Season 1
From the Travel Journal: 5 Ways to Think Like a Badass

Don’t just think outside the box, throw it out altogether.

by DOMINIQUE FERRARI

This week on Passport, we traveled to the belly of the bot, Silicon Valley to dive into decades of disruption, creative problem solving, and the far-out counterculture that produced the tech innovations that are remaking our modern world, our economy, and our future. And that got us thinking about… thinking itself. This week on The Ticket, if there was ever a time that called for us to think differently, it’s NOW. So we present 5 Ways to Think Like a Badass.

Human beings are pretty great at pattern recognition. As far as survival goes, it’s been a fantastic strategy for us. Recognizing solutions and problem solving patterns that have worked in the past allowed us to make quicker decisions – at a time when analyzing every single factor in a situation would’ve likely meant death by sabre-tooth tiger. And more often than not, those decisions were indeed the right ones – otherwise, it wouldn’t have been a successful survival strategy, would it? The past is indeed very often a good indication of the future. And so, by learning from the past and holding onto that knowledge, we became the ultimate at something I think of as cruise control decision making. Just no sudden moves or jerks of the steering wheel, and you’ll make it to your destination. 

And if there is any doubt about how deeply we are hardwired for this kind of pattern recognition, look no further than our closest genetic cousin, the chimpanzee. Chimpanzees have photographic memories that put human brains to shame. To. Shame. Don’t believe me, watch this video (skip to 1:33 if you’re impatient likze me). Then, when you’ve picked your jaw off the ground, let’s continue shall we?

While your brain on autopilot has some really great upsides – it’s a strategy that often fails when we’re confronted with a new, unique, or novel situation.  Like, say a novel coronavirus hobbling the entire global economy, shutting down schools, killing small businesses, and decimating entire industries like travel overnight. When life throws you a curve in the road, you’ve gotta put your cruise control in check and take the wheel. But when life throws you a once-in-a-generation, world re-defining kind of problem like the one we’re all currently facing – it’s more than a curve in the road – it’s like the road disappeared. So getting to your destination is going to take more than just taking the wheel. It is going to take a fundamental reassessment of the entire problem and coming up with novel solutions to fight a novel problem. 

So with that said, here are 5 sure-fire ways to kick your cruise control thinking to the curb and train your brain to be more adaptable and creative.

#1 Don’t like the problem you have? CHANGE IT!

Sounds like a crapalanche of zen and the power of positivity wisdom, right? Well let me take it from woo-woo to war for those of you more interested in the concrete. The Greeks were locked in an intractable war with the Trojans for 10 years. For 10 years, they led a fruitless siege of the walled-city of Troy. No matter how many men and how much might they threw at the problem, it was for naught… until Odysseus changed the problem they had. The Greeks had viewed their core challenge as one of outfighting the Trojans; they had to find a way to force their way through or over that wall. But then came Odysseus with his Trojan Horse idea and instantaneously, the problem shifted from one of outfighthing the Trojans to one of outsmarting them. Now, they only needed to figure out how to convince the Trojans to let the horse past their gates. When you find yourself facing what seems like an intractable problem – try the thought exercise of changing the problem you think you have. 

It’s not “problem solved”, it’s “problem shifted”.

Exercise: Turn “How can I work full-time and homeschool my children at the same time successfully?!” into “How can I convince my child’s school to offer them school credit for my child’s unpaid internship as my home office assistant?”

#2 Ask A Kid

Like everyone else in America, I too tried my hand at a Victory Garden in 2020. But as soon as the major greenage started to sprout, the only victories being had were those of the pests; aphids, beetles, very hungry caterpillars, and (my new nemesis) leaf-miners galore. I tried soap and water, I tried chemical sprays, I tried literally squeezing larvae to death with my bare fingers (ew, but that’s what the popular YouTube gardening influencer said to try!). All to no avail. I sighed. “Why are you upset?” my 5-year-old asked. “Because the bugs are eating our garden and nothing is working,” I replied. “Oh, I know what you need to do,” he said confidently. “You need to buy a teeny, tiny little metal cage trap thingy made for bugs and then, like, you leave a trail of like candy or like whatever food bugs like to eat to it and then…” He went on for a few more minutes with an elaborate One-Eyed Willie worthy bug obstacle course of booby traps. But I had a new seed of an idea. I called the Garden Center near me…  “Um, this might sound silly… do you have, like, bug traps for gardens?” 

“Sure, what kinda pests do you have?” 

Holy nikes, they DO make bug traps! In fact, they make leaf-miner bug traps. I had never even thought of that because 1) I know nothing about gardening 2) my only reference for how to get rid of bugs on crops was pesticides, so my mind – and my google searches – went to that problematic solution (literally) and stayed there. But kids aren’t weighed down with all that pesky pattern recognition yet. They are marvelous little partially blank slates of creativity. So mine them like an effing leaf-miner. 

Exercise: Ask your kids what they want to be when they grow up to get fresh ideas for what you want to be in the new AI dominated economy.

#3 Worst Case Scenario Vision Board

For years, I have had this little inside joke with my friends called my “worst case scenario vision board”. While many of my LA friends were clipping images of digital nomads and manifesting success via pictures of paradise or new homes or minimalistic Nordic design – my speed has always been a little more… apocalyptic. I always assumed it was just a quirk of my history-obsessed personality; when you know a lot about what has gone wrong in the past, you can easily see it unfolding all around you. Some people play 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon, I prefer Six Steps to Dystopia. The inside joke started one day, many years ago when I was talking to my best friend – who is of the considerably more aforementioned woo-woo type than I – about a big problem I was having. I expressed how worried I was and how I was trying to figure out how to get over my worry. “No no no”, she said. “Eff that, go into your worry. Let’s say it’s totally gonna happen.” 

