Category: Articles and Techniques (page 2 of 21)



Our special gift is the imagination to make universal metaphorical – analogical connections between two dissimilar areas of experience. For example, in the illustration above, take the two nonsense words maluma and tuckatee and match them to the figures A and B. Which one is a “maluma,” and which is a “tuckatee?

You know the “why didn’t I think of that?” feeling you get when you observe a new idea or process? We’re struck by the obviousness of the idea once we see the analogical connection. Imagine how many entrepreneurs, inventors, and manufacturers kicked themselves when Gillette introduced the disposable razor.

Gillette was founded by King Camp Gillette, who, to make his fortune, pursued the idea of manufacturing something that would be used once a day and then thrown away. He methodically worked through the alphabet, thinking of potential products that started with A, and then B, and so on, listing every possibility. This proved a waste of time. The idea of a safety razor didn’t arrive through logical reasoning, but through a moment of insight when he realized that a razor was not an object but a “sharp edge.” In that moment, he said, he saw the disposable razor in pictures rather than thought.

In another example, scientists at Gillette wanted to develop a new toothbrush. Instead of focusing on a toothbrush, they focused on “cleaning.” Among the things they studied were:

• How are cars cleaned?
• How is hair cleaned?
• How are clothes cleaned?
• How are arteries cleaned?
• How are fingernails cleaned?
• How are waterways cleaned?

They got excited when they studied how cars are cleaned. Cars can be cleaned in a car wash. Car washes use multiple soaping and brushing actions in different directions. The scientists saw a relation¬ship between cars and teeth and incorporated the principle of mul¬tiple brushes brushing in different directions into the Oral B electric toothbrush, which became the bestselling toothbrush in the world.  The Oral B was created because Gillette scientists were focused on the universal theme of the problem which is “cleaning” and not the object (toothbrush).

Most of us have lost the sensitivity to deeper relationships, functions, and patterns because we are educated to focus on the particulars of experience as opposed to the universals. We see them as independent parts of an objective reality. Over time we have cultivated an attitude which puts the major emphasis on separating human experience into different domains and universes. We’ve been tacitly taught that perception is the activity of dividing a complex scene into its separate parts followed by the activity of attaching standard labels to the parts (e.g., drinking water, rain water, stream, ocean, water from a well, etc.). These parts are placed in pre-established categories, such as “weather,” “geology,” “commercial,” “underground,” etc., and activate only those elements that it feels logical. This kind of thinking is exclusive. Its goal is to separate and exclude elements from thought based upon what exists now. It discourages creative thought.

Creative thinking is the opposite of this kind of thinking. The quintessential activity of perception is the discovery of some abstract connection that links and does not separate parts of complex wholes. 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.

In ordinary language, we talk of the “essence of the matter”, by which is meant it’s “meaning” or significance, the most important or defining aspect of a thing, besides which other aspects are just accidental or “unessential”. Working with principles and essences will break you out of the habit of associating qualities with things and will expand your thinking.

Suppose you were asked to create a better way to organize information on the internet. Think for a moment how you would approach the problem. What would be your plan?

Xiaohui Cui at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee was asked to see if he could create a better way to organize information on the web. His first thoughts were about the essence of the problem. He phrased it as how does information flock and flow? How do things in other worlds flock and flow? How do fish flock and flow? How do birds flock and flow? How does bacteria flock and flow?

He came up with an idea by making an analogical connection between how information flocks and flows on the Internet and how birds of the same species flock and flow together. His system mimics the way 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, docu-ments 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.

ANSWER: The majority of people identify A as a “tuckatee” and B as a “maluma.” This is an example of our gift for making universal metaphorical-analogical connections even between words and dissimilar shapes. “It just looks like a tuckatee,” or “It just looks like a maluma.”

(Michael Michalko is the highly-acclaimed author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses; Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work)

Logical Reasoning Excercise

Peter Cathcart Wason was a cognitive psychologist at University College, London who pioneered the Psychology of Reasoning. He progressed explanations as to why people make certain consistent mistakes in logical reasoning. The problem described below is a variation on the Wason selection task that was devised by Peter Wason. The Wason selection task was originally developed as a test of logical reasoning, but it has increasingly been used by psychologists to analyze the structure of human reasoning mechanisms.

Consider the following problem. Four cards are laid out with their faces displaying respectively, an A, a B, a 4 and a 7.

A B 4 7

You are told that each card has a letter on one side and a number on the other. You are then given a rule, whose truth you are expected to evaluate. The rule is: “If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other.” You are then allowed to turn over two, but only two, cards in order to determine whether the rule is correct as stated.

Which two cards do you turn over?

If you worked this problem silently, you will almost certainly miss it, as have the large percentage of subjects to whom it has been presented. Most subjects realize that there is no need to select the card bearing the consonant, since it is irrelevant to the rule; they also appreciate that it is essential to turn over the card with the vowel, for an odd number opposite would prove the rule incorrect.

The wording of the problem determines the perspective most people mentally default to almost immediately. Most people assume that the object is to examine the cards to ascertain that if a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other; and if a card has an even number on one side, then it has a vowel on the other side. This assumption leads them to make the fatal error of picking the card with the even number, because the even number is mentioned in the rule. But, in fact, it is irrelevant whether there is a vowel or a consonant on the other side, since the rule does not take a stand on what must be opposite to even numbers.

On the other hand, it is essential to pick the card with the odd number on it. If that card has a consonant on it, the result is irrelevant. If, however, the card has a vowel on it, the rule in question has been proved incorrect, for the card must (according to the rule) have an even (and not an odd) number on it.

