How A Deck of Cards Developed By Rock Band U2s Producer Can Help You Totally Rethink The Way You Approach Problem Solving

How A Deck of Cards Developed By Rock Band U2s Producer Can Help You Totally Rethink The Way You Approach Problem Solving

Written by Craig Rogers, Posted on , in Section Relationships That Matter

In 1975, musician Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt had a conversation about how they each sought to overcome the problem of becoming creatively blocked. Writer's block, as it is typically known, is the biggest enemy for most artists. But perhaps writer's block does not pertain solely to artists.

What is writer's block, but an inability to solve a problem? If we adopt the viewpoint that almost everything we labor over can be described as a problem (i.e., not just how do I know what happens next to this character, or what abstract object to paint next, but also how to get a promotion, how to grow your business, how to be a better husband, how to be a better father, etc). This is something that truly affects each of us every single day.

Personally, I cannot remember the last day I had where I didn't have to use some kind of creativity to overcome a personal or work related struggle.

Sometimes we allow ourselves to become intellectually lazy in the way that we approach our problems. We resort to the same tried and true methods that might sometimes keep the issues at bay, but inevitably, we will probably face the same problem again, and most likely sooner rather than later. Perhaps it is this staid way of thinking that is the problem itself? Perhaps we are not thinking creatively enough when we try to find solutions. Maybe we don't think enough like artists. Maybe we have been trained to be scared to think in unconventional ways.

The young Brian Eno, who would go on to record several seminal albums for U2, David Bowie, Coldplay and countless others, along with his friend Peter Schmidt, set about creating a system that would help them to divert the conventional pathways that so often lead to getting creatively blocked. Just like in business, relationships and all other areas of life, musicians and painters have typical behaviors that lead to the same problems over and over again.

Some problems have easy solutions and others, well, I hesitate to write that they have difficult solutions, but certainly some solutions are more difficult to uncover than others. Solutions should be simple once we discover them. An example of an easy solution that Eno was fond of citing was this heuristic taken from the academic Anthony Stafford Beer, regarding how you could give a man instructions in order to help him reach the top of a mountain that is shrouded in fog: keep going up.

Eno and Schmidt sought to find solutions to the problems they faced in their work that reflected the simplicity of this mountaineering maxim. They developed a deck of cards and called them the Oblique Strategies. They printed a small edition of them, hand numbered them, and gave them to friends. Several times over the subsequent decades, Eno has revisited the cards and printed them, and they are now available for purchase from his website.

It's Always Worth Considering An Alternate Approach When It Comes to Making Important Decisions

To some, the cards are stupefyingly vague. To others, they are a deep well of continually renewing inspiration and guidance. I'm in the latter camp.


That is all that is printed on one of the cards. Some people may see that and think the whole thing is just a pretentious and pointless game. But stop for a second and really think about water. What is it? It's wet. It dries in the heat. It evaporates. It can be frozen or it can be steam. We are up to 50-65% water. We can cup our hands to try to contain it but it slips through the cracks between our fingers. The vast oceans. Water can take the shape of whatever you put it in. We can drink it, but we may also drown in it.

Now how can we apply that to a problem?

Recently, I was feeling very overwhelmed by a large workload. If I had seen this card, I might very well have concluded that if my job was water, I'd be drowning in it. Drowning is certainly not an effective way to get anything done. So how could I make the water more manageable? Well, I looked at my work and tried to assess whether I was working in the most effective way I could. Could I break my tasks down into smaller subtasks? Could I make my big goals into smaller goals? Was I doing extra work? Could I get the same, or better results, from doing less work but doing it much better?

The answer was simple. Yes. By taking a quantity of work that I was drowning in, dividing it into perfectly manageable cup-size, drinkable portions, I was able to make my work better and more effective.

If we are willing to engage alternative points of view and creatively confront conventional problems, we are much more likely to come up with surprisingly simple solutions.

The first step is to think. So often, we get stuck in the routinizing process of our day to day lives that we forget to analytically assess our roles, our tasks, our jobs, our relationships, our lives. By thinking broadly about these elements that define us, we will be more prepared to incorporate original ideas to help us overcome problems.

Another card in the deck reads:

Not building a wall but making a brick.

Can you think of a way that that could apply to a problem you're currently confronting?

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