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What's the problem with weird

10 minute read

By Micah Yongo

A blue Mini pedals across the water, a man’s head catches fire, a woman rows her bed along with twin oars whilst lampposts emerge from the water like surfacing U-boats, and that’s before we even get to the flame wielding pixies and naked gods.

Yup. You go to watch something like Illotopie’s Water Fools, a theatrical and thrillingly disorienting piece of… well I’m not exactly sure what to call it – Theatre? Dance? Art? – whatever it is, by the end you find your mind lying frazzled and slightly askew, and it stays that way for a while after.

I went along to the production not knowing what to expect. Illotopie are an internationally acclaimed French theatre company, they’ve designed bespoke shows to be performed at art festivals from Bangkok to Buenos Aires. This production, devised by artist and performer Bruno Roubicek, was (so said the literature) to be a dazzling and innovative piece, staged entirely atop the still open water of the Salford Quays. Different was all I expected, and that it was.

The performance, accompanied throughout by the whimsical bobbing chime of fairground melodies from yesteryear, and, every so often, by some pretty impressive fireworks, is sometimes cheery, sometimes dark, but always strange and evocative spectacle one might imagine to have been conjured from the dreams and nightmares of Dante himself.

What I found as I watched, and what surprised me, was how compelling the whole thing was - in large part due to, rather than in spite of, its incomprehensibility. Its sheer weirdness. A sort of, I-don’t-exactly-know-what-I’m-watching-but-I-like-it kind of feeling.

Walking back from the 2-hour spectacle afterward, a friend remarked:

‘That was... like a macabre crazy dream with fireworks. I tried to rationalise it… then stopped and just enjoyed the madness.’

It’s that last sentence that got me: the need to stop thinking in order to enjoy, or perhaps a better word is access, certain things. Things that are different. Outside the norm. Things that are novel.

The late Colin Martindale, an eminent creativity researcher at the University of Maine, saw the need for novelty as an inbuilt feature of the artist. ‘Cognitive disinhibition’, he and others called it, the tendency to prioritise new sensations and experiences, a trait he related to the cognitive processes involved in ideation. Or what we like to call creativity: the ability to form new but useable ideas.

Researchers in this field dating all the way back to Vygotsky, Piaget, and others of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, had defined creativity as the ability to combine seemingly disparate elements in novel ways.

What Martindale and his colleagues found was that this ability can be stimulated by the experience of novelty itself. Like laying new rail tracks for thoughts to travel down. Strangeness, Martindale said, opens up the mind.

In the words of one eminent polymath:

‘A mind that is stretched by new experience can never go back to its old habits,’ 

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

A bit of weirdness, then, is good for you. It dissolves mental barriers, broadens your perspective, allows you to see the relationships and connections between things. In short, it makes you more creative.

And so I guess the question it raises is: why do we tend to be so resistant to novelty? Why is our default setting to kick open our mental toolkit and reach immediately for the grumpy worn hammer called rationale?

Everything must be understood, annotated, its meaning rendered and explained before we can accept, embrace, or in the case of the very strange Water Fools production, even enjoy it - whether ‘it’ is an experience or an idea. Valuing novelty is not our default, and yet doing so comes with such great rewards, so how can we get over the weirdness-resistant hump of our instinct? Here are three tips:

Recognise your fear

"Studies suggest we fear an unknown outcome more than we do a known bad one."

Those are the words of author, doctor and entrepreneur Alex Lickerman.

The imagination has a dark side. That sophisticated servomechanism otherwise known as your frontal lobe loves to prognosticate. The errant sound you hear in the dark; that unfamiliar shadow in an unexpected place.

When confronted with limited data our brains are prone to filling the gaps with worst case scenarios. This made sense for our ancestors when traipsing through threat-riddled forests in search of food. But today, bowing to fear of the unknown can be a sure fire way to limit your growth and cap your talents.

A good way to overcome this is to identify and gradually lean into discomfort. Push your comfort zone, but not too much.

Psychologists call this exposure therapy.

Maybe you’ve got the knowledge and skills to push your career or business forward, but you hate public speaking.

So it’s time to take a public speaking class, or if you’re feeling especially bold, a crash course in stand-up comedy. Or if not so bold, to play debating games with friends and family. Whatever’s your jam. The point is to recognise your barriers and develop a practicable plan for pushing against them.

Practice trying new things

I once booked myself into a beginner’s acting class for the sheer pleasure/horror of being placed squarely outside of my comfort zone. (Natural introvert here: writing, yes. Acting, show me the nearest wasp hive to stick my head into.)

You might ask how overcoming stage fright helped my writing. But my point is, the effects of new experiences are transferable. Step beyond your comfort zone in one area, and you’ll find your imagination broadening in another.

Visit somewhere you’ve never been. Try a dish on the menu that’s totally new. Read beyond your preferences.

New experiences and what Dr Lickerman calls “A spirit of constant self-challenge” are what help to keep you, “Humble and open to new ideas that very well may be better than the ones you currently hold.”

Being open to the serendipity of surprise is an effective way of training your brain to set aside its normal pathways to stray from the beaten cognitive track. That’s where the magic happens.

The science suggests that this magic lies in our brain learning to decontextualise our experience. By rewiring habitual associations, our mind becomes able to generate fresh ideas and insights.

Cognitive neuroscientist and lecturer, Dr Caroline Di Bernardi-Luft, puts it like this:

“If we need to generate alternative uses of a glass, first we must inhibit our past experience which leads us to think of a glass as a container.”

If you want a shortcut to embracing serendipity and revving up your creative flow, then check out the FLOWN Almanac. An assortment of snappy but riveting reads designed to broaden your thinking and spark fresh perspectives.

Accountability and community

So, about that acting class. I didn’t go alone. Partly because if I was about to fail horrifically in trying something new I wanted there to be a friendly face to point and laugh. But the main reason was that I knew I’d be far more likely to keep at it with someone holding me accountable (thanks Danny).

Finding an accountability buddy, or even community, offers a powerful way to push your boundaries. The science is clear: share an intention with another person and your chances of following through immediately go up by 65%. Add a date in the diary to that shared intention and your chances of success shoot up to a whopping 95%

Weird is your new BFF

Moral of the story: comfort and creativity are often immiscible. You rarely, if ever, genuinely get one unless the other is absent. Which means you have to choose.

Do you want certainty, or mystery?

Stability or adventure?

Progress, or the status quo?

If you’re serious about discovering and doing your best work you need to be intentional about challenging yourself.

Check out this impactful conversation with Flocks lead Nate Thomas to discover more on what it looks like to overcome your limits and reach your goals.

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