The content of this specific problem influenced the way we constructed our perception of the problem. This perception created the assumption that leads to error. This should give one pause about mentally defaulting to first impressions. Leonardo Da Vinci wrote in his notebooks that one should always assume that your first impression of a problem is usually biased toward your usual way of thinking. He suggested looking at your problem in at least three different ways to get a better understanding.

“If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other.” Here we are working with letters and numbers. Transposing the words to read “If a card has an even number on one side, then……….” Clarifies the problem and gives us a different perspective on even numbered cards. It becomes apparent that what even numbered cards have on the other side has no significance. The rule is only concerned with cards that have vowels on one side.

Sigmund Freud would “reframe” something to transform its meaning by putting it into a different framework or context than it has previously been perceived. For example, by reframing the “unconscious” as a part of him that was “infantile,” Freud began to help his patients change the way they thought and reacted to their own behavior.

The important thing is not to persist with one way of looking at the problem. Consider the following interesting twist, again using four cards. This time, however, we reframe the problem by substituting journeys and modes of transportation for letters and numbers. Each card has a city on one side and a mode of transportation on the other.


This time, the cards have printed on them the legends, respectively, Los Angeles, New York, airplane, and car; and the rule is reframed to read: “Every time I go to Los Angeles, I travel by airplane. While this rule is identical to the number-letter version, it poses little difficulty for individuals. In fact, now 80 percent of subjects immediately realize the need to turn over the card with “car” on it.

Apparently, one realizes that if the card with “car” on it has the name “Los Angeles” on the back, the rule has been proved incorrect; whereas it is immaterial what it says on the back of the airplane since, as far as the rule is concerned, one can go to New York any way one wants.

Why is it that 80 percent of subjects get this problem right, whereas only 10 percent know which cards to turn over in the vowel-number version? By changing the content (cities and modes of transportation substituted for letters and numbers), we restructured the problem, which dramatically changed our reasoning. The structure of a problem colors our perspective and the way we think.

The significant point about this test is that we are incredibly bad at it. And it doesn’t make much difference what the level of education is of the person taking the test. Moreover, even training in formal logic seems to make little difference to a person’s performance. The mistake that we tend to make is fairly standard. People almost always recognize that they have to pick up the card with the vowel, but they fail to see that they also have to pick up the card with the odd number. They think instead that they have to pick up the card with the even number.

One of the most interesting things about this phenomenon is that even when the correct answer is pointed out, people feel resistance to it. It apparently feels “right” that the card with the even number should be picked up. It feels right because your initial perspective is biased toward the usual way of thinking. It is only when you look at it from different perspectives that you get a deeper understanding of the problem.

What Helen Keller Taught Me about Creative Thinking

You may have heard the story of Helen Keller. She was blind, deaf, and mute from an early age and could not communicate. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, realized that the key was to somehow teach her a communicable concept. Sullivan taught her a kind of Morse code with finger play and would scratch the alphabet on her palm to form words. For a long time, Keller could not grasp what this was all about. She said later that she did not know Sullivan was scratching words on her palm; in fact, she did not even know words existed. She would simply imitate the scratches, making her fingers go in a monkeylike fashion.

One day Sullivan, as if in a game, caused Keller to come in contact with water in a wide variety of different forms and contexts, such as water standing still in a pail, water flowing out of a pump, water in a drinking glass, raindrops, a stream, and so on. Each time, Sullivan scratched the word water on the palm of Keller’s hand.

Suddenly Keller realized that all these different experiences referred to one substance with many aspects, and that it was symbolized by the single collection of letters — the word water — scratched on the palm of her hand. This means she organized the many different experiences of water into a pattern of equivalence by blending them with the word water that she felt on her hand.

Keller conceptually blended the different experiences with the word water by mentally bouncing back and forth and comparing the separate experiences with each other and with the word on her hand. Here we have the undiluted act of conceptual blending, the sudden synthesis of the universe of signs and the universe of things. This discovery of the essence of water initiated a fantastic revolution in Keller’s life and the lives of hundreds of others. To further appreciate Keller’s achievement, think of how many ages must have passed before humans discovered that a brace of pheasants and a couple of days were both instances of the number 2.

Many people have a fundamentally mechanistic view of the world. They believe the world has rules, and that the rules are knowable. Anything that violates the rules is not possible. For example, we’re told the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. As an experiment, draw a straight line on paper. Mark A on the left side and B on the right. Take the page and fold it over, placing the B directly over the A. This makes the shortest distance between two points placing one point over the other.

In effect, when you do this, you are creating a “wormhole,” which is a passage in space-time connecting the separate points. This is the same principle as the wormhole in space that connects widely separated parts of the universe. It’s called a wormhole after the hole a worm makes in an apple. The worm could crawl over the surface of the apple to get from A to B, but instead it bores a hole through the center of the apple, creating a shortcut. This violates one of the rules recognized by those who subscribe to the mechanistic view of the world. Yet we see that it can be done.

In contrast to products of mechanistic formulas, the creative product is the result of a process of discovering possibilities in a very large space of possibilities. This large space includes the freedom of thought necessary to conceptually blend dissimilar and even paradoxical subjects into a single entity. An original idea is not the sum of combined thoughts but depends on how their patterns are fitted together.

What is the connection between playing a piano and writing?

Christopher Sholes, while watching a pianist performing, noted that each key of the piano produces one note. He thought “What else can each key produce?” Why not a “writing machine” in which each key writes one letter? He then went on to arrange a set of keys attached to levers that would strike a roller, creating the first typewriter.

