Author: Michael Michalko (page 1 of 24)

Can You Think Out Of The Box?

In the graphic above, 9 toothpicks are arranged to form a 100. Can you change 100 to form the word CAT by altering the position of just 2 toothpicks? Take a few moments and see if you can solve it.

One of the many ways in which our mind attempts to make life easier is to solve the first impression of the problem that it encounters. Like our first impressions of people, our initial perspective on problems and situations are apt to be narrow and superficial. We see no more than we’ve been conditioned to see–and stereotyped notions block clear vision and crowd out imagination. This happens without any alarms sounding, so we never realize it’s occurring.

Once we have settled on a perspective, we close off but one line of thought. Certain kinds of ideas occur to us, but only those kinds and no others. What if the crippled man who invented the motorized cart had defined his problem as: “How to occupy my time while lying in bed?” rather than “How to get out of bed and move around the house?”

Have you ever looked closely at the wheels on a railroad train? They are flanged. That is, they have a lip on the inside to prevent them from sliding off the track. Originally train wheels were not flanged–instead, the railroad tracks were. Because the problem of railroad safety had been expressed as: “How can the tracks be made safer for trains to ride on?” hundreds of thousands of miles of track were manufactured with an unnecessary steel lip. Only when the problem was redefined as: “How can the wheels be made to secure the track more securely?” was the flanged wheel invented.

Leonardo Da Vinci believed that to gain knowledge about the form of problems, you began by learning how to restructure it to see it in many different ways. He felt the first way he looked at a problem was too biased toward his usual way of seeing things. He would restructure his problem by looking at it from one perspective and move to another perspective and still another. With each move, his understanding would deepen and he would begin to understand the essence of the problem. Leonardo called this thinking strategy saper vedere or “knowing how to see.”

To start with, it’s helpful to coin problems in a particular way. Write the problems you want to solve as a definite question. Use the phrase “In what ways might I…?” to start a problem statement. Using this phrase instead of simply asking “how” will psychologically influence you to look for alternative ways.

When we first look at our problem, we read it the way we’re taught to read figures left to right. It can’t be solved this way moving just 2 sticks. In what ways might you look at the problem? One other way is to visualize the figure as being upside down read the figure from right to left.

The trick is that the word CAT will be upside down after you solve the puzzle. Simply take the toothpick that is the left side of the second zero, and place it horizontally and centered at the bottom of the 1. Then move the toothpick at the top of the first zero halfway toward the bottom.
Now turn it upside down.

Genius often comes from finding a new perspective of a problem by restructuring it in some way. When Richard Feynman, the Nobel Laureate physicist, was “stuck” with a problem, he would look at it in a different way. If one way didn’t work, he would switch to another. Whatever came up, he would always find another way to look at it. Feynman would do something in ten minutes that would take the average physicist a year because he had a lot of ways to represent his problem.

Memory Test: Are Your Memories Real or False?

The actor Alan Alda once visited a group of memory researchers at the University of California, Irvine, for a TV show he was making. During a picnic lunch, one of the scientists offered Alda a hard-boiled egg. He turned it down, explaining that as a child he had made himself sick eating too many eggs.

In fact, this had never happened, yet Alda believed it was real. How so? The egg incident was a false memory planted by one of UC Irvine’s researchers, Elizabeth Loftus.

Before the visit, Loftus had sent Alda a questionnaire about his food preferences and personality. She later told him that a computer analysis of his answers had revealed some facts about his childhood, including that he once made himself sick eating too many eggs. There was no such analysis but it was enough to convince Alda.

Your memory may feel like a reliable record of the past, but it is not. Loftus has spent the past 30 years studying the ease with which we can form “memories” of nonexistent events. She has convinced countless people that they have seen or done things when they haven’t – even quite extreme events such as being attacked by animals or almost drowning. Her work has revealed much about how our brains form and retain memories.

While we wouldn’t want to plant a memory of a nonexistent childhood trauma in your own brain, there is a less dramatic demonstration of how easy it is to form a false memory called the Deese-Roediger-McDermott paradigm. Read the first two lists of words and pause for a few minutes. Then scroll down and read list 3. Put a tick against the words that were in the first two. Now go back and check your answers.





















MICHAEL MICHALKO is the author of the best-seller Thinkertoys (A Handbook of Business Creativity), which the Wall Street Journal reported “will change the way you think.” He is also the author of Cracking Creativity (The Secrets of Creative Geniuses) which describes the common thinking strategies creative geniuses have used in the sciences, art, and industry throughout history and shows how we can apply them to become more creative in our business and personal lives. In addition, he created Thinkpak (A Brainstorming Card Set), which is a novel creative-thinking tool that is designed to facilitate brainstorming sessions. Michael’s most recent book Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work focuses on how creative geniuses combine and conceptually blend dissimilar subjects create original thoughts and ideas.

Singing Cabs


Finnish Energy company Fortum sponsored a series of BMW electric cars to use in a fleet of emission-free taxis for use at the Finnish Ruisrock Festival, one the largest rock music festivals in Europe. The taxis will provide ride-sharing passengers free transportation to and from the three-day festival as a part of a clean-air, emission-free earth promotion.

Fortum brainstormed for ways to make it a memorable promotion. After the brainstorming session, one of the participants decided to try one of my techniques to tap into the subconscious mind. He wrote a letter to his subconscious mind and placed it in his desk.


Three days later, he retrieved the letter from his desk. His radio was playing music in the background. As he started to read the letter, he began to softly sing. Then suddenly an idea popped into his head—SINGING CABS.

He had computer tablets that contained a variety of songs with lyrics placed into each electric cab. Ride sharing passengers were offered free cab rides to and from the concert by singing. They were allowed to choose a song and follow and sing the lyrics together. But, if passengers stop singing, the cabs would stop.

The Fortum-BMW promotion was a sensation. Concert goers called them Karaoke cabs, and everyone wanted to ride singing to and from the Rock festival. The singing cabs got more media attention than the well-known singers and musicians at the festival.



When I am stonewalled, this is one of the most useful techniques I use to tap into my subconscious mind. Following are the guidelines. Work on a problem until you have mulled over all the relevant pieces of information. Talk with others about the problem, ask questions, and do as much research as you can until you are satisfied that you have pushed your conscious mind to its limit.

• Write a letter to your subconscious mind about the problem. Make it a more personal experience by giving your subconscious a name. I named mine simply “Brain.”

• Dear Brain…………Make the letter as detailed and specific as possible. Describe the problem definition, the attributes, what steps you have taken, the problems, the gaps, what is needed, what you want, what the obstacles are, and so on. Just writing the letter will help better define a problem, clarify issues, point out where more information is needed, and prepare your unconscious to work on a solution. The letter should read just like a letter you would send to a real person. Imagine that your unconscious is all-knowing and can solve any problem that is properly stated.

• Instruct your unconscious to find the solution. Write, “Your mission is to find the solution to the problem. I would like the solution in three days.”

• Seal the letter and put it away. You may even want to mail it to yourself.

• Let go of the problem. Don’t work on it. Forget it. Do something else. This is the incubation stage when much of what goes on occurs outside your focused awareness, in your unconscious.

• Open the letter in three days. If the problem still has not been solved, then write on the bottom of the letter, “Let me know the minute you solve this” and put it away again. Sooner or later, when you are most relaxed and removed from the problem, the answer will magically pop into your mind.

Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work by Michael Michalko … via @amazon






Following are tips to help you activate your imagination and make your thinking more dynamic.

• Take a walk around your neighborhood and look for something interesting.
• Make metaphorical-analogical connections between that something interesting and your problem.
• Open a dictionary and randomly point to a noun. Use it in a sentence. Force connections between the word and your problem.
• State your challenge as a question “In what ways might I………..? Then restate it 5 different times using different verbs.
• How is an iceberg like an idea that might help you solve your problem?
• Tape record your ideas on your commute to and from work.
• Keep a log of your ideas, intuitions and dreams. At the end of the week review your log. Any new insights?
• Create a prayer asking for specific help with your problem. What is it that you still need to understand?
• Spend 1 hour daily totally immersing yourself in the subject matter.
• Read a different newspaper. If you read the Wall Street Journal, read the Washington Post.
• What else is like the problem? What other ideas does it suggest?
• What or who can you copy?
• Create the most bizarre idea you can? Try to imagineer it into a realistic solution
• List all the things that bug you about the problem.
• Take a different route to work.
• Make up and sing a song about the problem while taking a shower.
• Listen to a different radio station each day. Listen for a message.
• Ask the most creative person you know.
• Ask five people how they would improve your ideas.
• Make up new words that describe the problem. E.g., “Warm hugs” to describe a motivation problem and “Painted rain” to describe a changing customer.
• What is the essence of the problem? Can you find parallel examples of the essence in other worlds? Do they create patterns that inspire any new thoughts.
• Take up doodling as a daily practice. Brilliant ideas often start as a scribble on a cocktail napkin or envelope.
• Go for a drive with the windows open. Listen and smell as you drive. Think about what it is you still don’t understand about the problem.
• Combine your ideas?
• Learn and use the creative thinking techniques creative geniuses have used throughout history.
• Create an idea piggy bank and deposit three ideas daily.
• Give yourself an idea quota of 40 ideas when brainstorming.
• How many of the ideas can you combine with each other?
• Can you substitute something?
• Which of two objects, a salt shaker or a bottle of ketchup, best represents your problem? Why?
• What can you add?
• What one word represents the problem?
• Draw an abstract symbol that best represents the problem.
• Think of a two-word book title that best represents the problem.
• Write a table of contents for a book about the problem.
• Can you think of other uses for any of your ideas?
• What is the opposite of your idea?
• Think paradoxically. Imagine your idea and its opposite existing simultaneously.
• Look in other domains. If your problem is selling, ask how do politicians sell? How do sports networks sell? How do religions sell? How do fast-food franchises sell?
• Laugh more. Be more childlike in your work.
• Think out loud. Verbalize your thinking out loud about the problem.
• List 20 objects into two columns of 10. Randomly connect objects from column 1 to column 2 to see what new products develop.
• How would Walt Disney approach the problem?
• Write the alphabet backwards.
• How would a college professor perceive it?
• How would an artist perceive it? A risk-taking entrepreneur? A priest?
• Imagine you are at a nudist beach in Tahiti. How could talking with nudists help you with the problem?
• Can you find the ideas you need hidden in the clouds?
• Learn how to tolerate ambiguity and dwell in the grey zone.
• Make three parallel lists of ten words. The first list is nouns. The second list if verbs and the third adjectives. Then look for intriguing connections between them.
• Make the strange familiar. What would a fantasy solution look like? Does this give you any clues?
• What if you were the richest person on earth? How will the money help you solve the problem?
• If you could have three wishes to help you solve the problem, what would they be?
• Wear purple underwear for inspiration
• Write a letter to your subconscious mind about the problem. Ask your subconscious to solve the problem. Then mail the letter to yourself.
• How would Donald Trump solve the problem?
• Forget the problem. Incubate it. Come back to it in three days. Stay conscious of any new thoughts that pop up during this down time.
• Look at the problem from at least three different perspectives.
• Imagine the problem is solved. Work backwards from the solution to where you are now.
• How would the problem be solved 100 years from now.
• Think about it before you go to sleep.
• When you wake, write down everything you can remember about your dreams. Next, try to make metaphorical-analogical connections between your dreams and the problem.
• Imagine you are on national television. Explain the problem and your ideas on how to solve the problem.
• What one object or thing best symbolizes the problem? Keep the object on your desk to constantly remind you about the problem.
• List all the words that come to mind while thinking about the problem. Are there any themes? Interesting words? Connections? Surprises?
• What if ants could help you solve the problem? What are the parallels between ants and humans that can help?
• Create a silly way to walk that physically represents your problem.
• Talk to a stranger about the problem.
• Keep a written record of all your ideas. Review them weekly. Can you cross-fertilize your ideas?
• How would an Olympic gold medal winner approach the problem?
• Read a poem and relate it to the problem. What new thoughts does the poem inspire?
• What associations can you make between your problem and an oil spill?
• If your problem were a garden, what would be the weeds.
• Change your daily routines. If you drink coffee, change to tea.
• List your assumptions about the problem and then reverse them. Can you make the reversals into new ideas?
• Describe your problem metaphorically. How is your problem like a half-eaten frozen pizza?
• Draw the problem with your eyes closed.
• Create a dance that represents your problem.
• Mind map your problem.
• Become a dreamer and create fantasies that will solve the problem.
• Become a realist and imagineer your fantasies into workable ideas.
• Complete “How can I _____?” Then change the verb five different times.
• Can you intuit the solution?
• Open a magazine and free associate off the photos.
• What have you learned from your failures? What have you discovered that you didn’t set out to discover?
• Make connections between subjects in different domains. Banking + cars = drive in banking.
• Immerse yourself in the problem. Imagine you are the problem. What would you feel? What are your hopes and fears?
• What are the parallels between your problem and the Gulf war.
• Hang out with people from diverse backgrounds.
• Create a funny story out of the problem. If you can, make it into a joke.
• Make analogies between your problem and nature.
• Imagine you are a member of the opposite sex out on a date. You are having a conversation about problems. How do you describe the problem to your date seductively?
• Force yourself to constantly smile when you are brainstorming.
• Select a book that is not related to your subject. Skim through the book looking for thoughts and ideas you can cross-fertilize with your problem.
• Sit outside and count the stars. Make all the associations you can between what you see in the sky and the problem.
• Walk through a grocery store and metaphorically connect what you see with the problem. How is the way meat is displayed like an idea I can use to solve my problem.
• How would you explain the problem to a six year old child?
• Cut out interesting magazine and newspaper pictures. Then arrange and paste them on a board making a collage that represents the problem.
• Write a six word book that describes your progress on the problem. E.g. “At present all thoughts are gray,” “I am still not seeing everything.”
• What is impossible to do in your business but if it were possible would change the nature of your problem forever?
• Suppose you could have Leonardo da Vinci work with you on the problem. What would you ask him?



George de Mestral was inspired to improve the zipper. He thought about the essence of zippers which is to fasten two separate pieces of fabric together. His question became “How do things fasten?” He became committed to the idea of inventing a better fastener and spent considerable time pondering how things fasten in other domains including nature.

One day when George was hunting birds with his Irish pointer, he traveled through some burdock thistles. The prickly seed burrs from the plants clung to his clothing and to his dog. While pulling off the burrs he noticed how they were removable yet easily reattached.

