Anderson-Childers:Welcome back, readers. You’re in for a treat. This month I’m interviewing one of the most highly-acclaimed creativity experts in the world! Michael Michalko was an officer in the US Army, and worked with NATO and CIA think tanks to promote creative thinking and problem-solving techniques.

He has consulted with clients all over the world, including many Fortune 500 corporations, and is the author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques and Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius. He also created a tool for brainstorming: Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck. These creative thinking tools help you solve problems, generate new ideas, and think like a genius! He’s also got a fabulous website that features techniques, tools, and thought experiments to help your creativity blossom. Michael, it’s an honor to interview you for this series. Thanks for joining us today!

While looking over your website, I stumbled across the Koinonia technique; a way of dialoguing with others and sharing ideas. Can you discuss Koinonia, and its practical applications for artists’ and writers’ groups?

Michalko: While researching the lives of Einstein, Heisenberg, Pauli and Bohr, physicist David Bohm made a remarkable observation. Bohm noticed that their incredible breakthroughs took place through simple, open and honest conversation. He observed, for instance, that Einstein and his colleagues spent years freely meeting and conversing with each other. During these interactions, they exchanged and dialogued about ideas which later became the foundations of modern physics. They exchanged ideas without trying to change the other’s mind and without bitter argument. They felt free to propose whatever was on their mind. They always paid attention to each other’s views and established an extraordinary professional fellowship. This freedom to discuss without risk led to the breakthroughs that physicists today take for granted.

Other scientists of the time, in contrast, wasted their careers bickering over petty nuances of opinion and promoting their own ideas at the expense of others. They mistrusted their colleagues, covered up weaknesses and were reluctant to openly share their work. Many refused to discuss their honest thoughts about physics because of the fear of being labeled controversial by their colleagues. Others were afraid of being called ignorant. The majority of scientists at the time lived in an atmosphere of fear and politics. They produced nothing of significance.

Einstein and his friends illustrate the staggering potential of collaborative thinking. The notion that open and honest collaboration allows thinking to grow as a collective phenomenon can be traced back to Socrates and other thinkers in ancient Greece. Socrates and his friends so revered the concept of group dialogue that they bound themselves by principles of discussion that they established to maintain a sense of collegiality. These principles were known as “Koinonia,” which means “spirit of fellowship.” The principles they established were:

Koinonia Principles

  • ESTABLISH DIALOGUE. In Greek, the word dialogue means “talking through.” The Greeks believed that the key to establishing dialogue is to exchange ideas without trying to change the other person’s mind. This is not the same as discussion, which from its Latin root means to “dash to pieces.” The basic rules of dialogue for the Greeks were: “Don’t argue,” “Don’t interrupt,” and “Listen carefully.”
  • CLARIFY YOUR THINKING. To clarify your thinking, you must suspend all untested assumptions. Being aware of your assumptions and suspending them allows thought to flow freely. Free thought is blocked if we are unaware of our assumptions, or unaware that our thoughts and opinions are based on assumptions. For instance, if you believe that certain people are not creative, you’re not likely to give their ideas fair consideration. Check your assumptions about everything and try to maintain an unbiased view.
  • BE HONEST. Say what you think, even if your thoughts are controversial.

The ancient Greeks believed these principles allowed thinking to grow as a collective phenomenon. Koinonia allowed a group to access a larger pool of common thoughts which cannot be accessed individually. A new kind of mind begins to come into being, based on the development of common thoughts. People are no longer in opposition. They become participants in a pool of common ideas, which are capable of constant development and change.

Jackson Pollock and a group of Surrealist artists collaborated to create conceptual combinations in words that would inspire random creative ideas for art. Artists in a group would take turns, each contributing any word that occurred to them in a “sentence” without seeing what the others had written. The resulting sentence eventually became a combination of concepts that they would study and interpret, hoping to get a novel insight or a glimpse of some deeper meaning. The technique is named “The Exquisite Corpse” after a sentence which happened to contain those words.

Another group of artists who call themselves futurists create collaborative art. They collaborate on a work with each artist working on it separately at different times. When the picture is finished, they cannot tell who painted what. The result is usually a remarkable product that reflects several different points of view, combined into something different over time. Collaboration over time creates a different dimension and different understanding of a subject in art.

Anderson-Childers: Edison’s Idea File is an interesting and practical way of tracking inspirations and ideas. Could you talk about ways artists and writers can create an Idea File at home or in the studio, to track ideas that might otherwise get lost?

