I’d been thinking about the expression “to live on one’s wits” and its connection to “being witty.”

Here, I talk about living freely and ethically and tactically. There, I tell humorously-intended stories. Is there an overlap contained in the word “wit”?

Just as I was having these thoughts, clever old friend Unclef gave me a book called Wit’s End: what wit is, how it works, and why we need it by James Geary. It’s a good book. Playful, brief and smart.

Its most important contribution to solving my wit-based question is the phrase “improvisational thinking.” That’s it! That is what connects ha-ha wit with living on one’s wits. Both are direct expressions of improvisational thinking.

But this paragraph explains it neatly too:

forms of wit other than the pun [can be] understood as compressed detective stories. I’m thinking in particular of people who “live by their wits,” as the saying goes. Inventors, scientists,and innovators of all kinds, people skilled in improvising fixes, finding clever escapes from tight scrapes, or making unlikely discoveries under seemingly inauspicious conditions.

Finding clever escapes from tight scrapes, by jove. Geary goes on to tell the stories of some of those scientists and inventors by way of illustration, but it’s also what Escapologists do every single day just by going about our general business. Improvisational thinking is at once the alternative to the rat race and the swiss army lock pick (if there could ever be such a thing) required to escape it.

It’s what they don’t teach you in school because they can’t teach it in school even if they wanted to. It’s a mindset that needs to be cultivated through unusual experience and by thinking constantly about the world and its mechanisms: “Why isn’t X like so? Can Y function better upside-down? Can I live this way instead of that way? Do I need as much money to do Z as they tell me?”

It’s the essence of an Escapological mindset or outlook. Things like minimalism, finding clever backdoor ways of doing exactly what you want to do (rather than what other people think you should do), and “building muscles of resistance” (see Escape Everything!) by not watching television are all ways of using or honing one’s improvisational thinking, one’s wits.

I’m happy to report that I say this in relation to minimalism in The Good Life for Wage Slaves so this isn’t a total epiphany, but I wish I’d made a little more of it because it’s so important.

I think I knew it all along: have I not said many times that our practice is “Escapology” because it comes with a sense of humour and theatrical aplomb? But the Wit’s End book really homes in on that truth.

Another useful point concerning the Escapological mindset (which comes from the same chapter of Geary’s book) is:

Now, you might wonder whether this type of wit is innate–you either have it or you don’t–or whether it might not in some form be nurtured and cultivated. Well, it turns out there is a way to hone the powers of attention and observation needed for serendipitous discovery: live in a foreign country.

He means that, abroad, everything is different and a certain “cognitive flexibility” is required (and is developed) at all times. It keeps you on your toes, which is useful. So live abroad! Or do the sort of things that might have similar effect on your brain to living abroad: walk through streets that you don’t need to walk through, read a different sort of book, write one, talk to different sorts of people, learn another language.

Cognitive flexibility and improvisational thinking, kids. It’s what’s for dinner.

I haven’t mentioned Patreon in a while, have I? I have a series of posts over there called “Running Man” (now in its sixth installment). It’s essentially all about living on your wits. Chip in at Patreon if you’d like to read it. There are other items to see there too, including older essays and the brand new “Hypocrite Minimalist” show-and-tell series.


Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at wringham.co.uk

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