When you are committed and start to actively work on a problem that you are passionate about, you will start to notice more and more things that relate to what you are working on. With an infinite amount of stimuli constantly hitting our brains, we need the ability to filter that which is most relevant to us. And our mind is that filter. Often these connections can seem like coincidences, but cognitive scientists tell us it is simply that part of our brain that screens out information we are not interested in and focuses on the things that we can use. These connections give you different ways to look at information and different ways to focus on it.

The burdock fascinated George and he imagined a fastener that mimicked a burdock. He studied the burrs under a microscope and discovered a hook system used by the burdock plant to migrate its seeds by attachment. The hooks could grab onto loops of thread or fur and migrate with the object it fastened itself to. This gave him the idea of creating a hook and loop fastener.

George envisioned two fabrics that could attach in this manner with one having a surface covered with minuscule hooks and another with hoops. Most of the experts he visited did not believe hooks could be created on the surface of fabric. However, he found a weaver at a textile plant that was willing to work with him. George discovered that a multifilament yarn weaved from velvet or cotton terry cloth created a surface of hooped threads. To create hooks, George would partially cut the hoops so they would become hooks. There was a great deal of experimentation to get the right density, thread sizes and rigidity. He eventually wove the hook-side yarn from nylon and invented Velcro.

It was not logic that guided his thinking process but perception and pattern recognition between two totally unrelated subjects: zippers and burdocks. Logic dictates that burdocks are animate plants and zippers are inanimate manmade objects that are totally unrelated and, therefore, any relationship between the two is to be excluded. It was George’s creative perception that recognized the common factor between a burdock that fastens and a zipper that fastens, not logic.

Cognitive scientists understand the importance of perception and pattern recognition as a major component of creative thinking. Russian computer scientist, Mikhail Bongard, created a remarkable set of visual pattern recognition problems. The Bongard problems present two sets of relatively simple diagrams, say A and B. All the diagrams from set A have a common factor or attribute, which is lacking in all the diagrams of set B. The problem is to find, or to formulate, convincingly, the common factor.

Below is an example of a Bongard problem. Test your perception and pattern recognition skills and try to solve the problem. You have two classes of figures (A and B). You are asked to discover some abstract connection that links all the various diagrams in A and that distinguishes them from all the other diagrams in group B.

One has to take chances that certain aspects of a given diagram matter, and others are irrelevant. Perhaps shapes count, but not sizes — or vice versa. Perhaps orientations count, but not sizes — or vice versa. Perhaps curvature or its lack counts, but not location inside the box — or vice versa. Perhaps numbers of objects but not their types matter — or vice versa. Which types of features will wind up mattering and which are mere distracters. As you try to solve the problem, you will find the essence of your mental activity is a complex interweaving of acts of abstraction and comparison, all of which involve guesswork rather than certainty. By guesswork I mean that one has to take a chance that certain aspects matter and others do not.

Logic dictates that the essence of perception is the activity of dividing a complex scene into its separate constituent objects and attaching separate labels to the now separated parts of pre-established categories, such as ovals, Xs and circles as unrelated exclusive events. Then we’re taught to think exclusively within a closed system of hard logic.

In the above patterns, if you were able to discern the distinction between the diagrams, your perception is what found the distinction, not logic. The distinction is the ovals are all pointing to the X in the A group, and the ovals area all pointing at the circles in the B group.

The following thought experiment is an even more difficult problem, because you are no longer dealing with recognizable shapes such as ovals, Xs, circles or other easily recognizable structures for which we have clear representations. To solve this, you need to perceive subjectively and intuitively, make abstract connections, much like Einstein thought when he thought about the similarities and differences between the patterns of space and time, and you need to consider the overall context of the problem.

Again, you have two classes of figures (A and B) in the Bongard problem. You are asked to discover some abstract connection that links all the various diagrams in A and that distinguishes them from all the other diagrams in group B.







ANSWER: The rule is the “dots” in A are on the same side of the neck.
How did you do?

Learn how to get the ideas you need to change your life.


The Art of the Real Deal


Solve the following thought experiment before you read the rest of the blog. Imagine you have a brother. Your father has passed away, and he has left you an inheritance with three assets. The assets are represented symbolically by three coins. Your instructions are that you must share the inheritance fairly but you cannot split any of the assets. Now you must try to find a creative solution that will get you the maximum possible benefit. What is your solution?


A Franciscan monk who was a speaker at an international seminar about world peace, was asked if successful negotiations between Israel and Palestine were possible. He called two young people up to the microphone: a Palestinian young man and a Jewish Israeli young man. He placed three gold coins on the podium and asked them how they would share the inheritance.

When the Palestinian said he would take two coins and give the Israeli one, everyone laughed, and the monk said, “Well, okay, you have the power to do that, but you are sowing the seeds of conflict.” The Israeli said he was actually thinking of taking one coin and giving the Palestinian two. “Evidently,” the monk guessed, “you feel it’s worth the risk of investing in your adversary in this way and hope to somehow benefit in the future from this.” The boys sat down.

Next, the monk asked two young women (again one was Israeli, the other Palestinian) to repeat the exercise. It was fairly clear where the monk was going with this, but would the girls get it? “I would keep one coin and give her two,” said the Israeli young woman, “on condition that she donate her second one to a charity, maybe a children’s hospital.” “Good,” said the monk and asked the Palestinian woman if she agreed. She said, “I would keep one for myself, and give one to her, and say that we should invest the third one together.” The entire audience stood and applauded.

Negotiating is not a game, and it’s not a war, it’s what civilized people do to iron out their differences. There is no point, the monk said, in figuring out how to get the other side to sign something they cannot live with. A negotiated settlement today is not the end of the story, because “there is always the day after,” and a good negotiator should be thinking about the day after, and the day after that.


A friend of mine introduced me to game theory and, in particular, the merits of a game called the “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” This is a two person game which illuminates the way we interact and negotiate with others. Following is the game scenario:

You and a friend are arrested and imprisoned on the suspicion of murder. You are both innocent, but there is enough evidence for the police to suspect and arrest you and your friend. The prosecutor offers both of you, separately, the same deal: if you both hang tough and don’t confess or implicate the other, you will each get a short sentence of five years because the state’s case is weak. If you confess and implicate your friend and he refuses to cooperate, you go scot free and your friend gets life in prison without the possibility of parole. If he confesses and implicates you, he goes free and you go to prison for life without the possibility of parole. If you both confess and implicate each other, you both get sentences of 10 years. What should you do?

If you both defy the prosecutor and refuse to implicate the other, this would be much better for the both of you than if you both confess, so couldn’t you just agree to cooperate with each other to defy the prosecutor. You could promise, but you would each feel the temptation — whether or not you acted on it—to defect, since then you would go free, leaving your friend to play the sucker in deep trouble. Since the game is symmetrical, the other person will be just as tempted, of course, to make you the sucker by defecting. Can you risk life in prison on the other person’s keeping his promise? Wouldn’t it be safer not to take the chance and defect? Can you risk life in prison without the possibility of parole on your friend keeping his promise to cooperate? It’s probably safer to defect, isn’t it? That way, you avoid the worst outcome of all, and might even go free. Of course, the other fellow will figure this out, too, if it’s such a bright idea, so he’ll probably play it safe and defect, too, in which case you must defect to avoid disaster–unless you are a martyr that you don’t mind sacrificing your life because of a promise to cooperate. So, it seems, the chances are that you will both go serve sentences of 10 years, even, though, you’re both innocent.

