Breaking the Creative Ceiling: Oblique Strategies

Ever find yourself stuck on a creative challenge? (I intentionally avoid using phrases like “problem” that for most denote negative associations. “Challenge”, at least for me, suggests that something can be overcome, while “problem” is, well… a problem. It makes me feel eternally stuck.)

I was recently introduced to “oblique strategies”, which may help you out in those challenging… or if you prefer: stuck, problematic… times. The phrase was coined by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in 1975. These guys created a box of cards with “random” phrases on. Each card offers an aphorism intended to help artists (particularly musicians) break creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking.

Not sure what “lateral thinking” is? No frets, I wasn’t really sure what it meant the first time I heard it, either. According to Wikipedia:

“Lateral thinking is solving problems through an indirect and creative approach, using reasoning that is not immediately obvious and involving ideas that may not be obtainable by using only traditional step-by-step logic. “ (A fellow named Edward de Bono introduced this phrase in 1967.)

In short, when you are stuck in a rut, creatively, it might help to lift shift your focus. Allow yourself a fresh and new perspective. And how the heck do you do this? Especially if you’ve racked your mind in search for the “answer”?? Eno & Schmidt’s cards provide that fresh perspective!

They created 55 cards that contains a phrase or cryptic. Some are specific to music composition; others are more general. Examples:

· Use an old idea.

· State the problem in words as clearly as possible.

· Only one element of each kind.

· What would your closest friend do?

· What to increase? What to reduce?

· Are there sections? Consider transitions.

· Try faking it!

· Honor thy error as a hidden intention.

· Ask your body.

· Work at a different speed.

Oddly enough, it works. Not sure about all creative fields, but as a writer, I see how this simple strategy has opened my eyes when I’d thought I’d looked everywhere possible to find a way forward. I’ve also discovered that using oblique strategies can help BEFORE it gets to that “HELP!!!!!!!!” point. New perspectives, even before a time of crisis and chaos, are actually a good thing. Perhaps even especially then…

You can look up this deck of cards online. Not sure if the cards exist any longer in their physical form, but there are several sites on the net that provide an online version of the cards. I use, but if you google “oblique strategies”, you’ll find other sites that might suit you better.

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