In September of 1996, I was 10 months into a super cushy staff gig at Game Show Network. Days were spent writing and producing silly promos for vintage game shows such as Password, The Dating Game and What’s My Line. On paper, this was my ideal job. One night, I was invited to my first big-time “Celebrity Party” in the Hollywood Hills. I remember standing there, happily chatting with some folks about a goofy new Kitty Carlisle jingle I had just produced. Janeane Garofalo, who was standing a few feet away, reeled around and yelled, “If I have to hear your fucking Kitty Carlisle story one more time, I’m going to throw up all over the fucking floor!”
The truth is, I had grown as bored of making vintage game show promos as Janeane Garofalo was with eavesdropping on my story. As luck would have it, a few weeks later, I learned that NBC was searching for a staff writer/producer to join their innovative new creative services department called NBC2000. This was a relatively new department that produced unique, bonus content running on a split-screen during the show credits for Seinfeld, ER, Mad About You, etc. NBC2000 created original comedy material, TV show parodies, trivia questions, and all sorts of innovative content designed to retain viewers during the end credits and sweep them right into the next show. I sent them my demo reel. A few weeks later, NBC made me a 3-month trial offer. I quit my Job For Life® at Game Show Network and headed to Beautiful Downtown Burbank.
My first few days at NBC were spent writing jokes for Goat Boy and trying not to make waves. I had utilized a similar try not to get fired strategy a few years earlier at The Oprah Winfrey Show but, sadly, that did not net the desired result. Why? Great question. Thank you for asking. Here's why: If you have a big opportunity somewhere, the very LAST thing you want to do is play it safe, keep your head down or try to fade in. You need to take big swings and let everybody know you’re there. Think about it. There’s a reason you don’t hold your arms to your side and quietly whisper, “Excuse me…” when you’re drowning. You scream as loud as you’re able and thrash your arms to literally make a splash. A chance-in-a-lifetime opportunity is the same. You need to MAKE A SPLASH.
Or you’re dead.
My three-month trial at NBC was winding down and I hadn’t even made a small puddle. One day, in month 3, we were told they needed a promo for an upcoming episode of Frasier where Niles decides to make his big move on a newly-single Daphne. With nothing actually smart to suggest, I blurted out the first dumb idea that fell into my head. Something completely ridiculous and obscure. “Let’s do a parody of the old commercial for the board game, Mystery Date,” I stupidly suggested. Honestly, I have absolutely no idea where this goofy idea came from. But instead of playing it safe and not making waves, I threw it out there. I really had nothing to lose at this point. My boss thought for a moment and shrugged, “Mokay.”
For some reason unknown to me, the producers of Frasier also liked my stupid idea, so we shot a frame-by-frame parody of the obscure, vintage TV commercial with the Frasier cast. The very ridiculous idea that fell out of my face…the stupid idea whispered to me by the curator of the Museum of Obscure Vintage TV References that exists in my head…the stupid idea that anyone else would immediately suppress, got me hired. The courage to be an idiot (and the fact that I passed the drug test) is how I got a staff job at NBC. I thrived, idiotically, at NBC for years. I was eventually promoted to Director of Special Projects, wrote, produced, directed and edited thousands of pieces of content years before that word was even used. I learned everything I know about marketing, I made friends for life and did, without a doubt, some of the best work of my career.
Until I got bored and quit.
That's a story for another time. My point is, if you ever find yourself drowning, please don’t play it safe. Keep your head up and take big, stupid swings. Make a big splash…or you’re going to drown.
As Mark Twain said, “Why not go out on a limb? That’s where all the fruit is.”
Okay. So, how do you access all of that inner stupidity?
It’s quite simple, once you learn the trick.
There’s a voice in your head…okay, if you’re a creative person there are probably several very loud and interesting voices in your head. But for the moment, let’s focus on that one very prominent voice that prevents you from making bad decisions. Most of the time that voice is doing you a big favor.
Don’t walk down that dangerous alley at night.
Don’t use a giant knife to help you reach a box of glass jars perched on a high shelf.
Don’t buy a Fiat.
This voice saves you from guaranteed disaster. Unfortunately, this voice is also a huge, power mad asshole. This voice also prevents you from accessing your true creative genius. This voice doesn’t want you to be groovy. This voice demands that you always play it safe. This voice warns you that you it’s somehow disrespectful to wear your dad’s beloved, vintage, motorcycle jacket to his funeral. This voice tells you the idea of adding squid ink to macaroni and cheese and calling it Blackaroni & Cheese is dumb. This voice tells you that your graphic novel about a misfit, non-verbal kid with magical powers who secretly controls his entire 6th grade class class is a corny idea. This voice is a dick. I wish I had a bowl of delicious Blackaroni & Cheese™ right this very moment. Okay, yes, this voice occasionally saves your life, and I suppose that can be helpful. Unfortunately, it also has a really strong side hustle suppressing your awesome and stupid ideas. This voice always wants you to play it safe. Well, I got some news for you and this voice: Your “dumbest” ideas are probably your best ideas.