This is the same kind of dilemma many face when we negotiate with others, however friendly and trusting we may be with each other. Consider the school board negotiating a wage contract with school teachers, or county politicians negotiating a “no smoking” ban with the restaurant association. Each side is looking out for itself and has its own interest at heart first and foremost as they fight for a shared resource or a change in public policy, even as they promise to cooperate with each other in the community’s interest. It seems natural for each side to ask first what’s in it for me and why should I believe or trust the other side?


To overcome these thoughts and suspicions, I propose the following policy when you are negotiating with some other person or group for a shared resource. Select a person, not related to the problem, who is acceptable to both sides to serve as an impartial judge. Second, each side presents the judge its most reasonable proposition that addresses the subject being negotiated. The judge reviews the propositions and accepts the one, in his or her opinion, is the more reasonable and discards the other. The most reasonable is the proposition adopted and implemented, and the other one is discarded.

This changes the focus of both sides. Now the pressure is to develop and present its most reasonable proposition possible; otherwise, you run the risk of the other side being more reasonable than you and having its proposition approved and implemented. Can you afford not to be as reasonable as you can be?

State of Mind

Michael Michalko is a world reknowned creativity expert and author of bestselling books like Thinkertoys ( A Handbook of Business Creativity), Cracking Creativity ( The Secrets of Creative Genius) and Creative Thinkering ( Putting your Imagination to Work). His practical approach to creativity has been of great benefit to both the public and private sector.

It’s a pleasure to have you with us today Michael. Tell us, what triggered you to delve into knowing the inner workings of the human mind?

In school, we learn about great ideas and we learn the names of the creative geniuses who created them, but we are seldom taught about how they got the ideas. My teachers mythologized the geniuses as genetically or intellectually superior to the ordinary person. They gushed over their accomplishments and had us memorize who did what and when, who created what and when and focused on their discoveries rather than on the mental processes, attitudes, work habits, behavior and beliefs that enabled creative geniuses to be capable of looking at the same things as the rest of us and seeing something different.

When I asked teachers where I could learn the specific methods and techniques geniuses use, I was told it was a silly question. One said they are so mentally superior that just as we cannot understand the mind of God, we could never hope to understand how geniuses think. Another said they thought differently because they were mentally unbalanced. Their ignorance is what motivated me to study and discover the thinking strategies and habits that creative geniuses have used throughout history.

What can you say are the major insights you’ve gathered over the course of your illustrious career regarding creativity?

Following are twelve things about creative thinking that I learned during my lifetime of work in the field of creative thinking that I wished I had been taught when I was a student but was not.

1. YOU ARE CREATIVE. The artist is not a special person, each one of us is a special kind of artist. Every one of us is born a creative, spontaneous thinker. The only difference between people who are creative and people who are not is a simple belief. Creative people believe they are creative. People who believe they are not creative, are not. Once you have a particular identity and set of beliefs about yourself, you become interested in seeking out the skills needed to express your identity and beliefs. This is why people who believe they are creative become creative. If you believe you are not creative, then there is no need to learn how to become creative and you don’t. The reality is that believing you are not creative excuses you from trying or attempting anything new. When someone tells you that they are not creative, you are talking to someone who has no interest and will make no effort to be a creative thinker.

2. CREATIVE THINKING IS WORK. You must have passion and the determination to immerse yourself in the process of creating new and different ideas. Then you must have patience to persevere against all adversity. All creative geniuses work passionately hard and produce incredible numbers of ideas, most of which are bad. In fact, more bad poems were written by the major poets than by minor poets. Thomas Edison created 3000 different ideas for lighting systems before he evaluated them for practicality and profitability. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart produced more than six hundred pieces of music, including forty-one symphonies and some forty-odd operas and masses, during his short creative life. Rembrandt produced around 650 paintings and 2,000 drawings and Picasso executed more than 20,000 works. Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets. Some were masterpieces, while others were no better than his contemporaries could have written, and some were simply bad.

3. YOU MUST GO THROUGH THE MOTIONS. When you are producing ideas, you are replenishing neurotransmitters linked to genes that are being turned on and off in response to what your brain is doing, which in turn is responding to challenges. When you go through the motions of trying to come up with new ideas, you are energizing your brain by increasing the number of contacts between neurons. The more times you try to get ideas, the more active your brain becomes and the more creative you become. If you want to become an artist and all you did was paint a picture every day, you will become an artist. You may not become another Vincent Van Gogh, but you will become more of an artist than someone who has never tried.

4. YOUR BRAIN IS NOT A COMPUTER. Your brain is a dynamic system that evolves its patterns of activity rather than computes them like a computer. It thrives on the creative energy of feedback from experiences real or fictional. You can synthesize experience; literally create it in your own imagination. The human brain cannot tell the difference between an “actual” experience and an experience imagined vividly and in detail. This discovery is what enabled Albert Einstein to create his thought experiments with imaginary scenarios that led to his revolutionary ideas about space and time. One day, for example, he imagined falling in love. Then he imagined meeting the woman he fell in love with two weeks after he fell in love. This led to his theory of acausality. The same process of synthesizing experience allowed Walt Disney to bring his fantasies to life.

5. THERE IS NO ONE RIGHT ANSWER. Reality is ambiguous. Aristotle said it is either A or not-A. It cannot be both. The sky is either blue or not blue. This is black and white thinking as the sky is a billion different shades of blue. A beam of light is either a wave or not a wave (A or not-A). Physicists discovered that light can be either a wave or particle depending on the viewpoint of the observer. The only certainty in life is uncertainty. When trying to get ideas, do not censor or evaluate them as they occur. Nothing kills creativity faster than self-censorship of ideas while generating them. Think of all your ideas as possibilities and generate as many as you can before you decide which ones to select. The world is not black or white. It is grey.

6. NEVER STOP WITH YOUR FIRST GOOD IDEA. Always strive to find a better one and continue until you have one that is still better. In 1862, Phillip Reis demonstrated his invention which could transmit music over the wires. He was days away from improving it into a telephone that could transmit speech. Every communication expert in Germany dissuaded him from making improvements, as they said the telegraph is good enough. No one would buy or use a telephone. Ten years later, Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. Spencer Silver developed a new adhesive for 3M that stuck to objects but could easily be lifted off. It was first marketed as a bulletin board adhesive so the boards could be moved easily from place to place. There was no market for it. Silver didn’t discard it. One day Arthur Fry, another 3M employee, was singing in the church’s choir when his page marker fell out of his hymnal. Fry coated his page markers with Silver’s adhesive and discovered the markers stayed in place yet lifted off without damaging the page. Hence the Post-it Notes were born. Thomas Edison was always trying to spring board from one idea to another in his work. He spring boarded his work from the telephone (sounds transmitted) to the phonograph (sounds recorded) and, finally, to motion pictures (images recorded).

7. EXPECT THE EXPERTS TO BE NEGATIVE. The more expert and specialized a person becomes, the more their mindset becomes narrowed and the more fixated they become on confirming what they believe to be absolute. Consequently, when confronted with new and different ideas, their focus will be on conformity. Does it conform to what I know is right? If not, experts will spend all their time showing and explaining why it can’t be done and why it can’t work. They will not look for ways to make it work or get it done because this might demonstrate that what they regarded as absolute is not absolute at all. This is why when Fred Smith created Federal Express, every delivery expert in the U.S. predicted its certain doom. After all, they said, if this delivery concept was doable, the Post Office or UPS would have done it long ago and this is why the experts at IBM said there were no more than six people on earth who had need of a personal computer. Thomas Edison is quoted as saying “His greatest blessing in life was the lack of a formal education. Had he been educated,” he said “he would have realized that what he accomplished in life was not possible to do.”

8. TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. Don’t allow yourself to get discouraged. Albert Einstein was expelled from school because his attitude had a negative effect on serious students; he failed his university entrance exam and had to attend a trade school for one year before finally being admitted; and was the only one in his graduating class who did not get a teaching position because no professor would recommend him. One professor said Einstein was “the laziest dog” the university ever had. Beethoven’s parents were told he was too stupid to be a music composer. Charles Darwin’s colleagues called him a fool and what he was doing “fool’s experiments” when he worked on his theory of biological evolution. Beethoven’s parents were told he was too stupid to be a music composer. Walt Disney was fired from his first job on a newspaper because “he lacked imagination.” Thomas Edison had only two years of formal schooling, was totally deaf in one ear and was hard of hearing in the other, was fired from his first job as a newsboy and later fired from his job as a telegrapher; and still he became the most famous inventor in the history of the U.S.

9. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS FAILURE. Whenever you try to do something and do not succeed, you do not fail. You have produced a result. It’s what you do with the result that’s important. You have learned something that does not work. Always ask “What have I learned about what doesn’t work?”, “Can this explain something that I didn’t set out to explain?”, and “What have I discovered that I didn’t set out to discover?” Whenever someone tells you that they have never made a mistake, you are talking to someone who has never tried anything new. Take the first airplane. On Dec. 8, 1903, Samuel Pierpont Langley, a leading government- funded scientist, launched with much fanfare his flying machine on the Potomac. It plummeted into the river. Nine days later, Orville and Wilbur Wright got the first plane off the ground. Why did these bicycle mechanics succeed when a famous scientist failed? Because Langley hired experts to execute his theoretical concepts without going a series of trials and errors. Studying the Wrights’ diaries, you see that insight and execution are inextricably woven together. Over years, as they solved problems like wing shape and wing warping, they made several mistakes which inspired several adjustments all of which involved a small spark of insight that led to other insights. Their numerous mistakes led to unexpected alternative ways which, in turn, led to the numerous

10. YOU DO NOT SEE THINGS AS THEY ARE; YOU SEE THEM AS YOU ARE. Interpret your own experiences. All experiences are neutral. They have no meaning. You give them meaning by the way you choose to interpret them. If you are a priest, you see evidence of God everywhere. If you are an atheist, you see the absence of God everywhere. IBM observed that no one in the world had a personal computer. IBM interpreted this to mean there was no market. College dropouts, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, looked at the same absence of personal computers and saw a massive opportunity. Once Thomas Edison was approached by an assistant while working on the filament for the light bulb. The assistant asked Edison why he didn’t give up. “After all,” he said, “you have failed 5000 times.” Edison looked at him and told him that he didn’t understand what the assistant meant by failure, because, Edison said, “I have discovered 5000 things that don’t work.” You construct your own reality by how you choose to interpret your experiences.

11. ALWAYS APPROACH A PROBLEM ON ITS OWN TERMS. Do not trust your first perspective of a problem as it will be too biased toward your usual way of thinking. Always look at your problem from multiple perspectives. Always remember that genius is finding a perspective no one else has taken. Look for different ways to look at the problem. Write the problem statement several times using different words. Take another role, for example, how would someone else see it, how would your favorite teacher, a physician, an author, a politician, and so on see it? Draw a picture of the problem, make a model, or mold a sculpture. Take a walk and look for things that metaphorically represent the problem and force connections between those things and the problem (How is a broken store window like my communications problem with my students?) Ask your friends and strangers how they see the problem. Ask a child. Ask a grandparent. Imagine you are the problem. When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

12. LEARN TO THINK UNCONVENTIONALLY. Creative geniuses do not think analytically and logically. Conventional, logical, analytical thinkers are exclusive thinkers which means they exclude all information that is not related to the problem. They look for ways to eliminate possibilities. Creative geniuses are inclusive thinkers which mean they look for ways to include everything, including things that are dissimilar and totally unrelated. Generating associations and connections between unrelated or dissimilar subjects is how they provoke different thinking patterns in their brain. These new patterns lead to new connections which give them a different way to focus on the information and different ways to interpret what they are focusing on. This is how original and truly novel ideas are created. Albert Einstein once famously remarked “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

For an organization whose niche is unrelated to the “creative” industry, what actionable steps can employees take in boosting creativity in a way that affects the bottom line positively over a short time frame?

It is the responsibility of top management to create an environment that encourage creative thinking. Managers must create fun and interesting ways to boost the creativity of their employees. Many examples can be found in any industry that one can use as examples. One is the employee suggestions system the managers created at Rite-Solutions. They needed an employee suggestion system that could harvest ideas from everyone, including engineers, accountants, sales people, marketing people, and all administrative staff.

They wanted a process to get the employees to creatively invest in the company. The word “invest” encouraged them to investigate ways to invest. One association was the New York Stock Exchange. Their idea was to create an employee suggestion system by conceptually combining employee suggestions systems with the NYSE.

First, they listed all their thoughts about the NYSE. What is it? How do people invest? Why do they invest? How do they monitor their investments? What actions can they take (buy, sell, hold, etc.)? How do companies attract investors? How and why do prices change? What is the architecture of the NYSE? What parts of the stock exchange architecture can you use to make it interesting and rewarding for the company’s employees to offer ideas, make proposals for new products and services.

Rite-Solutions combined the architecture of the stock exchange with the internal architecture of their company’s internal market and created a stock exchange for ideas. Their exchange is called Mutual Fun. Any employee can offer a proposal for new products, spinoffs, solve a problem, acquisition of new technologies or companies and so on, that the company acquire a new technology, enter a new business, make a new product or make an efficiency improvement. These proposals become stocks, complete with ticker symbols identifying the proposal.

Fifty-five stocks are listed on the company’s internal stock exchange. Each stock comes with a detailed description — called an expect-us, as opposed to a prospectus — and begins trading at a price of $10. Every employee gets $10,000 in “opinion money” to allocate among the offerings, and employees signal their enthusiasm by investing in a stock or volunteering to work on the project. Employees buy or sell the stocks and prices change to reflect the support or lack of support of all the company’s employees.
The result has been a resounding success. Among the company’s core technologies are pattern-recognition algorithms used in military applications, as well as for electronic gambling systems at casinos. A receptionist, with no technical expertise, was fascinated with the technology and spent time thinking about other ways it could be used. One pathway she explored was education. She proposed that this technology could be used in schools, to create an entertaining way for students to learn history or math. She started a stock called Win/Play/Learn (symbol: WPL), which attracted a lot of attention from the company’s engineers. They enthusiastically bought her stock and volunteered to work on the idea to turn it into a viable new product, which they did. A brilliant idea from an unlikely source made possible by the new employee suggestion system.

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about accessing the power of the subconscious, what would you say in your experience is the most effective technique for utilizing this power with ourselves?

An easy way to communicate with your subconscious mind and get it working for you to solve a problem is to write a letter to yourself. The guidelines are:

1. Work on a problem until you have mulled over all the relevant pieces of information. Talk with others about the problem, ask questions, and do as much research as you can until you are satisfied that you have pushed your conscious mind to its limit. Write a letter to your subconscious mind about the problem. Make the letter as detailed and specific as possible. Describe the problem definition, the attributes, what steps you have taken, the problems, the gaps, what is needed, what you want, what the obstacles are, and so on. Just writing the letter will help better define a problem, clarify issues, point out where more information is needed, and prepare your subconscious to work on a solution. The letter should read just like a letter you would send to a real person. Imagine that your subconscious is all-knowing and can solve any problem that is properly stated. You might even want to give your subconscious a nick name to increase your awareness of it. I address my subconscious as “Hieronymus” after Hieronymus Bosch the artist.

