Tag: michalko

Logic Can Get You From A to B; Imagination Can Get You Anywhere

Einstein often said that imagination is more important than knowledge. Here is how he explained time as the fourth dimension in his unified theory: “Imagine a scene in two-dimensional space, for instance, the painting of a man reclining upon a bench. A tree stands behind the bench. Then imagine the man walks from the bench to a rock on the other side of the tree. He cannot reach the rock except by walking in back of the tree. This is impossible to do in two-dimensional space. He can reach the rock only by an excursion into the third dimension. Now imagine another man sitting on the bench. How did the other man get there? Since the two bodies cannot occupy the same place at the same time, he can have reached there only before or after the first man moved. In other words, he must have moved in time. Time is the fourth dimension.

Think of how Einstein changed our understanding of time and space by imagining people going to the center of time in order to freeze their lovers or their children in century-long embraces. This space he imagined is clearly reminiscent of a black hole, where, theoretically, gravity would stop time. Einstein also imagined a woman’s heart leaping and falling in love two weeks before she has met the man she loves, which lead him to the understanding of acausality, a feature of quantum mechanics. And still another time he imagined a blind beetle crawling around a sphere thinking it was crawling in a straight line.
Try to solve the following thought experiment before you read the paragraph that follows it.

Thought Experiment. One morning, exactly at sunrise, a Buddhist monk began to climb a tall mountain. The narrow path, no more than a foot or two wide, spiraled around the mountain to a glittering temple at the summit. The monk ascended the path at a varying rate of speed, stopping many times along the way to rest and to eat the dried fruit he carried with him. He reached the temple shortly before sunset. After several days of fasting and meditation, he began his journey back along the same path, starting at sunrise and again walking at a varying speed with many stops along the way. His average speed descending was, of course, greater than his average climbing speed. Is there a spot along the path that the monk will occupy on both trips at precisely the same time of day?

If you try to logically reason this out or use a mathematical approach, you will conclude that it is unlikely for the monk to find himself on the same spot at the same time of day on two different occasions. Instead, visualize the monk walking up the hill, and at the same time imagine the same monk walking down the hill. The two figures must meet at some point in time regardless of their walking speed or how often they stop. Whether the monk descends in two days or three days makes no difference; it all comes out to the same thing.

Now it is, of course, impossible for the monk to duplicate himself and walk up the mountain and down the mountain at the same time. But in the visual image he does; and it is precisely this indifference to logic, this superimposition of one image over the other, that leads to the solution. Imagination gives us the impertinence to imagine making the impossible possible.

The imaginative conception of the monk meeting himself blends the journeys up and down the mountain and superimposes one monk on the other at the meeting place. The ancient Greeks called this kind of thinking homoios which means “same.” They sensed that this was really a kind of mirror image of the dream process, and it led to art and scientific revelations.


Since ancient Greece, cognitive scientists have discovered that the brain is a dynamical system—an organ that evolves its patterns of activity rather than computes them like a computer. It thrives on the creative energy of feedback from experiences either real or fictional. An important point to remember is that you can synthesize experience, literally create it in your imagination. The human brain cannot tell the difference between an “actual” experience and an experience imagined vividly and in detail.

The real key to turning imagination into reality is acting as if the imagined scene were real. Instead of pretending it is a scene from the future, Einstein imagined it as though he was truly experiencing it in the present. He imagined it as a real event in the now. The great masters of antiquity have told us through the ages that whatever you believe you become. If you believe and imagine in the now that you are whatever you wish to be, then reality must conform.

Thought Experiment. Think of something in your business that is impossible to do, but that would, if it were possible to do, change the nature of your business forever.

Think of an impossibility, then try to come up with ideas that take you as close as possible to that impossibility. For example, imagine an automobile that is a live, breathing creature, List attributes of living creatures. They are, for example, breathing, growing older, reproducing, feeling emotions, and so on. Then use as many of those attributes as you can while designing your automobile. For instance, can you work emotions into something that a car displays?

Japanese engineers for Toyota are working on a car that they say can express moods ranging from angry to happy to sad. The car can raise or lower its body height and ‘‘wag’’ its antenna, and it comes equipped with illuminated hood designs, capable of changing colors, that are meant to look like eyebrows, eyes, and even tears. The car will try to approximate the feelings of its driver by drawing on data stored in an onboard computer. So, for example, if another car swerves into an expressive car’s lane, the right combination of deceleration, brake pressure, and defensive steering, when matched with previous input from the driver, will trigger an ‘‘angry’’ look.

The angry look is created as the front-end lights up with glowing red U-shaped lights, the headlights become hooded at a forty-five-degree angle, and downward-sloping “eyebrow” lights glow crimson. A good-feeling look is expressed by the front-end lights glowing orange, and one headlight winks at the courteous driver and wags its antennae. A sad-feeling look is blue with “tears” dripping from the headlights.

Stretching your imagination by trying to make impossible things possible with concrete thoughts and actions is a mirror reversal of dreaming. Whereas a dream represents abstract ideas as concrete actions and images, this creative process works in the opposite direction, using concrete ideas (a car that is alive) to gain insight on a conscious level to reveal disguised thoughts (about cars showing emotion) as creative imagery.

Michael Michalko is a highly-acclaimed creativity expert and author of THINKERTOYS, CRACKING CREATIVITY, CREATIVE THINKERING, AND THINKPAK (A brainstorming card deck).

