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Paradoxical Nicknames, Resilient Robots and Avatar Spinoffs: One Man’s Restless Journey into Creative and Cohesive Space-Time

Recently, an Internet colleague asked me to share how my mind works when it’s in creative gear. The question has motivated this essay: an examination of how a second colleague’s brainstorming request initially stirred those creative juices and, then, how a sci-fi cinema classic and a current mega-movie really got the electricity flowing…or jolted me over the creative edge. (I’ll let you decide.)

A few days ago, I woke in the middle of the night thinking about a team icebreaker exercise to be shared with a colleague who had requested a phone consultation for her upcoming team building workshop. The small group exercise (four per group is optimal) involves coming up with a nickname for fellow members. Specifically, I want each person to be interviewed about qualities, predispositions and preferences that capture something essential and contradictory or paradoxical about each individual’s nature, personality, etc. And I also encourage participants to use these seemingly contradictory qualities to poke some good-natured fun. Naturally, I provide some examples. The first nickname focuses on a seemingly contradictory or somewhat ironic nature; most of the others also have a more playfully pointed zing:
a) “Sitting Bull” – actually, after a workshop, a Native American corrected me: “Sitting Bull wasn’t his nickname; that was his birth name.” Clearly, when it comes to choice of names, some cultures use more natural, visually descriptive language than others,
b) Baseball icon, Ted Williams, tall and lean of build, and perhaps the game’s greatest pure hitter, had a visual and alliterative nickname that certainly had an ironical edge: “The Splendid Splinter!” And while it may be a bit of a stretch to see the similarities between a wooden splinter and a “Louisville Slugger,” many who dealt with Williams knew that, while splendid with the bat, he could also be a pain in the butt,
c) A math professor who described himself as a pretty calm person, while also acknowledging he could be kind of nerdy, garnered the nickname, “Zen Squared,”
d) A “no nonsense” supervisor who was stylishly attired was given a classic punchline-like label: “Elegant Taskmaster,” and
e) My own self-proclaimed media moniker, “Psychohumorist” ™. (Of course, I let audiences decide where the emphasis on that word should go. 😉

Sometimes I set up the nickname exercise with a word association task that helps people better appreciate the power of oppositional thinking. (More on this shortly.) Also, I would be remiss in not noting that the nickname exercise was inspired by Professor Dacher Keltner’s article, “In Defense of Teasing,” published about a year ago in The Sunday New York Times Magazine. But back to the middle-of-the-night story…

As I was pondering the nickname exercise, I began seeing paradoxical and playful thinking in a more “individual” and “team” light. I suspect my working on a proposal for the book, There Is No “I” in Team…but there Are Two “I”s in Winning: Strategies for Inspiring Individual Creativity and Interactive Community, helped prime the paradoxical pump. More specifically, I began focusing on how identifying, acknowledging and embracing contradictory or paradoxical traits (especially one’s own) might have distinct personal and team benefits. (Of course, at three am my mental state seemed as much a hazy fog as it was focused. Hey, can we say I was intuitively operating in a “focused fog?”)

Here are four benefits of group members engaging in “Purposeful, Paradoxical and Playfully Provocative Sharing and Brainstorming:
1. Being Real. The exercise provides people a chance to share meaningful or valued things about themselves, their characteristics, idiosyncrasies or hobbies, etc., that don’t typically come up in workplace conversation. It also challenges the group to capture seemingly contradictory aspects about each member, for example, whether a person might be cautious and risk-taking or, like myself, someone with a roller coaster-like nature, i.e., having an introspective, melancholy writer or “cave” persona, as well as a high energy, extraverted, and sometimes mania-flavored “stage” one. None of us are one-dimensional. One important component of “being real” is owning up to our contradictions, seeing them less as our warring “good vs. bad” sides, (with all the attendant critical voices), but more as comprising the complex tapestry of who we genuinely are. Of course, we don’t have to simply rest on our contradictory laurels, but can channel these paradoxical traits, talents and tensions to further develop or discover new strengths and positively self-defining attributes. For example, see “3. Being Creative,” and more directly…

2. Being Resilient. In the article, “The Secrets of Resilient People,” (Nov&Dec 2009 AARPMagazine), author Beth Howard adapts a rating scale, “How Resilient Are You?,” from The Resiliency Advantage by Dr. Al Siebert. Two aspects of resilience reflect a paradoxical penchant:
a) Ambiguity Tolerance. The first involves tolerating “high levels of ambiguity and uncertainty about situations: I‘m flexible, and comfortable with my paradoxical traits; optimistic/pessimistic, trusting/cautious, unselfish/selfish, etc.” and
b) Yin-Yang Perspective. “I’ve converted misfortune into good luck and found benefits in bad experiences.” Resilient folks know that only after you genuinely understand the lemon are you in position to make real lemonade as opposed to a drink that is saccharine sweet. And with such insight, resilient people realize that the glass more often than not is “half empty and half full.” In fact, these flexible individuals harness and transform the tension in ambiguity and see more possibilities when life is “double-edged,” e.g., perceiving both “the opportunity in danger” as well as “the “danger in opportunity.” And generating more problem solving options, opportunities and outcomes often means…

