You Need More Weird

What do you do when you need to solve a problem creatively? Me, I go for a walk, preferably in the woods. It’s about as far away from the desk and computer as possible, and somehow getting outside of the box that is my office helps me to think outside of the metaphorical box as well. Maybe it’s the fresh air, maybe it’s the exercise. Or maybe, it’s putting my physical head in a different (head)space that helps me to think differently.

Psychologists are finding that being outside, being an outsider, or even just being exposed to the straight-up strange can help you think weirder, that is, more creatively. That artists, authors, and other hyper-creative folks are often a little bit odd is almost a cliche. Think of the artists who did their best work while under the influence of drugs, mental illness, or drastic dislocations.

The good news is that you might not have to go so far. Psychologists are able to measure increases in creative problem solving simply by exposing people to weirdness. And you don’t have to go on a magic-mushroom trip to get there either. In one study, this was playing in an upside-down VR world before answering a questionnaire, for instance. Ray Wilson meant it tongue-in-cheek when he suggested that building a silly synthesizer would help you think, but who’s laughing now that science is backing him up?

So if you find yourself, as I do, stuck inside the same four walls, make sure that you break out of the box from time to time. Expose your brain to weird, for your own creativity’s sake. Make some time for a completely wacky project. And of course, read more Hackaday! (We’ve got weird.)

This article is part of the newsletter, delivered every seven days for each of the last 200+ weeks. It also includes our favorite articles from the last seven days that you can see on the web version of the newsletter.

Want this type of article to hit your inbox every Friday morning? You should sign up!

61 thoughts on “You Need More Weird

      1. Well, the downside with weed is that the higher you get, the dumber the ideas, but the better they seem. It’s a fine line before your increased creativity meets your lowering standards.

  1. I find that defining my “goal” is a good first start. Good answers don’t always present themselves immediately, so I let it “percolate”. Many times, after one or more good nights’ sleep, the mind’s ability to analyze problems during sleep presents a solution upon awakening.

    1. I concur, my best ideas come to me fully formed after a period of rest or distraction having previously filled my memory with a lot of related knowledge. It is as if the brain can take that cloud of associated data and collapse it down into something coherent if you just let go of control for a bit. Perhaps the conscious mind sits happily in local minima but only the entire brain’s functions operating in concert can find the global minima and move the conscious mind into it.

  2. Also I’d like to take this opportunity to demand that the absurdist in you falls immediately and completely in love with the works of Terry Pratchett RIGHT NOW.

    Start with “The Colour of Magic” book, audio book, or the TV movie is actually reasonable and findable on major video sites.

    1. I was dubious as hell about the movie, I genuinely didn’t think it could be effectively captured on film. Rarely have I ever been so happy to be proven wrong. The Hogfather was damn good too.

      1. Triz is a methdology to solve problems that involve contradictions and thus hard to break by trial and error. It dates back from 60s annd evoluted in many tools like the contradiction matrix, the interaction-substance method and the effects bank. There are many free sources of material online to learn it. Personally I consider it mind changing, because you use a method to reduce the search space to find a solution. It is a very useful skill for any engineer or technician to learn.
        I came by chance on Triz on an internal training at work and I remember that one of my colleagues that was the instructor opened its presentation about the matter saying that after the first lecture we will learn how to walk over the water – and it was true!! lol!!

  3. This is why the loss of the “Stumbleupon” website was such a tragedy. I used to use that to find so much useful creative stuff that I didn’t know I wanted.

    I’m desperate for another recommendation engine where I can put in different categories and get a wide array of random themed inputs. like what I used to get from Stumbleupon.

    1. I miss webrings and actual user-curated content as opposed to search algorithms and “curated” content that’s actually just a pile of barely-groomed manure presented by advertisers / AI / opaque algorithms built by silicon valley aspies. It’s the worst.

      1. You can still find your way into those kind of sites, on still functioning webrings, it’s a bit like an alternate universe because anyone who has ever heard of SEO is in the thousand results before those sites, but they’re still out there.

  4. I have been collecting books and methods on creativity for 60 years. TRIZ/ARIZ is a fantastic left-brain pump for creating hundreds of new ideas, and I know researchers who use this as a basis for discovering paths to inventions using AI. Some other methods, like those derived from Alex Osborne’s and Sidney Parnes’ lists are similarly effective.

