Bloomberg APRIL 1, 2021 - by Jess Shankleman


The musician's deck of cards contains random phrases that help provide a new perspective when he's stuck.

When Roxy Music was making its second album in 1972, synth player Brian Eno found the stress of the recording studio stifled his creativity. "In the pressure situation, you tend to fall back on the old solutions," he says. "You don't want to take the risk of going down a road that doesn't pay off at all. And then you get stuck, because you're not excited."

To calm his nerves and remind himself that mistakes can open up new opportunities, Eno picked up a notecard and jotted down "honour thy error as a hidden intention." Over the next few months, he wrote a dozen more cards with gnomic suggestions such as "trust in the you of now" and "decorate, decorate."

In 1975, he and painter Peter Schmidt printed a limited edition of five hundred decks of the cards, calling them Oblique Strategies: Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas. Each contained a hundred and thirteen instructions intended to be drawn at random when an artist's creativity was flagging. Throughout the 1970s, they created three more limited-edition packs, each slightly revised, and later they had them translated into French and Japanese.

The idea is to help users put themselves into an unfamiliar place, Eno says, forcing them to be alert and gain perspective on a situation. In 1977 Eno and David Bowie drew from the deck to push their creative limits while recording Heroes in Berlin.

Today the cards are more broadly available and have been used by the likes of celebrity chef/writer Ian Knauer and poet Simon Armitage. Eno says he once even met a brain surgeon who claimed to use them in his work. "I told him to stop," he deadpans. He'd designed them for artists, not scientists.

In recent years, organizations and businesses have begun to understand that creativity isn't just for an artist at an easel or a poet crouched over his notebook. It's a mistake to think some people are creative and some aren't, says Balder Onarheim, co-founder of the Copenhagen Institute of NeuroCreativity.

Neuroscientists view creativity as a cognitive skill, like math or memory, that can be learned, measured, and strengthened. In a prehistoric context, Onarheim says, the caveman who found a way to hold off or distract a lion rather than simply fleeing with the rest of the crowd was more likely to live to see another day. "You outsmart the others, whether that's making a tool to scare off the lion or whatever," he says. "The one who is thinking differently from the rest has a better chance of survival."

Similarly, creativity can today give people a competitive edge in any profession, from firefighting to oil trading. The challenge is knowing when we need to be creative and how to do it, Onarheim says. Creativity requires a lot of energy, and the brain is designed to conserve energy, especially in stressful situations, so "if it can reuse an old pattern, it will," he says. "For most people, it's actually about knowing when to help push your brain out of the normal way of dealing with things."

When seeking inspiration, many people look for ideas around issues similar to the one they're stuck on. The genius of Oblique Strategies, says Onarheim, is that it introduces an element of randomness that breaks that mold. It's the same reason people often have their best ideas in the shower or on a walk through the woods rather than sitting at a desk.

Here are some other tips from Eno and Onarheim on how to build creative muscle:

Seek serendipity. Flip through a book and start reading where your fingers alight, or click the "random article" tab on Wikipedia. You'll likely learn something new. Eno says he's never been disappointed.

Change your perspective. When seeking inspiration, separate yourself from the matter at hand or the medium you're working in. So if you're looking for a new color for your bedroom walls, skip the paint shop and go to the zoo or a museum.

Play a game. Eno recommends the French card game Dixit, which asks players to find enigmatic phrases or sounds to describe dreamlike pictures.

Stretch your mind. Onarheim frequently tries to think of a series of words with no connection to each other - what you might call "word disassociation" rather than word association.