3. Being Creative. As I recently penned in the article, Transforming the Conventional into the Creative: Discovering and Designing the “Bright Crystals” of Contradiction, “If you can stay with such cognitive tension and confusion, the angst just may fire the right hemisphere of your brain with the potential for sparking metaphorical images and analogies along with surprising and paradoxical visual puns. The reward may be worth the risk.” Here’s a personal illustration of how the tension between “thesis and antithesis” yielded an integrative “Aha!” Back in the early ‘90s, I wound up writing some rap-like lyrics for a black beauty contest theme song. (Don't ask. I had periodically tried my hand at poetry, including a bluesy number called “The Burnout Boogie.” Email [email protected] for any and all.) One morning, shortly after my noble, beauty contest effort, I awoke chastising myself: I was a university professor, a psychotherapist (thesis)…What was I doing trying to write rap lyrics (antithesis)? A blazing flash scattered my sleepy haze. As the mist lifted, there…a mystical (if not hysterical) conceptual vision; a catalyst for my pioneering efforts in the realm of psychologically humorous rap music. I was no longer just playing in a field of dreams: If you write and “Shrink Rap” ™ it…they will come” (creative synthesis). (And with my Blues Brother hat, black sunglasses and black tambourine, it’s an unforgettable sight and sound experience.) Clearly, my goal in life has a paradoxical bent: to be a wise man and a wise guy.

Actually, many in the arts and sciences have embraced the words of noted 20th c. author, F.Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the capacity to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. For example, one should see things as hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.” Seems to be a real connection between resilience and creativity!

4. Being Cohesive. In our closing segment, let’s return to Professor Keltner and his use of a “teasing nickname” exercise; his research design has a somewhat different structure and focus than my adaptation. Keltner studied fraternity brothers and the salient findings were that, not surprisingly, the upper classmen fraternity brothers received more benign nicknames from the lower classmen brothers. However, even though the junior frat brothers received more pointed or putdown nicknames, there was a seemingly paradoxical outcome. Each time the younger brother seemed to accept or laugh knowingly at his nickname, when the junior accepted the senior’s ribbing, he was seen in a more positive light and was embraced by the whole fraternity. This group interaction ultimately led to a greater sense of group cohesion, if not “liberte, egalite, fraternite.” (I couldn’t resist.)

Of course, a “brother’s” personal or peer group history as well as overall fraternal experience also come into play. For example, a longstanding hostile relationship with a sibling or having a basic feeling of being “one of the guys” in the fraternity likely influences the way teasing feedback is received.

Hopefully, my motivation for wanting workshop “subjects” to discover contradictory qualities and to poke some fun with one another is apparent. I believe mutually poking good-natured fun (“tactful teasing,” perhaps) is often a sign of intimacy. As an example, when I ask an audience to free associate to the word “teasing” initially the responses are negative, e.g., “hurtful,” “painful,” etc. However, eventually someone says something to the effect of “flirtation.” Teasing is surely double-edged. And when the nickname exercise both pokes fun while capturing something essential or valuable about a team member, I believe you are helping to build both a sense of trust and a feeling of closeness – two vital aspects of group cohesion. I recall an administrative aide paired with a university dean acknowledging how she was a bit nervous about sharing her edgy nickname for her superior. But she did, they both warmly laughed, and no doubt some status barriers were dismantled.

And one final benefit of the exercise involves another component of the above-mentioned “Resiliency Scale,” one that also has links to group cohesion: “I find humor in rough situations and can laugh at myself.” While not quite a rough situation, I do feel some affirmation occurs in one’s own eyes as well as in the eyes of others when a person can laugh at his flaws and foibles, especially when highlighted by another in a public forum. Actually, one may even become a model for others to let down their guard and get playfully real. Shared laughter fosters empathy and camaraderie: “Not only can I walk in another’s shoes…I can feel their bunions.”

But perhaps Professor Keltner has best captured the potential of a pointed yet playful teasing with its paradoxical effects, for both individuals and groups: “In teasing we learn to use our voices, bodies and faces, and to read those of others – the raw materials of emotional intelligence and the moral imagination. We learn the wisdom of laughing at ourselves, and not taking the self too seriously. We learn boundaries between danger and safety, right and wrong, friend and foe, male and female, what is serious and what is not. We transform the many conflicts of social living in entertaining dramas.” And speaking of dramas…

From Star Wars and Robots to Avatars and a New “A”-team

Being “Real and Resilient,” being “Creative and Cohesive”…how could one not make the Star Wars association to that delightfully quirky, mini-robot. Now, though, R2D2 morphs into R2C2. (Obviously, my years living in Washington, DC and consulting with the federal government has helped make me a charter member of a new twelve-step AA group: Acronyms Anonymous!) Why couldn’t a purposeful, paradoxical and playful R2C2 group potentially become a “Robo-Team,” with some Stress Doc variation, naturally? “Robo,” however, is not short for robot (not pronounced like “bo" in “robo") but the sound of the "bo" is more like the pronunciation of "box." So a “Real and Resilient–Creative and Cohesive” (R2C2) exercise has the potential of generating a “Robo” – "Really Out of the Box" – Team.” 😉

Again, there was an event facilitating all these sci-fi associations. I was shortly to see the movie Avatar, and another conceptual-cinematic reformulation was doing mental gymnastics in my head. And viewing the movie (which I definitely recommend, especially the 3-D version) clinched it. According to The New York Times review of the movie, the protagonist (a disabled marine who – with head, heart and new found mobility – inhabits the ten foot, human-animal-like body of the native population) is an avatar “because he’s both a special being and an embodiment of an idea, namely that of the hero’s journey.” (The marine eventually forsakes his exploitative recon mission and thereby discovers his soul and destiny.)

