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When you get stuck, do this to get unstuck

Posted in the following categories: Creativity, Problem Solving

“What are these song lyrics from The Who doing in your book about military coups?”

I was tempted to treat this question like a variant of the “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” line. But the person asking it had a good point.

I’m a law professor, and academics don’t quote lyrics from 1970s songs in their work. I’m supposed to write serious, jargon-laden books, bury exciting insights in dense paragraphs, and churn out pages that only a handful of enlightened souls can comprehend.

That’s not the book I wanted to write. I wanted the style, as much as the substance, of this contrarian book to buck conventional wisdom. But that’s only part of the reason why the lyrics from The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” ended up in the book.

Halfway through writing the book, I hit a wall with one chapter that was particularly challenging to draft. I distinctly remember sitting in a coffee shop in Nuremberg, Germany, and moving commas around for a good six hours. I was decidedly in the “Dark Night of the Soul,” the rock bottom of what Maureen McHugh describes as the life of any creative project.

A song then jolted me out of my creative funk. As The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” began to hum on the café stereo, I decided to flip the script. Instead of forcing myself to work through the chapter the old fashioned way–with elbow grease–I decided to have some fun with it. My challenge morphed from “finish this god awful chapter” to “find a way to work these lyrics into it.”

The chore of writing the chapter then became a fun puzzle to solve. My neurons began firing again, and I finished the chapter in record time. I titled it “Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss,” the last two lines from the song, quoted the lyrics as an epigram, and found a way to tie the song into the chapter’s theme.

This strategy of finding the fun in difficult projects may seem self-indulgent. But it’s quite the opposite. It’s the trick to getting unstuck, tackling hard assignments, and overcoming writer’s block. Mary Poppins had it right: “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and—snap—the job’s a game.”

What’s more, when you turn your job into a game, innovation often follows. When you’re just coasting through work, you’re in a static, autopilot mode. You’re stuck with the status quo and the perceived rules and boundaries. You go from nine to five doing what you did yesterday.

Play triggers a different mindset. When we play, we’re allowed to experiment, fail, break the rules, connect seemingly disparate concepts, defy expectations, and yes, insert lyrics from The Who into a book about military coups.

This isn’t simply an escape from work. It’s a better way of working. When you fool your brain into thinking that you’re playing rather than working, your job becomes your playground. Your outcome-focused mind begins to pivot to the present, and you begin to derive intrinsic motivation from the process.

With a playful mindset, the artificial boundaries you’ve constructed for yourself disappear. “It’s all invented,” in the words of Ros and Ben Zander in their wonderful book, The Art of Possibility. “Just look carefully at the cover of the box, and if the rules don’t light up your life, put it away, take out another one you like better, and play the new game wholeheartedly.”

Children are masters of innovation precisely because they view the world as their amusement park. They’re blissfully unaware of social rules and conventional wisdom. My favorite example involves a kindergarten teacher who was walking around the room to check each child’s work as they drew pictures. “What are you drawing?,” he asked one student. The girl said, “I’m drawing God.” The teacher was shocked at this deviation from the standard curriculum. He said, “But no one knows what God looks like.” The girl replied, “They will in a minute.”

It’s one thing for a kindergartener to incorporate fun into an art class. Some of you may retort that your job is too complex, too serious, too

[fill in the blank] to turn into a game. Nonsense. You can incorporate play into anything you do. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Sneak a movie quote into your next email.
  • Play a game by yourself during meetings to make them interesting (for example, count the number of times a colleague says “But ummm” a la Robin from How I Met Your Mother).
  • Listen to ridiculous music in the gym to add fun to challenging workouts (My gym playlist is a musical armageddon. It’s where good music goes to die.).

Take your cue from Warby Parker. There are few things more mind numbingly boring than a company’s annual 10-K disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). But in 2013, Warby Parker decided to put fun into its annual reports. That year, the company’s SEC disclosures assumed the form of an interactive calendar that showcased the company’s personality. Here’s a sample entry for August 29, 2013:

Warby Parker’s move made their SEC disclosures a far more entertaining read. But more importantly, the company became remarkable. Fun is contagious. The annual reports were shared far and wide across the web, bringing the company free publicity.

You can also follow the lead of Virgin America, which put the fun in mundane airline safety videos. In November 2007, it bucked conventional wisdom by creating a cheeky video that mocks the different types of passengers you might encounter on a plane ride (my favorite line is, “For the .0001 percent of you who have never operated a seat belt before, it works like this.”). This viral video helped the company differentiate itself in a market where differentiation is exceedingly difficult. By the time other airlines followed suit, Virgin America had already established itself as the hip leader of fun in airline travel.

The next time you face a challenging task, ask yourself: “How can I find the fun in this?” Not only will this strategy jolt you out of your funk, it will also help you redefine the status quo and spot possibilities that you may have missed.

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