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Does Smuggling A Cow Into School Make You A Creative Genius?


Finally today, let's take a minute to congratulate our graduating seniors. But according to our next guest, we might want to take another minute to congratulate the senior pranksters. They've been busy this year already. Students in Chandler, Ariz., managed to park several cars in the school's main hallway. This week, high school students in Northborough, Mass., brought a goat and a chicken into school in the middle of the night.

It seems that when we hear about these pranks these days, often it's just to a wag a finger at the perpetrators for making a mess for the janitors to clean up. But our next guest, journalist Annie Murphy Paul, wants us to take another look at it. She says pranks actually require skills like creativity, collaboration and of course risk-taking.

She's author of the forthcoming book "Brilliance: The Science Of How We Get Smarter." And she's with us now to tell us more. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

ANNIE MURPHY PAUL: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: OK, fess up - were you a prankster?

PAUL: I actually was not. And my husband was very surprised that I wrote this article, I must say, because he knows that I am not the kind of person who would ever run a prank or approve of a prank. But I was persuaded by some of the things I read by experts on creativity that actually this can be a way of challenging hidebound rules. A way of bringing people together in a collective enterprise. So I thought it would be something interesting to write about almost because I am definitely not the kind of person who would pull a prank.

MARTIN: Makes sense, but what are some of your favorite pranks that you've heard about in the course of reporting on this?

PAUL: Well, MIT - the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - they're famous there for the pranks that they pull every year. There's even a whole book devoted to their pranks called "Nightwork." And, you know, they range from parking a police patrol car on top of a giant dome - you know, a building on MIT's campus - to turning another building that had a lot of windows on the front into a giant game of Tetris that they could actually manipulate the colors so that the windows turned and actually play the video game on the building. And then I write too about pranks at companies. There's a...

MARTIN: Oh, yeah. Tell me about that. You were going to tell me about that - a design firm apparently.

PAUL: Right, right. IDEO, which has created a lot of famous kind of iconic products like the computer mouse. They - you know, they are all about coming up with new ideas that no one's ever thought of before. And so maybe it's not surprising that people who work there bring that playful and innovative spirit to their work. So a boss might go away on vacation and come back to find the door to his office, you know, a sheetrock wall...


PAUL: ...There's no door, no way to get in. Or a boss, again, might go out to lunch and come back to find everything on his desk glued down with windshield cement. And I think it's important to note that this - pranks are usually pulled by the weak on the strong, you know, it's no accident that it's the boss who's being targeted here. And that's what makes them something other than just a mean or nasty kind of trick. You know, it's an inversion of the power structure. And so that's what makes them interesting and potentially kind of subversive.

MARTIN: Well, you know, but to that end, though, I mean, the high school senior prank or even the college senior prank - well, the high school senior prank - often when we hear about it, it's not in a good way. I mean, for example, in Tennessee this year, at least three students aren't going to be able to attend their graduation, their high school graduation because administrators were not pleased that they sprayed cooking oil all over the school floors.

I mean, there were a number of kids who were detained and they were kind of going over the security video to sort of decide who was going to get what level of consequence. They did have to help clean it up, which I think a lot of people would think is fair. So what do you say to people who say that this isn't funny? Or you're just making more work for other people - generally not yourself? You're defacing property, you're - in some cases you're destroying things.

And, you know, there are school districts were parents have to bring in the paper towels and the crayons because they don't have enough money. So throwing, you know, toilet paper down the, you know, pipes is not funny. It's just not cool. So what do you say to that?

PAUL: Yeah, well, there's a fine line. I think there's a lot of judgment involved in pranks. Sometimes it's a matter of whether there's a well-loved tradition, as there is at MIT, of pulling pranks as it's something that's celebrated and not seen as something destructive, but rather really a proactive kind of pro-social thing where people get together and do this together and pull off these amazing feats. I think when it's - when there is that sort of nasty tone to it or when it is making work for other people that's where the prank crosses the line into, you know, just bad behavior.

MARTIN: Do you think we're losing something - we only have about 50 seconds left so briefly if you would - do think we're missing - losing something because we seem to be a lot less tolerant of the kind of behavior that used to be kind of laughed off as kids stuff, normal kid stuff, a generation ago but now is kind of seen as a very big deal. Do you think we're losing something?

PAUL: I think we might be. I mean, we're obviously much more concerned about security these days, but I talk in my article and in Time magazine about - on the Time website - about a prank that Steve Jobs pulled at his high school graduation. He unfurled a banner that showed a middle finger sticking up. And from all accounts, people laughed and didn't - you know, you can only imagine what would happen to a high school senior if they did that today. But of course because it's Steve Jobs, we look back at that and we think, oh, that's an early sign of his...


PAUL: Innovativeness...


PAUL: ...And innovative nature.

MARTIN: I'm going to go and get back to my desk to make sure nothing is glued down, OK.


MARTIN: Annie Murphy Paul is author of the forthcoming book "Brilliant: The Science Of How We Get Smarter." And she was with us on the line from New Haven, Connecticut. Annie, thank you.

PAUL: You're welcome. Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR news. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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