Trick 31. Adopt a Hero
Break down the walls of what you think of as reality; you might find some interesting solutions. A problem to you might not be a problem to someone you adopt as a hero.
- With my character Fred’s luck, what would happen next?
- What would happen next in a 1940s movie musical?
- What would happen next in a dream?
Some of your most fruitful thinking can occur when you deliberately switch to another way of looking at things. You can think of these switches as being like key changes in a piece of music. For example, you can obtain useful effects by unexpectedly switching “keys” in the middle of a work of fiction from space opera to soap opera.
Modulating from the sublime (such as sainthood) to the ridiculous (such as platform shoes in a 1970s disco) is a comic effect known as bathos, but it’s equally possible to modulate from the ridiculous back to the sublime. James Joyce’s book Finnegans Wake often fuses chords of the sublime, the ridiculous, and the grittily political not just within a paragraph or a sentence, but often within a single word. (You can, too, if you put your words in the blender [Trick #50].)
Changing conceptual keys works for all forms of artat least, in some situations. Imagine that you’re an architect or an interior decorator. You might decide that you want the entry to a house to have Gothic sweep, but that a more intimate interior meditation room should be styled after a Japanese zendo.
The most useful key change for problem solving, as well as certain art forms, might not be adopting another style, but adopting the entire worldview of another person, creature, or even inanimate object.
Let’s change the key of this Trick from music to religion. Consider the short-duration personal savior (ShorDurPerSav).1 By temporarily (for a short duration, as opposed to the rest of your life) adopting the viewpoint of another person, even an imaginary oneor one you would ordinarily find repugnantyou can learn much.
Why limit yourself to asking, “What would Jesus do?” (WWJD?) when you can not only ask “WWBD?” (“What would Buddha do?”) or “WWMD?” (“What would Mohammed do?”), but also:
- What would Bugs Bunny do?
- What would Marcus Aurelius do?
- What would Mary Poppins do?
- What would Richard M. Stallman do?
- What would Scarlett O’Hara do?
- What would your mom do?
Get all New-Agey for a minute and channel that person. Although this Trick is related to the old occult idea of the magical personality, you don’t have to believe that you’re literally in contact with another being magically; what you’re after is the state of mind you’re in when you see a movie, or when you act in one. What would that person do? How would she solve your problem?
When you watch Gone with the Wind, you don’t literally believe that Scarlett O’Hara exists, but a chill goes through you (admit it!) when she raises her fist to the sky and cries, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” Most of the time, you’re empathizing with her, feeling what she’s feeling, but you can go a step further: you can emulate Scarlett in the same way that a desktop PC circa 2005 can emulate a Commodore 64 circa 1980. The worldview of another person, even (or especially) a fictional one, is like a program that your brain can run.
Try it now. How would each of these people or characters react to finding that they had a flat tire?
What would Bugs Bunny do?
- He’d be undaunted, with absolute faith in himself. If he didn’t have a spare, he might trick someone into giving him hers or find another way to get there. And if he couldn’t do that, he’d sit down in the shade and whip out a banjo to pass the time.
What would Marcus Aurelius do?
- He’d calmly fix the tire or, failing that, endure the flat tire without sinking into crippling self-pity or anger at the uncaring gods.
What would Mary Poppins do?
- She’d make fixing the flat tire into a game!
What would Richard Stallman do?
- He’d appeal to random passersby on ethical grounds to share their individual talents and help him fix the tire.
What would Scarlett O’Hara do?
- The young Scarlett would use her charm to get someone else to fix it. The older Scarlett would steal someone else’s tire if she didn’t have a spare, using brute force if necessary.
What would your mom do?
- I don’t know; what would your mom do?
How It Works
Actors must learn how to become another person during a performance. Part of the technique of method acting is deliberately not interfering with the process, but letting the alternative personality come through and not censoring its thoughts. Preparation for method acting involves accessing actors’ personal memories of the emotions that must be brought forth to give the performance life. They draw on their inner resources to call forth emotions they have experienced at other times and places, and then transform them into the words and motions of the characters they’re playing.2
Psychotherapists sometimes use role-playing to feel their clients’ emotions instead of intellectualizing about them. This helps the therapists understand their clients better. Having a supervisor and a set procedure for de-roling afterward enables a therapist to go deeply into the experience.3
In Real Life
The next time you’re confronted with a daunting 11-page tax form, try method-acting a tax attorney. Knowing that there are people who don’t mind such forms doesn’t make the task of filling them out easy, but adopting the mindset of an attorney who sees such forms every day, and who is anything but intimidated by them, can help.
Such confidence might even help you find more advantageous ways to fill out the forms that you might not have thought about. You might also want to adopt another personality trait: eagerness to finishing the task. If you know someone named Fred with that personality trait, go ahead and ask yourself, WWFD?
One of my friends role-played a bird and learned that wing beats are synchronized with a bird’s breathing, which turned out to be true. Albert Einstein contributed to his theories of relativity by imagining he was a photon, and Jonas Salk made progress on his polio vaccine by fantasizing that he was a virus.
Whether it’s Scarlett O’Hara’s spunk or the knowledge of what it’s like to travel at the speed of light, by pretending to be what we’re not and switching to other modes of thought, we can often gain access to information and abilities that we don’t normally use.