2. Instruct your subconscious to find the solution. Write, Dear Hieronymus: “Your mission is to find the solution to the problem. I would like the solution in two days.”

3. Seal the letter and put it away. You may even want to mail it to yourself.

4. Let go of the problem. Don’t work on it. Forget it. Do something else. This is the incubation stage when much of what goes on occurs outside your focused awareness, in your subconscious.

5. Open the letter in two days. If the problem still has not been solved, then write on the bottom of the letter, “Let me know the minute you solve this” and put it away again. Sooner or later, when you are most relaxed and removed from the problem, the answer will magically pop into your mind.

This was a favorite technique Norman Mailer, the author, would use when he had writer’s block. He would write a letter to his subconscious describing his problems with the manuscript and mail to himself. Invariably, he would receive some insight that enable to continue the manuscript.

Ideas are free to combine with other ideas in novel patterns and new associations in your subconscious mind. It is also the storehouse of all your experience, including things you can’t easily call into awareness. When I use this technique and don’t receive an answer within the allotted time frame, I’ll say “Oh well, let me know as soon as you think of something.” Without exception, I will get the answer sooner or later.
Here is an example of this technique. The marketing director for a soft drink corporation wanted to come up with a novel way to package soft drinks. He spent time listing all the ways products and liquids can be packaged. He then turned off his self-censor by giving himself an idea quota of 120 ways to package things. This forced him to list every single thought he had no matter how obvious or absurd. The first third were his usual ideas, the next third became more interesting and complex and the last third became fantastical and absurd as he stretched his imagination to meet his quota.

Finally, he wrote the following letter he addressed to MacGuyver (He calls his subconscious mind MacGuyver after the TV character who solves cases by improvisation.)

Dear MacGuyver,

How are you? I haven’t heard from you in a long time, so I thought I would write you a letter. I need some innovative ideas about packaging our soda. A package that would create a new experience for the consumer. Right now, as you now, our soft drinks are packaged in bottles and cans. I’m trying to think of ways to make our packaging innovative and fun in such a way that it will heighten consumer attention. So far, I’ve researched the methodology of packaging, brainstormed for ideas, and have asked everyone I know for their thoughts.
Reviewing my list of ideas, I’ve noticed a theme of environmental concerns. Citizens have become aware and sensitive to what happens to discarded bottles and cans. So, I think the package should be environmentally friendly. Another theme, I noticed, is “put to other uses.” In other words, how else can the consumer use the package? A cousin of mine told me about the time he was in the peace corps in a very poor section of Guatemala. Soft drinks in bottles were too expensive for the natives. He told me popular domestic sodas are instead poured into sandwich baggies and sold.

I need your help. Please deliver your ideas to me within three days.


The Idea he received from MacGuyver is to create a biodegradable plastic bag in the shape of a soda bottle. This bag will save buyers bottle deposit money and retains the drink’s fizz and experience, while simultaneously being more environmentally friendly. Being new and fun, it actually creates a new brand experience adapted to cultural environmental tendencies that local consumers are sure to appreciate. Additionally, the plastic bags afford greater flexibility in storage options and can also be re-used by the consumer as a storage container for other foods and liquids. Additionally, the product adapts itself to new markets in impoverished countries.

So many geniuses have their quirks. Do you think it is possible to separate genius from eccentricity and why do they come hand in hand?

Yes, I do. Like the rest of humanity some geniuses had quirks and others did not. Perhaps the quirkiest was Nikola Tesla. Early on in his career, Tesla’s work started mid-morning and continued with few to no breaks until 5 a.m. the next day. The inventor and engineer also had strange aversions to pearls, overweight women, certain clothes, human hair and sex. What he did love were numbers divisible by three, to the point that he wouldn’t stay in a hotel room with a number that didn’t fit that guideline. Tesla felt driven to perform repetitive behavior in sets of three. For instance, after walking around a block once, Tesla would feel compelled to do so two more times. He also preferred to dine alone, due to his meticulous compulsion to clean his plates and silverware with 18 (divisible by 3) napkins before a meal. (Afterwards, he would calculate the cubic contents of all the food on his plate before eating.) He was strictly celibate and felt himself a better inventor for it, preferring the company of pigeons—he actually likened his love for one pigeon in particular (a white pigeon he claimed came to his hotel room every day) to the love he’d have for another person. When the pigeon died, he felt that his ability to work died with it.

More importantly than odd quirks and habits is the way geniuses view the world. I believe geniuses have an intuitive understanding that reality is paradoxical and ambiguous. The creative process itself is paradoxical. To create, a person must have knowledge but forget the knowledge, must see unexpected connections in things but not have a mental disorder, must work hard but spend time doing nothing as information incubates, must create many ideas yet most of them are useless, must look at the same thing as everyone else, yet see something different, must desire success but embrace failure, must be persistent but not stubborn, and must listen to experts but know how to disregard them.

On a final note, what would you classify as the key characteristic one should develop in order to make creative thinking second nature?

Develop your capacity to think fluently.

A distinguishing characteristic of genius is immense productivity. All geniuses produce. Bach wrote a cantata every week, even when he was sick or exhausted. Mozart produced more than six hundred pieces of music. Einstein is best known for his paper on relativity, but he published 248 other papers. Darwin is known for his theory of evolution, but he wrote 119 other publications in his lifetime. Freud published 330 papers and Maslow 165.[1] Rembrandt produced around 650 paintings and 2,000 drawings and Picasso executed more than 20,000 works. Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets. Some were masterpieces, while others were no better than his contemporaries could have written, and some were simply bad. In fact, more bad poems were composed by the major poets than the minor poets. They composed more bad poems than minor poets simply because they produced more poetry.
Geniuses produce because they think fluently. Fluency of thought means generating quantities of ideas. The common misconception that somehow phenomenal creative geniuses contribute only a few selective masterworks is plain wrong. Thomas Edison may be best known for his incandescent light bulb and phonograph, but all told, he held 1,093 patents, still the record. Edison looked at creativity as simply good, honest, hard work. Genius, he once said, is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. It took him 9000 experiments to perfect the light bulb and 50,000 to invent the storage cell battery. Once, when an assistant asked why he continued to persist trying to discover a long-lasting filament for the light bulb after thousands of failures, Edison explained he didn’t understand the question. In his mind, he hadn’t failed once, instead, he discovered thousands of things that didn’t work.

Creative thinking involves a Darwinian process of the mind. In nature, 95% of new species fail and die in a short period of time. Nature creates many new possibilities and then lets the process of natural selection decide which species survive. Creative thinking is analogous to biological evolution in that it requires two mechanisms: one for producing many novel ideas and a second for determining which ideas should be retained and evaluated.