    One of my favorite books on this is Michael Michalko’s book, “Thinkertoys”. The book divides methods into “right-brain” and “left-brain” tools, and (believe me!) the right-brain tools can lead to incredible weirdness. This study mentioned in this Hackaday article shows how lateral thinking and weirdness lead to a different kind of creativity from TRIZ; No amount of incremental thinking and improvement would have turned a candle into a light bulb, although TRIZ, at it’s highest level of abstraction, might have generated hundreds of alternatives.

    1. Right, what if all light bulbs were plumbed in re-usable cyalume sticks (More advanced) and you had to get fresh chemicals pumped in, or brought by tanker. Alt universe, electricity is a lab curiosity, they do everything with chemicals, DNA or protein based logic etc.

    2. > No amount of incremental thinking and improvement would have turned a candle into a light bulb

      That’s just lack of imagination and ignorance of history.

      Candles in fact did evolve into light bulbs through first improving the fuel (kerosene/gas light), then adding an incandescent gas mantle with glowing metal oxides to get more light out of it, then substituting the brittle mantle with a solid block of metal oxides heated by a blowtorch (limelight) powered by oxygen and hydrogen from an electrolysis machine. This created an even brighter light that was used in stage lighting. Then the blowtorch was taken out and a rod of oxides was heated directly with electricity to make the Nernst lamp.

      The Nernst lamp would not conduct before it was heated enough, so it had a metal wire heater next to the oxide rod that would start it. If the wire burned out, which it eventually would because the lamp was open to air, you could start the lamp by holding a burning match to it. By this point however, it was perfectly obvious that a glowing wire by itself would be a fine light if there was something that kept it from burning out…

  5. It may not always be weird, just different. I often find answers for problems, not sitting in front of the keyboard, but when I do something with my hands. Yard work, washing dishes, and most definitely getting outdoors. Sometimes the best thing when you hit a real problem is to put it aside and do something different. I am often glad that I didn’t just sit focused on the problem because I get a whole different big perspective on it and a much better solution. Being in a rush doesn’t allow for this “setting it aside” and works against quality solutions.

    1. Right. To fully describe this for the extreme n00b at it, it’s not like you get overwhelmed by enormity of a problem and perform displacement activity until it goes away. That doesn’t work. What you need to do is load up your thinker with every aspect of the problem, all the details, why it’s a problem, what type of solutions have been attempted in the past, everything you can possibly find relating to it… THEN you let it stew at the back of your mind while doing other things. To the outsider it may seem like those experienced in a field do the first thing, when in fact they know the problem intimately already, this happens for some problems not others.

      1. I can personally attest I’ve had some of my brightest ideas by something like this method.

        Specifically, when I still had natural hyperfocus in reading, most of my life, I would spend days pouring through technical texts in my fields, historical texhnical texts, and try to force myself to understand everything as I went if there were outdated mechanical concepts or metallurgy issues. I would do this everywhere to the deck of a sailboat and forget my surroundings.

        Then I’d typically drive to somewhere I’d never been, find a forest, and go for a walk. Releasing my mind from that regimen in unfamiliar territory left me unable to hold back a deluge of new ideas and interpretations.

        This is a wonderful thread I think. I will be looking up TRIZ/ARIZ and others. The ultimate hack- rewiring your own brain.

          1. There’s a big difference, as Eno’s method is still based on stimulating creativity, while TRIZ is a methodology to get to one (or many) solutions without having to rely on creativity.
            The 40 principles are one of many tools and you don’t pick them at random. You use two contradictory aspects of a problem to use as coordinates on a table that lead to the most probable principles you should try first.
            For example if you want to improve the speed of an object and maintain its stability then you should try to apply principles 28, 33, 1 or 18 to your solution. See for yourself at

            You may also experiment a more advanced tool, like the effects database:

            There you can search for physical effects that are used to perform stuff and you will probable find possible solutions that are far beyond what you’ll ever know like detecting a gas through hot chocolate effect.

          2. hah – came here to bring up Oblique Strategies.

            Here’s an online variant:

            … and there’s also a free app for it on the Play store.

            I’d never heard of that TRIZ thing, so thanks all for that.

