Divination and getting unstuck
I was listening to a Kevin Kelly (founder of WIRED) interview earlier this week because I follow anything related to that man. His life is a model for how we can have an enormous impact on the world by just following your gut and doing cool things and his work provides clear frameworks for how the creative individual can think about making a living by doing what they love. If you haven’t heard of him, I might start with his essay on 1,000 True Fans.
In this particular interview, Kelly brings up a tool that Brian Eno created in the 70s called Oblique Strategies--a deck of cards with aphorisms designed to help creative people get unstuck. There’s an online version of the deck if you’re curious what’s on the cards.
Kelly brings up this deck of cards in the context of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and the rapid union of science fiction and reality. Just as digitizing and connecting everything transformed virtually every industry over the last couple decades, he thinks adding AI to everything will change the immediate future. For us to do this effectively, we need to deploy “lateral thinking”--the process of solving problems through an indirect and creative approach--instead of just hard logic.
One way to manufacture lateral thinking is to introduce concepts from one realm to another in a systematic way--hence Eno’s Oblique Strategies. I actually created something similar for coming up with startup ideas before I’d heard of lateral thinking. In both cases, one deploys these randomly generated prompts to trigger ideas and inspiration, to find guidance, when they’ve walked the length of their logic and don’t know where else to go.
This morning, I did a bit more research on Oblique Strategies and learned the Eno designed his deck based on an ancient Chinese divination text called the I Ching--a system of 64 hexagrams, each with its own meaning--that was used by producing random numbers to determine divine intent. A professional soothsayer (haha what a time to be alive) would take a bunch of stalks from a yarrow plant and randomly arrange them to determine which hexagrams to interpret. Ancient narratives describe more than twenty successful divination for royal families between 671 BC and 487 BC.
Back then, in ancient China, there was this feeling of being humbled by the world, of ultimately having no control over “divine” forces. There was great power in the unknown, and divination texts like the I Ching and the practice of soothsaying through it were helpful ways to make decisions when there wasn’t anything better to rely on. Those in power didn’t feel sure enough of their understanding of the world to know to choose one over the other but they still needed to make a decision.
In 2015, we feel a much greater mastery of our environments. We feel as if we basically figured out how everything works around us and that there’s a “right” answer available to us in any given situation. This serves us well for the most part, but it can make the experience of feeling “stuck” very painful. We’re supposed to be able to reason our way through anything, so when we don’t know what else to write in our paper or what else to do in our company, we blame ourselves for not coming up with a clear and executable answer.
We need to realize that sometimes logic will fail us, and sometimes our logic is based on the wrong assumptions. Sometimes we need our own version of the I Ching or Oblique Strategies to help us trigger the type of thinking we need to get unstuck. It might be as simple as a deck of index cards you can depend on any time you feel out of options or I don’t know maybe you create a set of divine hexagrams. The important thing is to accept and celebrate the feeling of logic failing you and to know that there’s always more to access. Sometimes when the central path disappears, you have to go lateral.
Recommended reading - 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense - gr