When I’m not promoting the historical dynamo that is Sarah Josepha Hale (My children’s book comes out on September 1, by the way!) or working on a story ideas about the disgusting habits of Fluff Monkeys, I get paid to edit an alumni magazine. It’s a wonderful job where I get to interview a number of fascinating people who have great stories to tell.
I also interview teenagers, and, well, that’s sometimes a different story. It’s not that the kids aren’t smart or have nothing interesting to tell me – they are and they do. The problem is that some of them don’t yet know how to answer questions about themselves. Even the most casual interview environments make them uncomfortable.
This discomfort often manifests itself in one of two distinctly teenage ways:
1. The teen (a girl, usually) goes on a caffeinated ramble, filling the briefest of silences with lots and lots of words. Any words will do, really.
2. The teen (a boy, obviously) grunts to say “yes.” Or maybe the grunt was a “no.” Maybe it’s a “maybe?” Or maybe it wasn’t a grunt at all; maybe Mr. Teen just has gas.
All teens I speak with aren’t this way, of course, many really do shine in an interview. But I’ve encountered the above types often enough to wish that I had some kind of crystal ball to get inside their heads and pull out what I need.
Fortunately, I have one!
I first decided to get a Magic 8 Ball after watching an episode of Friends and noticing that Chandler had one on his office desk. I’m not a huge fan of either Friends or Chandler, but I loved the idea of having an 8 Ball of my own. I had one when I was a kid, but in my tweens I purged it with my other toys. I was under the impression that a toy-less room would make me more of an adult; instead it just made me a sullen teen with an un-fun room.
My plan was to keep the 8 Ball on my desk at work and, whenever one of my colleagues suggested an idea for a magazine story, I would consult it by asking, “Is that idea stupid, or what?”
My antics with the 8 Ball were good for a few laughs. Soon thereafter it became part of the landscape, just another thing on my desk.
Little did I know that my 8 Ball would soon be important tool of the trade. This epiphany came less than a week after I brought it to work.
I had to interview a senior who conveyed all the signs of the Type One teen I mentioned above. She was blathering before she could even finish wrestling her book bag through my office door. She told me that she was having a crazy day and she was tired because there’s a test coming up and she’s nervous about it and she would very much like to check her email if it was okay with me and it would only take a second and she’s so sorry that she’s late and keeping me waiting this way and blah and the blah blah blah and blah.
While this little train wreck was playing itself out, she sat herself down in the chair next to my desk and started to play with the 8 Ball, shaking it with vigor and peering into the viewfinder.
I interrupted her. “What did you ask it?”
This stopped her monologue cold. “Ask what?”
“Oh” she looked at the ball in her hands as if for the first time. “Nothing. I was just…” And then she trailed off. I could tell her answer was honest. She grabbed the ball just to do something with her hands.
“Nothing?” I sputtered. “I hope you realize that you are holding in your hands a powerful piece of black magic. You don’t hold a Magic 8 Ball and ask it nothing. It is not done. You gotta ask it something or it will get annoyed.” (And yes, I really said this. My tone suggested I was joking and not crazy. It’s the same tone I use on my six-year-old son when I want him to get into a giggle fit.)
With only a little more cajoling, I got her to ask the 8 Ball a question.
“You have to say it out loud,” I explained. “It needs to hear you.”
“Oh,” she said. She paused and asked, “Did I get into Brown?”
The ball replied with a “Most Likely,” and this report actually relieved her. We talked about Brown and about what made the university so important her. Then we talked about that test and what she was up to these days and yada yada yada. The formal setting of the office was not as intimidating as it was a few minutes before. We were just having a friendly chat. A friendly chat where I was taking notes.
When she began to slip back into her old conversational habits, I reintroduced the 8 Ball, which forced her to focus her mind on a specific, single idea. Then the 8 Ball forced her to sit still and wait for an answer to the question she asked.
I interviewed that young woman several years ago. At the time I had about 10 years of professional interviewing experience under my belt. In other words, I knew how extract information from people. But I had never, ever, seen anything like this before.
It was, well, magical.
On this blog I like to write about a lot of different things. But I always make an effort to keep all of my posts thematically linked under the common umbrella of “Creative Thinking.”
Creative thinking can come in many forms. Sometimes getting your mind to work in a new and innovative way takes a great deal of conscious effort. Other times a great idea comes by way of a happy accident. My Magic 8 Ball was one such happy accident.
Could it have been my happiest accident? I’m not sure. But according to one inside source, “All Signs Point to ‘Yes.’”