Many of us are terrified of appearing foolish in public. We might be mocked, humiliated, laughed at or perhaps even alienated from the group, team or tribe. But what if there were very good reasons to play the fool? What if we are missing out on opportunities to be fearless and free because we are scared of looking stupid? In this month’s article we flip foolishness on its head and consider the benefits of being the fool. Read on to discover how clowning around might help you to connect to unexpected opportunities, inspiration and joy.
In his jaw-dropping documentary ‘The Push’, Derren Brown examines the power of social compliance and tests whether he can coerce a member of the public to push someone off a building. Over the space of 50 minutes, an elaborate psychological scenario- involving a team of 70 actors, 50 hidden cameras and a fake corpse (created by an Oscar Award Winning special effects artist)- manages to convince unknowing Business Owner, Chris Kingston, to carry out some terrible acts. It’s a daring and impressive set-up, involving special effects, weeks of rehearsals and first-class improvisers. But ultimately, what convinces Chris to act out of character is peer pressure: he is fearful of appearing out of place and looking foolish to the people around him. Yet, had he dared to be foolish- to speak up and stand out- he would’ve stopped the spiral of events that eventually lead him to the rooftop of a 50ft building.
Shakespeare certainly didn’t fear the fool. In fact, he acknowledged the power of the fool because he gave some of his wisest lines to his most foolish characters. As Touchstone says in ‘As you like it’: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” Perhaps it’s wise to think of ourselves as fools because they are fearless and free from the limitations of social and culture expectations. This isn’t just about celebrating April fool’s: it’s about appreciating all of our inner fools and finding more space for them to play about in our day-to-day lives. Here are three reasons good reasons why you should be a little more foolish!
1. Fight Fear
The worry around looking foolish in public is often tied up with fear and potential shame, both of which cripple creativity. When we are in a state of fear, we shut down possibilities and opportunities in order to limit danger and damage. The fear of conflict or disruption- even it is just a potential threat- can cause us to close off and comply. We want to stay safe, so we avoid anything out of the ordinary, different or potentially dangerous. It might seem as if it’s a choice between comfortable and creative but it’s actually the difference between limited and limitless. The illusion of ‘comfort’ is created by fear which feeds off itself and forces you into an even smaller box, which limits both the lens that you look through and the life that you live. The fearless fool on the other hand is like a jack-in-a-box, pushing through the glass ceiling of ‘what’s possible’ and into a world of untapped potential. So perhaps we should use foolishness to unpick the very fear of foolishness itself because “Sometimes you just have to play the role of the fool to fool the fool who thinks they are fooling you,”(Anonymous).
“Fear is the main source of superstition, and the main source of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”
– Bertrand Russel.
If we are ruled by fear then how will we ever reach our full potential? Susan Jeffers tells us to “feel the fear and do it anyway”, because if we feel the fear and don’t do anything then what might we be missing out on? Surely the fool is the very person who fears being the fool, a state that will impact their life decisions and the way they lead and work with the people around them. If you fear your inner fool then you are modelling a set of ideals that tells others that foolishness is unacceptable. However, if you share your foolish side with your team, family or group of friends, you allow others to do the same. You create a safe space that encourages them to step up and say something brave, ask an obvious question or make a silly joke!
A fantastic example of ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ is Daniel Kish, who grew up totally blind after having had both of his eyes removed at 13 months due to eye cancer. As a child he learnt to click his tongue in order to navigate his way around his surroundings. He climbed trees, explored the neighbourhood and by 6 years old, had learnt to ride a bike. However, this incredible progress was largely the result of ‘playing the fool.’ Many parents and teachers thought his clicking was socially unacceptable, even though it was his way of seeing the world. Sometimes he walked into walls or fell over but this ‘foolishness’ is what enabled a blind boy to see. When criticised for letting her blind son ride a bike, Daniel’s mum simply replied “how could I not?” (‘How to become batman’- Invisibilia). Not trying and never knowing was worse than trying and falling off. To use the wonderful words of George A. A. Martin, novelist and creator of Game of Thrones, “the greatest fools are ofttimes more clever than the men who laugh at them.”
One of the most important places we can use the fool is during the darkest moment of our lives. Fooling around can help us to see moments of light during intense periods of grief. I remember when I lost my partner Tom, I went to a support group which was full of sadness and grief. Whilst I’m sure it was great for some, it wasn’t what I needed and so I started reading up on alternative therapies. I was struck by a man in California who had lost his son and in spite of all of the devastation and heartbreak, he knew he wanted to find a better way to deal with his fear and sadness. So, he turned to improvisation and comedy and set up a support group for people experiencing similar pain and loss. Together they laugh, fool around and discover the potential for hope and healing.
