Tag: michalko


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

Leonardo Da Vinci believed that to gain knowledge about the form of problems, you began by approaching the problem on its own terms. He felt the first way he looked at a problem was too biased toward his usual way of seeing things. He would restructure his problem by looking at it from one perspective and move to another perspective and still another. With each move, his understanding would deepen and he would begin to understand the essence of the problem. Da Vinci discovered that genius often comes from finding a new perspective that no one else has taken.


By now most everyone has been challenged with the nine dot puzzle. If this is the first time you have seen it, spend a few minutes solving it before you read further. The challenge is to draw no more than four straight lines which will cross through all nine dots without lifting your hand from the paper.

The first time a person tries to solve this puzzle they are stymied. This is because of our perception of the arrangement of the dots as a box or square. Once perceived as a box, most people will not exceed the imaginary boundaries of the imaginary box and are unable to solve the puzzle.

There is nothing in the challenge statement that defines the arrangement as a box and nothing demands the line must be drawn within the box, but people who make that assumption find the puzzle impossible. The answer, as I’m sure you all now know by now, involves drawing a line that goes beyond the limitations of the imagined box. This is where the cliché “Think outside of the box” comes from. To solve it, you have to start the line outside of the imaginary box.

The nine-dot puzzle was popularized by William North Jayme, a direct-mail copywriter who was hired by Esquire magazine in 1958 because they wanted to abandon their unwholesome image for a more sophisticated one. Mr. Jayme came up with the ”puzzle letter”: an envelope with nine dots on it and a challenge to the recipient to connect them using no more than four uninterrupted lines. The enclosed letter showed that to do so, one had to go outside the box. Or, in other words, you had to break normal thinking patterns, something that the new Esquire said it could help modern men do. The letter was a phenomenal success, Esquire’s image was changed overnight and the subscriptions poured in.

Over time the puzzle became synonymous with creative thinking and the phrase “thinking outside the box” has now become a cliché for creativity. A cliché because the puzzle has become commonplace and most people remember the solution from their past experience with it. When the brain recognizes the pattern and we solve the problem, it seems like a new insight has been sparked.

However, when asked to search for other ways to solve the puzzle, the rationalizations begin. We think “If I can’t see it right away, it either isn’t there or not worth finding.” Apparently, if we think “outside the box” once, we are done and our thinking is done. Surrendering to this rationalization limits our thinking, our creativity, and our ability to apply ideas and skills to novel situations.


Albert Einstein was once asked what the difference was between him and the average person. He said that if you asked the average person to find a needle in the haystack, the person would stop when he or she found a needle. He, on the other hand, would tear through the entire haystack looking for all the possible needles. With creative thinking, one generates as many alternative approaches as one can.

Most of us have been educated to think exclusively which means we think in deficit by focusing our attention on specific information and excluding all else. In these instances, exclusive thinking leads us to neglect potentially important pieces of the puzzle. Exclusive thinking doesn’t merely inhibit irrelevant facts and perceptions. It can also smother the imagination.

Creative thinking is inclusive thinking. You consider the least obvious as well as the most likely approaches, and you look for different ways to look at the problem. It is the willingness to explore all approaches that is important, even after one has found a promising one.

THERE IS NO ONE RIGHT ANSWER. To begin with, the original “Think Outside the Box” solution was just one way to solve the puzzle. 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.

Experimental psychologists like to tell a story about a professor who investigated the ability of chimpanzees to solve problems. A banana was suspended from the center of the ceiling, at a height that the chimp could not reach by jumping. The room was bare of all objects except several packing crates placed around the room at random. The test was to see whether you could teach the chimp to stack the crates and make them into steps to reach the banana.

The chimp sat quietly in a corner, watching the psychologist arrange the crates into steps and then distributed them randomly again. The chimp understood and performed the task. The professor invited his associates to watch the chimp conceptualize and build the steps to the banana. The chimp waited patiently until the professor crossed the middle of the room. When he was directly below the fruit, the chimp suddenly jumped on his shoulder, then leaped into the air and grabbed the banana.

