The Third Thing

Sept 18, 2019–At the risk of being obvious, my topic today is avoiding the obvious.

Let’s begin with comments on social posts.

Why are most of them “obvious?” (my live-in editor said don’t use the word “lame”)

Because they are literally the first thing you think of. The post usually contains a word that triggers an auto response in the mind of the reader.

Mention a road, the reply is about a chicken crossing it.

Mention a rainbow, the response is about a pot at the end of it.

This leads to strings of predictable comments: you got this; said no one ever; I’ll take things that never happened for $500.

People! We can do better in our daily discourse.

Adam McKay, a longtime writer for Saturday Night Live, shared the insight he received while studying improv. The key tenant was “always go to your third thought.” It is harder to do than it sounds, especially when you are in a high stress situation that screams for instant response, such as acting on stage, making small talk at a cocktail party, or posting on social media.

The science is sound. Your first thought is the obvious answer. That’s why it’s your first thought. It is also the least creative, and the one that will also be the first thought of a thousand other people.

Your second thought will be better, incrementally. Hopefully, it will be a non-obvious answer. But still not your best idea.

The best begins with your third thought.

There are applications in all aspects of life. Songwriting is a good way to illustrate. I wanted to write a song about dance halls, so I started with the Texas Two-Step. That was too obvious and had been done. What if it was a song about a recovering alcoholic, and he was doing the Texas 12-Step? Better. But not yet worthy. My third thought? Write a song about a guy who had lost a leg, and call it the Texas One-Step! Offensive? Perhaps. But it led to so many interesting scenarios. The song practically wrote itself.

Another illustration is in the art of naming things.

I’ve ranted before about businesses that are named after initials. Calling your business XYZ Widget Relocation shows First Level thinking by Xavier Yates Zelwig. Not sure how much creativity is required in relocating widgets, but you’re probably not getting much of it.

We experienced the challenge of “naming something” when my wife and daughter opened their home decor shop last year. What name can you come up with that hasn’t already been used by every store in every town for the past 200 years? And in this age of the internet, you have to find something unique so you can reserve the domain and show up in search.

So we brainstormed. We covered notebooks and backs of envelopes and an entire chalkboard with name ideas. Eventually we compiled more than a hundred.

Some were truly horrid. Glomeration. Moiety. Besotted. Dotables.

“Dawn & Daughter!” I yelled one evening.

“No way,” Dawn and Daughter yelled back.

But with that last one, we kind of fell in love with the ampersand. To me it is a symbol that hints at infinity. As well as an elegant way of tying things together, even if they seem not to fit at first. And it’s a cool graphic element.

We finally arrived at Gathered & Good. It was not a bolt from the blue (an example of a Level 1 phrase)–we went through eight iterations of “Gathered &” before we hit on “Good.”

So obviously it wasn’t the third idea–it was the 103rd idea. But the best stuff started coming after that third idea.

The point is to keep going. To push past your first knee-jerk thought, whether it is about writing, creating, business, relationships, conversation, anything.

Mike Reiss, comedy writer for The Simpsons, made the same point in a different way. He believes the “right” idea is out there, somewhere. Your job is to find it. In Springfield Confidential he wrote: “There’s always a joke. No matter what the setup, there’s always a perfect joke for it. It may not be a great joke, but it’s always the right joke. It’s there in the universe, waiting to be discovered.”

When punching up the script for Ice Age, Reiss had to come up with funny names for the three eggs that Sid the Sloth found. The names perfectly illustrate the concept of the Three Levels.

“The first egg was easy: Egbert. The second egg was tougher. I racked my brain thinking of egg-related words: poultry, poached, omelet, shell… That’s it! The second egg would be Shelly.”

Reiss was not sure about the third egg. But he believed, and knew from experience that the perfect name existed. Somewhere. It came to him days later: Yoko.

So try it. Discard your first idea. Be suspicious of your second idea. And dance with your third idea.

Let me know how it works for you.