2. Inspire innovative thinking
The story about the healing improv group brings us to our second reason to play the fool: innovation. Fooling around inspires innovative, creative thinking because playing puts us in our most creative state. During our workshops we run an improvisation game that encourages spontaneous thought. Initially people tend to play the game in a clunky, robotic way, sometimes finding it hard to think on the spot. However, when we get them into a state of play the game suddenly becomes simple and surprisingly fun! In a fear driven state, cortisol is released into the brain and stops us from being creative. So, the science shows us the importance of being silly because fooling around can positively affect the chemistry in your brain!
“We are educating people out of their creative capacities…I believe this passionately, that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it.”
– Ken Robinson
Most people find that they get their best ideas when they are going for a walk or laughing with friends. Which is why a silly, playful coffee break might be exactly what your team needs before a brainstorming session. Big, bold and brilliant ideas come from silly suggestions. Look at AirBnB, Uber and Netflix, 3 companies who have completely changed the way we holiday, travel and watch TV. Vinod Khosla, venture capitalist and cofounder of Sun Microsystems, commented that it was “irreverence, foolish confidence and naivety combined with persistence, open mindedness and a continual ability to learn that created Facebook, Google, Yahoo, eBay, Microsoft, Apple, Juniper, AOL, Sun Microsystems and others.” Disruptive innovation is the very thing that sounds foolish at the beginning and then of course…it’s so obvious! And like Shakespeare’s fools those crazy ideas from the disruptive innovators were in fact, very wise words.
Sir Ken Robinson is a big advocate of creativity in education and believes it’s as important as literacy. At school we are told to sit down and be quiet but then asked to come up with a piece of creative writing! Which is completely counterintuitive because the fool often expresses itself physically and ideas simply can’t flow as easily when we are stuck behind a desk. The same applies at work when we are struggling with a problem or having difficulties coming up with a new idea. Are you all sat around a table hunched over your laptops? And if you’re the leader, are you offering a safe space for silly suggestions? They are two questions worth considering because one silly game might be all it takes to get your team into a productive and playful state. One methodology we like to use comes from ‘Kill the company’ a book that essentially encourages employees to ask crazy questions, like for example: what would we have to do to ruin our company? It might sound like a foolish question but it’s a question that digs deep down into a company’s vulnerabilities, perhaps questioning how a competitor might outperform them. Answering this question can provide a lot of information, not only about how to save the company from potential threats, but also about how to help it grow and innovate into the future. Sometimes the foolish question can be the most thought-provoking.
3. Entertain everyone, including yourself
The third and final reason to be more foolish is because it can be very entertaining! And entertainment isn’t just useful in the arts: it’s a key skill that will help you to engage audiences, whether you’re delivering a key note or telling a story at a party. In our presentation skills programmes we hear a lot of feedback about what audiences like and dislike about a presenter and almost always, it comes down to the way the content was communicated. After all, “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” (Maya Angelou) I can’t remember one time where someone praised the content but didn’t like the speaker. People are much more likely to enjoy a talk because it was entertaining, which is where something we call edutainment comes into play. When a presentation is engaging, it stimulates the emotional brain and will encourage the topics and information to ‘stick.’ Advertising agents understand this very well, harnessing the power of this ‘stickiness’ to help generate engagement and memorability. It is the ‘glue’ to which the facts ‘stick’. So, like advertisers, we too should harness this power, particularly when we are trying to share important information. Play the fool and entertain your audience so that the facts will stick in their brains.
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
At this year’s Oscar’s Jimmy Kimmel was able to entertain us with jokes about Harvey Weinstein which was, at the same time, stressing the importance of this cultural shift and sending a serious message to the film industry about what is no longer allowed. Fooling around can be a great way of disguising an important message and discussing difficult issues. Hasan Minaj, an American comedian and ‘Daily Show’ host, was chosen to speak at the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner and made clever use of comedy to question Trump’s government. For example, he commented on the very controversy of his own speech by linking it to First Amendment: “This event is about celebrating the First Amendment and free speech. Free speech is the foundation of an open and liberal democracy from college campuses to the White House. Only in America can a first generation Indian American Muslim kid get on this stage and make fun of the President.” It’s amusing as it is awe-inspiring and it shows the power of performance in the political spectrum.
Have fun fooling!
So, there you have it. Three very good reasons to play the fool this April. It can:
1. Help you get over fear.
2. Be more creative.
3. Entertain and inspire people.
And also, it’s good for your health! Foolish fun induces laughter, which has been scientifically proven to improve the immune system, by decreasing stress hormones and increasing immune cells and disease-fighting antibodies! So, find some time to fool about and you might just give your mind, body and business a silly step in the right direction!
“Stay hungry, stay foolish”
– Steve Jobs.