Just before diving into East of Eden, Lily absorbed a novel of almost the opposite kind — short, contemporary, overstated — unclassic in every way. She really liked it and wanted me to read it.
Unlike most people, I put down most books I start. There are a million books to read, and I don’t know why people force themselves to finish books they are no longer enjoying. Lily knows I do this with a hair trigger, and she wanted to make sure I gave this novel a fair effort, giving it time to grow on me before I passed judgment on its jokey tone.
“You have to wear a certain hat when you read it,” she said. “Your board-game-playing geek hat.”
I did, and when I began I could see why she said that. It’s called Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Every character is a caricature. The prose was a little too up-to-date for my normal tastes: repeated references to tweeting and industrious ex-Googlers — one character is reading the Steve Jobs biography that was released shortly after his death. Copyright 2012.
I made sure I was wearing a somewhat silly hat for the first thirty pages or so, and I’m too hooked on the story to put it down now. But I did need to make a conscious effort to get into a not-so-serious headspace when I began, or I might have jumped to something else.
The metaphor of putting on a particular hat to approach a particular endeavor is as old as any. They typically correspond to archetypes or professions — you can put on your stoic laborer’s hat before tackling some yardwork, your monk’s hat as you sit down to meditate, or your scholar’s hat before sitting down to study for an exam. But there’s no definite category of qualities that can be represented in a “hat.”
While eating salad on Lily’s balcony one evening last week, we talked about how she’d used different hats — the proverbial type — as a way of deciding what tone of thought to bring to a particular situation, with the idea of becoming more conscious of where her head is right now. When she’s feeling down, for example, she deliberately puts on her mopey, self-pity hat, and suddenly the whole episode seems more ridiculous than serious. Hats help us see where we’re coming from, or where we ought to be coming from.
I immediately related to this idea, and quickly became excited about other ways to use hats. I guess I already had, but never had such a useful metaphor for it. At work that morning, I had successfully defused a mounting stress explosion when I responded to an decidedly unreasonable request by consciously assuming the role of “The Technician Outfitted with High-Tech Tools and Specialized Knowledge Valued by Many.”
When I decided to play the moment under that role, the stress quickly evaporated. I simply did the job, dropping my indignation. I fulfilled the request, got paid an hour of overtime and went to meet Lily for dinner.
The hat I had been wearing until that moment was one I never noticed putting on: the “Overworked, Taken-for-Granted Corporate Peon” hat. One hat was clearly better for me (and in this case, everyone else) than another. Presumably, this is always true.
Hats can also correspond to something more specific than professions or general moods. Even before Lily inspired me to think of mindsets in terms of hats, whenever I went to get something from the store, I’d assume a mindset of an Ordinary Citizen Going to Market. The setting might only be an ordinary Safeway, but it changes the experience for me. The walk there seems purposeful. I have business to conduct. Walking into the produce section, I feel abundance and gratitude at all the wonderful foods available to me at this huge market, when normally I’d feel apathy, or maybe a bit of resentment at having errands between me and what I really want to do with my time. Hat-changing is a simple shift in thinking, but it can create a completely different experience out of the same event.
Two other hats I wear regularly:
- When cleaning my apartment, I put on the hat of the Proud Custodian of This Luxurious Space. This changes the feeling of housework from an annoying task to a loving one. Again, gratitude is an inevitable byproduct, as are an immaculate home and a clear mind.
- When I sit down to write, I sometimes remember to put on the hat of the Slightly Tortured Tea-Drinking Writer. This takes the edge off those moments when I’m stuck, and gives them a hint of romance. Rather than quit, I sit and gaze out the window, and it doesn’t feel good but still feels kind of right. Moments like that are the lot of the slightly tortured writer, and I am living it. With that hat on I’m more likely to continue than to quit writing for the day.
