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Roll the Dice

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Updated November 3, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Creative Doing, by Herbert Lui. 75 practical techniques to unlock creative potential in your work, hobby, or next career. Purchase now for instant, lifetime access to the book.

Letting go of control, and introducing chaos into an environment, is one of the keys to cultivating creativity. If you’re ever experiencing blockage or a sense of stuckness on a decision, try opening the door to chance in order to support your creative work.

In The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity, authors Robert K. Merton and Elinor Barber quote the late Professor Salvador Luria of the University of Illinois as praising “controlled sloppiness, which states that it often pays to do somewhat untidy experiments, provided one is aware of the element of untidiness.” In any case, the idea here is to trend toward chaos, entropy, and randomness in your work—a sense of controlled sloppiness.

For example, if you’re feeling stuck on what to write, you can take a chance with a dictionary or a random word generator. In literature, there is a constrained writing movement called Oulipo. Several of their techniques are set by constraints and involve chance. For example, the N+7 technique involves creating a new poem through taking an existing poem and replacing each noun with the seventh noun after it in the dictionary. In the 1920s artistic movement Dada, a common game to manufacture inspiration involved cutting up newspapers and pulling words and sentences out of a bag.

In the board game Letter Tycoon, each player starts their turn with a limited set of vowels and consonants, with the goal of spelling out the highest scoring words. You could replicate this game by picking eight letters and write as many words as you can with the set as possible. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can even compose a poem or write a sentence with the letters.

Similarly, in The Creative Habit, legendary choreographer and author Twyla Tharp shares an exercise where she throws a group of coins on a table. Based on how they land, she draws ideas from the arrangement, occasionally rearranging some of them to be in a more pleasing pattern.

Anytime you experience reluctance at leaving something up to chance, consider that Donald Glover developed his stage name, Childish Gambino, through a Wu-Tang Clan name generator. (He has succeeded perhaps in spite of the name, saying, “If I had known it was going to be something for real, I wouldn’t have used it.” The lesson I chose to take is there’s perfect vision only in hindsight, and you can make mistakes and still get to where you want to go!)

Chance plays a huge role in creativity and can be a useful generative constraint. If you want to make fewer decisions, enlist chance as an assistant. Whenever you need to make a decision, write out your options and let a coin toss, a dice roll, a results generator, or another person’s selection of multiple choice, to decide what you’ll do.

Do the Opposite

Whatever your routine is, flip it.

A friend once told me, “If you keep doing what you’ve done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve gotten.” I wrote this down, though I probably didn’t need to; it has continued boomeranging back into my brain throughout the years. Sometimes, in order to make breakthroughs or to disrupt our patterns, we need to flip our habits, routines, and rituals on their heads. Similar to rolling the dice, this is about opening the door to chaos to introduce new creative ideas.

Even if what you’re doing is getting you the results you want, it’s almost always worth trying something new in a small way (unless a process is in a critical stage of a project with high stakes—for example, you probably don’t want to change the way you fire up a kiln for a project you’d spent the past four months on). You’re creating an opportunity to get better results, or different ones. I discovered this saying through author Neal Pasricha’s book You Are Awesome: “Different is better than better.” Author Laura Huang writes a different version in her book Edge: “Different isn’t always better, but better is always different.”

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