YALE PSYCHOLOGIST Alan E. Kazdin did an
experiment with kids suffering from "conduct disorder"
young people prone to violence, vandalism, truancy, and
Many things have been tried over the years
but not much has been successful. How do you change a problem
child into a healthy, happy, productive youngster? Theories abound.
Results are rare.
Kazdin tried something unusual. He trained
the trouble-making kids and their parents how to think up options
for handling situations, and to come up with different ways of
interpreting situations other ways besides using hostility.
The result: Troublemaking was significantly
When the only response you have is hostility,
that's what you do, regardless of whether it gets you the results
you're after. Kazdin trained these people essentially to ask
themselves, What else? The parents and their kids learned
to say to themselves before they responded to something, "Okay,
I could do that (what I've always done), but what else
could I do?" He taught them to think of new options they
hadn't thought of before.
And also he taught them to ask, "What
else could it mean?" When someone bumped into them,
for example, instead of immediately interpreting it as a hostile
attack or a threat, they learned to ask themselves, "Okay,
it might mean that, but what else could it mean?"
It seems a simple solution to a difficult
problem. But it's harder than it seems. Our minds are designed
to streamline our mental processes. Asking what else?
makes the decision-process more complex. So it takes some deliberate
effort to turn your mind to the task of coming up with alternative
This method is useful in many different
ways. As I'm writing this, it's really cold outside, and even
though a little while ago I had the heater turned up and my feet
covered, my feet were still as cold as ice. Turning the heater
up and covering my feet were obvious solutions. But, I asked
myself, what else might work? What else could I do?
When you ask yourself a question, it awakens
a part of your brain that answers questions. Ask a question,
and your mind seems to search through all the things you've heard
or know, and it often comes up with something.
I remembered my wife once telling me, "If
your hands are cold, cover your head." She used to live
in Lake Tahoe, and she learned a thing or two about dealing with
cold weather. I grew up in Southern California and didn't know
much about it.
So a little while ago I put a wool hat
on. My feet aren't cold any more.
It's such a valuable question. It's especially useful when you've
been doing something a certain way for a long time. I'm always
surprised when someone comes up with a new way to do something
that's been done for a long time, because it makes me think,
"Now why didn't I think of that?" Once you see the
new way, it seems kind of obvious. But it took somebody asking
what else? to come up with it.
"Unaware of Mind's effect in patterning
and enslaving their lives," wrote William Bartley III, "people
live in a state of waking sleep, in a state of enchantment, of
mesmerism, most of the time. Every day, in every way, they become
more and more the way they have always been."
A couple of days ago I saw measuring spoons,
but rather than having a separate spoon for teaspoons and tablespoons
and halves and fourths, it was a single spoon with one end of
the cupped part capable of sliding back and fourth, making the
cup bigger or smaller, and there were lines on it for teaspoon
and half teaspoon, etc. Why didn't I think of that? Because I
didn't ask, "What else could measure teaspoons besides
the measuring spoon I'm so familiar with?"
DO SOMETHING ELSE
is an especially practical question when what you usually do
doesn't work very well. Besides getting miffed when a certain
person makes certain kinds of remarks, what else could
you do? You can do a certain task grudgingly, but how else
could you do it? What other ways could you go about it? In what
other ways could you think about it? When you interact
with your teenager, and you both end up angry, ask yourself,
"What else could I do?" What other approaches or responses
can you think up besides what you normally do?
Here's a good rule: If what you're doing
isn't working, do something else.
Of course, you don't want to go with something
just because it's different, because in point of fact, the new
idea might be worse.
Creativity is the process of thinking up
new ideas and then rejecting most of them. But those are two
processes, and the parts of your brains involved in each are
different, so they can't really be done at the same time. In
other words, when you're thinking up alternatives, don't judge
the ideas for their merits at the same time. Let your mind go.
Let it come up with crazy ideas, off the wall angles, impossible
notions. This stretches your mind beyond the limits within which
your thinking has been confined. Out of that loosened-up state
of mind, a truly original idea and sometimes a perfect solution
can suddenly become obvious. You just couldn't see it before
because you were unknowingly confining your thinking about that
subject within certain parameters.
Think up ideas, and keep thinking them
up until you get a good one. And if it's important enough, and
you have the time, keep thinking up ideas, keep asking what
else? and see if you can come up with an even better one.
The best way to characterize "thinking"
is as a dialogue. Consider thinking as a dialog with yourself.
I know that if it is with yourself it's supposed to be called
a monologue, but thinking isn't done very well as a monologue
because there is nothing to provoke the thoughts further. A monologue
is an expression of an already-decided thought. Dialogue can
create something new.
Have a thought and then criticize it and
you have a dialogue. Come up with an idea and then ask, "What
else?" and you have dialogue, and that's where good thinking
"Well, my in-laws are coming over,"
says Pete to himself, "and they always drive me nuts. Maybe
I'll just not say anything."
If Pete stops there, his monologue has
created one idea. But this time he has a dialogue with
himself, and thereby becomes more creative. "Yes, I could
try that," he says to himself, " but what else
"What else might work for what? I
guess I need a goal if I want to think up an idea to solve it.
I need to know what I'm trying to accomplish."
"I want to feel happy even when they
"Do I feel happy when I say nothing?"
"No. I've tried that before. It's
not much fun. It's a little better than being annoyed, but I'm
definitely not happy."
"So what else could I do?"
"Since I want to be happy, I should
do what makes me happy. I really enjoy playing my new video game.
Maybe I can enlist one of them to play with me."
"Good idea. But I'm not going to stop
there. What else could I do?"
"I like talking about politics. I
could make that my theme for the night. I could turn every conversation
to the subject of politics."
"That's a good one. What else
could I do?"
And so on. The more Pete asks, the more
he'll get. Some of his ideas will be goofy or won't work very
well, but thinking is like good photography: You take several
rolls and get rid of almost all of them. You'll have maybe two
or three good ones, but they were worth all the waste.
All creativity is like that. You generate
lots of ideas and throw out most of them. But in generating so
many, you have more to choose from, so your chances of getting
a better one improve as the number of ideas increases. And the
way to get many ideas is to keep asking, "What else?"
Ask yourself, "What else
could I do?"
or "What else could it mean?"
and keep asking.