His blend of writing and playing a piano recognized only those counterparts of each concept that were interesting to him as a result of his unique set of circumstances. The blend then released a bubble in his mind, an idea for a writing machine.

The laws of disciplined thinking demand that we stick to a given frame of reference and not change universes. Pianos are musical instruments. A pen is for writing letters. These are two totally different universes. There is no connection between playing a piano and writing with pen and paper. But creative thinkers like Sholes open all the doors of the specialized compartments in their brains — much like our ancient ancestors did — to allow bits of information and thoughts from different universes to freely intermingle and combine.

Think of the similarities between conceptual blending and music. You cannot appreciate the music of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir by listening to its members sing sequentially. You have to listen to the whole group perform together as they coordinate their voices and movements in rhythm with each other.

Similarly, it was not enough for Sholes to think of writing and playing a piano as two separate entities. He had to blend the two together in the same mental space so he could find similarities, differences, and similar differences.

Artificial Surprise

Think of all the wonderful opportunities to combine existing technology with everyday products. An LED (light-emitting diode), for example, emits light when a voltage is applied to it. It is used primarily in electronic devices. Can you think of ways this type of light could be incorporated into household products?

One example is the ingenious combination pillow and sunrise invented by Eoin McNally and Ian Walton. Embedded with a grid of LEDs, the pillow uses nothing but light to wake you up. About forty minutes before your alarm is set to go off, the programmable foam pillow starts glowing, gradually becoming brighter, to simulate a natural sunrise. This helps set your circadian rhythm and ease you into day. The blend developed an emergent new idea not contained in either of the two inputs, the pillow or sunrise.

Helen Keller taught me that by combining separate experiences together, we create the opportunity for new original ideas to emerge.


RAIN (2)

Leonardo da Vinci
“Looking is giving a direction to one’s sight. A bird is an
an instrument………it opens its wings quickly and
sharply, bending in such a way that the wind…
raises it. And this I have observed in the flight
of a young falcon above the monastery at
Vaprio, on the morning of 14 April 1500.”

We tend to notice things which are directly relevant to our interest and ignore the rest. Blinkered by habit we glance rather than look at things. In effect, the eye sleeps until the mind wakes it with a question. What you see and what you notice are not the same thing. For example, you will, of course, have noticed the deliberate mistake in the preceding thought experiment and it’s not a spelling mistake.

As I wrote these words, I was reminded of an ancient Chinese story about a rainmaker who was hired to bring rain to a parched part of China. The rainmaker came in a covered cart, a small, wizened, old man who sniffed the air with obvious disgust as he got out of his cart, and asked to be left alone in a cottage outside the village; even his meals were to be left outside the door.

Nothing was heard from him for three days, then it not only rained, but there was also a big downfall of snow, unknown at that time of the year. Very much impressed, the villagers sought him out and asked him how he could make it rain, and even snow. The rainmaker replied, “I have not made the rain or the snow; I am not responsible for it.” The villagers insisted that they had been in the midst of a terrible drought until he came, and then after three days they even had quantities of snow.

“Oh, I can explain that. You see, the rain and snow were always here. But as soon as I got here, I saw that your minds had become lazy and that you could see but had forgotten how to look. So I remained here until once more you could see what was always right before your eyes.”

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black squares

Illusory grey spots mysteriously appear at the points of intersection in the following black and
white grid. However, the spot does not occur at the specific intersection on which you concentrate your attention.
Sometimes ideas, like the gray spots, do not appear when you are concentrating your attention and mysteriously appear when you are not. Modern science recognizes this phenomenon of incubation and insight yet cannot account for why it occurs. That this is a commonplace phenomenon was shown in a survey of distinguished scientists conducted over a half-century ago. A majority of the scientists reported that they got their best ideas and insights when not thinking about the problem. Ideas came while walking, recreating, or working on some other unrelated problem. This suggests how the creative act came to be associated with “divine inspiration” for the illumination and appears to be involuntary.

The more problems, ideas and thoughts that you think about from time to time, the more complex becomes the network of information in your mind. Think of thoughts as atoms hanging by hooks on the sides of your mind. When you think about a subject, some of these thoughts become loose and put into motion in your subconscious mind. The more work you put into thinking about a problem, the more thoughts and bits of information you put into random motion. Your subconscious mind never rests. When you quit thinking about the subject and decide to forget it, your subconscious mind doesn’t quit working. Your thoughts keep colliding, combining and making associations. This is why you’ve experienced suddenly remembering names, getting solutions to problems you’ve forgotten about, and ideas out of the blue when you are relaxing and not thinking about any particular thing.

There’s a thing in mathematics called “factorial”, which calculates how many ways you can combine things. If you have three objects, then there are one times two times three, which leaves six combinations. The factorial of ten is over three million. Ten bits of information will combine and recombine in three million different ways in your mind. So you can imagine the cloud of thoughts combining and making associations when you incubate problems when you stop working.

There is an important Chinese term, “wuwei,” “not doing,” the meaning of which is not “doing nothing,” but “not forcing.” Things will open up of themselves, according to their nature. And they do.

Cognitive scientists have observed that people, after a period of incubation from a problem, are 39 percent more likely to infer connections among distantly related ideas. Yet this enhancement of creative thinking exists completely beneath the radar screen. In other words, people are more creative after they forget about the problem for a period of time, but they don’t know it. It’s as if a period of incubation resets your mind. You’re taking a walk or taking a shower and realize “Wait a minute, there’s another way to do this.”