Michalko: Leonardo da Vinci was Thomas Edison’s spiritual mentor. Edison’s notebooks illustrate the strength of their spiritual kinship. Following da Vinci’s example, Edison relentlessly recorded and illustrated every step of his voyage to discovery in 3,500 notebooks that were discovered after his death in 1931. His strategy of keeping a written record of his work was a significant key to his genius. His notebooks got him into the following habits:

They enabled him to cross-fertilize ideas, techniques and conceptual models by transferring them from one problem to the next. When it became clear that an iron-ore mining venture in which Edison had invested was failing and on the brink of bankruptcy, he spent a weekend poring over his notebooks and came up with a detailed plan to redirect the company’s efforts toward the manufacture of Portland cement, which could capitalize on the same model of the iron-ore company.

Whenever he succeeded with a new idea, Edison reviewed his notebooks to rethink ideas and inventions he’d abandoned in the past, in light of what he’d recently learned. If he was stuck on a new idea, he reviewed his notebooks to see if there was some thought or insight that could trigger a new approach. For example, Edison took his unsuccessful work to develop an undersea telegraph cable, and incorporated it into the design of a telephone transmitter that adapted to the changing sound waves of the caller’s voice. This technique instantly became the industry standard.

Edison often jotted down his observations of the natural world, failed patents and research papers written by other inventors, and ideas others had come up with in other fields. He routinely combed a wide variety of diverse publications for novel ideas that sparked his interest, and recorded them in his notebooks. He made it a habit to keep a lookout for novel and interesting ideas that others used successfully on other problems in other fields. To Edison, your idea needs to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you’re working on.

Edison also studied his notebooks of past inventions and ideas to use as springboards for other inventions and ideas in their own right. Edison’s diagrams and notes on the telephone (sounds transmitted) suggested the phonograph (sounds recorded), which, in turn, suggested motion pictures (images recorded). Simple, in retrospect, isn’t it? Genius usually is.

Walt Whitman was another creative thinker who collected ideas to stimulate his creative potential. His journals describe an ingenious technique he developed for recording ideas. Anytime an idea struck his imagination, he wrote it down on a small slip of paper. He placed these slips into various envelopes, titled according to the subject area each envelope contained. In order to have a place for each new idea he encountered, Whitman kept ideas in many different envelopes.

Whenever he felt a need to spawn new thoughts or perspectives, Whitman selected the various envelopes pertaining to his current subject or interests. He retrieved ideas from the envelopes — sometimes at random, or, on other occasions, only those ideas relevant to his subject. Then he wove these ideas together, as if he were creating an idea tapestry. These idea tapestries often became the foundation for a new poem or essay.

Anderson-Childers: How can artists and writers benefit from your Abstraction technique?

Michalko: Creative geniuses perceive essences, functions, and patterns that enable them to make abstract connections and conceptualize original ideas. We have been educated not to do this. Over time, we have cultivated the habit of putting the major emphasis on separating subjects into particulars and focusing on the particulars.

A rainbow seems to be an object made up of colored arcs. If you assumed that the rainbow was an object and walked toward it, it would not be found. Instead, you would find raindrops falling and sunlight. If you studied the raindrops and sunlight as separate events, you’d never understand the rainbow. However, if you study the interrelationship between light and raindrops, you will discover the essence of the rainbow, which is the blending of falling rain and light refracting off the rain. It’s a process, not an object.

Martin Skalski, professor at Pratt Institute, believes that working with “essences” and “abstractions” lead to more innovation than the more typical approach of basing new products on specific existing objects. Students designing automobiles, for example, might be asked to draw abstract compositions of “things in motion.” Later, they will use the drawings to stimulate their imaginations while designing automobiles. As one of his students related, “When you see a fish you don’t think of its scales, do you? You think of its speed, its floating, flashing body seen through the water…you want just the flash of its spirit.”

Former students of Skalski worked on streamlining the airplane. Instead of working to improve existing designs, they explored how “things reduce drag.” The simple golf ball led to their breakthrough idea. They discovered that the dimpled pattern of a golf ball reduces drag efficiently, so the surfaces of airplanes will soon have rough surfaces.