How to Reverse Your Perspective to Create New Idea


Is this an illustration of an old woman or a young girl?

Many times we have to change our psychology to understand certain phenomena. Think of Michelangelo when he sculpted what may be the world’s most famous sculpture, David. He did not think of “building” something; he thought of “taking away” something from what was there. A quotation often attributed to him has it that “the more the marble wastes away, the more the sculpture grows.”

To understand a mirror you have to change your psychology. Why does a mirror seem to invert left and right but not top and bottom? That is, when you hold an open book up to a mirror, why are the letters of the text backward but not upside down, and why is your left hand the double’s right and your right the double’s left? When we look into a mirror we imagine ourselves reversed left to right, as if we had walked around behind a pane of glass to look through it. This conventional perspective is why we cannot explain what is happening with a mirror. To understand a mirror’s image, you have to psychologically reverse the way you perceive your image. Imagine your nose and the back of your head reversed, through the mirror. You have to imagine yourself reversed, “squashed” back to front. Stand in front of the mirror with one hand pointing east and the other west. Wave the east hand. The mirror image waves its east hand. Its west hand lies to the west. Its head is up and the feet are down. Once you look at a mirror with this perspective, you gain an understanding, about the axis of the mirror, which is the imaginary line on a mirror about which a body rotates. We have difficulty understanding the mirror until we change our perspective.

Similarly, we sometimes have difficulty coming up with ideas until we change our psychology. Early nomadic societies were all based on the principle of “getting to the water.” Only when they reversed this to “how can we get the water to come to us” did civilization begin to flourish. An easy way to change your thinking patterns when faced with a problem is to first list all your assumptions about the problem. Then reverse your assumptions and try to make the reversals work.

Following is a thought experiment about reversing a store policy. After you read the problem, try to come up with ideas before you read further.


A clothing retailer is concerned about the rate of garment returns. According to the store policy, a customer who returns a garment must receive a cash refund. Reverse this policy so that it says: if a customer returns a garment, the store doesn’t have to give a cash refund. Can you come up with ideas to make this reversal into a practical solution?


What can the store give the customer instead of a refund? One idea is to offer the customer a gift certificate worth more than the original purchase price. In effect this gives the customer a 10 percent reward for returning the unwanted garment. The policy would allow the store to keep most of the cash, and the customers would likely be happy with the reward. The real payback would occur when the customer returned with the gift certificate. A customer who returned a $100 garment would receive a gift certificate for $110. Psychology predicts that, when the customer returns to the store, he will go to the higher priced garments. For example, instead of shopping for an $l00 garment, he will be attracted to the $200 garments because, in his mind, it would “cost” him only $90. What a deal! Change the way you look at things by reversing them and looking at the other side.

For more creative thinking techniques read Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko.



André Breton was a French writer and poet. He is known best as the founder of surrealism. The surrealists sought to overthrow the oppressive rules of society by demolishing its backbone of rational thought. To do so, they attempted to tap into the “superior reality” of the subconscious mind. “Completely against the tide,” said Breton, “in a violent reaction against the impoverishment and sterility of thought processes that resulted from centuries of rationalism, we turned toward the marvelous and advocated it unconditionally.” 

Many of the tenets of surrealism included an emphasis on the actual functioning of thought…in the absence of any control exercised by reason. They created many exercises designed to probe the subconscious by getting the minds to be as passive and receptive as possible. 

One day I had a long discussion with a friend about the Japanese whaling industry and their illegal poaching practices. After the discussion, I decided to experiment with one of Andre Breton’s surrealist exercises. The exercise has 3 small, grid like areas and one large grid on a sheet of paper.  


The first rule of the exercise was to always forget your genius, talents, as well as the genius and talents of others. Try not to think about what you are doing—just let your automatic functions take over, letting them proceed as they wish. Your final solution will not come from your normal way of solving problems, but from a deeper, more intuitive impulse. So whatever happens, let it happen. The guidelines are:

  • Think of a problem. Don’t dwell on it and dismiss it from your thoughts. Look at the design below with the grids.
  • Use the 3 small grids at the top to create an image in the spirit of your unconscious. Try not to think of what you’re doing…just let your automatic functions take over, letting them proceed as they wish.
  • Then with the large grid on the bottom revert to your usual way of thinking and impose your will to create whatever imagery, abstract or literal you wish.

My problem was how to control the illegal whale harvesting by the Japanese whalers. In the small grids I drew one squiggle that looked like a human skull, one that looked like quotation markets and one that looked like a rose. In the large grid I drew a stick figure of a man with two profiles: one looking left and one looking right.

I pondered over my drawings for a long time. The skull reminded me of a pirate’s black flag; the quotation marks reminded me of a quote “The opposite of a profound truth is another truth; and the rose reminded me of the roses I give my wife to celebrate our union as husband and wife. The stick figure in the large grid reminded me of the ambiguity in all aspects of life e.g., no one is all good or all evil.

These images combined and recombined in my imagination and inspired the thought of one way of fighting an illegal activity is to use an illegal enforcement activity. The pirate’s flag reminded me of the Somalian pirate ships off the coast of Africa. The rose got me thinking of combining two illegal activities. The stick figure made me think of looking the other way when something illegal is accomplishing something good.

My final idea all this inspired is to make it legal for the Somali pirates to hijack illegal Japanese Whalers and hold them for ransom.

Now it’s your turn to give it a try.