Get Creative Friday Series — Releasing The 10 Mental Locks To Creativity

Get Creative Friday Series — Releasing The 10 Mental Locks To Creativity

Let’s face it, being creative is not getting any easier these days.

Famous creativity expert Roger von Oech believes mental locks are the reason. His seminars and products have enriched the creativity of millions of people around the world. He is the author of the classic A Whack on the Side of the Head and other books. Roger is a fellow Ohio State alumnus and after meeting him at my company annual meeting, I began using his methods to create award-winning campaigns for a variety of brands.

“The hallmark of creative people is their mental flexibility. They are able to shift in and out of different types of thinking depending on the needs of the situation at hand. Sometimes, they’re open and probing, at others, they’re playful and off-the-wall. At still others, they’re critical and fault-finding. And finally, they’re doggedly persistent in striving to reach their goals.”

Von Oech has identified 10 mental locks and offers strategies for breaking them and releasing our creativity.

The 10 mental locks include: 1. The Right Answer 2. That’s Not Logical 3. Follow the Rules 4. Be Practical 5. Play is Frivolous 6. That’s Not My Area 7. Don’t Be Foolish 8. Avoiding Ambiguity 9. To Err Is Wrong 10. I’m Not Creative.

Throughout school and business, we have been rewarded for “The Right Answer.” In math and sciences, the right answer is clear and usually the only one. But in liberal arts and the rest of life, there are a range of possible answers to questions based on many factors. Von Oech proposes to not look at life as a series of problems that need to be solved but rather as opportunities. Ask “what if? and gobs of right answers may appear. Even change the question about your challenge. “Different words bring in different assumptions and lead your thinking in different directions.”

When we are stuck in the “That’s Not Logical” mental lock, the worst consequence is failing to be open to the intuitive hunch. Von Oech defines two types of thinking – soft and hard. Soft thinking is like a floodlight, searching for similarities and connections in things.  Hard thinking is like a spotlight, looking for differences in things. In the creative process, when gathering ideas, there are two phases that should operate at different times in the process: the imaginative phase which uses soft thinking and the practical phase which applies hard thinking. In the imaginative phase, we “think something different” and in the practical phase our focus is on “getting something done.” The best way to fight off logical thinking if using metaphors to describe problems or concepts.  Could this be like making lemons from lemonade?

“It’s difficult to be innovative if you’re following blind assumptions.” To be innovative and conquer the mental lock of “Follow the Rules,” we need to play devil’s advocate and not get trapped by what von Oech terms the “Aslan Phenomenon.” In this phenomenon, we continue to follow rules long after any value-changes have taken place, but we don’t evaluate the rules and modify them to reflect new information, development and so on. “Creative thinking involves not only generating new ideas, but escaping from obsolete ones as well.”

We are told from the beginning to stop daydreaming and “Be Practical.” A dangerous habit is to shoot down others ideas, instantly finding issues with them. This behavior kills the opportunity for newness and for the creative and innovative to emerge. We need to resist our “negative” perspective and listen to ideas with an open mind that seeks and initially explores all the positive aspects. There is time for the judge’s practical, hard thinking mind when we are ready to talk about the reality of “what is.” Meanwhile, we will benefit greatly from “what-iffing” as we did so freely as kids. A great suggestion von Oech makes is that when we shoot down someone else’s idea, we must provide an alternative idea that both people like. This puts a constructive, positive spin on the judge and requires us each to remain open and stretch our minds outside the box.


Creativity requires incubation. Framing a problem as a question is like planting a seed. Once the seed is planted, we need to step back and give the seed a chance to begin growing, spread out its root system. How can we best do this? Play, play, play. Do anything you want but don’t focus on the problem. Answers will come in the strangest places, at the oddest times. Companies that live a mission that promotes creativity often give their employees freedom to play, knowing it is the results of playtime where great ideas often emerge. They are not trapped in the mental lock that “Play is Frivolous.”

Tunnel vision or living in the world with the attitude, “That’s Not My Area” is a recipe for getting stuck and yielding no creative ideas. Leaving the beaten path, creating project teams with members from diverse disciplines and simply having lunch with someone from a totally different world are all ways to attack this mental lock. Keep that notebook close at all times to write down ideas which come whenever any time and where ever.

“There is a close relationship between the “haha” of humor and the “aha” of discovery.”  So be foolish von Oech recommends. Be stupid, reverse your perspective on things, learn to laugh at yourself. Although playing the fool may not solve problems, it gets us out of ruts and we often learn important things if we break out of the “Don’t Be Foolish” mental lock.

When the judge is at work, clarity is most often desirable, ambiguity less so. This mental lock is “Avoiding Ambiguity.” However, when the artist works, ambiguity is another method for helping us access our creative, imaginative spirit. The oracle is a tool many cultures have to help “make sense of ambiguous situations”. The Whack Pack, now a Von Oech app or used as a deck of cards can act as an oracle. To use it we need three things: questions to ask the oracle, a tool to generate a random piece of information and an attitude that interprets the resulting random piece of information as the answer to the question.  Another strategy we can use is listening to our dreams as often inside our dreams are answers to problems.

“To Err is Wrong” is just wrong when it comes to developing our creative ability. Making mistakes is a critical part of learning. Thomas Edison discovered 1800 ways not to make a light bulb. Taking risks requires exercising the “risk muscle,” and remain flexible and minimize our fear. Performance experts recommend feeling the fear and taking a step into the fear regardless of the possible consequences. Stepping outside our comfort zone and risking being wrong is where the greatest of ideas emerge.

The self-fulfilling prophecy is powerful. When we are mentally locked thinking, “I’m Not Creative,” chances are high, we won’t be. Unlocking the last mental lock requires having faith in your ideas and then using the tools suggested here to overcome the other nine mental locks to being creative.

What mental locks impede your creativity?

No Comments

Give a Reply