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The Key to Creativity – Don’t Pity the Fool

By Chris Brady

Most people can’t dream too big, cause they have things to keep.” –song lyric by Sugarland

In the days of monarchs, in which nearly every hill or dale was the domain of a small feudal lord called Sir or Count or Duke, court jesters were often employed.

These professional fools were given license for a free and crazy behavior that was tolerated in none of the other courtiers.

But these so-called fools were no dunces. They were extremely intelligent, witty, courageous, funny, and often charming. Their job was to say anything at all to the king without threat of punishment.

No matter how offensive, cutting, or brutally honest, court fools were free to say it.

Why was this so important? In a world where kings were surrounded with “yes men” and those working to ingratiate themselves with the favors of the court, it was of vital importance that someone had the ability to tell it like it was. And that was the job of the fool.

How did it work? Quite simply the fool was there to remind the king of the truth, to jolt him out of unimaginative decision making, and to keep him from missing his own blind spots.

According to author Roger von Oech,

“[The king] gave the fool a license to parody any proposal under discussion and to shatter the prevailing mindset. The fool’s candid jokes and offbeat observations put the issue in a fresh light and forced the king to re-examine his assumptions. By listening to the fool, the king improved his judgment, enhanced his creativity, and protected himself from groupthink.”

Strange. Our modern sense of corporate decision making and committee addiction posits that we consult experts and authority figures, who, though they may be fools, generally pride themselves on being just the opposite. Who would ever think to consult an outright fool?

There are two distinct schools of thought when it comes to breakthrough innovations. One such school submits that it’s experts and those deepest in an area of expertise that build upon the work of others in coming up with the best ideas. These ideas are painstakingly extracted from hard work in the category and a trying system of trial and error.

The other school maintains that the best ideas come from outsiders who have no real depth of knowledge in the specific field considered and thereby can see things the experts cannot, the experts being too close to the trees to see the proverbial forest.

Both schools merit some consideration. However, the court jester or fool seems to be a perfect blend of the two. He is on hand for nearly every discussion and major decision making session affecting the kingdom, so he cannot in any way be considered an outsider.

However, he is certainly not a leader himself and has no personal depth of experience managing kingdoms. With these considerations it can be seen that the king’s fool is a blend of the two schools of innovative thought.

And that’s where you come in.

You may or may not be a subject matter expert in the endeavor for which you would like to apply your creativity. Perhaps you are simply interested in becoming more creative in general. But whatever level of experience or expertise you have, you can still play the part of the fool.

While all of us play the part of the fool sometimes unknowingly, one of the most powerful steps in growing in our creative abilities is to play the fool intentionally.

How do we do this?

I would suggest the best way to increase your creativity is to play a little mind game with yourself. Put on a virtual jester’s outfit complete with ridiculous colors and pointy shoes, jangly hat and big brass buttons. Then poke fun at your ideas, problems, decisions, justifications, challenges, goals, etc.

Give yourself license to take license. By being contrary, you just might reverse a standard assumption. By being disrespectful of some sacred cow, you just may find a false assumption you can slaughter.

Perhaps, however, it would just be easier to consider a list of things the fool in you may want to do in order to increase the ability of the creative person in you. Here it is:

1. Change your context – get outside your normal patterns of behavior. Change your environment. Associate with some different people. Play different background music. Look through different books. Consider the problem or challenge from another angle.

If you only read non-fiction, switch to a novel once in a while. If you hate poetry, try reading some. Eat new foods, go to new places, throw yourself into unfamiliar territory – and try to do these things on an at least semi-regular basis.

2. Ask crazy questions – what if questions seem to be the most powerful. Be unpredictable. Be reckless. Do it in rapid fire succession to create a stream of consciousness.

3. Have a pen and paper or audio recorder handy – some of the best ideas sneak up on us when we aren’t sitting there trying to “be creative.” Have a way to record your epiphanies at a moment’s notice twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Your court jester is always on duty and can’t always be counted upon to flesh out his best ideas between nine and five.

4. Make strange combinations – put together things that don’t normally mix. You can start by blending two things and asking how that might work. “Let’s see, if we put the concept of a convertible with an off-road vehicle, what would we have . . . ?” or “What if we combined a chic environment with a caffeinated beverage?”

5.Deny the problem – tell yourself a few creative lies about the problem or challenge. Make believe it doesn’t exist and see how you would behave differently. Or, make it twice as big, or make it’s ramifications so huge that it becomes unbelievable. “If we don’t get this product quality issue fixed by Friday, all the food in the world will start tasting like chicken.

6. Blow things out of proportion – elevate the trivial and demean the important. Change the perspective of the components of the issue or challenge in relation to each other.

7. Look for patterns – how is this like something else that happened before. How is it the same as itself?

8. Look for analogies – this is a bit different than blending unrelated concepts together. This one goes more to gaining clearer problem or solution definition. Word pictures and analogies have amazing power to clarify.

9. Be a prodigious noticer – Mark Twain once used that phrase “prodigious noticer” to describe his ability to find mirth that he could subsequently share with other. Fools notice things that nobody else sees. Look deeper, harder, or from farther afield. Picture yourself being a fly on the wall or an eye in the sky.

Remember: you only see that at which you look.

10. Attack the major assumptions – what are the “known knowns” that you can unhinge? What parts of the situation aren’t even being considered because “everybody knows” them to be true or not part of the problem?

11. Have an open mind – be absolutely dead certain that you don’t have all the answers. Curiosity is the doorway through which creativity enters your life.

There will be plenty of time to evaluate and implement later. In order to be creative you will need to keep the judge and jury at bay and become an explorer of the possibilities life holds just below the surface.

Consider the creative life as a treasure hunt, and therefore always be ready with pick axe and map to burrow deep for that next great innovation or idea.

12. Listen to people – I am always amazed at the great ideas that come up through productive conversations. Two minds really are better than one, and many are often even better still. Be able to absorb crazy, asinine ideas without casting them aside too quickly (this is even harder than it may sound).

Allow suggestions and comments from others to truly find purchase in the fertile soil of your mind. The crazier the idea seems the more you should consider it. The person saying it might be an idiot, or, he just might be a fool!

Remember: sometimes a fool makes more sense than a wise man.

Create a more creative life by playing the part of the fool – at least sometimes.


Chris Brady co-authored the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Business Weekly, USA Today, and Money Magazine best-seller Launching a Leadership Revolution.

He is also in the World’s Top 30 Leadership Gurus and among the Top 100 Authors to Follow on Twitter. He has spoken to audiences of thousands around the world about leadership, freedom, and success.

Mr. Brady contributes regularly to Networking Times magazine, and has been featured in special publications of Success and Success at Home. He also blogs regularly at Chris Brady.

He is an avid motorized adventurer, pilot, world traveler, humorist, community builder, soccer fan, and dad.

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  1. This article is really out there. Leave it to Chris to really stir up the status-quo with his wild musings. I couldn’t think of a better person to keep us all engaged and alert. Playing the part of the fool is no small task and will really serve to get us out of our comfort zones. I couldn’t imagine anything more stirring than taking our own paradigms and creating some anarchy by turning them upside down and inside out. A person who is not regularly practiced at this may just give themselves a heart attack!!

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