            And finally, I’ve always been a believer in loading the brain with a task and background info, then just letting it cook – sleep on it, go play at something fun, go for a walk, etc. It usually results in new insights.

  6. i’ve been saying this for years. my personal projects sometimes take many years to complete, despite having a low cost or parts count. i let the projects sit somewhere i’m always walking past them, and then just go about the rest of my life. many times things strike me in day to day life that end up being a better solution than the one i originally had.

    my most recent project required a linear led optic that didn’t exist 3 years ago to the public (but many commercial designs were in production) when i started the project. now the market has caught up, and i have my linear optic. it’s on to other problems. like creative thermal dissipation.

    1. I know right, all that pointless reverse engineering when you can get a set of software, control and behavioural protocols practically free from the Humane Society and just build Mr Tibbles a mech suit.

    2. One word: Car. ;) And yes, they could sometimes move themselves without intervention until engine technology improved – a hot engine could ignite unburned fuel in the cylinders. Then there are all the things which could go wrong while running. Some engines could occasionally reverse direction while idling! I knew a guy who had that happen once in his 50s motorbike. The lights turned green, he put it into gear, and the bike went backward! :D More seriously and more commonly, brake failure was always a concern until better fluids and pad materials appeared in the 80s or 90s. Metal fatigue was also a terrifying possibility until steel technology improved.

      All of humanity was completely insane when they accepted cars on the road. Of course, the insanity was already there or we wouldn’t have railways, and railways developed to support coal mining, which in turn was necessary to support 16th/17th British cities as a natural weather cycle made the country colder and colder until, in one year, the snow in London didn’t melt until June. Wait, necessary? Britain had overseas holdings by then, so why didn’t the population just move? ;)

  7. It is worth bearing in mind that there is a thin line between creative and weird. And of course some of the distinction is in the eye of the beholder. As the saying goes, “Art is what you like”. Now I find myself thinking of the golden days of the “far side” comics.

  8. Going for a walk is so good for many things… Not just problem solving.

    Unfortunately we’ve been banned from doing so for 6 weeks now, it’s really hard to keep motivated.

    1. Oops, wrong button, that darn “Report comment” thing. Anyway, I just wanted to say, “why the trouble keeping motivated?” So many people view the current situation as a hindrance. For me it has been a fabulous opportunity. I am getting things done like crazy and swearing that when this is over I am not going to reengage a lot of things that used to keep me busy. So it is a question of if you view the glass as half full or half empty.

  9. I do not have an artistic bone in my body, but I know creativity and ingenuity when I see it. This article is close to being the group-think process that Google et al uses to vet and interview job applicants – and all Apple and Google (current and former) employees that I have ever been associated with casually or professionally are similar in outlook, skills, education, and middle-class childhoods. And they all considered their mundane and self-evident work to be creative.

    The most brilliant and ‘creative’ engineer that I have worked with was a former boss. He was one of the cool guys in high school; that is a member of the ‘in’ crowd. He went to school for four years, got his engineering degree, got married, bought a house, had children, blah blah blah. And he continually came up with the most effective, elegant, and brilliant solutions to difficult power conversion problems. He remedy for solving supposedly intractable problems was to go home early and talk to his wife.

    Is this anecdotal? Not in my and others experience. There have been some well-known eccentrics in the engineering community (Wildar is the common example), but for every wacky engineer there are hundreds of boring and common people that do their job quietly and effectively, and go home every day to the dog and spouse and kids. But this does not make good press.

    Am I normal? My wife does no believe me to be within the norms of society – but both the cat and the dog assure me that I am quite normal. But I am not a brilliant engineer…

  10. I prefer sitting and staring at a fire at night for problem-solving/creativity… Sometimes its a small outdoor fire, or in the winter its the kerosene heater in the garage with the lights off.

  11. Ok, this fantastic art that’s at the top. The URL is April 2016, filename “calibration”, and yet looking back again I didn’t find anything during that month. Did I miss it, or did this fantastic drawing just get shelved until it was paired with this article?

  12. To solve a problem, I like to eliminate all known solutions and get to the root. The root is even before the problem. Then the probem can be solved without a solution to that problem.

  13. Going for a walk never helps my ideas, probably due to the post-exertional malaise I get. Reading is the big thing for me, giving ideas tangential to what I’ve read and further ideas tangential to those.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.