It’s a question author/futurist Arthur C. Clarke, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs probably asked themselves all the time.
It’s a question we often ask ourselves when learning something new, like a computer program or video game.
And it’s a question subconsciously uttered in the mind of a 2-year-old, discovering how his or her world works.
Two words…that not only help us in our day-to-day lives, but can help us create anything from a groundbreaking piece of technology to a children’s poem. Two words that might steel our resolve - or completely change our persepctive.
How many times have you tried to get your smartphone to do what you want, or couldn’t figure out why your spouse’s laptop keeps doing that annoying ‘thing?’ You experiment, you troubleshoot. You think to yourself, “What if…I press Shift-Alt-Ctrl-Tab-Insert?” And when that doesn’t work, you think, “What if…I just walk away and act like this never happened?” We’re constantly debating choices day in and day out.
“What if Obama loses?”
“What if I take the ‘A’ train instead of the ‘B’ train?”
“What if we run out of hamburger buns?”
We ask ourselves this question all the time, so I’m really not telling you anything you don’t already know. But ask yourself another question: when was the last time you used these two words to help you create?
What if…you changed your story?
Certainly, the concept of asking this question can be used in any environment, whether you are an inventor, politician, or salesperson. Where it gets really cool – at least from my vantage point - is in the realm of creation; specifically, creative writing.
Asking this question, especially when you get stuck on a character, a rhyme or a plot detail, opens up worlds (notice the plural!) of possibilities…
“What if…my main character was the opposite sex?”
“What if…this story was set in another time?”
“What if…I swapped these two lines/stanzas/paragraphs?”
“What if…I could see things from a different viewpoint?”
Ask yourself all kinds of ‘what if” questions, and don’t just think about the answers…write them down! It doesn’t matter whether you plan to use your ‘what if’ scenario or not; writing down a few lines or even a few paragraphs can help you see things from a different persepective, and that’s what you want. How many times has a person reading your material suggested to you an idea you never thought of? Quite often? That’s because it’s being viewed in a different light; this ‘what if’ exercise can help you critique, inspire, or edit yourself.
Even if you have no intention of turning Lucinda, your novel’s half-human, half-lizard bisexual alien heroine, into a half-human, half-nematode bisexual alien heroine, go ahead and get those thoughts on paper; play it out and see where it goes! Odds are, it’ll go nowhere – but there’s a good chance that you’ll learn something about your character, his/her situation, or how to develop them.
Perhaps you’ll come up with an idea for an entirely different project!
But without questioning yourself on these things, you’ll never know. Heck, Marvel Comics even created an entire series based on this premise!
WARNING: Moralizing tone ahead!
Well, ok, hopefully it won’t be too moralizing – that’s not my intention – but it just occurred to me how many of the problems we face in this country (and this world, for that matter) could be solved or at least be addressed in a meaningful way if we all asked that two-word question more often:
“What if…that person has a legitimate medical condition?”
“What if…one of the people in this checkout line suddenly needed me?
“What if…that guy who cut me off just lost his father?”
Did one of those questions catch you off-guard? Would you be able to ask yourself a question like one of these if the situation presented itself? Asking “What if” not only opens up that wide world of a different perspective, but can help stop us from jumping into defense mode as soon as something we don’t like pops up. It’s all about thinking outside of yourself. By considering the feelings, circumstances, and history of others, we’re slower to anger and quicker to understanding.
“What if…I gave everyone a second chance?”
I’ll let you think about that one on your own.