The famous philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell was quoted in The Conquest of Happiness as having said: “I have found, for example, that if I have to write upon some rather difficult topic, the best plan is think about it with very great intensity—the greatest intensity with which I am capable—for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak, that the work is to proceed underground. After some months, I return consciously to the topic and find the work has been done. Before I discovered this technique, I used to spend time worrying because I was making no progress; I arrived at the solution none the faster for this worry and the worrying time was wasted.” When author Norman Mailer had writer’s block, he would instruct his subconscious mind to work on the problem and to notify him when it was resolved. Then he would leave the problem until the “insight” arrived in his consciousness.

Incubation usually involves setting a problem aside for a few hours, days, or weeks and moving on to other projects. The creative act owes little to logic or reason. In their accounts of the circumstances under which big ideas occurred to them, scientists have often mentioned that the inspiration had no relation to the work they happened to be doing. Sometimes it came while they were traveling, shaving or thinking about other matters. The creative process cannot be summoned at will or even cajoled by sacrificial offering. Indeed, it seems to occur most readily when the mind is relaxed and the imagination roaming freely.

I gave a seminar for an advertising agency that was under pressure from a major television network to come up with an innovative marketing campaign to introduce the networks new shows. I compared our subconscious mind to an egg. I said imagine an egg sitting in its nest of straw. It doesn’t do anything and makes no sound. It doesn’t change shape, it doesn’t change color. It doesn’t pulsate. It doesn’t roll around. You could look at it for days and days and you’d come away thinking that it was an inert object and there was nothing going on.

Yet inside the egg a riot of change is taking place, a storm of re-organization, feeding and growth, of total activity as a bunch of random cells become an entity, which in turn becomes ever more defined and more complex, more organized in every way, more mature, more fantastic with every heartbeat, every breath that passes.

One day the egg that lay so motionless for so very long and seemed to be nothing but an inert shape will begin to rock, and then it will crack, and the a newly born bird will emerge, spread its wings for the first time and take its first small steps.

We talked a lot about the similarity between the subconscious mind and eggs. Then I asked them to perform a thought experiment which is to write a letter to their subconscious mind. (The guidelines for the thought experiment are at the end of the article.)

Bert, the creative director at the agency, wrote a letter which he addressed to his subconscious mind that he called “Secret Expert.”

“How are you Secret Expert?

I haven’t heard from you in some time, so I thought I would write you a letter. I need your help with a problem. I need to come up with an exciting new marketing program to introduce a new season of television shows. The shows include programs about criminal forensics, contests for prizes, lawyer shows and comedies. I’m interested in coming up with some kind of campaign that will capture the audience’s attention more than one time. The approach of the campaign should be unique and unexpected.

We’ve had several meetings but keep coming up with the same old traditional marketing campaign ideas. What do people need and keep? Is there something they need that we can advertise on? What kind of goods, products, foods and services should we investigate? What producers, distributors and retailers should we study? Can we combine our services with another company? Do we need to share revenue? I need a fresh approach to advertising. Your mission is to give me a new idea on how to advertise television shows. I need the idea in two days. Help!!!

Thanks, Bert”

Bert mailed the letter to himself and two days later received it. When he read what he had written, he got his brainstorm, which was to advertise on “eggs.” Did the connection come from our discussions about eggs and the subconscious? Or did it come from an association between “foods,” “need,” “producers,” and “fresh approach,” as in “fresh eggs?”

He arranged to place laser imprints of the network’s logos, as well as some of its shows on eggs—some thirty million. Some of the slogans that will be imprinted on the eggs are “Crack the Case on CSI,” “Scramble to win the great race,” “Hard-boiled drama,” “Leave the Yolks to us,” and “Funny Side UP.”

The consumers look at a single egg at least a few times. When they open the carton at the store, when they transfer them to the refrigerator, and when they crack them open. It’s unlike any other ad medium in the world because you’re looking at it while you are using it. Egg producers, distributors and retailers all love the concept as they will all share in the ad revenue.

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 another 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 know, 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.


• 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 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.


(Michael Michalko is the highly-acclaimed author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses; Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.


four no three

At one time, ancient astronomers believed that the heavens were eternal and made of ether. This theory made it impossible for them to observe meteors as burning stones from outer space. Although the ancients witnessed meteor showers and found some on the ground, they couldn’t recognize them as meteors from outer space. They sought out and observed only those things that confirmed their theory about the heavens. Albert Einstein intuitively knew that thinking is speculative and how personal beliefs and theories distort what we observe. We are like the ancient astronomers and actively seek out only that information that confirms our beliefs and theories about ourselves and the world.

A description of Einstein’s thinking process was found in a letter to his friend, Maurice Solovine. The letter started with a simple drawing consisting of one straight line which Einstein said represented experiences, which are given to us, and beliefs and axioms which are situated above the line but are not directly linked to experiences.

Einstein explained that psychologically, his beliefs and axioms rest upon his experiences. There exists, however, no logical path from experience to an axiom, but only an intuitive connection based on his interpretation of the experience, which is always subject to revocation. These speculative interpretations shape our beliefs and perceptions which determine our theories about the world. Finally, our theories determine what we observe and, paradoxically, we only observe what confirms our theories which further hardens our beliefs and axioms.

The following story illustrates how a person’s theory determines what is observed and how what is observed is interpreted according to the person’s theory.

The university professor challenged his students with this question. Did God create everything that exists? A student bravely replied, “Yes, he did!”

“God created everything? The professor asked. “Yes sir”, the student replied.

The professor answered, “If God created everything, then God created evil since evil exists, and according to the principal that our works define who we are, then God is evil”. The student became quiet before such an answer.

