Category: Articles and Techniques (page 8 of 22)

Creative Thinking Technique: Combine Ideas from Different Domains

Many breakthroughs are based on combining information from different domains that are usually not thought of as related. Integration, synthesis both across and within domains, is the norm rather than the exception. Ravi Shankar found ways to integrate and harmonize the music of India and Europe; Paul Klee combined the influences of cubism, children’s drawings, and primitive art to fashion his own unique artistic style; Salvador Dali integrated Einstein’s theory of relativity into his masterpiece Nature Morte Vivante, which artistically depicts several different objects simultaneously in motion and rest. And almost all scientists cross and recross the boundaries of physics, chemistry, and biology in the work that turns out to be their most creative.

ASK PEOPLE IN DIFFERENT DOMAINS FOR IDEAS. Another way to combine talent is to elicit advice and information about your subject from people who work in different domains. Interestingly, Leonardo da Vinci met and worked with Niccolô Machiavelli, the Italian political theorist, in Florence in 1503. The two men worked on several projects together, including a novel weapon of war: the diversion of a river. Professor Roger Masters of Dartmouth College speculates that Leonardo introduced Machiavelli to the concept of applied science. Years later, Machiavelli combined what he learned from Leonardo with his own insights about politics into a new political and social order that some believe ultimately sparked the development of modern industrial society.

Jonas Salk, developer of the vaccine that eradicated polio, made it a standard practice to interact with men and women from very different domains. He felt this practice helped to bring out ideas that could not arise in his own mind or in the minds of people in his own restricted domain. Look for ways to elicit ideas from people in other fields. Ask three to five people who work in other departments or professions for their ideas about your problem. Ask your dentist, your accountant, your mechanic, etc. Describe the problem and ask how they would solve it.

Listen intently and write down the ideas before you forget them. Then, at a later time, try integrating all or parts of their ideas into your idea. This is what Robert Bunsen, the chemist who invented the familiar Bunsen burner, did with his problem. He used the color of a chemical sample in a gas flame for a rough determination of the elements it contained. He was puzzled by the many shortcomings of the technique that he and his colleagues were unable to overcome, despite their vast knowledge of chemistry. Finally, he casually described the problem to a friend, Kirchhoff, a physicist, who immediately suggested using a prism to display the entire spectrum and thus get detailed information. This suggestion was the breakthrough that led to the science of spectrography and later to the modern science of cosmology.

EXAMPLES. Physicists in a university assembled a huge magnet for a research project. The magnet was highly polished because of the required accuracy of the experiment. Accidentally, the magnet attracted some iron powder that the physicists were unable to remove without damaging the magnet in some way. They asked other teachers in an interdepartmental meeting for their ideas and suggestions. An art instructor came up with the solution immediately, which was to use modeling clay to remove the powder.

The CEO of a software company looked for ways to motivate employees to participate more actively in the creative side of the business. They wanted employee ideas for new processes, new products, improvements, new technologies and so on. He tried many things but nothing seemed to excite and energize employees to become more creative.

One evening at a dinner with some of his friends he mentioned his problem and asked them for ideas. After a brief discussion, a friend who was a stockbroker suggested thinking ways to parallel ideas with stocks. Look for ways for people to buy and sell ideas the same way his customers study, buy and sell stocks on the stock exchange.

The CEO was intrigued with the novelty of the idea and he and his stockbroker friend looked for patterns between the stock exchange and an internal employee program. They blended the architecture of the stock exchange with the internal architecture of their company’s internal market to create the company’s own stock exchange for ideas. Their exchange is called Mutual Fun. Any employee can propose 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, discussion lists and e-mail alerts.

 Fifty-five stocks are listed on the company’s internal stock exchange. Each stock comes with a detailed description — called an expectus, 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 and, better yet, volunteering to work on the project. Employees buy or sell the stocks, and prices change to reflect the sentiments of the company’s executives, engineers, computer scientists, project managers, marketing, sales, accountants and even the receptionist.

