Friday, May 6

What a Wonderful Word (Part 1 - "Mu")

Bafflement might be our western response if I answered your questions with "mu", instead of the more traditional "yes" or "no".  But in the far east this kind of thing is still well-understood, and fairly common practice.

Despite working for a Japanese company, I first came across "mu" in the modern classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig (a bizarre book, but full of inspiration).

Loosely speaking, "mu" means "nothing", or "neither yes nor no", and I think of it as a way of suspending judgement.  It's great to have a word for this, because it legitimises the pause-for-thought and helps us resist pressure to judge prematurely.

"Mu" has another use in creativity too:  It encourages the search for alternatives, by tossing back closed questions.   If we're 10 minutes into an idea-generation exercise when someone asks "Shall we go for idea A rather than idea B?" then the correct answer should be "mu".   The time for that decision comes later when options C to Z have revealed themselves, and when the pros and cons have become clearer.

What a wonderful word then to complement the creative phases of innovation, where it's necessary to suspend judgement and also seek out new approaches, in order to fuel our ambitions.

If only it were easier to throw new words into conversations casually.  Unfortunately people tend to be wedded to their own adopted jargons, so unless you're in a creative industry you might struggle to garner support for "mu".  Better perhaps to hold the concept dear, and remember that "I don't know (yet)" is often the most helpful answer.

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