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Accidental Genius

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When it comes to creating ideas, we hold ourselves back. That’s because inside each of us is an internal editor whose job is to forever polish our thoughts so we sound smart and in control and so we fit into society.

But what happens when we encounter problems where such conventional thinking fails us? How do we get unstuck?

For Mark Levy, the answer is freewriting, a technique he’s used for years to solve all types of business problems and generate ideas for books, articles, and blog posts.

Freewriting is deceptively simple: start writing as fast as you can, for as long as you can, about a subject you care deeply about, while ignoring the standard rules of grammar and spelling. Your internal editor won’t be able to keep up with your output—you’ll generate breakthrough ideas and solutions that you couldn’t have created any other way.

Levy shares his six secrets to freewriting as well as fifteen problem-solving and creativity-stimulating principles you can use if you need more firepower—seven of which are new to this edition. Also new to this edition: an extensive section on how to refine your raw freewriting into something you can share with the world.

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1. Secret #1: Try Easy


Robert Kriegel, business consultant and “mental coach” for world-class athletes, tells a story in one of his books that has critical implications for you in your quest to lead a better life through writing.

Kriegel was training a sizable group of sprinters who were battling for the last spots in the Olympic trials. During a practice run, Kriegel found his runners to be “tense and tight”—victims, apparently, of “a bad case of the Gotta’s.”

Conventional wisdom would have dictated that these highly skilled athletes train harder, but Kriegel had another idea. He asked them to run again, only this time they were to relax their efforts and run at about nine-tenths their normal intensity. Of this second attempt, Kriegel writes:

The results were amazing! To everyone’s surprise, each ran faster the second time, when they were trying “easy.” And one runner’s time set an unofficial world record.

Fine for running, but does that idea hold for any pursuit? Kriegel continues: “The same is true elsewhere: Trying easy will help you in any area of your life. Conventional Wisdom tells us we have to give no less than 110 percent to keep ahead. Yet conversely, I have found that giving 90 percent is usually more effective.”


2. Secret #2: Write Fast and Continuously


That’s right: When you write fast and continuously, you pretty much have to adopt an easy, accepting attitude—you don’t have much choice.

My assertion—that fast, continuous writing improves thought by relaxing you—needs clarification, though: Just how fast? Just how continuous?

First, just how fast? I’d say about as fast as your hand moves when you scribble a note to your best office buddy, saying “Couldn’t wait for you anymore, went to lunch at Giuseppe’s,” because your colleagues were already piling into a car. You know, fast.

By writing fast, you invite your mind to operate at a pace that’s closer to its normal rate of thought, rather than the lethargic crawl you usually subject it to when you write sluggishly.

Here’s what I mean, crafted into an experiment: In your mind, summon up the image of something that happened to you yesterday—a meeting with the boss, a decision you made about the market, whatever. Take pen and paper, and start to write about that image, but write slowly, perhaps at half your normal speed. Spend a few seconds on each word, as your hand traces out the line and curve of each letter. Keep this slowness going for two minutes.


3. Secret #3: Work against a Limit


Let’s apply some of the information you’ve learned so far. Set your kitchen timer to ring in ten minutes and …

What’s that? I haven’t yet explained a kitchen timer as a writing aid? Shame on me. Once you start using a timer to help you generate thoughts, you’ll never be without one. Your kitchen timer, in fact, will become the most important item on your desk, with your computer running a close second.

Here, then, is why you need the timer: It gives you a time limit against which to conduct your thinking. That’s critical, for two reasons:

Think of it: If I ask you to write fast and continuously about some emotionally charged difficulty you’re having at work, how long do you think you could keep the words flowing? Thinking through a tough subject—especially from a variety of angles, as I’ll teach you to do—is both exhilarating and exhausting. You can’t keep going forever, or even for a short, if indeterminate, amount of time.

See, when I’m asking you to freewrite, I’m asking you to sprint. Now if I specified that you were to sprint flat out for a short, designated distance—say, forty yards—you’d hoof it. But if I implored you to sprint for a vague range—say, between forty yards and forty miles—you’d hold down your speed and wait to see how far you’d have to go. You’d exert yourself less because the parameters of the race were uncertain.


4. Secret #4: Write the Way You Think


If you’ve ever been given advice on how to prepare a document for the business community, you’ve probably been admonished to “write the way you speak.” That is, you’ve been asked to make your document sound conversational—and, therefore, easier to understand—by using contractions, plain words, personal pronouns, and a dozen minirules to give the impression that you’re hovering behind your readers, whispering directly into their ears (although if they tried to shoo you away, there’d be nothing there to swat).