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 member of the administrative staff, with no technical expertise, thought that this technology might also be used in educational settings, to create an entertaining way for students to learn history or math. She started a stock called Play and Learn (symbol: PL), which attracted a rush of investment from engineers eager to turn her idea into a product. Lots of employees got passionate about the idea and it led to a new line of business.

INVITE OTHER DEPARTMENTS TO JOIN YOUR BRAINSTORMING SESSION. If you’re brainstorming a business problem in a group, try asking another department to join yours. For example, if you are in advertising and want to create a new product advertising campaign, ask people from manufacturing to join your session. Separate the advertising and manufacturing people into two groups. Each group brainstorms for ideas separately. Then combine the groups and integrate the ideas.


For more ideas on how to combine dissimilar subjects to create new ideas read Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius by Michael Michalko

Last Respects

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

At first everyone was sad to hear that one of their colleagues had died, but after a while they started getting curious about who this person might be. The excitement grew as the employees arrived at the gym to pay their last respects. Everyone wondered: “Who is this person who was hindering my progress? Well, at least he’s no longer here! No wonder, I haven’t been promoted after all my years. I’ve always suspected some higher up was prejudiced against me. Thank God, somebody finally had the guts to admit how unfair evaluation of employees has been.”

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

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


To discover how you can change your life by becoming a more creative thinker read Michael Michalko’s book CREATIVE THINKERING: PUTTING YOUR IMAGINATION TO WORK


How to Get Ideas while Dozing

In the history of art, most people could easily argue that Salvador Dalí is the father of surrealistic art. Surrealism is the art of writing or painting unreal or unpredictable works of art using the images or words from an imaginary world. Dali’s art is the definition of surrealism. Throughout his art he clearly elaborates on juxtaposition (putting similar images near each other), the disposition (changing the shape of an object), and morphing of objects, ranging from melted objects dripping, to crutches holding distorted figures, to women with a heads of bouquets of flowers.

Dali was intrigued with the images which occur at the boundary between sleeping and waking. They can occur when people are falling asleep, or when they are starting to wake up, and they tend to be extremely vivid, colorful and bizarre. His favorite technique is that he would put a tin plate on the floor and then sit by a chair beside it, holding a spoon over the plate. He would then totally relax his body; sometimes he would begin to fall asleep. The moment that he began to doze the spoon would slip from his fingers and clang on the plate, immediately waking him to capture the surreal images.

The extraordinary images seem to appear from nowhere, but there is a logic. The unconscious is a living, moving stream of energy from which thoughts gradually rise to the conscious level and take on a definite form. Your unconscious is like a hydrant in the yard while your consciousness is like a faucet upstairs in the house. Once you know how to turn on the hydrant, a constant supply of images can flow freely from the faucet. These forms give rise to new thoughts as you interpret the strange conjunctions and chance combinations.

Surrealism is the stressing of subconscious or irrational significance of imagery, or in more simplistic terms, the use of dreamlike imagery. Dalí’s absurd imagination has him painting pictures of figures no person would even dream of creating.  Following is a blueprint Dali’s technique.


  • Think about your challenge. Consider your progress, your obstacles, your alternatives, and so on. Then push it away and relax.
  • Totally relax your body. Sit on a chair. Hold a spoon loosely in one of your hands over a plate. Try to achieve the deepest muscle relaxation you can. 
  • Quiet your mind. Do not think of what went on during the day or your challenges and problems. Clear your mind of chatter.
  • Quiet your eyes. You cannot look for these images. Be passive. You need to achieve a total absence of any kind of voluntary attention. Become helpless and involuntary and directionless. You can enter the hypnogogic state this way, and, should you begin to fall asleep, you will drop the spoon and awaken in time to capture the images.
  • Record your experiences immediately after they occur. The images will be mixed and unexpected and will recede rapidly. They could be patterns, clouds of colors, or objects.
  • Look for the associative link. Write down the first things that occur to you after your experience. Look for links and connections to your challenge. Ask questions such as:

What puzzles me?

Is there any relationship to the challenge?

Any new insights? Messages?

