Coldplay: Getting out of the rut

Coldplay’s third album X&Y had just come out and it was a huge commercial success. But critics pointed out they were too formulaic. They were not innovating or trying new things. The sound from their second and third album was similar. Their music was stuck.

Our favourite mathematician philosopher Nassib Nicholas Taleb tells us how donkeys have a tendency to get stuck too. He talks about Buridan’s donkey in his book “Antifragile.”

Buridan’s donkey

How do you make a donkey decide? That’s the hypothetical question 14th century French philosopher Jean Buridan put forth. Take a donkey and place it exactly equidistant from two identical piles of hay. How will the donkey decide which pile to eat from? Not being able to decide, the donkey would die from starvation!

Brian Eno is a musician who found himself in a rut in the 1970s. He had broken up with his band mates. And his solo career was unfocused. He was struggling to move ahead with his music career.

To make Buridan’s donkey decide, you have to nudge him. Move him just one step from the centre any which way and he will go and get himself fed. When things are stuck at an impasse, random nudges can unlock and set you free.

Eno was one day randomly hit by a taxi. It was a low point in his life. His girlfriend got him an old harp music album to listen to while he was bedridden and recuperating. But unfortunately, the amplifier was set at a very low volume. And Eno just didn’t have the energy to get up and fix it. This random event changed his life.

Because that’s how Eno came up with the idea of creating music that “is as ignorable as it is interesting!” He coined the term ambient music. And started selling his music to airports!

Moving beyond indecision: Oblique Strategies

Eno was enthralled by randomness and its ability to create new ideas. He decided to collect random ideas that would push people out of a rut. He called these nudges oblique strategies. He started writing these nudges on bamboo cards. And just like tarot cards, he would pick out an oblique strategy card at random – whenever he felt he was in a rut.

Nudges like:

  • What would your best friend do?
  • Look closely at the most embarrassing details, and amplify.
  • Work at a different speed.
  • Shut the door and listen from outside.
  • Reverse.
  • Use an old idea.
  • Emphasise repetitions.
  • Tidy up.

He met Peter Schmidt – an artist – who was collecting similar sentences. They had both arrived at a similar solution of using little quotes and axioms to overcome artistic obstacles. Do something random to find new ideas. Schmidt called his collection “the thoughts behind the thoughts.” Both of them joined forces and created a deck of cards and offered them for sale to other artists. 

Coldplay’s evolving formula

When Coldplay found itself stuck after their third album, they reached out to Brian Eno. Over the years since working on ambient music for airports and making a small fortune, Eno had gone on to be a music producer for everyone from David Bowie to U2. He had perfected the art of experimenting with music and creating new styles. And helping others do it too. The way he did it was by trying something new randomly.

Working with Coldplay, Eno would give each band member a different random oblique strategy card. And ask them to interpret the instructions musically while they jammed with the band.

The chances of a card leading to a great piece of music is very remote. But what the card did was plant new seeds. A nudge was enough. It forced the band players out of their regular thought process while making music. It helped them push their skills and create new music.

As a result, Coldplay’s fourth album “Viva la Vida” had a burst of new flavour. New instruments. Unusual orchestral arrangements. 

Their fifth album “ Mylo Xyloto” blended electronic music with elements of R&B.

Coldplay successfully moved beyond relying on Chris Martin’s vocals alone. By experimenting with new sounds, new instruments, and new songwriting techniques, they didn’t fade away. They became stronger. And created longevity for their band!

Creating new nudges

Quotes and axioms are a great way to create new nudges for yourself. And you can move beyond that too. By trying new things. Read a book you usually wouldn’t. Eat a new dish. Try a new hobby. Travel. Start a conversation with a stranger.

Change your routine. Try something that is new to you. And you will never find yourself in a rut again.

Action Summary:

  • Make use of randomness to get out of a rut. Magic happens when novelty mashes.