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Getting unstuck: Douglas Adams and the judo principle

How to use your problem to solve itself.

This is my favourite fable. When something seems difficult at work, I try and apply it. I have Grandpa Simpson-ishly repeated this tale over and over to younger colleagues. It’s worth repeating, it’s a brilliant way of thinking about problems.

“the trick is to use this problem to solve itself”

(Many thanks to Tom Stuart of Codon.com for this post  of his which found the quotes I was looking for. It’s also generally a really, really good blog post.)

This is about the late Douglas Adams writing the original radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. As Tom Stuart says, “He wrote the radio series by the skin of his teeth: budgets were small and deadlines were tight, so he was writing each episode immediately before it was recorded, and each episode was recorded immediately before it got broadcast.”

Douglas Adams himself tells it this way:

“I carelessly thought that it might be fun to have Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect thrown out of the airlock of a Vogon ship without spacesuits, just to see what would happen. Unfortunately, of course, if anything was going to happen, I was going to have to think of it. I got very stuck.

The problem was the sheer improbability of every solution I came up with. [The answer] came about through watching a TV programme about Judo.

If you have a problem, said the instructor on the programme, such as for instance a nineteen stone [man] in pyjamas trying to beat you into a pulp, the trick is to use this problem to solve itself.

If you can trip or throw or deflect [him] as he hurtles towards you, then the fact that he weighs nineteen stone quickly becomes his worry instead of yours.

So — I thought — if my problem is one of improbability, let’s use Improbability to solve the problem, so just for the heck of it I invented the Infinite Improbability Drive, and gave myself a whole new thing to write about.”

I’ve used this ‘judo principle’ a few times in small ways at work. When I was working for Rethink Mental Illness, we discovered a seam of awful bigotry about schizophrenia through Google autocomplete (Google ‘schizophrenics should’ and see how it thinks you’ll want to end that, based on other users’ searches).

The idea was to raise awareness by pointing this horribly revealing Google autocomplete in a piece of campaign material – but it was so distressing, so potentially upsetting to people we were there to support and protect, we decided not to.

However, the very fact we had to pull it from the main campaign could be used to make a more general point about stigma around the illness – as occurred in this piece written by my brilliant ex-colleague Rachel Hobbs.

Let’s face it, when most people think about schizophrenia, those thoughts don’t tend to be overly positive. That’s not just a hunch. When my charity, Rethink Mental Illness, Googled the phrase ‘schizophrenics should…’ when researching a potential campaign, we were so distressed by the results, we decided to drop the idea completely. I won’t go into details, but what we found confirmed our worst suspicions.

Rachel Hobbs, The Independent, 15th July 2014

In any story – and by ‘story’ I include any attempt to relate events, including non-fiction – it’s worth remembering that an apparently impassable obstruction can often be used  to make another, different – perhaps better – story.

Got a creative block? Use your opponent’s weight against them!

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