Another student raised his hand and said, “Can I ask you a question professor?”

“Of course”, replied the professor.

The student stood up and asked, “Professor, does cold exist?”

“What kind of question is this? Of course it exists. Have you never been cold?”

The young man replied, “In fact sir, cold does not exist. According to the laws of physics, what we consider cold is in reality the absence of heat. Every body or object is susceptible to study when it has or transmits energy, and heat is what makes a body or matter have or transmit energy. Absolute zero (-460 degrees F) is the total absence of heat; all matter becomes inert and incapable of reaction at that temperature. Cold does not exist. We have created this word to describe how we feel if we have no heat.”

The student continued, “Professor, does darkness exist?” The professor responded, “Of course it does.” The student replied, “Once again you are wrong sir, darkness does not exist either. Darkness is in reality the absence of light. Light we can study, but not darkness. In fact, we can use Newton’s prism to break white light into many colors and study the various wavelengths of each color. You cannot measure darkness. A simple ray of light can break into a world of darkness and illuminate it. How can you know how dark a certain space is? You measure the amount of light present. Isn’t this correct? Darkness is a term used by man to describe what happens when there is no light present.”

Finally, the young man asked the professor, “Sir, does evil exist?” Now uncertain, the professor responded, “Of course as I have already said. We see it every day. It is in the daily example of man’s inhumanity to man. It is in the multitude of crime and violence everywhere in the world. These manifestations are nothing else but evil.” To this the student replied, “Evil does not exist sir, or at least it does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of God. It is just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of God. God did not create evil. Evil is not like faith, or love that exist just as does light and heat. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God’s love present in his heart. It’s like the cold that comes when there is no heat or the darkness that comes when there is no light.”

The young student’s name purportedly was— Albert Einstein. Einstein, himself, neither confirmed nor denied he was the student.

(Michael Michalko is the highly-acclaimed author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses; Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.



The Greek philosopher and scientist, Aristotle, was responsible for producing some of the greatest advances in human thought during his lifetime in ancient Greece. In his book On Interpretation, Aristotle described how words and chains of words were powerful tools for his thinking. He described how words reflected his thoughts and how he used words to shape his thinking.

Once I stayed for a week at the storied Ritz-Carlton in Montreal. Usually I don’t like staying in expensive hotels because of my frugal nature. Yet in the Ritz I felt great. The longer my stay, the better I felt. I discussed my feelings with the manager, and he told me his secret. He told me that the most significant factor for their success was training their employees to frame everything they say in a positive manner. For example, employees who perform services for you will say, “It’s a pleasure,” instead of something like “No problem,” when you thank them. Or “Our restaurant would be pleased to serve you tonight,” instead of “Why don’t you visit our restaurant?” Or the bartender will say, “Thank you. I look forward to your return” when cashing out patrons. Guests feel welcome and appreciated, and find themselves feeling happy and positive.

This feel-good feeling becomes contagious among the guests and they soon subconsciously begin emulating the positive speech patterns they hear from the staff. By consciously transforming their speech patterns into positive ones, the staff influenced themselves to be positive and happy. The Ritz-Carlton experience demonstrated to me how language allowed the staff to influence themselves in a particular way and how their mental state was then transferred to the minds of the guests and how the guests transferred it to the minds of others. This was a dramatic example to me of how language can be used to influence behavior and emotions.

Many educated adults have a negative mindset which you can hear in the language they use. They talk about “what is not,” instead of “what is.” For example, when you ask someone how they are, how many times have you heard something like “No complaints or no problems.” What does that mean? Does it mean the person has a list of possible complaints taped on the bedroom wall and then reads the list every morning? “Gee, what do you know, no complaints today.” Ask a child and a child will tell you how they feel. “I feel great,” “I feel sick,” “I feel excited,” and so on.

Following are some common examples of “what is not” language. Offer an idea to your boss at work and instead of saying “That’s good,” your boss says “Not bad.” What does that mean? Does that mean every other idea you offered was bad? Instead of “Go ahead and do it,” why do we say “I don’t have a problem with that.” Does that mean we had a problem with everything else? Instead of “We can solve this easily by looking at our options,” why do we say “There is not any reason why we can’t solve this easily.” Does this mean we should look as hard as we can for reasons why it can’t be solved? Instead of “It’s a pleasure,” why do we say “No problem,” when someone thanks us for a favor. Does that mean every favor we did before was a problem? Instead of “Here’s what will happen,” why do we say “It won’t hurt.” Does this mean some ideas hurt and some ideas don’t? Why do we say “Why don’t we get together for lunch?”, instead of “Let’s get together for lunch?” Does it mean to try and think of some excuse not to have lunch? Why do we say “What’s wrong with this idea?” instead of “How can we improve the idea? “Does it mean that if one part of an idea is wrong then the whole idea is wrong?

Aristotle believed that the words and chains of words that we use in framing a problem play a significant role in the way we approach problems. Toyota once posted a notice asking employees to offer suggestions on how to increase production. They received only a few ideas. A manager reworded the request to asking employees for suggestions on how to make their work easier. They were inundated with ideas. A manager at a large computer company had a mission to put together an on-line database that would make life easier for all his telephone support people, but he couldn’t get any cooperation from them. His memo began, “As you know, we are legally obligated to provide a 4-hour response on all customer calls. Currently, we are backlogged with customer calls and making little or no progress; complaints continue to grow…” This is a negative approach. He later reworded the memo to say, “How would you like to get through your stack of backlogged customer calls quickly? How would you like to have all the researched answers to customer calls at the tips of your fingers? Help is on the way. For the next 30 days, I’ m asking you simply to record and forward to me a copy of…”. The positive approach generated a much better response. Positive framing means to say what you’re for, not what you’re against; what you’re going to do.