This plain English style of writing is invaluable when you’re trying to communicate with others but less valuable for the freewriting page. It’s not that the “write the way you speak” tenets are wrong during freewriting, it’s that they don’t go far enough.

During a bout of freewriting, it’s imperative that you get at your raw thoughts before the prissy side of your mind cleans them up for public viewing and, in the process, squelches their effectiveness. So don’t “write the way you speak,” but “write the way you think.” Here’s what I mean.


5. Secret #5: Go with the Thought


In the mid-1980s, I took an improvisational theater course, hoping to hone what I considered my most bankable gifts, wit and joke cracking. At the time, I fancied myself something of a Woody Allen in training, and I figured an improv course would give me a wide, well-lit platform for showing off. Boy, was I mistaken.

The teacher of the course was an old-school improv troupe member, and he frowned on his students’ attempts to be conspicuously funny on stage. Humor, he preached, must flow naturally from the situation being portrayed and should never be forced into it by Borscht Belt wannabes. So class after class, he would toss a few students on stage, yell out our fictional identities (“Mark, you’re a homeless person. Cindy, you’re a businesswoman on the way to the train”), and give us a scene to act within (“Mark, you try to convince Cindy to give you money”).

Begrudgingly, I delivered lines that logically followed my partner’s lines (“Ma’am, do you have fifty cents for a hot meal?”), while I gulped back the absurdist, out-of-left-field dialogue I longed to deliver (“Ma’am, I just peed on myself”). When that course ended, I turned my back on improv theater ethics, or so I thought.


6. Secret #6: Redirect Your Attention


With pen in hand or computer powered up, you begin a free-writing road trip about something important to you. Perhaps you’re thinking about how to announce a fee increase, or you’re wondering how best to approach your boss to ask for higher-visibility projects. Whatever the situation, you’re on the freewriting bus, motoring along, when suddenly you hit the brakes. The road ahead is washed out, and you don’t know how to proceed.

Quickly, you consult your checklist of freewriting rules: Try easy, check. Writing fast and continuously, check. Inoffensive kitchen timer counting down ten-minute intervals, check. Now you’ve run out of ideas. You’ve reached the end of your thoughts, or so you believe.

While you stare ahead at the washed-out road, a distant light glimmers to your left. Why, there’s a highway out there! How could you have missed it? Then, to your right, a loud honk. By gum, a road leading to a major city! Yet you passed it without noticing.

You look around. Roads, exits, and towns are everywhere, only you failed to see them while your eyes were trained ahead. I call these roads, exits, and towns “focus-changers,” and they’re available to you on every freewriting road trip.


7. Idea as Product


Writing teachers often tell students that “writing is thinking.” They say this to demystify writing and wipe away students’ anticipatory tension in putting pen to paper. These reassuring teachers believe that if you can think clearly, and use the language of daily speech, you can express yourself competently on the page.

This is valuable advice. The more we think of writing as nothing special, the more we think of it as just another way of expressing ourselves (like speaking to a friend over the phone), the better off we are.

But for those of us trying to use our writing to solve problems, the logical question is, Why write at all? If “writing is thinking,” why not dispense with the writing altogether and get down to some hard thinking? Two reasons, I believe, underline the importance of getting your ideas down on paper, of making them a touchable product.

First, the physical act of moving your pen across the page, or hitting computer keys, is a powerful focusing force.

Human thought, by nature, bounces all over the place; that’s why most prolonged bouts of serious thinking degenerate into daydreaming.


8. Prompt Your Thinking


If you’ve done any freewriting before, you may have heard the term “prompt.” A prompt is a type of freewriting exercise. Instead of beginning a session with whatever appears in your mind, you begin with a predetermined phrase (called a prompt) that guides the direction of your writing.

How would using a prompt work? Well, if you were about to loosen up with a ten-minute freewrite and wanted a prompt, I might say, “Complete the following sentence: ‘The best part of my workday is.’” That’s where you’d begin. You’d answer that question, at least initially. You could stay on it for the entire ten minutes, or you could move to another subject minutes or even seconds after beginning. Your choice.