What’s out of place?

What disturbs me?

What do the images remind me of?

What are the similarities?

What analogies can I make?

What associations can I make?

How do the images represent the solution to the problem?

A restaurant owner used this technique to inspire new promotion ideas. When the noise awakened him, he kept seeing giant neon images of different foods: neon ice cream, neon pickles, neon chips, neon coffee, and so on. The associative link he saw between the various foods and his challenge was to somehow to use the food itself as a promotion.

The idea: He offers various free food items according to the day of week, the time of day, and the season. For instance, he might offer free pickles on Monday, free ice cream between 2 and 4 P.M. on Tuesdays, free coffee on Wednesday nights, free sweet rolls on Friday mornings, free salads between 6 and 8 P.M. on Saturdays and so on. He advertises the free food items with neon signs, but you never know what food items are being offered free until you go into the restaurant. The sheer variety of free items and the intriguing way in which they are offered has made his restaurant a popular place to eat.

Another promotion he created as a result of seeing images of different foods is a frequent-eater program. Anyone who hosts five meals in a calendar month gets $30 worth of free meals. The minimum bill is $20 but he says the average is $30 a head. These two promotions have made him a success.

The images you summon up with this technique have an individual structure that may indicate an underlying idea or theme. Your unconscious mind is trying to communicate something specific to you, though it may not be immediately comprehensible. The images can be used as armatures on which to hang new relationships and associations.


To discover more creative-thinking techniques read CRACKING CREATIVITY (THE SECRETS OF CREATIVE GENIUS) by Michael Michalko

What the CIA Discovered about Smiling

mona-lisaOur attitudes influence our behavior. But it’s also true that our behavior can influence our attitudes. The Greek philosopher Diogenes was once noticed begging a statue. His friends were puzzled and alarmed at this behavior. Asked the reason for this pointless behavior, Diogenes replied, “I am practicing the art of being rejected.” By pretending to be rejected continually by the statue, Diogenes was learning to understand the mind of a beggar. Every time we pretend to have an attitude and go through the motions, we trigger the emotions we pretend to have and strengthen the attitude we wish to cultivate. 

You become what you pretend to be. The surrealist artist Salvador Dalí was pathologically shy as a child. He hid in closets and avoided all human contact, until his uncle counseled him on how to overcome this shyness. He advised Dalí to be an actor and to pretend he played the part of an extrovert. At first Dalí was full of doubts. But when he adopted the pose of an extrovert, his brain soon adapted itself to the role he was playing. Dalí’s pretense changed his psychology. 

Think for a moment about social occasions — visits, dates, dinners out with friends, birthday parties, weddings, and other gatherings. Even when we’re unhappy or depressed, these occasions force us to act as if we are happy. Observing others’ faces, postures, and voices, we unconsciously mimic their reactions. We synchronize our movements, postures, and tones of voice with theirs. Then, by mimicking happy people, we become happy. 

CIA researchers have long been interested in developing techniques to help them study the facial expressions of suspects. Two such researchers began simulating facial expressions of anger and distress all day, each day for weeks. One of them admitted feeling terrible after a session of making those faces. Then the other realized that he too felt poorly, so they began to keep track. They began monitoring their bodies while simulating facial expressions. Their findings were remarkable. They discovered that a facial expression alone is sufficient to create marked changes in the nervous system. 

In one exercise they raised their inner eyebrows, raised their cheeks, and lowered the corner of their lips and held this facial expression for a few minutes. They were stunned to discover that this simple facial expression generated feelings of sadness and anguish within them. The researchers then decided to monitor the heart rates and body temperatures of two groups of people. One group was asked to remember and relive their most sorrowful experiences. The other group in another room was simply asked to produce a series of facial expressions expressing sadness. Remarkably, the second group, the people who were pretending, showed the same physiological responses as the first. Try the following thought experiment. 


  • Lower your eyebrows.
  • Raise your upper eyelids.
  • Narrow your eyelids.
  • Press your lips together. 