YOU CAN USE WORDS TO PRIME BEHAVIOR Language also influences behavior. In a pair of studies, University of British Columbia researchers had participants play “dictator game.” The game is simple: you’re offered ten one dollar coins and told to take as many as you want and leave the rest for the player in the other room (who is, unbeknown to you, a research confederate). The fair split, of course, is 50-50, but most anonymous “dictators” play selfishly, leaving little or nothing for the other player. In the control group, the vast majority of participants kept everything or nearly everything. In the experimental condition, the researchers next prompted thoughts of God using a well-established “priming” technique: participants, who again included both theists and atheists, first had to unscramble sentences containing words such as God, divine, love, and sacred. That way, going into the dictator game, players had God on their minds without being consciously aware of it. Sure enough, the “God prime” worked like a charm, leading to fairer splits. Without the God prime, only a few of the participants split the money evenly, but when primed with the religious words, 62 percent did.

There is a curious term in Japanese that refers to a very special manner of polite, aristocratic speech known as “play language,” (asobase kotoba), whereby, instead of saying to a person, for example, “I see that you have come to Tokyo,” one would express the observation by saying, “I see that you are playing at being in Tokyo”–the idea being that the person addressed is in such control of his life and powers that for him, everything is a play, a game. He is able to enter into life as one would enter into a game, freely and with ease. What has to be done is attacked with such a will that in the performance, one is literally “in play.” For example, “I see that you are playing at being unemployed?” That is the attitude designated by Nietzsche as love of one’s fate.

Ralph Summy, who directs the Matsunaga Institute for Peace, is well aware of the influence of language and encourages students to replace violent emotions by replacing violent expressions with nonviolent language. Instead of describing someone as “shooting a hole in an argument,” he suggests that person could be described as “unraveling a ball of yarn.” Summy also recommends that the expression “to kill two birds with one stone” be replaced by “to stroke two birds with one hand.” “Dressed to kill,” he adds, might become “dressed to thrill.”

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT. Language profoundly changes the way people think. Consider our relationship with animals. We typically regard ourselves as superior as we see animals as a lower form of life. We see them as “its.” In contrast to our relationship to animals, the Native American Algonquins and Lakota Sioux regard the animal as equal to humans and in many ways superior as expressed in their language. The Native Americans address all animal life as “thou,” an object of reverence. The deer, the dog, the snake, the buffalo are all “thou.” The ego that sees a “thou” is not the same ego that sees an “it.” Whenever you see an animal, silently think the words “thou dog,” “thou bird,” and so on. Try it for a few days or so to see for yourself. I guarantee you will feel a dramatic change in your psychology toward all animal life.

(Michael Michalko is the highly-acclaimed author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses; Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.


no google

We have not been taught how to think for ourselves, we have been taught what to think based on what past thinkers thought. We are taught to think reproductively, not productively. What most people call thinking is simply reproducing what others have done in the past. We have been trained to seek out the neural path of least resistance, searching out responses that have worked in the past, rather than approach a problem on its own terms.

Educators discourage us from looking for alternatives to prevailing wisdom. When confronted with a problem, we are taught to analytically select the most promising approach based on past history, excluding all other approaches and then to work logically within a carefully defined direction towards a solution. Instead of being taught to look for possibilities, we are taught to look for ways to exclude them. This kind of thinking is dehumanizing and naturalizes intellectual laziness which promotes an impulse toward doing whatever is easiest or doing nothing at all. It’s as if we entered school as a question mark and graduated as a period.

When we learn something, we are taught to program it into our brain and stop thinking about or looking for alternatives. Over time these programs become stronger and stronger, not only cognitively but physiologically as well. Even when we actively seek information to test our ideas to see if we are right, we usually ignore paths that might lead us to discover alternatives. Following is an interesting experiment, which was originally conducted by the British psychologist Peter Wason that demonstrates this attitude. Wason would present subjects with the following triad of three numbers in sequence.

2     4     6

He would then ask subjects to write other examples of triads that follow the number rule and explain the number rule for the sequence. The subjects could ask as many questions as they wished without penalty.

He found that almost invariably most people will initially say, “4, 6, 8,” or “20, 22, 24,” or some similar sequence. And Watson would say, yes, that is an example of a number rule. Then they will say, “32, 34, 36″ or “50, 52, 54″ and so on– all numbers increasing by two. After a few tries, and getting affirmative answers each time, they are confident that the rule is numbers increasing by two without exploring alternative possibilities.

Actually, the rule Wason was looking for is much simpler– it’s simply numbers increasing. They could be 1, 2, 3 or 10, 20, 40 or 400, 678, 10,944. And testing such an alternative would be easy. All the subjects had to say was 1, 2, 3 to Watson to test it and it would be affirmed. Or, for example, a subject could throw out any series of numbers, for example, 5, 4, and 3 to see if they got a positive or negative answer. And that information would tell them a lot about whether their guess about the rule is true.

The profound discovery Wason made was that most people process the same information over and over until proven wrong, without searching for alternatives, even when there is no penalty for asking questions that give them a negative answer. In his hundreds of experiments, he, incredibly, never had an instance in which someone spontaneously offered an alternative hypothesis to find out if it were true. In short, his subjects didn’t even try to find out if there is a simpler or even, another, rule.

