How “vuja de” questioning can help you see the world differently

by | Critical Thinking, Innovation

Can a shift in perspective help us to become better questioners?


We’ve all heard of déjà vu, the sensation you get when you’re in strange place or circumstance yet somehow feel as if you’ve “been there before.” But let’s reverse that: Suppose you’re in a situation that is very familiar—perhaps you’re driving to work or doing something else that you’ve done a hundred times before—and you suddenly feel as if you’re experiencing something completely new. This is vuja de, and it could be a key to becoming a better questioner and a more creative, innovative thinker.

The concept of vuja de has been bouncing around for a while, though I only became aware of it a while back when I was a guest speaker at a business conference in Rome. One of the other speakers was Tom Kelley of the innovation firm IDEO, and Tom talked briefly about vuja de. He explained to the audience that it was important for innovators to be able to look at familiar situations and see them anew—because this fresh perspective could help them to become aware of opportunities and possibilities that no one else was noticing.

After the conference, I asked Tom about the origin of vuja de and he referred me to the renowned author and professor at Stanford University, Bob Sutton. Turns out Sutton had written about vuja de a decade earlier, in a terrific little book of his called Weird Ideas That Work. But Sutton told me that the idea actually went back a couple of decades before his book, and seems to have originated with the comedian George Carlin.

Vuja de and comedy

As you see in this clip, George Carlin refers to vuja de in the midst of one of his standup acts—when he announces to the audience that he’s just experienced “the strange feeling that, somehow, none of this has ever happened before …” One can imagine that for someone as creative as Carlin was, the unavoidable repetition that comes with doing standup routines (there’s a reason they’re called routines, after all) must have been torturous at times. No wonder he appreciated the occasional vuja de moment, even if it was fleeting (“… and then it’s gone,” he laments to the audience).

Of course, when you think about it, Carlin—and any great, imaginative comedian—must be able to summon that vuja de perspective quite regularly, as they observe the everyday world around them. Comedians must possess the ability (and willingness) to look at the same stuff we all see every day and see it with a fresh eye—that’s how they’re able to notice and comment on all the little quirks and curiosities that the rest of us miss. (See also my related article “Innovation Lessons from George Carlin”)

The concept is getting around

However, as Bob Sutton, Tom Kelley, and others have pointed out in recent years, it’s not just comedians that can benefit from the vuja de perspective. People running companies, for example, can spark ideas and insights if they can somehow manage to look at familiar ways of doing business with a fresh perspective—and to do this they must act and behave as if they’re newcomers or outsiders… as if they’re seeing it all for the first time.

The same could be said for someone tackling social issues or even personal ones: If you can somehow look at old, entrenched problems and challenges as if you’re seeing them for the first time, you’re better able to ask fundamental questions that can sometimes get to the heart of the issue and yield profound insights.

Since Sutton wrote his book, the vuja de idea has been picked up by others. Fast Company wrote this about it in 2005 and since then, one of the magazine’s co-founders, William Taylor, has talked about vuja de in his 2011 book Practically Radical. I also noticed that a motivational speaker, Simon T. Bailey, has been featuring vuja de as part of his leadership talks and as the central theme of his book The Vujá dé Moment: Shift from Average to Brilliant.

Yes, I’m going to try using vuja de

I explore vuja de in my own book, as part of a larger discussion of how we can get ourselves to step back and look at the world around us differently, so that we can ask better questions. It’s not easy to do; it involves changing habitual ways of thinking, seeing, and acting. For now, I’ll share this brief tip from Sutton, excerpted from his Weird Ideas book:

“The vuja de mentality is the ability to keep shifting opinion and perception. It means shifting our focus from objects or patterns in the foreground to those in the background… It means thinking of things that are usually assumed to be negative as positive, and vice versa. It can means reversing assumptions about cause and effect, or what matters most versus least. It means not traveling through life on automatic pilot.”

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