A Brick in the Hand (or is it a Bird?): Secrets to becoming more Creative

by Dr. Anthony Paustian
Author of A Quarter Million Steps

Decades ago my dad, always the jokester, would tell this "multipart" joke. The genius of his approach was in how it was told––as two separate jokes, delivered back-to-back, each totally dependent upon the other. No one ever saw the connection until the end (often after it was revealed), which is what always made it funny.

Today, when I speak about creativity, I frequently begin the presentation by telling a version of his joke to help illustrate a point. It goes something like this:

A little girl is skipping down the street when she comes upon three colored bricks lying on the road: one red, one yellow, and one blue. She pauses, reaches down for the red one, thinks for a moment, and heaves it into the air. The brick hits the ground hard and breaks into pieces. After laughing a bit, she reaches down for the yellow one and heaves it higher into the air. The brick hits the ground with a greater force and shatters. Laughing almost hysterically, she reaches down, grabs the blue one, and throws it even higher into the air. It never comes back down. [end joke Part 1]

The result is always the same. No laughter. Blank stares. Crickets.

Following the brief, awkward silence, I tell the audience the joke was actually very funny––they just didn't get it and have no imagination (although it really wasn’t funny at all).

To quickly lighten the mood, I would follow "Part 1" with a joke that's actually very funny, speak for a bit about imagination, and then move on to “Part 2” of the original joke.

We're at the state fair, and a young man is giving hot air balloon rides. An older woman, holding a parrot, walks up and climbs into the balloon's basket [I then ask the audience...What do parrots do? The typical response is "talk"]. A minute later, an older gentleman with a pocketful of cigars also climbs in [I ask the audience...What do cigars do? The typical response is "stink"].

The balloon lifts off of the ground. The older man lights up a stogie. The parrot begins to loudly talk and squawk. The older man complains about the noise. The woman complains about the cigar smoke. Words are spoken. Yelling and arguing ensue. It finally reaches a point where the balloon operator says, "Enough! Unless you both want to be thrown out of the balloon, toss that bird and those cigars immediately." The passengers begrudgingly comply. After a few seconds, the woman says, "Look! There's my parrot. But what's in its mouth?" [To which I look at the audience with a two-hand gesture and they always say, "Cigar," and then I say "A Blue Brick"].

Creativity is nothing more than making new connections between things that have yet to be connected. When I say this to people, they usually think I mean connecting things that are very different, such as Sam Colt connecting the design of the ship’s wheel of a seafaring vessel to his design of the revolver, or connecting old ideas to help solve new problems. A good example of this is when Fred Smith connected the Federal Reserve check clearing system designed in the early 1900s to the modern need for expedited, efficient shipping logistics that would ultimately become FedEx. However, and more often than not, it's simply connecting thoughts or ideas that occurred only moments apart (think Blue Brick).

In the past, this wasn't as big a problem because life moved slower, and recalling thoughts wasn't as difficult because there were fewer of them at one time. Yet, with the daily deluge of information bombarding our brains through app notifications, tweets, text messages, and the like, combined with the enormous pile of minutia that seems to overtake our lives, it's easy to see how the connection between two thoughts separated by only a few minutes can get lost.

What's the secret to creativity? It has less to do with ability and everything to do with your ability to focus.

1.     Slow down and take your time;
2.     Disconnect from your technology when you want to maintain your level of attention to the problem or issue. Those little red dot indicators on your smartphone apps cause a dopamine release that not only makes you feel good, it’s highly addictive and kills creative thinking;
3.     Actively listen (and not just hear it) by mentally repeating what enters your ears to improve memory retention;
4.     And write down your thoughts and ideas so you can easily refer back to them later (which has also been shown to slow down your thought process and yield better results).


These aren't new ideas, but they are proven in their ability to enhance creativity. Sometimes, in order to think differently, make a new connection, or create that killer idea, it's as simple as just remembering the blue brick.

©2017 Anthony D. Paustian

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