The number of prompts you could use are endless. Any open-ended phrase will do. You can come up with them on your own. A few more examples:

“Yesterday I saw a curious thing …”

“I’d really impress myself if, starting today, I …”

“If I didn’t have to work, I’d …”

“My idea of a boring time is …

“If I woke to find myself ten feet tall, the first thing I’d do is …”


9. Open Up Words


Here’s a page from my freewriting file:

I yawn when I see an author use the word “empowerment.”

Sure, I understand that the word is supposed to mean “decentralization” and “giving everyone, including the front-line worker, power to make decisions that help the customer.” But unless the writer is someone I trust, someone I know who has thought about the word 124 times, and put it into practice himself, I think most writers use the word because it sounds high-minded.

The majority of the business world doesn’t use empowerment as a practice, at least, not effectively. For most businesspeople, empowerment is an untested concept, or a rationalization for a disinterested, laissez-faire management style.

Here are more problems inherent in the conventional idea of “empowerment.” If workers are truly empowered, they’re going to make mistakes, probably in front of the customer. Sounds good in a business book, but not so good when a lengthening line of exasperated customers roll their eyes in front of you… . If workers are truly empowered, they may use their autonomy as a way to justify laziness, explaining away their inefficient service as something they thought was necessary, given the situation.


10. Escape Your Own Intelligence


The day’s workshops had ended at the business writers’ conference, and I was relaxing in the dining room with the other attendees. A woman at a table in the corner caught my attention. She was drawing with a fat marker on the butcher paper tablecloth. I headed over.

The paper was black with scribbles. There were circles, triangles, and half-completed equations. Arrows pointed every which way. The whole thing looked dauntingly elaborate, like she was planning a moon shot.

I asked her what she was creating, and her answer was not what I expected. She told me she was diagramming a way people could converse more clearly and directly.

The woman said she was a business school professor, came to the conference because she wanted to write a book, and figured the communications model she was working on could be the basis for one. Creating it was slow going. She couldn’t make it click.

She began explaining the model. It was so abstract that it was hard to tell it involved human beings at all. She wasn’t developing it from life. She was creating it by heaping theory on top of theory. In trying to complete it, she was running into conceptual walls.


11. The Value in Disconnecting


When I speak to groups, I have them freewrite at their seats. I ask questions like “How could you quadruple your productivity in a week?” and “What things would you like to do but haven’t yet done in life?” They answer with pad and pen, and we discuss their responses.

For most of the day, I keep the writing periods short, five to fifteen minutes. Near day’s end, though, I ask them to go all out and write for thirty minutes nonstop. Believe me, my request sends a charge through the audience.

They realize that no one, except maybe a mystic, writes for thirty minutes straight, and the thing you haven’t done is almost always worth doing (at least if it’s not dangerous). Who knows what will happen? Hand cramps? Nausea? Visions? Shape-shifting? The only way to find out is by trying.

At the very least, the participants return home with a story. Writing continuously for that long may not rank up there with running a marathon or climbing a mountain, but it’s noteworthy.

Anyway, while they’re writing, be it for five minutes, thirty minutes, or something in between, I walk throughout the audience to check on how they’re doing. I offer encouragement and crack jokes.


12. Using Assumptions to Get Unstuck


A few years back, my wife asked for help in designing a magic trick. Now, asking me to design a trick isn’t such an odd request, given that I’ve been interested in magic for forty years and have written books on the subject. This request, though, had a catch.

My wife needed the trick, not for entertainment purposes, but for use in a computer course. It seems she was learning an advanced computer language, and her professor gave the class an assignment that sounded a lot like a mind-reading stunt.

The assignment went like this: Design a program that reveals, in ten guesses or less, a number from 1 to 99, secretly chosen by the computer.

I grabbed a pad and pen, and went to work.

“Tell the computer to secretly select a number,” I said while scribbling, “and then ask it: ‘Did you select a single digit number?’ If the computer says yes, name single-digit numbers until you hit the correct one. If it says no, eliminate single-digit numbers from your search. Next, ask the computer if it chose an even number. If it says yes, eliminate odd numbers from your search. If it says no …”


13. Getting a Hundred Ideas Is Easier Than Getting One


Ready for a piece of lifesaving advice? When you have to come up with an idea, don’t try coming up with just one. That’ll kill you. I can think of four broad reasons why:

1. When looking for a single idea, we often demand perfection from that idea. What happens? We study any notion through a microscope, magnify its flaws, and dissect its weaknesses. Few candidates can survive such probing.

2. Worse yet, our critical search depresses us and weakens our powers of ideation, because we start expecting everything we dream up to be defective.

