Thursday, February 16, 2012

What Thinkers Can Learn From The Man in Black

I have always loved country music and the legend Johnny Cash has always been a favorite of mine. While some may see his song "A Boy Named Sue" as just a humorous tune with a nice beat, for me it is a powerful metaphor for the power of provocation to affect a change in thinking. Listen to the song and I will tell you what I mean:



As Sue tells the story, life was very tough growing up, getting teased about his name. He makes a solemn vow to get vengeance for the awful thing his father did to him by naming him Sue. And Sue's father certainly had his share of problems. The song suggests he had commitment issues, alcohol issues, and maybe even gambling issues. So when Sue finally confronts his father - the man he has hated his entire adult life - he expects to feel sweet satisfaction for killing the man.

But this is where we see provocation taking place. Sue, a young man in his prime, is stunned to learn that his "old bent gray" father is one of the toughest men he has ever fought. After they go rolling into the alley in the "mud and the blood and the beer" and Sue pulls his gun on his dad, the most unexpected thing happens: Sue's dad smiles. This is the last thing in the world we would expect of a man who just had the fight of his life and is now facing certain death. And he tells Sue:

This world is rough
And if a man's going to make it, he's got to be tough
And I knew I wouldn't be there to help you along. 
So I gave you that name and I said good-bye
I knew you would have to get tough or die
And its that name that helped to make you strong. 

Now you just fought one hell of a fight 
And I know you hate me and you got the right 
To kill me now and I wouldn't blame you if you do. 
But you ought to thank me before I die 
For the gravel in your gut and the spit in your eye 
Because I am the SOB that named you Sue.

At this point Sue's entire attitude changes. He realizes his father really loved him all along and he gave him that awful name to make him a stronger, better man.

Let's look at what we can learn about thinking and provocation from the song.

First, naming a boy Sue is definitely a provocative thing to do. I don't recommend it, but clearly there are benefits. A child named Sue might learn quickly to deal with bullies and how to battle back against adversity. We can extract a concept from this: by giving our child a special name, we might be able to give him or her an advantage in life. There are examples of this with more appropriate names.

Maybe we can inpire our child to be a great leader by naming him Moses as NBA basketball great Moses Malone's parents did. Or we can make her memorable by calling her Moon Unit as musician Frank Zappa did with his daughter. The key thing here is to use the provocation, "What if I named my son Sue?" to see if there is a beneficial concept that we can extract.

Next, let's look at what happens when the provocation is doing something unexpected. When Sue's father - facing death - smiled, it changed Sue's entire point of view. We see this in life when something unexpected happens. The workaholic suddenly changes his attitude about life when he gets divorce papers or the chronic overeater finally gets the motivation to change her eating habits after the doctor tells her she has diabetes.

We know that provocation can cause us to change our thinking and see new ideas. But we don't have to wait for random provocations to occur. We can use tools to create them. Read Edward DeBono's books Lateral Thinking or Serious Creativity to learn how.

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posted by Bob Fischer at

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