Increasing your idea production requires conscious effort. Suppose I asked you to spend three minutes thinking of alternative uses for the common brick. No doubt, you would come up with some, but my hunch is not very many. The average adult comes up with three to six ideas. However, if I asked you to list 40 uses for the brick in three minutes, you would have quite a few in a short period of time.
A quota and time limit focused your energy in a competitive way that guaranteed fluency of thought. It should be evident that the quota is not only more effective at focusing your energy but also a more productive method of generating alternatives. To meet the quota, you find yourself listing all the usual uses for a brick (build a wall, fireplace, outdoor barbeque, and so on) as well as listing everything that comes to mind ( anchor, projectiles in riots, ballast, device to hold down newspaper, a device to stand on to see over a crowd, a tool for leveling dirt, material for sculptures, doorstop, bed warmer, body building weights, and so on) as we stretch our imagination to meet the quota. By causing us to exert effort, it allows us to generate more imaginative alternatives than we otherwise would.

Initial ideas are usually poorer in quality than later ideas. Just as water must run from a faucet for a while to be crystal clear, cool and free of particles, so thought must flow before it becomes creative. Early ideas are usually not true ideas. Exactly why this is so is not known, but one hypothesis is that familiar and safe responses lie closest to the surface of our consciousness and therefore are naturally thought of first. Creative thinking depends on continuing the flow of ideas long enough to purge the common, habitual ones and produce the unusual and imaginative.

Michael Michalko is a creative expert and author of Thinkertoys, Cracking Creativity, Creative Thinkering and ThinkPak. You can review his books at

When To Put An Apple Down

When I was a boy I played shortstop for our high school baseball team. The last game we played was for the championship. In the ninth inning a ground ball was hit sharply to me. I bumbled the catch and then overthrew the ball to 1st base. My errors cost us the championship.

I felt terrible and worthless. This was the worst experience of my life. Later that day my grandfather came over to our house. He noticed how upset and forlorn I was and sat down beside me. I told him about my awful experience and how bad I felt.

He asked me to stand up and put my arm out straight. I did, and he placed an apple in my hand. He asked me “How heavy is the apple?” I replied that it was not heavy and weighed only a few ounces.
He replied, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long you hold it. If you hold it for a minute, it’s not a problem. If you hold it for an hour, your arm will ache. If you hold it for a day, your arm will become numb and paralyzed. Notice that the weight doesn’t change, but the longer you hold it, the heavier it becomes.”

The stresses and misfortunes in life are like that apple. Think about them for a while and nothing happens. Think about them a bit longer and they begin to hurt. And if you think about them constantly all day long you will feel paralyzed—incapable of doing anything.

It’s important to remember to let go of your stresses and worries. As early in the evening as you can, put all your burdens down. Don’t carry them through the evening and into the night. Remember to put the apple down!


Why are some people creative and others not?

The key question isn’t “Why are some people creative and others not?” It is why in God’s name isn’t everyone creative? Where and how was our potential lost? How was it crippled? Why does education inhibit creativity? Why can’t educators foster more creativity instead of less? Why is it that the more expert people become in their fields, the less creative and innovative they become? Why is it that people who know more create less, and people who know less create more? Why are people amazed when someone creates something new, as if it were a miracle?

We’ve been educated to process information based on what has happened in the past, what past thinkers thought, and what exists now. Once we think we know how to get the answer, based on what we have been taught, we stop thinking. The Spanish word for an “answer” is respuesta, and it has the same etymological root as response (responsory), the song people sing to the dead. It’s about what has no life anymore. In other words, when you think you know the answers, based on what has happened in the past, your thinking dies.
This is why, when most people use their imaginations to develop new ideas, those ideas are heavily structured in predictable ways by the properties of existing categories and concepts. Creative thinking requires the ability to generate a host of associations and connections between two or more dissimilar subjects, creating new categories and concepts. We have not been taught to process information this way.


The key to creatively generating associations and connections between dissimilar subjects is conceptual blending. This is a creative-thinking process that involves blending two or more concepts in the same mental space to form new ideas.

Imagine, for a moment, that thought is water. When you are born, your mind is like a glass of water. Your thinking is inclusive, clear, and fluid. All thoughts intermingle and combine with each other and make all kinds of connections and associations. This is why children are spontaneously creative.

In school you are taught to define, label, and segregate what you learn into separate categories. The various categories are kept separate and not allowed to touch each other, much like ice cubes in a tray. Once something is learned and categorized, your thoughts about it become frozen. For example, once you learn what a can opener is, whenever someone mentions “can opener” you know exactly what it is.

You are taught, when confronted with a problem, to examine the ice cube tray and select the appropriate cube. Then you take the cube and put it in a glass, where your thinking heats and melts it. For example, if the problem is to “improve the can opener,” the glass will contain all you have learned about can openers, and nothing more. You are thinking exclusively, which is to say you are thinking only about what you have learned about the can opener. No matter how many times the water is stirred, you end up creating, at best, a marginal improvement.

Now if you take another cube (for example, vegetables) and put it in the same glass with the can-opener cube, your thinking will heat and melt both together into one fluid. Now when you stir the water, more associations and connections are made and the creative possibilities become immensely greater. The vegetable cube, once blended with the can-opener cube, might inspire you to think of how vegetables open in nature. For example, when pea pods ripen, a seam weakens and opens, freeing the peas. This might inspire you to come up with novel ideas. You could, for example, manufacture cans with a weak seam that can be pulled to open the can. You cannot get this kind of novel idea using your conventional way of thinking.

What happens when you think simultaneously, in the same mental space, about a showerhead and a telescope orbiting the earth? When the Hubble telescope was first launched into space, scientists were unable to focus it. It could be salvaged only by refocusing it using small, coin-shaped mirrors. The problem was how to deliver the mirrors and insert them precisely into the right location. The right location was in a light bundle behind the main mirror. The NASA experts who worked on the problem were not able to solve it, and the multi¬million dollar Hubble seemed doomed.

Electrical engineer James Crocker was attending a seminar in Germany when he found out about the problem. He worked on it all day. Tired, he stepped into the shower in his hotel room. The European-style shower included a showerhead on an arrangement of adjustable rods. While manipulating the showerhead, Crocker suddenly realized that similar articulated arms bearing coin-shaped mirrors could be extended into the light bundle from within a replacement axial instrument by remote control. Mentally blending the Hubble telescope and the showerhead created this remarkable solution.

Crocker was startled by his sudden realization of the solution that was immensely comprehensive and at the same time immensely detailed. As Crocker later said, “I could see the Hubble’s mirrors on the shower head.” The NASA experts could not solve the problem using their conventional linear way of thinking. Crocker solved it by thinking unconventionally — by forcing connections between two remotely different subjects.

Look at the following illustration of the square and circle. Both are separate entities.

Now look at the extraordinary effect they have when blended together. We now have something mysterious, and it seems to move. You can get this effect only by blending the two dissimilar objects in the same space. The power of the effect is not contained in the circle or in the square, but in the combination of the two.

Creativity in all domains, including science, technology, medicine, the arts, and day-to-day living, emerges from the basic mental operation of conceptually blending dissimilar subjects. When analyzed, creative ideas are always new combinations of old ideas. A poet does not generally make up new words but instead puts together old words in a new way. The French poet Paul Valéry is quoted by mathematician Jacques Hadamard in Jacques Hadamard, A Universal Mathematician, by T. O. Shaposhnikova, as saying, “It takes two to invent anything. The one makes up combinations; the other one chooses, recognizes what he wishes and what is important to him in the mass of the things which the former has imparted to him.” Valéry related that when he wrote poetry he used two thinking strategies to invent something new. With one strategy, he would make up combinations; and with the other, he would choose what was important.