On the other hand, creative thinkers have a vivid awareness of the world around them and when they think, they seek to include rather than exclude alternatives and possibilities. They have a “lantern awareness” that brings the whole environment to the forefront of their attention. So, by the way, do children before they are educated. This kind of awareness is how you feel when you visit a foreign country; you focus less on particulars and experience everything more globally because so much is unfamiliar.

A while back I attended a convention for a book signing event. During the event, I met several professors and recent graduates. Many of the graduates were just beginning their job searches and were being interviewed by recruiters. I met a person with a Ph.D. in creativity at the convention who is a professor at a distinguished university teaching others how to get a Ph.D. He spent a long time describing what he has learned in his studies and research. He expounded on the different theories of creativity, their founders, history, acceptance and the differences and similarities between them. He talked about the lives of the creative geniuses throughout history, who they were, how they lived, what they believed, what they created. He knew all kinds of information about creative thinking.

I told him his experience was fascinating and I enjoyed listening to his knowledge of creativity. I then asked him what advice he would give the graduates who were job hunting. He gave me the usual stuff about the importance of a resume. He suggested that prospects should emphasize their education, educational accomplishments, highlight recommendations from teachers and previous employers, if any. In short, I got the standard reproductive stuff about resumes you usually get.

Later that day, a student approached and introduced himself to me and told he how much he enjoyed my book Thinkertoys. He said he graduated recently and is going to start hunting for a job in marketing. Curious, I asked him how he was going to handle the resume process.

He explained that a person, when he or she is a prospect for a job, becomes a set of qualifications, potentially better but just like the rest. How easy positive bits of information are transferred to the potential employer is one of the essentials of a successful resume, just like a product in a supermarket to a consumer. So he wandered through supermarkets looking for examples of how consumer products are packaged and marketed. He settled on a carton of milk. He studied how the carton, itself, was used to market the company’s product.

Next, he created an actual milk carton with his resume printed on it. On each side of the milk carton information is formatted to match the theme. The front of the carton features quick tidbits like his name, tag-line, photograph and age. On one side, the designer’s experience and qualifications are listed and on the opposite, a table made to look like a nutritional information chart shows all his recommendations from teachers and past employers. On the lid is more glance-worthy items like “Let me help create your future” and “My love in life is Marketing.” He even put a recycling logo at the back of the box, just below contact.

milk jug

A few days later, he sent me his milk carton resume. Inside was an actual milk carton with his resume on it. I was very impressed. We stayed in touch and he was interviewed by virtually every company that received one. The student was a creative thinker who figured out his own way of catching fish, not simply repeating a specific way of fishing. Which one would you want on your marketing team? The Ph.D. or the student?

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

When You Are Working On Something an Find Something Interesting, Drop Everything Else and Work On It



Psychologist B.F. Skinner advised people that when you are working on something and find something interesting, drop everything else and study it. In fact, he emphasized this as a first principle of scientific creative methodology. This is what William Shockley and a multi-discipline Bell labs team did. They were formed to invent the MOS transistor and ended up instead with the junction transistor and the new science of semiconductor physics. These developments led to the integrated circuit and to new breakthroughs in electronics and computers. William Shockley described it as a process of creative failure methodology.

History is replete with examples of creative people who set out to do something, found something interesting, and then dropped everything to work on the interesting thing. John Wesley Hyatt, an Albany mechanic, worked long and hard trying to find a substitute for billiard-ball ivory, then coming into short supply. He invented, instead, celluloid, the first commercially successful plastic. Roy Plunkett set out to invent a new refrigerant at DuPont. Instead, he created a glob of white waxy material that conducted heat and did not stick to surfaces. Fascinated by this unexpected material, he abandoned his original line of research and experimented with this interesting material, which eventually became known by its household name, Teflon.

In another example, 3M primarily manufactured adhesives for industry. Researchers developed a new lightweight tape that industry rejected. The researchers were told to burn all the samples of the tape and were reassigned to other projects. One researcher took samples home. His teenage daughters took the tape and used it for setting their hair, taping pictures on the wall, taping cracks on toys and so on. He made a list of all the things his daughter did with the tape. When he returned to work, he arranged to meet with upper management. He showed them the list of the many things his daughters did with the tape, and then told them that what they had was not an industrial product but a consumer product. They named it Scotch Tape.

Creative thinkers use their intellect to explore every interesting aspect of an idea before they apply their existing emotions and prejudices. To explore an idea with our intellect, we need to will ourselves to direct our attention in a different way. Once you have the “will,” than the natural challenge to your intelligence is to capture in writing as many positive, negative, and interesting points as you can.
The guidelines are:

1. Make three columns. Title the columns “Yes,” “No,” and “Interesting.”
2. Under the “Yes” column, list all the positive aspects about the idea that you can.
3. Under the “No” column, list all the negative aspects that you can.
4. Under the “Interesting” column, list all those things that are interesting but do not fit under either “Yes” or “No.”

At the end of the exploration, emotions and feelings can be used to make a decision about the matter. The difference is that the emotions are now applied after the exploration instead of being applied before and so preventing exploration. Now, one of three things can happen:

You may decide the idea is viable.
You may reject the idea as unsound.
You may move from the idea to another idea. By exploring the “positive” and
“interesting” aspects of an idea, you may be able to recycle it into something else.

When you put down the positive, negative and interesting points, you react to what you put down and your feelings change. Once a point has been thought and captured under any of the headings, that point cannot be “unthought,” and it will influence the final decision.