Many ideas seem obvious to us in retrospect, once we see the connection between dissimilar things. George de Mestral, a Swiss inventor, was asked to make a better zipper. George did not think of zippers. Instead, he thought about the essence of “fastening” — e.g., how do windows fasten, how does a bird fasten its nest to a branch, how do wasps fasten their hives, how do mountain climbers fasten themselves to a mountain, how are tops fastened on bottles, and so on. One day, he took his dog for a nature hike. They both returned covered with burrs. He made the analogy between the burr and the zipper when he examined the small hooks that enabled the seed-bearing burr to cling so viciously to the tiny loops in the fabric of his pants. This inspired him to invent a two-sided fastener similar to a zipper- one side with stiff hooks like the burrs, and the other side with soft loops like the fabric of his pants. He called his invention “Velcro,” which is itself a combination of the word velour and crochet.

The creative thinking George de Mestral demonstrated when he made abstract connections between burrs and zippers is an ability we all have. We are all born with this ability to determine the essence of something, to recognize patterns between dissimilar subjects, and to make the make the metaphorical-analogical connection

Anderson-Childers: Can you discuss the Lotus Blossom Brainstorming Technique, as it applies to writing and art?

Michalko: Lotus Blossom is a technique that organizes creative thinking around core themes. It was developed byYasuo Matsumura of Clover Management Research in Chiba City, Japan. It is a creative-thinking technique that diagrammatically mimics the strategy T. S. Elliot used creating his poem The Waste Land, which is arguably one of the most famous and influential poems in history.

Elliot started with the central theme of “the decline of self and civilization” and branched out into sub-themes. Each of the stanzas is pregnant with meaning, and could launch a separate poem on a separate topic. This strategy not only conveyed to the reader a universe of poetry, but provided several different universes.

In Lotus Blossom, the petals around the core of the blossom are figuratively “peeled back” one at a time, revealing a key component or sub-theme. This approach is pursued in ever-widening circles until the subject is comprehensively explored. The cluster of themes and sub-themes which are developed provide several different possibilities.

Ideas evolve into other ideas and applications. Because the components of the technique are dynamic, the ideas seem to flow outward with a conceptual momentum all their own. Reality is made up of circles, but we’re biased to see a straight line cause-effect view of the world. Geniuses look for the circles and tend to operate more in terms of “loops of interaction” or “mutual interaction” than linear or mechanical cause-and-effect. This thinking strategy typically allows them to track whole systems of interacting elements.

Freud, for instance, viewed mental processes as “merely isolated acts and parts of the whole psychic entity,” and claimed that the “meaning” of a symptom could only be found in its relation to the larger system. Einstein rejected the mechanical statistical approaches to physics because he thought they ignored the deeper dynamics of the system and focused too much on the results and not enough on the processes. Freud and Einstein both believed that unless you look at the whole system and all of its components, you may miss the key relationships and how they interact.

Consider nature’s creations. Nature doesn’t just make leaves; it makes branches and trees and roots to go with them; it makes whole systems of interacting elements. Similarly, Edison just didn’t invent an electric light bulb — other people had invented electrified lamps — he invented a whole practical system for electric lighting, including dynamos, conduits, and a means for dividing up current that could illuminate a large number of bulbs.

Anderson-Childers: For our readers who are unfamiliar with the term “thought experiments,” I’d like to ask for an example and a brief definition here. What are thought experiments? How do they enhance creative thinking and problem-solving skills? Could you give us an example readers can try at home to boost their creativity?

Michalko: A thought experiment is an experiment that you do in your head — an experiment that you cannot, or do not intend to, carry out. Its purpose is to help you understand some aspect of the Universe that you live in. Einstein’s classic thought experiment, which helped him develop the Theory of Relativity, came about when he imagined what it would be like to ride on a beam of light. This was something that he could never do in reality, but imagining it stimulated his creative thinking, and opened his mind to insights and understandings of how light and time functioned. From those imaginings came his world-famous theories in quantum physics.

I use the term “thought experiment” loosely to represent events designed to provoke creative thinking. Following is an example of one of my thought experiments:

Mary has been blind from birth. She has dedicated her life to the study of creativity and knows everything there is to know about creativity. That is to say, she knows everything that can be tested, measured, described, and communicated about what creativity is and what the process of creativity is. She has learned every definition of creativity and has studied under every credited expert of creativity in every field. One day a miracle occurs and Mary suddenly regains her sight. The first thing she sees is the “Mona Lisa.” What do you think her reaction is?

Another thought experiment to practice getting rid of preconceptions is to create different names for things. For example, “rainbow” might be named “painted rain.” Create different names for:

    • mountain
    • cloud
    • ocean
    • world
    • painting

Next, make a practice of renaming everyday events. One friend of mine renamed a meeting she attended about office morale to “warm hugs.”