What the hell, I thought. I called for solace and she’s feeding my anxiety like my garden feeds leaf-miners (breath, breath… the bug traps will work.) She went on. “Look, you can’t get over your worry by pretending it doesn’t exist or trying to pour fairy dust all over it. You need to follow your fear. It’s totally freeing. I promise.” So I did. On the phone with her, I played my usual – until then very private – version of Six Degrees to Dystopia and I calmly laid out how, if I didn’t solve this big problem I was having, my life would quickly unravel, the world would hit Peak Oil, society would collapse, and I would end up alone, living under an overpass, contemplating finally giving up and feeding myself to the cannibals relentlessly hunting me.

“Holy shit”, she said. “You’re good at this.”

But then we gave an honest survey of my flow of events. And upon really staring my worst case scenario vision in the face – I learned two things. One, things were very unlikely to unfold exactly as I had laid them out. And two, if they did, I had a plan – ingesting rat poison so that when the cannibals ate me, they too, died. Turns out, what I’d always considered a negative trait was actually one of my best tools for creativity.  We can’t be creative if our minds can’t be free. And our minds can’t be free if they are chained by fear. And the only way to get past the fear is to go straight into it. There is no bypass. 

So follow your greatest fears and on the other side is freedom… and dead cannibals.

Exercise: Think of a problem you have and the worry you have around it. Then, as soon as you envision the fear – ask yourself, “Ok, then what?” And keep validating every fear you have and asking “then what”. Go as far as the line of questioning will take you. Almost always, when you get to the end, you will breathe a sigh of relief and release. Then think about that original problem with a freer mind.

#4 Creative Crafts

My grandfather grew up fatherless during the Great Depression. Armed with only an 8th grade education, he had to become a scrappy-minded master problem-solver early in life to help keep his family afloat during lean times. And to have any fun. He told me a story once about how the community pool in Fairmount Park Philadelphia, where he grew up, had a rule – every kid in the neighborhood got only 30 minutes in the pool, then you were done. There were no quick-dry materials back then, so when your shorts got wet, they stayed wet. And you had only one pair of shorts. If you tried to get back in line, the lifeguard at the gate would feel your shorts and if they were damp, you got shamed and sent away. My grandfather and his friends would run several blocks over, hide behind cardboard boxes, take off their swim trunks and throw them onto the burning hot asphalt and let cars run over them for 10 minutes. And just like that, they’d be dry. (Also, covered in tire marks. But DRY.) Then they’d get back in line, and after an annoyed sigh from the lifeguard, get more pool time. When you’re poor and living close to the edge, you have to develop an edge to survive. That scrappiness followed my grandfather throughout life. Whenever something in my grandparents’ house broke, my grandfather first tried to fix it. If he couldn’t fix it, he tried to retrofit it into something else. Could a broken shelf be a garden box? An old shoe sole, a fly swatter? And when all else failed, he duct taped it and spray painted it and pretended it wasn’t broken. (I don’t endorse this last bit, just the first two.)

I’ve tried to carry on that same crafty spirit in my own life. And it turns out, when you train your mind to look at objects differently – to see them divorced from their intended uses or as sums of their parts instead of only their whole – you can open your mind up to entirely new uses and possibilities for things. Do it enough, and that kind of outside of the shoebox thinking can translate into other parts of your life. Don’t believe me? Just ask my wife about how much she loved the churros I made using a water bottle and a ziplock bag.  

(YOU’RE WELCOME)

Exercise: Pull something out of your garage or closet that you never use and think about other ways you might be able to use it. 

#5 Change of Scenery

This one has never been more critical than now, when so many of us are stuck in the same place and cut off from some of the normal avenues of novel experiences. As we established in a previous edition of The Ticket, there is real science behind the idea that traveling changes your brain and makes you a more adaptable, positive person. That also translates into creativity. One of the best exercises for coming up with new ideas or creative solutions is to change up your scenery or your routine. That’s extra hard right now – which is why it’s more important than ever. Just because you don’t have anywhere to go, per se, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a meandering drive to a new part of your city one morning. Or move your chic home desk from “your bed” to “your child’s train table”. The smallest changes in routine or surrounding can subtly shift your mind off of auto-pilot and into creativity mode. Stuck on a problem? Take a drive. Take a walk. Watch a gardening YouTube influencer you’ve never seen before. Build a free-hand lego dragon with your kid. It’s not 15 minutes (ok, fine, 45) wasted. It’s a critical restart for your mind. 

Exercise: Set a time limit for being stuck on a problem. If you’re stuck on a creativity blog listicle item for more than 15 minutes, leave the area, do something different and then come back. The 5th list item will almost always appear. 

 

The chimpanzees can keep the patterns. Patterns got us into this mess. We’re going to have to be creative if we want not just to survive, but to thrive.  

Happy thinking!

Image Credits:

Battle of the Brains, photo by Morning Brew on Unsplashh
Machine Learning, photo by Mike MacKenzie, via www.vpnsrus.com (CC BY 2.0)

Trojan Horse, photo by Deepika Ravishankar (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Football Outside Jakarta, photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

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© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.