Obvious vs. Clever Thinking

My kids’ faces often light up with wonder. They’ve made me realize adults are doing something wrong. We must reprogram ourselves.

The fix, says improv god Keith Johnstone: focus on the obvious instead of the clever. This changed me, and I think it will change you too. Here’s Johnstone:

“I began to think of children not as immature adults, but of adults as atrophied children… “I decided just before my ninth birthday not to believe anything the grown ups said. The next day, I decided to always see if the opposite could be true. I think it changed my life, I’ve been doing it ever since. It taught me to be looking for the obvious and not the clever. The obvious is really your true self. The clever is an imitation of somebody else”

Clever thinking is outside-in: thinking and acting based on external conditioning or expectations. WHAT WILL THEY THINK?

Obvious thinking is inside-out: instinctual, common sense, no-one-is-watching thinking. WHAT DO I THINK?

“What would you do if you had $100MM.” This common question gets you thinking about your obvious path. But we screw up. Clever thinking dominates. (You can spot a cleverest people easily: they use fancy, complicated language)

When you start looking, you realize that there are many things we say or do that you’ve never questioned. We’ve been conditioned. We say “bless you” after people sneeze, and we thank people for saying “bless you.” Origin stores vary… one says a sneeze was a way of ejecting evil spirits. One, that YOUR spirit might fly out during a sneeze. All explanations are nuts. But even knowing that, try to stop saying it! That difficulty you’ll find reveals how powerful “outside-in” thinking/behavior can be. You may think, that’s just a harmless custom. Ba-humbug! It allows you to realize how easy it is to be a customary thinker in other areas.

Successful improv is about removing these conformity filters and exploding from the inside out. Society watches and judges, so we self-program little judges into our intellect. The judges start watching our ideas, sorting out the insane.

Society favors the norm, the known. Heroes are heroes because they’ve survived trips to a forbidden land, the unknown. The hero’s gift is often permission to be insane, or different. Or just yourself. Their gift comes in the form of the examples they set.

Permission is one thing, action another. So here are two ways to be more obvious: 1) listening, and 2) “Fire. Ready. Aim.”

Listening to yourself is hard to do, because often the obvious is “strange,” or outright forbidden. And because we are distracted. The obvious thing’s voice is often buried under layers of convention, so you can’t hear it. Imagine a typical conversation. Most conversations are about 1) collecting information and/or 2) influencing.  We hear a fraction of what’s said. If we weren’t so distracted, we’d be better conversationalists. Because listening is so important, here is my conversation w/ the best listener I’ve ever met. You can use his method of listening to listen to others and to yourself.

Second, try this method: Fire, Ready, Aim. Historian Jacob Bronowski  said, “We have to understand that the world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation.The hand is more important than the eye” I find that carpenters are often more interesting than professors.

When you start in the traditional way, with “Ready,” you are designing. You are trying to control the future.

“It’s this decision not to try and control the future which allows the students to be spontaneous.”

If “Ready” is about the future, “Fire” is about the present. When you start with “fire,” you are getting in there and seeing what works. This leads to what we think of as failures, But they aren’t failures! To even think that failure is possible is to miss the point. Failure doesn’t exist if you don’t let it.

Fear is about failure. “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.” It is dangerous to conceal fear, but we are taught to do so! @cshapiro told me, “don’t shine the turd.” Don’t be controlled by fear. Let fear pass over you. Fear is about the future, but beware the past too. Bragging is about the past. I struggle with this.

“When we tell people nice things about ourselves, it is usually a little like kicking them.”

In the Foundation series, Asimov said, “past glories are poor feeding.” Can you imagine five more true or useful words? So cleverness is about the past and future. Obviousness is very much about the present. It is of-the-moment. The present is wondrous. We don’t live there often enough. The past and future are “important.” We spend too much time there.

By trying to be clever you become boring. By listening to and sticking to the obvious, you become interesting. So ditch cleverness, seek out the obvious. Listen. Get in there and tinker. Fire first. Remember, this is how evolution works… It tinkers (mutation, etc.), it “listens” to what works without preconceived notions, and then it amplifies. We should do the same.

At dusk, my three-year-old son said to me “when you turn on the lights it gets darker.” “Huh?” “when you turn on the lights it gets darker outside. Turn off the lights so we can see more trees.” I think we really are atrophied children!


Reading list: Impro by Keith Johnstone, Self-Reliance by Emerson, Finite and Infinite Games by Carse, Sapiens by Harari, What Do You Care What Other People Think by Feynman. But especially Impro. It might change your life. More each month in the book club.