• Sam Brown

Innovating With The Confounding Wisdom of The Fool

How to interpret an encounter with a fool to inspire new ideas, and find a contrast to contextualize innovations

One of the defining features of our contemporary era is the emphasis on certainty and predictability over disorder and leaving things to chance. Those who are steering their ship with tangible and clear outcomes of where they want to go, e.g. organizations, institutions, and businesses that orient their success around performance indicators and targets, are emulated and celebrated for their ability to execute their intentions within a pretty narrow margin of error. Accuracy and precision in results is rewarded more than how an individual or institution got to their result.

This preference of the current times, as with all things, comes at a compromise; those individuals or institutions that have adapted to certainty are less able to navigate turbulent times - and they are rigid or inflexible towards changing their desired outcomes. As a general rule of thumb, those that have adapted to predictability thrive in times of prosperity, and those that have adapted to uncertainty thrive in times of deflation and chaos.

Contrary to our spirit of the time, the archetype that is best at navigating turbulence is the one that thrives on uncertainty; the fool. As a result of our preference towards order and stability we tend to shun the fool in all of its embodiments; the wandering homeless man on the street, the mentally disordered but gifted acquaintance, or the eccentric rambling genius that can’t string together a consistent line of thinking without being distracted by another idea, or even our own foolish pursuits.

It’s a mistake to overlook the fool’s representations as meaningless disruptions, because with the right approach, engaging with distractions and disruptions can reveal moments of unexpected bastions of creativity, if only we had a structure or framework for integrating their expertise of uncertainty into a constructive context…

Thinking outside the box, requires thinking outside the spirit of the time, and there is no better archetype than the fool to challenge the way we think and stretch our imaginations beyond the existing preferences of certainty and predictability. If you want to know how to get the most out of an encounter with your closest rambling genius, or your own foolish tendencies, then read on! Fool’s are best suited to help you understand the context of a problem or solution, and provide inspiration for new ideas.


The Disruptive Nature of a Fool

The archetype (i.e. the universal character) of the fool is characterized by its spontaneity, unlimited imaginative potential, disruptiveness, perception, childishness and irresponsible nature. These characteristics sum up to an agent capable of changing and disrupting more than any other archetype.

Fool’s operate outside typical hierarchies as a fringe agent and aspire to escape the limitations that are imposed on them by the institutions of their times. Their role and motivation is to provide a radical disruption in the paradigms they find themselves in, and they actively seek to be contrarian in their attempts to escape the institutions of their time. Examples of the fool archetype in fiction include Peter Pan, and the Joker.

If given a goal or task, they will do the opposite in protest as is their nature to provide a contrast. If they set out to achieve a goal, they will more likely achieve the opposite of what they intended. While this sounds like an extremely frustrating essence to engage with, ultimately we will have to endure foolish moments either embodied as external people and events, or with our own foolish tendencies. We can turn these moments from frustration to windows of revelatory wisdom by understanding the value in finding a contrast for an idea, and finding inspiration in their ability to transcend cultural norms.

Similar to the joker or wild card in a set of playing cards; they could mean or resemble anything that an observer projects onto them, and when they enter a game they bring in an unpredictable variable. Like a wild card, we can never really predict when they will pop up and provide some disruption, but when they do we need to be prepared to leverage the most valuable card in the deck. Playing cards with prior knowledge that a wild card can pop up, will give you a much bigger advantage than those who haven’t thought about how to integrate the wild card. In a literal sense, we need to be prepared to integrate knowledge or wisdom that comes to us from an unexpected source like a homeless person or a rambling genius, rather than attempt to repress the disruption that they may cause.

The drive of the Fool is to project the first creative urge; the unrefined, immature and raw desire for action without cause or purpose. It was probably a cosmic fool that set off the chain reaction that caused the universe; the urge leading to the big bang. The theme of their journey is to disintegrate from structures, and as a consequence of disintegrating from structures, they provide the beginnings of a schematic for others to begin reforms.


Embrace Being Foolish Enough to Explore New Ideas

A problem with great ideas is, that initially, they will seem foolish relative to the status quo. Ideas which are ahead of their time, or ideas which people don't understand yet will be met with resistance and only a fool has the characteristics to have such courage to go ahead with an idea and into an unknown without approval from the status quo.

The person too scared to make a fool of themselves will never be able to step out of the comfort zone required for coming up with great ideas and providing a contrast to existing ideas. A fool's strength lies in their ability to not commit to any idea, therefore they have no sense of consequence for expressing the idea. With no consequences, there is a creative license to explore realms deemed too foolish by the traditional ways of thinking of the time.

This creative license can be found in people suffering from dementia or schizophrenia. We may be quick to dismiss someone experiencing a delusional episode as incoherent and full of logical contradictions; but sometimes these moments can reveal the nature of time or being. For example a dementia patient who is living through a memory which may look delusional to an outsider, but the patient's ability to recall very tiny details of the memory - as if they were living it throws up some questions about the nature of memory and the past, i.e. is a dementia patient actually simulating an event, or living in the event again? The nature of the most radical ideas is that we cannot coherently decipher it, but we can use it as fuel to question our own assumptions about reality.


Illuminating a Contrast Through a Fool’s Protests

In the Sentient Idea Framework, the fool connects new ideas with their contrasts. The contrast is a crucial element to contextualizing an idea or innovation, and provides an axiom of meaning for understanding what an idea is, and what it is not. To understand more about the benefits of finding a contrast, and what to do with a contrast, or want to know more about the Sentient Idea framework read here.