One ancient practice, which could be thought of as the wearing of a particular hat, is to always meet others on equal ground. This means you disregard any feelings of superiority or inferiority when speaking to another person. You respect their personhood and you respect your own, and you don’t worry about whether they see it the same way. You still follow any relevant customs, but you don’t let yourself look up at anyone or down on them. This is as useful while talking to children and panhandlers as it is talking to your boss or your doctor. Anyone can do it. It doesn’t take much practice, you just have to remember put on the hat first.
The conversation with Lily reminded me of an interesting idea I’d been exposed to by accident three years earlier.
When I lived in a small town on New Zealand’s North Island, a German roommate lent me a book called Lateral Thinking by a Maltese doctor named Edward De Bono. In it he alternated between explaining creative ways to approach problems, and name-dropping the corporate clients he had helped with these techniques. The main premise of the book was that human thought is highly conditioned and tends to follow certain predictable linear patterns that bring us to a limited set of conclusions. There may be superior thoughts just outside of the reach of our normal thinking reflexes, and they may be accessed by using techniques that challenge these common logical pitfalls.
The book’s arrogant tone aside, De Bono’s ideas were fascinating to me and I couldn’t wait to put them to use. The most interesting one was called the Six Thinking Hats, which he later expanded into a book of its own.
You take any problem, and look at it through six distinct modes of thinking, but only one at a time. Each mode is represented by a colored hat. You might spend ten minutes wearing each one, writing down your thoughts as you go.
The White Hat is concerned with facts, and doesn’t explore possibilities or conjecture — what do you actually know, and what information are you missing that you could use?
The Red Hat is concerned with intuition and immediate emotional feelings — what are your initial gut reactions?
The Black Hat is concerned with hazards and potential downsides. Every aspect is to be looked at cautiously and defensively, with the spirit of the Devil’s Advocate.
The Yellow Hat is concerned with benefit. While wearing this hat, you consider potential gains and positive outcomes.
The Green Hat is concerned with creativity and possibility. This is where new ideas are brought up and alternative approaches are brainstormed, without discriminating between good and bad ones.
The Blue Hat is concerned with making sure the other hats have been duly worn. It is put on at the beginning and end of each six hats session.
The exercise is effective because you wear the hats one at a time, so every direction of thought gets a fair chance to develop. Normally, a pessimistic person might, for example, tend to undermine any positive thought with an immediate fear response. Under the six hats approach, downsides are discussed separately from the upsides and alternatives, and so the different directions of thinking are much less likely to interfere with each other.
My roommate moved out suddenly one morning, and politely removed the book from my shelf in the shared locker, ending my initial exploration into lateral thinking.
Even without re-investigating the structured practices prescribed by De Bono, I’m giddy with the possibilities of the hat metaphor. I’ve been trying on different hats all week.
All this hat-wearing works so well because a hat is just a mindset, and we’re always wearing one whether or not we put it on consciously. If I’m going to be wearing the Indignant Overworked Employee Hat, I’d at least better know that it’s on my head. Everyone else can certainly see it.
Whenever you decide to don a particular hat, two significant things happen: you become immediately aware of your mindset, and you choose what mindset you want to try on right now. It also usually brings an element of fun into whatever you’re doing, even if you choose a grumpy or selfish hat. Your moment suddenly makes a lot more sense, because now you have a relevant role to fulfill, even if it’s just being a grump.
If you think your mood will prevent you from putting on certain hats, put on the one you think fits best right now. If you’re feeling lazy and mopey, decide that right now you’re going to officially don the Lazy Mope hat and dive right into your moping without any internal contradiction about it.
I find that isn’t often the case — I’m often able to turn a mood around by deciding to put on a sensible hat, like I did at work the other day. It’s an example of Gretchen Rubin’s biggest takeaway from her Happiness Project: act the way you want to feel, instead of first trying to feel the way you want to act. But if the best you can do in a given moment is wear the Lazy Mope Hat like a star, then at least it becomes like a choice. That goes a long way.