It was the 1970s. Hair was feathered, creative thinking was coming into vogue, and Brian Eno was frustrated. When the famed musician and record producer was in the studio (with his own band, Roxy Music, or later, with acts like David Bowie, Coldplay or Devo), creative blocks, time pressures and disagreements were locking him and his musicians into time-wasting, energy-sapping loops.
To get unstuck, Eno and his friend, artist Peter Schmidt, collaborated not on music, nor art, nor even business strategy. They invented a game.
Whenever an impasse would pop up in the recording studio, Eno would draw a card from the 100-card deck game they called Oblique Strategies:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention.
Not building a wall but making a brick.
Try faking it!
If creativity is connecting disparate dots, Oblique Strategies is a gift box full of dots. Creativity-provoking, stagnation-unscrambling dots.
Keyboardist hit the wrong key? Try incorporating it into the song. Note seems high? Make it even higher.
Try it yourself: Think of an endeavor at work or in your creative life. What would happen if you tried faking it? What would emphasizing differences entail? You’re not trying to get it “right” (“right” is singular, creativity is infinite), you’re trying to set off a pinball machine of thoughts, imagery or ideas in your brain.
Eno called Oblique Strategies an oracular tool. If you don’t have $200 to buy a used set on eBay, any oracle is a potential box full of perspective-bestowing dots. Divination tools like tarot cards and tea leaves get called magical, but lists and mind maps can be equally magically creative. I’ve created a deck of words and phrases — Choose, Repair, Pause, Thorough, Use my voice — when I need to be gently knocked upside the creativity head with a new perspective.
Create your own dots
In an interview in 1980, Eno told Berkeley radio station KPFA: “If you’re in a panic, you tend to take the head-on approach because it seems to be the one that’s going to yield the best results.”
Going head-on is like knocking harder at the front door, and what supposedly drives success in our productivity-oriented culture. But in creativity, knocking harder often just bloodies your knuckles.
Do you have a potentially sticky meeting coming up? Fantastic, you’ve got an opportunity to practice creativity. Create 10 cards with oblique prompts to unblock you; make sure at least two are ridiculous or absurd. Some suggestions:
What toy or game might help us? Why?
What’s the tiniest first step we could take?
Write down a solution from the perspective of a scientist, a child, or a dog.
Name five true statements about this problem.
Creativity requires stepping away from the safety of the front door into uncertainty, but creativity also provides plenty of side doors and open windows — if you have the right tools.