Many are familiar with the Computer Science/Gaming notion of avatar: “a variable image that represents a person in a virtual reality environment or in cyberspace” (Free Online Dictionary). But, as noted above, “avatar” has other meanings:
a) deification – “the manifestation of a deity, notably in human, superhuman or animal form”; in the Hindu cosmology, the Buddha is considered an avatar of the god Vishnu; in Sanskrit, “ava” means “going down,” as a god descending to earth.
b) personification – “an embodiment, as of a quality or concept; an archetype: the very avatar of cunning.”
And, a final definition, that most suits my purposes:
c) manifestation – “a temporary manifestation or aspect of a continuing entity.” Why couldn’t a small group, thinking and laughing in an uncommon manner, being momentarily induced “out of the box” have an avatar of “Robo-Team?” And if repeated often enough, maybe the temporary avatar begins to morph into a continuing entity. (For example, in the movie, the marine evolves permanently into his avatar, or at least until the sequel. 😉

Using the gaming reference, if an “avatar” is a moveable (or changeable) image or personification in a virtual reality environment, then we can call the “nickname/teasing”–“R2C2” workshop/group exercise an environment "on the cutting/creative edge of reality." And if a “Robo-Team” is allowed to stay out of the box for awhile, a leading edge group avatar just might be able to create a window for “organizational change.” (Of course, a group can also morph into a clique or gang with divisive effects.) So the group interaction/team synergy when successful generates an Avatar spinoff: Are you ready to go from Avatar to “Ava-team?”

From an R2C2 perspective, an Ava-team is both a squad in the vanguard of “individual and group creativity” and a potential change agent for generating “interactive community” and meaningful climate, if not culture change. Of course, sometimes a select team is required: for example, the individuals most developed as “Real,” “Resilient,” “Creative,” and “Cohesive” might form a matrix team to inspire others to embark on this Robo-Team journey. However, especially when there is community dissension or simply diversity in the ranks, the powers that be, if smart, will choose to work with the Ava-team and/or a team building avatar representative, i.e., a “Robo-Rep.” (The Stress Doc is rested and “ready to descend.” 😉 “Out of the box” and “outside-objective” perspectives can facilitate the engagement of genuine communication issues across status-hierarchy-rank-grade-race-gender-senior-junior, etc., lines.

From paradoxical and playfully teasing nicknames to renamed robots and resiliency-minded “Robo-Teams,” and finally to Avatars and Ava-teams…I’d say there’s potential for an insightfully imaginative and Ava-team-inspired culture changing and community-building journey.

Closing Summary

This essay, sparked by requests from colleagues, and early morning ruminating, has illustrated a path of imaginative mental meandering:
1) first, we explored an exercise for generating paradoxical and playfully provocative nicknames along with the potential benefits to individuals and teams: Being “Real and Resilient” and “Creative and Cohesive”
2) this evoked a sci-fi alliteration sparked by the stars (or, at least, one star of Star Wars) – “R2C2,”
3) from here we took another sci-fi leap; such a paradoxical group process yields a “Robo-Team,”
4) however this team is less robotic than artistic; it’s a “Robo – Really out of the Box – Team,” and finally
5) inspired by the mega-movie, Avatar, and armed with definitions of the word, we made a final transformation: “Robo-Team” as an “avatar” – a temporary manifestation or an embodiment of a “Really Out of the Box Team,” and, finally,
6) the linguist evolution from Avatar to Ava-team; Ava-team first reflects its etymology – the Sanskrit, “ava,” meaning “going down” – as a god descending to earth (talk about paradoxical, “Robo” possibilities); and then an R2C2-team take on “avatar,” i.e., a temporary manifestation of an “out of the box” squad or a “Robo-Rep,” that is, “the very avatar of team building,” potentially inspiring both “individual creativity” and transformative “interactive community.”

Hopefully, the ideas shared open up some new mind-expanding pathways, models and conceptual-motivational exercises enabling individuals and teams to better realize their higher, deeper and wider natures, and to help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker and "Motivational Humorist" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs. In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits. Mark is an Adjunct Professor, No. VA (NOVA) Community College and currently he is leading "Stress, Team Building and Humor" programs for the 13th Expeditionary Support Command and the 15th Sustainment Brigade, Ft. Hood, Texas and the 3rd Chemical Brigade, Fort Leonard Wood, MO. A former Stress and Conflict Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite"www.stressdoc.com – called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email [email protected] or call 301-875-2567.

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