Peter Pan, the boy who didn't want to grow up

Peter Pan depicts the story of a boy who was able to travel to a land where people don’t age. He is the embodiment of the archetype of the fool; spontaneity, unlimited imaginative potential, disruptiveness, perception, childishness and irresponsible nature. As he travels between reality and the fantasy world of never never land, we see a theme emerge of the contrast between the restrictive laws governing reality and a utopia of timelessness.

He rejected the notion of time and aging, and being able to live indefinitely made him an alluring character (fool’s often are alluring at first). But the further we dive into this theme, we see that he also rejected responsibility and direction. His goal was to have fun, forever, but without a new goal, this future reference point loses its perspective and meaning, and ultimately one becomes lost pursuing a goal which has no meaning. Case in point Wendy, the character that visited Never Never Land with Peter Pan, coined the group of boys in Never Never Land “the lost boys”.

There are a few contrast we can make with Peter Pan, e.g. between responsibility and no responsibility, or between aging and not aging. When we think of Peter Pan we probably think of a fun way to live, but when we add the contrast we can contextualize the compromises and meaning of an idea or our pursuits. Peter Pan illuminates the maxims on either end of the spectrum of responsibility and non responsibility, so we are able to choose for ourselves where we want to be on the spectrum with knowledge of what happens if we take it to an extreme. Having a contrast also gives us an ability to be mindful of compromises we may have to make.

We can apply this logic with the fool we encounter in everyday life with idea development; by presenting an idea to a fool listen carefully to their objections. If we presented an idea of responsibility to Peter Pan, he would have many objections that we may deem foolish or fun - but we probably wouldn’t take the objections seriously, especially if we were in a business context. However, he could illuminate an ideal concept of the opposite of responsibility - and while pitching responsibility to someone who may not take responsibility seriously, we can learn about what the opposite of responsibility looks like. With this opposite we can create an axiom of meaning and illuminate where our idea of responsibility sits on the entire spectrum of responsibility.

Replace the concept of responsibility here with an idea of, e.g. organizing society based on law and order, to the foolish audience of an anarchist 8 yr old, and we can establish a contrast based on their objections to organizing society according to boring laws and principles of civility. On one end of the contrast we have an organized functioning (but boring) society, and on the other we have a fun society inspired by the foolish suggestions of the child to organize a world around play (which may not be that foolish!). We don’t need to agree that this would be a great idea in practice, but we can use this “fun society” as an ideal maxim to consider what compromises we are making when choosing a less fun society with rules and regulations. Just by framing an organization based on the suggestions of a fool has already illuminated obvious compromises we need to make to organize society based on law and order.


Tips for Engaging a Fool

Your inner fool, the rambling genius, the homeless madman. Pay attention to how they distract you, why they disrupt you.

Engaging with a fool will be a disruptive process; engaging with a peter pan like character, or even just the idea of the fool will leave you distracted from the task at hand, i.e. in writing this article I was much more easily distracted than usual as I was engaging with a contrarian imaginative characteristic. But this doesn’t have to be a bad thing - fools in our life remind us that sometimes there is more value in the journey than the goal - pay attention to what is distracting you, and why, when the fool comes into your life and you will be able to find out more about your own inspirations.

If a foolish essence in your life is distracting you to watch a butterfly instead of writing a report, then you may have stumbled upon a contrast spectrum of your own - e.g. the chaos represented by a butterfly fluttering in random directions relative to the order you are imposing by writing a report. Maybe you are distracted because your inner fool is coming to the surface and reminding you that you need some disruption in your life, or maybe you are distracted because you are unintentionally embracing the archetype of the fool by trying to escape the limitations of the imminent institutions and culture of your time.

During idea development and innovation, you may be distracted by something which reveals a radical direction your idea could go in. For instance if you are focussing on how to execute the marketing strategy of your idea, and you keep getting distracted by a really benign aspect of the design - then maybe that is your inner fool reminding you of an opportunity to create a more disruptive version of the idea. Fool’s illuminate opportunities, and the more we ignore them, the more they will distract us until we finally contextualize the opportunity by applying a contrast spectrum or entertaining the opportunity as having potential value.

When embodying the fool to come up with inspiration or a contrast to your inspiration, try to let go of the norms and expectations of everyday life, suspend your disbelief, care not about any consequences, and let yourself ramble like a crazy person - just remember to try record the ramblings or they will be lost; foolish wisdom is as fleeting as the last great idea you had in your dream. Or find someone else that isn't afraid to make logical errors, and make a fool of themselves - as this person has the wisdom required to point out contradictions and contrasts for ideas.

The Fool must have no fear of being wrong, or submit to any existing organization's structure. The best practice to activate the fool archetype during idea development is to start some brain games and get good and bad simple ideas flowing. The idea is to get yourself, or your team, to have no fear in expressing ideas wherever and whenever they come up. If you get into a free association mentality, then you have made it!


This is part of the innovation archetype series, exploring how to use 22 innovation archetypes to analyze and develop ideas. Follow and / or subscribe to find out the rest, from the fool, to the mediator, visionary and devil’s advocate, I will be going through how to apply each of these to leverage the depths of your creative potential and imagination.