Though the chimp had learned how to build steps out of boxes, when another more direct easier alternative presented itself, the chimp did not hesitate. The chimp learned how to solve the problem but instinctively kept an open mind to other more effective solutions. In other words, building steps was just one of many ways to reach the banana. Humans, on the other hand, once we learn something or are taught to do something a particular way by someone in authority (teacher, boss, etc.), seem to keep repeating the one method we know — excluding all else from our thought.

APPROACH THE PROBLEM ON ITS OWN TERMS. Approaching the puzzle and framing it with this wording “In what ways might I connect all nine dots with a continuous line without lifting my hand from the paper?” The phrase (“In what ways might I ….?”) is commonly used as an invitational stem by creative thinkers to shape their conscious and subconscious minds to actively search for alternatives.

Looking at the puzzle from this perspective gets you thinking about the number of lines, the lengths of the lines, the width of the lines, the box of dots, the size of the box and positions of the dots.

For instance, there is no requirement that you must use four consecutive straight lines. The puzzle states no more than four straight lines. Why not three, two or even one line? When linking things such as dots, we are used to linking the centers and our first attempts are to draw lines through the centers of the dots. This is another false assumption based on past experiences. After a period of trials and errors, we discover we can link the dots by having the line just touch the dots as illustrated.

GET RID OF THE BOX. Now, let’s look at from the perspective of the way the dots are arranged. There is nothing that prohibits us from rearranging the dots, so another solution is to cut out the dots and tape them into one straight row and draw one line straight through.

WHAT IS THE ESSENCE? 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. For example, in our nine-dot puzzle we tend to think of pre-established categories such as “dots must be in a box, the line must go through the center of the dots, there must be four lines, the line must be made with a pencil or pen, the size of the dots cannot be changed, the paper cannot be changed in any way, and so on.” This kind of thinking is exclusive. Its goal is to separate and exclude elements from thought based upon what exists now. The goal of exclusive thinking is to limit possibilities to the obvious. It discourages creative thought.

Creative thinkers are inclusive thinkers which means they think in terms of essences and principles. They then look in other domains for examples of these essences and then try to make metaphorical-analogical connections between their subject and something dissimilar. The essence of this problem is “connecting.” This motivates creative thinkers to look in other domains to see how things are connected. How does an artist connect different shapes? How does a painter connect unpainted boards? How wide can you make a connection? How long? What instruments can be used to connect things? What substances can be used as lines?

Most people assume you must use a pencil or pen and draw a normal-sized line because of their past experiences. But there is nothing in the challenge statement that prohibits the person from using an alternative instrument and substance. In the domain of house painting, the painting connects unpainted boards with paint. One solution is to use a wide paint brush, dip it in paint and connect all nine dots with one straight continuous wide swipe of paint. You have now connected all nine dots with one line.

IMAGINATION. Creative thinkers consider imagination to be more important than knowledge. One way a creative thinker would approach the problem is to ask “What is impossible to do with a line, but if it were possible, would change the nature of the problem forever?”

There is no limit on how long you can draw a straight line. So, another solution is to imagine drawing the line around the world three times intersecting and linking up all nine dots.

This, of course, is impossible to do. But it is not impossible to imagine. 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 a fantasy 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. Imagination gives us the impertinence to imagine making the impossible possible. In the nine dot puzzle we take the impossible solution of going around the world three times and imagineer this idea into a solution that is realistic and practical as illustrated.

Imagineering means you take an impossible or fantastical idea and engineer it into something realistic and feasible. How can I make this happen? What are the features and aspects of the idea? Can I build ideas from the features or aspects? What is the essence of the idea? Can I extract the principle of the idea? Can I make analogical-metaphorical connections with the principle and something dissimilar to create something tangible?

In this case, we take the principle of going around the world and create a mini-world by rolling the paper up into a cylinder and then rotating a pencil around it connecting all nine dots.

An alternative solution is to place the paper with the dots on the center of a turntable and replace the needle at the tip of the recording arm with a tiny pen. Turn on the turntable and the pen will draw a line through all nine dots.