Another fun thought experiment to do with a friend is to supply alternative meanings for common words. Some examples are:

    • Coffee (n.), the person upon whom one coughs.
    • Flabbergasted (adj.), appalled over how much weight you have gained.
    • Circumvent (n.), an opening in the front of boxer shorts worn by Jewish men.
    • Abdicate (v.), to give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.
    • Lymph (v.), to walk with a lisp.
    • Esplanade (v.), to attempt an explanation while drunk.

Anderson-Childers: Can you discuss DaVinci’s Ideabox? How might a writer use this tool when developing the plot for a novel?

Michalko: The idea box is a way of automatically combining the parameters of a challenge into new ideas (parameter here means characteristic, factor, variable, or aspect). You choose the number and nature of parameters; what’s important is to generate parameters and list variations for each parameter.

Leonardo’s grotesque heads and famous caricatures are an example of the random variations of the human face made up of different combinations of a set number of features. He would first list facial characteristics (heads, eyes, nose, etc.) and then beneath each list variations. Next he would mix and match the different variations to create original and grotesque caricatures.

This technique is commonly used by script writers who have to churn out ideas for stories on a daily basis. Fran Stryker, a writer from Buffalo, New York, was one of the first to use this technique to create the various stories for the “Lone Ranger” television series. Another writer, David Milch, used the technique to create plots, characters, and stories for “NYPD Blue.” He created a chart that consisted of all the major parts of the story: good guys, bad guys, other characters, weapons, crime, location, etc. Then, he generated long lists of variations for each category and numbered them. He wrote the numbers on slips of paper and put the slips into a box. When he needed an idea for a story, he randomly picked slips from the box to create a series of random numbers (one per category). He then looked up the items corresponding to the numbers and used these random combinations as stimuli for new stories.

Try doing the same with your story. List all the categories, and write all possible variations you can imagine for each category. Then, randomly combine them, and visualize the stories.

We tend to see the elements of our subject as one continuous “whole,” and do not see many of the relationships between the elements, even the obvious ones. They become almost invisible because of the way we perceive things. Yet, these relationships are often the links to new ideas. When you break down a subject into different parts and combine and recombine the parts in various ways, you restructure your perception of the subject. This perceptual restructuring leads to new insights, ideas and new lines of speculation.

This was Pablo Picasso’s insight when he painted “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” after he destructed the world into discrete parts and recombined the parts in new and startling ways. The figures in the painting were perceived to be the first figures in Western art to have been painted from all sides at once. This insight led to the creation of cubism as a new art form that shows all life is a twinkling field of relationships.

Anderson-Childers: I found your “Carpe Diem” page online to be very inspirational. Can you discuss “You Cannot Make a Tree” with regards to helping artists change their psychology and move from wishful thinking to intentional thinking?

Michalko: Let us imagine that you want to make a canoe. You have, at first, some idea of the kind of canoe you wish to make. You can visualize the canoe in your mind. Your intention and conscious desire is to make a canoe. In short, you have a desired outcome. Then, you would go into the woods and look at the trees. Your desired outcome determines your criteria for the tree you need. Your criteria might involve size, seating, usefulness, and design. This criteria both filters your perceptions, and invests a particular situation with meaning, thereby informing your experience and behavior at the time. Out of the many trees available, you’ll end up focusing on the few that meet your criteria, until you find the perfect tree.

You cut the tree down; scrape the branches from the trunk; take off the bark; hollow the inside out; carve the outside shape of the hull; form the prow and the stern and then, perhaps, carve decorations on the prow. You have produced the canoe.

The process is so ordinary, so simple, so direct that we fail to see the beauty and simplicity of it. You thought up the idea of a canoe from nothing, visualized an outcome, and gave birth to something whole, a canoe. Your intention gave you direction and also imposed criteria on you consciously and unconsciously. For instance, when looking at trees you considered the “size,” “usefulness,” and ‘beauty” of the tree. This determined which tree to choose, out of a vast range of possible trees.

Intention has a way of bringing to our awareness only those things which our brain deems important. Without any conscious effort, your brain will keep out anything irrelevant, and will bring to your awareness only those aspects of the world that it deems important. You’ll begin to see ideas for your canoe in your environment. You’ll see them in tables, magazines, on television, in other structures, walking down the street.

Many people love to think of and talk about things they would like to create or discover. They read books about it, go to lectures and seminars, discuss it with friends, admire people who actually do it, and may even write about it. It is the thinking and talking that fascinates them, not the actual doing. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer expressed this thought best in a parable which I paraphrase here.

