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.)
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. 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 http://creativethinking.net/#sthash.SXV5T2cu.dpbs