TAKE IT APART. The average person has been inculcated with a functional fixedness mindset, which is a movement in psychology that emphasizes holistic processing where the whole is seen as being separate from the sum of its parts. Functional fixedness can be defined as a mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem. This block then limits that ability of an individual to use the components given to them to make a specific item, as they cannot move past the original intention of the object.

When creative thinkers embrace a subject, they see the whole but would move from one detail to another and examine each separately. By mentally taking the subject apart, they are able to break out of his stereotypical notion of a subject as a continuous whole and to discover new relationships and ways to use the items that are available to them at the givens.

The dots and the paper that dots are drawn on are two of the major components of the puzzle. Paper can be rearranged into new forms by folding. Taking the puzzle apart by folding the paper as shown below enables you to discover new relationships between the dots and ways to fold the paper until the dots are arranged in a row. Now simply draw a straight line through the dots.

Once observed and accepted, thoughts become loose and move freely around in your mind. The more work you put into thinking about a problem, the more thoughts and bits of information you set in random motion combining and recombining them into different combinations and associations. These thoughts breed intuitive guesses and hunches. Previous solutions of rearranging the dots into one straight line sparks the idea of cutting out the dots, arranging them in a stack and then punching a pencil through the center of the dots linking all nine dots.


The more ideas you generate, the more connections you make. These connections and their associated ideas often spark new ideas and new questions. The creative mind synthesizes all that is created and goes beyond them to create more creative products. For example, the above idea of stabbing a pencil through the cut out dots triggers another idea. That is to rumple up the puzzle into a small wad of paper and punch a pencil through the wad. You may have to do this several times, but probability being what it is, sooner or later, you will punch the pencil through the dots linking them together.

In genius, there is a patience for the odd and the unusual avenues of thought. This intellectual tolerance for the unpredictable allows geniuses to bring side by side what others had never sought to connect. Think of how Albert Einstein changed our understanding of time and space by fantasizing about 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 fantasized about 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. A caricature of special relativity (the relativistic idea that people in motion appear to age more slowly) is based on his fantasy of a world in which all the houses and offices are on wheels, constantly zooming around the streets (with advance collision-avoidance systems).

Even the “Many worlds” interpretation which is espoused by some physicists, including Stephen Hawkins, is based on Einstein’s fantasy of a world where time has three dimensions, instead of one, where every moment branches into three futures. Einstein summarized the value of using your imagination to fantasize best when he said “The gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”

In genius, there is a patience for the odd and the unusual avenues of thought. This intellectual tolerance for the unpredictable allows geniuses to bring side by side what others had never sought to connect. An unusual and imaginative solution is to widen the dots with a pencil so that each dot touches the adjacent dots? Now the nine dots are linked together with no lines.

The playful openness of creative geniuses is what allows them to explore unthinkable ideas. Once Wolfgang Pauli, the discoverer of electron spin, was presenting a new theory of elementary particles before a professional audience. An extended discussion followed. Niels Bohr summarized it for Pauli’s benefit by saying that everyone had agreed his theory was crazy. The question that divided them, he claimed, was whether it was crazy enough to have a chance of being correct. Bohr said his own feeling was that it wasn’t crazy enough.

Logic hides in Bohr’s illogic. In genius, there is a tolerance for unpredictable avenues of thought. The result of unpredictable thinking may be just what is needed to shift the context and lead to a new perspective.

Another unusual solution is to light a match and burn the paper with the puzzle into a pile of ashes. Then carefully form the ashes into one straight line.

Within a short time, we came up with a quantity of solutions because we approached the problem on its own terms, looked at the problem from several different perspectives, did not settle for the first good idea, did not censor ideas because they looked silly or stupid and consequently created several ideas, thought unconventionally, changed the way we looked at the puzzle, worked with the essence of the problem, thought discontinuously and used our imagination.
Creative thinking expert and author, Michael Michalko http://creativethinking.net/#sthash.SXV5T2cu.dpbs

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.