. When you post this, I'll be in London working with a client. That's one of the neat things about my work: it allows me to meet a lot of interesting people around the world.
Thanks Joyce for the opportunity to share a few of my ideas with you. Best wishes to you and your many readers!
Roger von Oech