A middle school principal had a problem with her female pupils who were experimenting with lipstick. The girls were kissing the mirrors in the bathroom leaving their lip prints on bathroom mirrors. The maintenance department constantly asked her to have the pupils stop this unsanitary practice. The principal brainstormed the problem with her faculty looking for ideas. One idea was to offer an incentive to the girls. They settled on offering a free pizza party on the last day of the month if no lip prints were found on any of the bathroom mirrors.

To evaluate the idea, they employed the technique of “Yes, No, Interesting.” On a chalkboard they listed all the positives, negatives and interesting aspects of the idea. The more items they listed, the more they made associations and connections to other ideas and interesting aspects of the idea.

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 your efforts. When you make the effort 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 and the more ideas you generate, the more active your brain becomes and the more creative you become.

We have the uncanny ability to quickly retrieve whatever information we need from the enormous store of our memories from our experiences. If a friend asks you to tell him what comes to mind when he says the word “zebra”, you do not have to clumsily sort back through some gigantic and cerebral alphabetic file to arrive at an answer. Instead, associations like “striped”, “horse like”, and “animal native to Africa” all pop into your head instantly. One of the most amazing things about the human thinking process is that every piece of information seems instantly cross-correlated with every other piece of information. It is nature’s supreme example of a cross-correlated system.

The teachers were soon associating pizza with celebrations, lifestyle, incentive programs, unique gifts, rumors and so on. Some of the associations made were:

    • October is national pizza month. Make one month a “No Lip Prints on Bathroom Mirrors” month.
    • A restaurant in NYC provides the most expensive pizza for $1000 or $125 a slice. Pizza is a very subjective food.          Some unusual toppings are caviar, lobster, venison, edible gold, and, even salt-water crocodile. Have pizzas with unusual toppings. Research the NYC restaurant, discover the toppings they offer and then prepare pizzas with the same or similar toppings. “Have a Most Expensive Pizza in the US party” as an incentive.
    • Have a pizza party as an incentive to encourage students to stop lip printing. The party would have the teachers prepare the pizza, serve the pizza to the students as service personnel and clean up after the party.
    • If the mirrors are lip print free after one month, the students select one teacher or administrator to sing a song that will be broadcast on the school’s PA system for everyone to hear, record and sent to a local radio talk show.

One teacher remembered a gross rumor about pizza she heard when she was a young student. She and all her friends patronized a nearby pizza shack nearly every day. One student became angry at the owner of the shack and started a nasty rumor about the pizza. The student told other students the pizza shack was using the water from a sewage ditch that ran behind the shack to make their pizza. They did this to save on their water bill. This powerful rumor grossed the students out and they stop going to the shack. The shack lacking student support had to close.

The teacher suggested that instead of rewarding good behavior why not start a rumor that would gross the students out and compel them to stop kissing the mirrors. After a discussion, many suggested gross rumors they could start, and finally settled on this solution.

After conspiring with the janitor, the principle invited a group of girls into the bathroom saying she wanted them to witness the extra work they made for the janitor cleaning their lip prints. The janitor came in and stepped into an open toilet stall. He slowly dipped his squeegee into the toilet bowl several times, shook off the excess toilet water then used the squeegee to clean the mirrors. The girls were visibly shocked as they watched.

That small group of girls quickly told all their friends what they had witnessed personally. Word spread and the janitors reported that there no longer was a problem with lip prints. Later, when new students entered the bathrooms and began to lip print, they were quickly discouraged by older students who warned them about the toilet water. The rumor was 100% effective.

In each and every experience there is a multitude of other experiences lying in wait, we choose one and marginalize the others. Usually the moment we call something “a” we have marginalized all of its other possible states (b,c,d,e, etc). That doesn’t mean that the other states do not exist, it just means that we are not aware of them. This technique enables your intellect to resurrect other possibilities by also focusing it on interesting thoughts about the idea. These are discontinuous thoughts which break you from the past habits by concentrating only on connecting related thoughts. This interaction excites the neurotransmitters in your brain to interact and connect with each other producing countless new associations and connections. These new connections breed intuitive guesses and hunches such as promoting a gross rumor to stop certain behavior.

Learn the creative thinking techniques and strategies that creative geniuses have used throughout history. Review Michael Michalko’s books and articles at


One day not too long ago the employees of a large company returned from their lunch break and were greeted with a sign on the front door. The sign said: “Yesterday the person who has been hindering your growth in this company passed away. We invite you to join the funeral service in the Presentation Room that has been prepared for the funeral.”

At first everyone was sad to hear that one of their colleagues had died, but after a while they started getting curious about who this person might be. The excitement grew as the employees arrived at the Presentation Room to pay their last respects. Everyone wondered: “Who is this person who was hindering my progress? No wonder I haven’t been promoted after all my years. I’ve always suspected some executive disliked something about me. Someone in a high position had a strong prejudice against me. Thank God, this company finally had the guts to admit how unfairly employees have been evaluated.”

One by one the employees got closer to the coffin and when they looked inside it, they suddenly became speechless. They stood over the coffin, shocked and in silence, as if someone had touched the deepest part of their soul.


There was a large mirror inside the coffin: everyone who looked inside it could see himself. There was also a sign next to the mirror that said: “There is only one person who is capable of setting limits to your growth: it is YOU. You are the only person who can revolutionize your life. You are the only person who can influence your happiness, your realization and your success. You are the only person who can help yourself. Your life does not change when your boss changes, when your friends change, when your parents change, when your partner changes, when your company changes. Your life changes when YOU change, when you go beyond your limiting beliefs, when you realize that you are the only one responsible for your life.


Change your life by reading Michael Michalko’s book CREATIVE THINKERING: PUTTING YOUR IMAGINATION TO WORK

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