Make play your life's work

Rodeo clown

Is it any surprise that playfulness and a sense of fun are associated with creativity and innovation?

Plenty of experts have said time and again that ideas and innovation rarely come from serendipity or ‘the muses’. I taught this doctrine myself to my advertising class at Massey University. Great works come from work - hence magnum opus(great work), opera, operation. I have always found it to be true. Sitting in a catatonic state worrying about where my next idea was coming from generally produced nothing.

The popular myth is that if you ‘put junk in you get junk out’.

Let’s think about about that for a second (or longer if you need the extra time—it’s not a competition). What is the alternative to putting junk in? Or thinking a little different, how do you know what you are putting in is junk? What is the junk metric? And what is the alternative? Acquiring facts might mean that you end up with a load of facts.

When I worked as an advertising writer I would happily go along on factory tours to help understand my client’s business. This was really a part of the show for the client. They worked in crummy factories, while we had nice offices with Eames furniture and a lady who came and made us sandwiches and snacks. After work the bar was open and the pinball free. So it was the least we could do to go along, nod sagely and ask penetrating questions. In most cases it was an irrelevant public relations exercise.

On one occasion I saw that a local Methode Champenoise was made the same way in the East Tamaki wine factory of a Montana wine as it is in the great chateaux of France—the wine was placed at an angle, upside down in riddling racks and turned by hand every day by an old man in a vest and cloth cap. OK, I’m kidding about the cloth cap. But in process everything was the same as in Champagne and the grapes were probably just as good—if not better (New Zealand is a long way from Chernobyl, our grapes don’t glow in the dark). My art director and I came up with an ad, a double page spread, describing in pedantic detail the pedantic detail the wine maker went to to produce a wine that was as good as champagne but at a much lower price. The headline said ‘There’s methode in our madness.‘ and, like the wine, we won lots of awards for the campaign—which successfully elevated the prestige of the brand at a time when everything made in Europe was considered better than anything made in New Zealand. I guess if we hadn’t gone along and seen for ourselves then we’d have been stuck with a ‘lifestyle’ ad. I used to hate ‘lifestyle’ ads as much as jingles. Now they are the norm. And I still detest them.

Another weird thing is the focus group. An entire industry has emerged to extract banal information from people who are so lonely, broke or sociopathic that attending a meeting of strangers in a room with one way mirrors seems like a good idea. In most cases the sessions are conducted by people who fit right in with the subjects.

I have never attended a focus group (from the other side of the glass) or read transcripts of a session, or a researcher’s analysis of a group that gave me any sort of genuine insight into the true motivations or a participant. In most cases they have been used as low hanging fruit by an ad agency to prove a point and assign a loopy analysis in support of an even loopier ad campaign. Of course clients are guilty of using groups to kill ideas they don’t like, each  an agenda, rather than an open mind. If you want useful insights into how people behave and think, then observing them regularly in their natural habitat will always give you a better result than any contrived, intellectualised process where an intermediary is clipping the ticket.

If you want to know how middle aged working class men think just go along to a Returned Serviceman’s Association (RSA) club or a public bar in a part of town you would normally avoid. Talk rugby league and politics with them. They will have opinions—oh yes, they will have opinions—I promise you. Most will never have consumed a latte or set foot inside a restaurant that charges more than 20 dollars for a plate of food.

The unstructured anthropological approach will give you nothing more than impressions which a researcher will typically regard as statsitically invalid—junk. But I am betting it will be pure gold. You will also have some fun.

Does anyone remember George Plimpton? When I was a kid he used to make documentaries about immersing himself into an activity—I think I remember an episode about becoming a rodeo clown. If it is a figment of my imagination I don’t know where my life-long desire to be a rodeo clown came from.

The point is: Fill your head with junk. Don’t have a brain with neat compartments. That’s what Filemaker is for. You need experiences as well as information. Get out there.

I’m not talking about bungy jumping. Unless you can spend the day talking to the operator and observing tourists take a carefully calculated risk (i.e. 100% safe) and congratulating themselves for cheating death, instead of berating themselves for being cheated out of a hundred bucks. If you must do it, do it naked. Billy Connolly did. Mind you the ‘Big Yin’ seems to like experiencing most things naked.

Do things you wouldn’t normally do. I don’t mean drive to the dairy in your pajamas. I mean do mad things and meet people you would normally avoid. Hunter S. Thompson hung out with the Hells Angels motorcycle club and produced the brilliant book Hells Angels (Buy@Fishpond). Thompson received a savage beating from members of the gang (not those he had been close to in the process of researching the story), so I’m not recommending being reckless without understanding the risks. Understand risk and then be reckless.

Hell, go to an art gallery that shows something you won’t see on a chocolate box.

See a live band—who play the genre you least like (for me that would be jazz, a Dave Dobbyn performance or a Welsh Choir—or a medley of all played to me while strapped to a chair like Alex in A Clockwork Orange).

Watch Dancing with the Stars.

Do a life drawing class during the day at a community art centre. Be afraid.

Go to the Otara market—but don’t buy a pirated copy of Sione’s Wedding. Buy some taro and find out how to prepare it. Prepare it. Eat it.

Actually I was kidding about watching Dancing with the Stars. Your brain will liquify and ooze out your ears. Don’t go there and if you do don’t say I didn’t tell you so.

The more junk you pump in the better the chance that some thing interesting will come out the other end. Stop looking for the right answer. The right answer has already been done. It’s the difference between colouring in and creating something new (which might suck, but at least it will be original and yours.

Make play your life’s work.

You have nothing to loose but your preconceptions.

Agree/Disagree I’m here on Twitter


Billy Connolly from the Melbourne Age (story says famously goateed—picture says otherwise):

His favourite moment during the New Zealand trip? “The naked bungee,” he instantly replies. “It’s the highest bungee in the world—from a cable car into the gorge.

“You get it for free if you do it naked. So being Scottish I whipped the gear off and dived into the valley. I’ve been naked everywhere.”

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