A flock of geese lived together in a barnyard with high walls around it. Because the corn was good and the barnyard was secure, these geese would never take a risk. One day a philosopher goose came among them. He was a very good philosopher and every week they listened quietly and attentively to his learned discourses. ‘My fellow travelers on the way of life,’ he would say, ‘can you seriously imagine that this barnyard, with great high walls around it, is all there is to existence? I tell you, there is another and a greater world outside, a world of which we are only dimly aware. Our forefathers knew of this outside world. Did they not stretch their wings and fly across the trackless wastes of desert and ocean, of green valley and wooded hill? But alas, here we remain in this barnyard, our wings folded and tucked into our sides, as we are content to puddle in the mud, never lifting our eyes to the heavens which should be our home.’

The geese thought this was very fine lecturing. ‘How poetical,’ they thought. ‘How profoundly existential. What a flawless summary of the mystery of existence.’ Often the philosopher spoke of the advantages of flight, calling on the geese to be what they were. After all, they had wings, he pointed out. What were wings for, but to fly with? Often he reflected on the beauty and the wonder of life outside the barnyard, and the freedom of the skies.

And every week the geese were uplifted, inspired, moved by the philosopher’s message. They hung on his every word. They devoted hours, weeks, months to a thoroughgoing analysis and critical evaluation of his doctrines. They produced learned treatises on the ethical and spiritual implications of flight. All this they did. But one thing they never did. They did not fly! For the corn was good, and the barnyard was secure.

Anderson-Childers: What inspires you?

Michalko: My Godfather John Haffich was a kind, sensitive gentleman from the Ukraine who always engaged me in conversations about life when I was a young boy. He would pick a wildflower and then tell me that if I looked at it in the right way, I could see heaven in the flower; or he would pick up a grain of sand and tell me that there was no difference between a grain of sand and the whole world.

He was a poet who tried to encourage me to write poetry, which I did for a while. Some of it was published but I never felt my poems were good enough for me to seriously consider myself a poet. When he was in a nursing home and dying, I visited him and told him my thoughts about my inadequacies as a poet. He could barely whisper at the time and asked for a pencil and paper. He wrote the following poem and gave it to me with a smile.

Use what talents you have.
The woods would be silent
if no bird sang
except those that sang best.

I carry that poem in my wallet to this day as one of my most treasured possessions. It was one of those little things that changed the direction of my life.

Anderson-Childers: What wakes you up at three in the morning in a cold sweat?

Michalko: The brevity and randomness of life; the knowledge that life is no more than a brief flash of light between the eternity before our birth and the eternity that awaits us upon our death.

Anderson-Childers: What is your favorite way to get “un-stuck” and battle creative blocks?

Michalko: When I am stonewalled, I just start typing “O peaceful gloom shrouding the earth” over and over and over. Eventually, typing this phrase over and over unlocks something in my brain and the ideas start flowing. It’s going through the motions of writing that un-sticks my mind.

Most people presume that our attitudes affect our behavior, and this is true. But it’s also true that our behavior determines our attitudes. Tibetan monks say their prayers by whirling prayer wheels on which their prayers are inscribed. The whirling wheels spin the prayers into divine space. Sometimes, a monk will keep a dozen or so prayer wheels rotating like a juggling act in which whirling plates are balanced on top of long thin sticks.

Many novice monks are not very emotionally or spiritually involved at first. It may be that the novice is thinking about his family, his doubts about a religious vocation or something else while he is going through the motions of spinning his prayer wheel. When the novice adopts the pose of a monk, and makes it obvious to himself and to others by playing a role, the brain will soon follow the role they are playing. It is not enough for the novice to have the intention of becoming a monk: the novice must act like a monk and rotate the prayer wheels. If one has the intention of becoming a monk and goes through the motions of acting like a monk, one will become a monk.

If you want to be an artist, and if 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.

Anderson-Childers: What was the inspiration for creating your brainstorming card deck, Thinkpak?

Michalko: At one of my seminars, I noticed one participant had a set of index cards that he was constantly flipping through. I discovered he had copied the SCAMPER questions from my book onto index cards, which he flipped through while looking for ideas. I adopted his idea and created Thinkpak.

Anderson-Childers: What was your biggest challenge in creating Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques?