3. Then there are times we’re so desperate for a home run idea that our standards drop. We’ll latch on to any notion that appears. This happens during brainstorming meetings. The busy participants wait until the last minute to hold the meeting, they blow half of it getting up to speed on the topic to be discussed, and then they feel pressured. The first halfway decent thought becomes, by default, “the big idea.” The entire brainstorm tilts toward that idea. All the satellite ideas people create are in support of that dominant one. Now the participants have no choice. They’ve wasted time, put all their effort into that initial idea, and now must use it despite its merits or problems.


14. Learn to Love Lying


If you’re like me, learning the next technique will be difficult. It goes against what we were taught as children and how we’ve lived our lives. The technique is lying.

You’re going to have to learn to lie. I’ll explain.

One of the things that hinders problem solving is that problem situations can seem liked closed environments. The players, beliefs, conflicts, history, and goals appear to be set in stone, with no options.

Such rigidity, however, is usually an illusion. People, situations, and beliefs change. Bigger systems surround and interact with the system you’re operating in. There can be lots of room for movement.

If you free yourself from the perceived rigidity of the situation and see things from enough perspectives, you can almost always find usable solutions.

One way of seeing a seemingly fixed situation differently is to tell a lie about it.

Who are you lying to? Yourself. While freewriting, you’re playing a trick on yourself so you can escape the claustrophobia of the situation and widen your view. A single falsehood can cause a chain reaction of consequences that can be useful in causing movement in your thinking.


15. Hold a Paper Conversation


Me: My problem, lately, is that when I meet with resistance from a sales prospect, I get taken aback. See, I’ve done this job for so many years, and have made my accounts so much money, that I assume everyone should trust me implicitly and instantly see the enormous value in dealing with me. I know that’s the wrong way to feel, but it happens.

David: Actually, there are at least two reasons why there’s nothing wrong with feeling that way. First, as you know through experience, feelings just happen—sometimes for no traceable reason—so it’s unnecessary to hold yourself responsible for having a specific feeling. Second, if you really have helped many customers over the years, then these prospects probably would benefit in dealing with you—only they might not be aware of that.

The only problem I see would be if you let your feelings adversely affect your behavior when dealing with these prospects. If you, for instance, speak harshly to them or don’t follow through on what you say you’ll do.

Me: Right. That’s a good way of looking at it.


16. Drop Your Mind on Paper


Think of freewriting as a system of components.

Today you’ll take thirty minutes to dump all the information you have about a subject onto the paper, and you’ll leave it at that.

Tomorrow, you’ll review your information dump and take ten minutes to write out some best-case, worst-case scenarios that stem from your previous day’s efforts.

The next day, take your accumulated thoughts and free-associate for fifteen minutes, allowing the material itself to suggest new avenues to walk.

You’re not pleased with your effort, so you try something else, perhaps a session in which you “open up words” and “hold a paper conversation” for twenty minutes each.

Ah, that’s better. Here, among the detritus you’ve scattered onto the paper, are a couple of fair ideas worthy of further exploration. For some reason, though, you don’t do any writing for the next three days.

Then it happens. While you’re in the office listening to an on-hold version of “Eleanor Rigby,” a lightbulb goes on over your head. You grab a pencil stub and a crumpled envelope and in forty seconds write a usable solution—a solution that, by the way, is a total rejection of all the ideas you had previously but needed the fertilizer of those rejected ideas to flower. In practice, that’s the way freewriting works: dirty and effective. But some people thrive with a more structured approach to freewriting. They sit down regularly to write and channel their genius through a codified series of steps.


17. The Writing Marathon


A ten-minute burst of freewriting may be just what you need to solve a problem. Many times, though, you’ll need longer. Instead of ten minutes, you may need six or seven hours.

Yep, I’m not kidding. Hours.

The bad part of writing nearly continuously for hours: By the end, you find yourself achy and bleary-eyed. The good part: You may have written yourself into answers that had eluded you for a lifetime.

Because this technique takes a toll on both body and mind, I use it when the stakes are high. Maybe I have to generate material for a book, competitive advantages for a client’s business, or illusions for a show. A deadline invariably looms.

Here’s how the writing marathon works: Fix your subject in your mind, open a blank document, set your timer for twenty minutes, and start typing.

You’re going to be writing throughout the next few hours, but that’s no reason to start slow. Slow writing, in fact, is counterproductive. Keep up the pace, so your internal editor loses its grip. Ray Bradbury says, “In quickness there is truth.”


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