Consider Einstein’s theory of relativity. He did not invent the concepts of energy, mass, or speed of light. Rather, he combined these ideas in a new and useful way.

Think for a moment about a pinecone. What relationship does a pinecone have to the processes of reading and writing? In France in 1818, a nine-year-old boy accidentally blinded himself with a hole puncher while helping his father make horse harnesses. A few years later the boy was sitting in the yard thinking about his inability to read and write when a friend handed him a pinecone. He ran his fingers over the cone and noted the tiny differences between the scales. He conceptually blended the feel of different pinecone scales with reading and writing and realized he could create an alphabet of raised dots on paper so the blind could feel and read what was written with it. In this way Louis Braille opened up a whole new world for the blind.

Braille made a creative connection between a pinecone and reading. When you make a connection between two unrelated subjects, your imagination will leap to fill the gaps and form a whole in order to make sense of it. Suppose you are watching a mime impersonating a man taking his dog out for a walk. The mime’s arm is outstretched as though holding the dog’s leash. As the mime’s arm is jerked back and forth, you “see” the dog straining at the leash to sniff this or that. The dog and the leash become the most real part of the scene, even though there is no dog or leash. In the same way, when you make connections between your subject and something that is totally unrelated, your imagination fills in the gaps to create new ideas. It is this willingness to use your imagination to fill in the gaps that produces the unpredictable idea. This is why Einstein claimed that imagination is more important than knowledge.

Just as conceptual blending allows information to intermingle in the mind of the individual, when people swap thoughts with others from different fields, this creates new, exciting thinking patterns for both. As Brian Arthur argues in his book The Nature of Technology, nearly all technologies result from combinations of other technologies, and new ideas often come from people from different fields combining their thoughts and things. One example is the camera pill, invented after a conversation between a gastroenterologist and a guided-missile designer.

Learn how to get the ideas that can change your life.

If You Always Think The Way You’ve Always Thought, You’ll Always Get The Same Old Ideas You Always Got. Learn How to be a Creative Thinker and Get The Ideas You Need


Now quickly read aloud the colors of the following words …
not the words themselves, but the colors in which the words are shown:

Difficult isn’t it? No matter how hard you concentrate, no matter how hard you focus, you will find that it is almost impossible to read the colors aloud without becoming confused. The word patterns have become so strong in your brain that they are activated automatically whether you want them to be or not.

Now read the following paragraph.

“Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabridge Uinvervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the litteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a ttoal mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is besauae ocne we laren how to raed we bgien to aargnre the lteerts in our mnid to see waht we epxcet to see. The huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but preecsievs the wrod as a wlohe. We do tihs ucnsoniuscoly wuithot tuhoght.”

Amazing, isn’t it? How are you able to see and understand a group of jumbled letters as words? How can you find meaning in a mass of jumbled letters? Show this paragraph to any child just learning to read and they will tell you that what you think are words is nonsense. This is because the word patterns in their brain have not yet become rigid.

The dominant factor in the way our minds work is the buildup of patterns that enable us to simplify and cope with a complex world. These patterns are based on our past experiences in life, education, and work that have been successful in the past. We look at 6 X 6 and 36 appears automatically without conscious thought. We brush our teeth in the morning, get dressed, drive to work without conscious thought because our thinking patterns enable us to perform routine tasks rapidly and accurately.

But this same patterning makes it hard for us to come up with new ideas and creative solutions to problems, especially when confronted with unusual data. In our paragraph, our word patterns are so hard wired that even a small bit of information (the first and last letter of a word) activates the entire word pattern. We end up seeing what our brains expect to see instead of what is right before our eyes.

We are instructed in schools to think reproductively by memorizing formulae, systems, and methodologies that others have used successfully in the past. This instruction has created strong thinking patterns. When confronted with problems, these thinking patterns are activated with even a small bit of information and lead our thinking in a clearly defined direction toward something that has worked in the past for someone else, excluding all other approaches.

Think of your mind as a dish of jelly which has settled so that its surface is perfectly flat. When information enters the mind, it self-organizes. It is like pouring warm water on the dish of jelly with a teaspoon. Imagine the warm water being poured on the jelly dish and then gently tipped so that it runs off. After many repetitions of this process, the surface of the jelly would be full of ruts, indentations, and grooves.

New water (information) would start to automatically flow into the preformed grooves. After a while, it would take only a bit of information (water) to activate an entire channel. This is the pattern recognition and pattern completion process of the brain. Even if much of the information is out of the channel, the pattern will be activated. The mind automatically corrects and completes the information to select and activate a pattern.

This is why, when we sit down and try to will new ideas or solutions, we tend to keep coming up with the same-old, same-old ideas. Information is flowing down the same ruts and grooves making the same-old connections producing the same old ideas over and over again.

Creativity occurs when we tilt the jelly dish and force the water (information) to flow into new channels and make new connections. These new connections give you different ways to focus your attention and different ways to interpret whatever you are focusing on. These different ways of focusing your attention and different ways of interpreting what you are focusing on lead to new insights, original ideas and solutions.

You cannot will yourself to look at things in a different way, no matter how inspired you are to do so. To illustrate, following are two rows of parallel dots which are equal in length. Try to will yourself to see the rows of dots as unequal in length. No matter how hard you concentrate and how long you look at the dots, the two rows remain equal.


However, if you change the way you look at the dots by combining the dots with two convergent straight lines, your perception of the dots changes. When you do that, the top row appears longer than the other one.


The rows are still equal (go ahead and measure them), yet, you are now seeing something different. Combining the dots with straight lines focused your attention in a different way and caught your brain’s processing routines by surprise. This provoked a different thinking pattern that changed your perception of the illustration and allowed you to see something that you could not otherwise see.

If one particular thinking strategy stands out for creative geniuses throughout history, it is the ability to provoke different thinking patterns by using creative thinking techniques that enable them to perceive conceptual analogical and metaphorical juxtapositions between dissimilar and unrelated subjects and information.

Xiaohui Cui at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee immersed himself in the problem of a better way to organize information on the internet. He abstracted the principle of the problem to “how do things flock and flow.” He studied how things flock and flow in different domains. Then he made the analogical connection between how information flocks and flows on the internet and how birds of the same species flock and flow together.

The system he created mimics the ways birds of the same species congregate while flying. He created flocks of virtual “birds.” Each bird carries a document, which is assigned a string of numbers. Documents with a lot of similar words have number strings of the same length. A virtual bird will fly only with others of its own “species” or, in this case, documents with number strings of the same length. When a new article appears on the Internet, software scans it for words similar to those in existing articles and then files the document in an existing flock, or creates a new one.

This new web-feed tool will, whenever you go online, automatically update your browser with any new stories added to your favorite websites. It will also provide automatic updates from other websites, such as when new scientific papers are added to journals.

To get this idea, Xiaohui had to provoke a change in his thinking patterns about the internet. He did this by abstracting the principle of the problem (flocking and flowing) and immersed himself in searching in other domains for how things flock and flow. When he made the analogical connection between how birds flock and how information flocks, he was able to look at his problem with a new perspective. (Metaphorically, it was like placing two straight lines next to the dots in the illustration.)
The essence of creative thinking is a complex blending of elements of two or more different subjects, all of which involve guesswork rather than certainty. Perception is far more than the recognition of members of already-established categories–it involves the spontaneous manufacture of new categories.

To learn about creative thinking techniques and how to get the ideas you need, read Michael’s books

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