Michalko: My biggest challenge was time. I had a lot going on, and never seemed to have the time to write. On the verge of giving up, I remembered the advice my grandfather had given me years ago. When I was in college, I went to my grandfather and told him I was going to quit. I was tired of struggling to make high grades to keep an academic scholarship. It was hard work, as I also had a full-time job to pay living expenses. I was only getting three to four hours of sleep a night. I no longer desired to go on. My grandfather told me to sit down and wait a few moments. He said he wanted to show me something his uncle showed him years back in the Ukraine. My grandfather was just drafted by the Russian army and he told his uncle he was running away. This is what he showed me.

He filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Soon the pots came to a boil. In the first, he placed potatoes, in the second he placed eggs and the last he placed ground coffee beans. He let them sit and boil, without saying a word. In about twenty minutes he turned off the burners. He fished the potatoes out and placed them in a bowl. He pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. Then he ladled the coffee out into a cup. Turning to me, he asked, “Tell me, what do you see?” “Potatoes, eggs, and coffee,” I replied. Then he asked me to feel the potatoes, which I did and noted that they were soft and mushy. My grandfather then asked me to take an egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, I observed the hard-boiled egg. Finally, he asked me to sip the coffee. I smiled as I tasted the coffee with its rich aroma. I asked, “I don’t understand. What does this mean, if anything?”

My grandfather laughed and explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity — boiling water — but each had reacted differently. “Which are you?” my grandfather asked. “When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a potato that seems strong, but with pain and adversity, becomes soft and loses strength? Are you the egg that appears not to change but whose heart is hardened? Or are you the coffee bean that changes the hot water, the very circumstance that brings the pain. When the water gets hot, it releases the fragrance and flavor. If you are like the bean, when things are at their worst, your very attitude will change your environment for the better, making it sweet and palatable.”

His lesson was that, in life, when you can’t change the circumstances, change yourself. This is what I did. I changed my attitude from “I don’t have the time to write” to “how can I budget my time so I have the time I need to write.”

Anderson-Childers: What did you learn that surprised and delighted you the most, while working on Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius?

Michalko: While I was writing the book I concentrated on the question: “What fosters creativity?” Then I realized that isn’t the question at all, the question is: “Why in God’s name isn’t everyone creative?” Where was the human potential lost? How was it crippled? A good question might be not: “Why do people create?” But: “Why do people not create or innovate?” We have got to abandon that sense of amazement in the face of creativity, as if it is a miracle if anybody creates anything.

We were all born spontaneous and creative. Every one of us. As children we accepted all things equally. We embraced all kinds of outlandish possibilities for all kinds of things. When we were children we knew a box was much more than a container. A box could be a fort, a car, a tank, a cave, a house, something to draw on, and even a space ship. Our imaginations were not structured according to some existing concept or category. We did not strive to eliminate possibilities, we strove to expand them. We were all amazingly creative and always filled with the joy of exploring different ways of thinking.

And then something happened to us. We went to school. In school, we were taught how past thinkers interpreted the world. We were not taught how to think, we were taught to reproduce what past thinkers thought. When confronted with a problem, we were taught to analytically select the most promising approach based on past history, excluding all other approaches, and to work logically within a carefully defined direction towards a solution. Instead of looking for possibilities, we are taught to look for ways to exclude them. It’s as if we entered school as a question mark and graduated as a period.

Anderson-Childers: You’ve had an amazing career so far. What’s next on your agenda? Do you have another book in the works?

Michalko: Yes. I am just now finishing a book that has two parts. The first part describes the common habits and behaviors of creative geniuses throughout history, and the second part describes how to get ideas by conceptually blending together two or more dissimilar concepts or subjects.

Anderson-Childers: Any final words of advice and inspiration for our readers?

Michalko: I once found a cocoon of an emperor moth. I took it home so I could watch the moth come out of the cocoon. On the day a small opening appeared, I sat and watched the moth for several hours as it struggled to force its body through that little hole. Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gone as far as it could, and could go no farther. It seemed to be stuck. In my kindness, I decided to help the moth, so I took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon. The moth then emerged easily. But it had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings. I continued to watch the moth because I expected that, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would contract in time.

Neither happened! In fact, the little moth spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly. The restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the moth to get through the tiny opening forces fluid from the body of the moth into its wings so that it’s ready for flight once it achieves freedom from the cocoon. Freedom and flight would only come after the struggle. By depriving the moth of a struggle, I deprived the moth of health.

Sometimes struggles are exactly what we need in our life in order to be truly alive. Instead of avoiding adversity, welcome challenges cheerfully and strive to overcome them. It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.

The original interview appeared on the Creativity Portal website on June 30, 2009.
The Creativity Portal also contains several of Michael’s articles.