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Observe, Question, Reinvent: Lessons For Seeing Clearly From George Carlin

Question everything. Even this article.

Observe, Question, Reinvent: Lessons For Seeing Clearly From George Carlin
[Top Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage/Getty Images]

In her new book A Carlin Home Companion, Kelly Carlin, daughter of the late comedian George Carlin, describes what it was like growing up with the man who gave us “The Seven Dirty Words” and other pioneering comedic works.

It wasn’t easy: The Carlin household had more than its share of turbulence, often fueled by alcohol and other mind-altering substances (as a preteen, Kelly occasionally had to talk Dad down from a bad acid trip). But as Kelly Carlin told me in a recent interview on the eve of her book’s publication, her father, who died in 2008 at age 71, also provided an enduring inspirational model for her in her own work as a writer, stage performer, and producer of the acclaimed podcast series Waking From the American Dream. Moreover, George Carlin’s approach to comedy—rooted in insightful observation and take-no-prisoners candor—has inspired an entire generation of comedians, from Louis C.K. to Amy Schumer.

But what can noncomedians learn from Carlin? As an innovator, Carlin had his own approaches and practices that helped him consistently break new ground. Based on insights from Kelly Carlin, Louis C.K., and others, here are five tips on how to innovate, Carlin-style.

See The World Through “Vuja De” Eyes

Carlin had a knack for observing familiar, everyday things with a fresh eye. He even had a made-up term for this phenomenon: vuja de. Whereas déjà vu is about being in a strange circumstance yet feeling as if you’ve been there before, Carlin’s vuja de is the opposite: It’s about experiencing something for the umpteenth time and nevertheless getting “the strange feeling that, somehow, none of this has ever happened before.”

courtesy St. Martin’s Press

According to Kelly Carlin, her father’s ability to see the familiar anew came partly out of a sense of detachment; Carlin was always something of an outsider, who tended to feel as if he was studying an “alien world” all around him. By watching closely and noticing the small inconsistencies that everyone else ignored (When looking for our missing car keys, why do we keep checking in the same place, again and again?), Carlin gained access to a wellspring of human insight and comedic material.

Vuja de insights can fuel all kinds of realizations beyond the world of comedy. The Stanford University professor and author Bob Sutton has written about vuja de in a business innovation context, and the concept has also been embraced by Tom Kelley, the general manager of the design/innovation firm IDEO. And in my own research for my book A More Beautiful Question, I found that innovators behind startups like Netflix and Airbnb used Carlin-like observation of everyday behaviors and inconsistencies to spark game-changing ideas and breakthroughs. By adopting a vuja de perspective, entrepreneurs and business leaders are able to look at familiar things—existing industry practices, as well as their own products, customers, or work processes—and notice various outdated methods and unmet needs that represent untapped opportunities.

Question Everything. Even This Article.

For Carlin, it wasn’t just about noticing all those inconsistencies; it was about analyzing them, dissecting them, and above all, questioning them. “He was constantly asking, ‘Why do we do things the way we do?'” Kelly Carlin explains. In calling attention to the assumptions and conventions that made no sense to him (Why does this word offend, but that word is okay?), Carlin pioneered a style that could be thought of as the “Why” school of comedy.

courtesy St. Martin’s Press

He didn’t just question the little things—he challenged assumptions and beliefs about patriotism, religion, and education. His advice to parents? “Don’t just teach your children to read; teach them to question what they read. Teach them to question everything.”

These days, the once-provocative “question everything” mantra championed by Carlin has been embraced by tech and design companies, and with good reason: To innovate in many categories, one must have a healthy disregard for conventional wisdom about what’s possible and how things are supposed to be done—and a willingness to ask, Why should we accept things as they are?

Document And Synthesize

Carlin captured his own questions and insights on handwritten notes he kept organized in subject folders; he never let a contrary thought go to waste. He studied those bits and pieces of inspiration and “fit them together until a thesis emerged,” says Kelly Carlin. (With current digital note-taking tools like Evernote and Scrivener, it’s easier than ever to collect and connect inspiring notions.)

Test And Learn

As ideas became more fully formed, Carlin workshopped them—often bringing notes onstage with him. “He’d say to crowds of 2,000 people, ‘Now, you get to help me,’” says Kelly Carlin. Based on the “immediate feedback loop” provided by his audience, he would rework and refine. Yes, before it was fashionable, he was a lean comedian.

Be Willing To “Chuck It All” And Start Fresh

No matter how polished and successful a bit might be, Carlin knew when to get rid of it. At a tribute after Carlin’s death, Louis C.K. talked about a low point in his own career—a period when he found himself stuck doing “the same shitty hour of material” for years because he was reluctant to part with his own tried-and-true jokes.

courtesy St. Martin’s Press

Recalls C.K., “One night I was sitting in my car listening to a CD of George talking about [how] he just kept putting out new stuff.” Each year, as a new HBO special came along, Carlin would “chuck out the old material” and start with a blank page. The notion of actually doing this seemed crazy to C.K. at first because, he reasoned, “If I throw it all away, I’ve got nothing.” But when he subsequently decided to follow Carlin’s example and ditch all of his old jokes, it forced him to dig deeper and reinvent himself as a comedian—and gave him the confidence to keep on reinventing his work in the years that followed.

Kelly Carlin believes that her father’s willingness to continually begin again is what enabled him to stay fresh and current in his 50s and 60s—a rarity among comedians. “It can be terrifying to let go of past successes, but he trusted that whatever got him there in the first place was going to get him to the next good thing.”