Meanwhile, playing it safe is a one-way ticket to nowhere.
Every unique, silly and risky idea that magically drops in your brain is forced to run a gauntlet of self-doubt, judgment, fear and completely irrelevant comparisons before you’ll even consider it. Meanwhile, your safe and totally obvious, crappy ideas are immediately escorted right to the front of the line, like Cher at LAX. The entire system is completely backwards.
No offense, Cher.
What if we can somehow invert the entire idea regulating process inside your head?!!? After all, it’s your head, you can do whatever you want, right? First thing, give that voice a name. Something you’ll remember. My judgmental voice is named Roberta. She's awful, but easily tricked. What you do is thank that voice for repeatedly saving your life. "Thank you, Roberta. I'd be dead without you." Now that she's feeling vindicated, quickly tell her to take a well-earned break for a couple of hours. “Roberta, thank you again for your service. Preventing me from inserting a wet screwdriver in that live electrical outlet last week was super smart. You totally saved my ass. Again! You so rock. In fact, you have done such a bang-up job of keeping me alive that I’m gonna send you on a little vacation as a reward. That’s right, Roberta. I’m going to be working on a silly creative project now that has absolutely nothing to do with you, so, if you wouldn’t mind, please step away and enjoy your vacation while I access my stupid, creative ideas. I promise you, I’ll check in before doing anything that might get me killed, arrested, or slapped. You can trust me, Roberta. But right now, you get to take a super sweet vacation while I'm working on something else. Thanks Roberta! Byeeeee!!”
It’s that simple.
Send Roberta away for a while. She’ll be fine. If you start to freak out from all of your newfound creative freedom, you can always temporarily reinstate Roberta. Maybe while you go to a public bathroom or have to cut a bagel. You can put Roberta back in charge. Briefly. But when you want full access to your creativity with no judgment, tell Roberta to scram. I promise you she won’t get angry. Okay, she might get angry. She’s a manipulative, power freak, after all. She may put up a big fight and tell you that she always knows better, blah, blah, blah. But here’s the thing…she doesn’t. Roberta doesn’t know better. She’s not remotely creative. She hates crazy ideas. She’s a professional buzzkill who wants to stop you from accessing your most ridiculous ideas because she’s afraid you’re going to be judged and get hurt. She’s afraid you’re going to be laughed at and get hurt. She’s afraid everyone is going to find out that you’re a total fraud and that your ideas are worthless and that the entire world is way more creative and talented than you.
Roberta continually destroys your creativity because she’s afraid it will hurt you.
Roberta is wrong.
What Roberta doesn’t realize is that people are thinking of you a lot less frequently than you imagine. People have their own crap to worry about, they’re not sitting around wondering why you’re even at the table or why you could DARE to suggest such ridiculous ideas. I’ve been on both sides of this table. I’ve been the goofball pitching stupid ideas and I’ve been the tense executive clutching a tiny water bottle on the other side of the table silently hoping and praying that SOMEONE, ANYONE comes up with a great idea. People aren’t trying to crush you, they’re rooting for you. They want you to solve their problems. They want you to write that great book. They want you to design that amazing room. They’re sitting there hoping and praying that you have a really awesome, gigantic, stupid idea for a toy. What they're not doing is sitting there hoping you only have safe ideas. I promise you.
Safe, boring and derivative ideas are like subway tiles. They’re everywhere.
Big, stupid, brave ideas that no one else has but you? That’s something special. Which is precisely why you politely have to tell Roberta to fuck off for a bit so you can move your ridiculous ideas to the front of the line. Remember: You can always pull back on a huge, stupid idea, but there’s not a lot you can do with beige.
So, here’s your exercise for the day. Go to your favorite work spot. Get comfy. Grab a beverage and a tasty snack. Now, give your own Roberta a name, thank them for their service and then ask them, kindly-yet-authoritatively, to go away for 30 minutes. Just 30 minutes. Once they’re gone, spend those 30 minutes generating whatever stupid ideas you’ve been afraid to bring forward. Painting, poetry, design, knitting, screenwriting, photography, a business plan, sculpture…whatever it is, spend 30 minutes with your Roberta on ice and see what kind of gigantic and stupid ideas you have in there. Don’t edit yourself, don’t look back, just generate stupidity like a runaway train for 30 minutes.
Now, look at what you have in front of you. Behold what you have created. You have 30 minutes worth of completely judgment free, unregulated creativity. While you're reviewing it, Roberta may try to chime in and tell you your ideas are crap, but this isn’t her department. Send her back to her soulless office. You're busy.
Look at what you’ve created. It may be brilliant. It may be a gigantic pile of stupidity. I hope for your sake, it's both.
Try this exercise with more and more frequency until it becomes second nature. Do it over and over again until it becomes creative muscle memory. Once you can quickly get rid of your Roberta and access your great wealth of stupidity without judgment then you’ll be off to the races. You will be a brave and ridiculous, carefree idea machine.
Seriously, don't worry about Roberta. She'll be fine.
She has plenty of things to worry about.