Hold this expression and you will generate anger. Your heartbeat will go up ten or twelve beats per minute. Your hands will get hot, and you feel very unpleasant. 

The next time you’re feeling depressed and want to feel happy and positive, try this: put a pen between your teeth, in far enough so that it stretches the edges of your mouth out to the left and right without feeling uncomfortable. Hold it there for five minutes or so. You’ll find yourself inexplicably in a happy mood. You will amaze yourself at fast your facial expressions can change your emotions. 

In a further experiment, the CIA researchers had one group of subjects listen to recordings of top comedians and look at a series of cartoons. At the same time, each person held a pen pressed between his or her lips — an action that makes it impossible to smile. Individ­uals in another group each held a pen between his or her teeth, which had the opposite effect and made them smile. 

The people with the pens between their teeth rated the comedians and cartoons as much funnier than the other group did. What’s more, the people in neither group knew they were making expressions of emotion. Amazingly, an expression you do not even know you have can create an emotion that you did not deliberately choose to feel. Emotion doesn’t just go from the inside out. It goes from the outside in. 


Psychologist Theodore Velten created a mood induction procedure in 1969 that psychologists have used for over forty years to induce a posi­tive mind-set, especially in psychology experiments. It’s a simple approach that involves reading, reflecting on, and trying to feel the effects of some fifty-eight positive affirmations as they wash over you. The statements start out being fairly neutral and then become progressively more positive. They are specifically designed to produce a euphoric state of mind. 

Velten’s Instructions: Read each of the following statements to yourself. As you look at each one, focus your observation only on that one. You should not spend too much time on any one statement. To experience the mood suggested in the statement, you must be willing to accept and respond to the idea. Allow the emotion in the statement to act upon you. Then try to produce the feeling suggested by each statement. Visualize a scene in which you experienced such a feeling. Imagine reliving the scene. The entire exercise should take about ten minutes. 


  1. Today is neither better nor worse than any other day.
  2. I do feel pretty good today, though.
  3. I feel lighthearted.
  4. This might turn out to have been one of my good days.
  5. If your attitude is good, then things are good, and my attitude is good.
  6. I feel cheerful and lively.
  7. I’ve certainly got energy and self-confidence to share.
  8. On the whole, I have very little difficulty in thinking clearly.
  9. My friends and family are pretty proud of me most of the time.
  10. I’m in a good position to make a success of things.
  11. For the rest of the day, I bet things will go really well.
  12. I’m pleased that most people are so friendly to me.
  13. My judgments about most things are sound.
  14. The more I get into things, the easier they become for me.
  15. I’m full of energy and ambition — I feel like I could go a long time without sleep.
  16. This is one of those days when I can get things done with practically no effort at all.
  17. My judgment is keen and precise today. Just let someone try to put something over on me.
  18. When I want to, I can make friends extremely easily.
  19. If I set my mind to it, I can make things turn out fine.
  20. I feel enthusiastic and confident now.
  21. There should be opportunity for a lot of good times coming along.
  22. My favorite songs keep going through my mind.
  23. Some of my friends are so lively and optimistic.
  24. I feel talkative — I feel like talking to almost anybody.
  25. I’m full of energy, and am really getting to like the things I’m doing.
  26. I feel like bursting with laughter — I wish somebody would tell a joke and give me an excuse.
  27. I feel an exhilarating animation in all I do.
  28. My memory is in rare form today.
  29. I’m able to do things accurately and efficiently.
  30. I know good and well that I can achieve the goals I set.
  31. Now that it occurs to me, most of the things that have depressed me wouldn’t have if I’d just had the right attitude.
  32. I have a sense of power and vigor.
  33. I feel so vivacious and efficient today — sitting on top of the world.
  34. It would really take something to stop me now.
  35. In the long run, it’s obvious that things have gotten better and better during my life.
  36. I know in the future I won’t overemphasize so-called “problems.”
  37. I’m optimistic that I can get along very well with most of the people I meet.
  38. I’m too absorbed in things to have time for worry.
  39. I’m feeling amazingly good today.
  40. I am particularly inventive and resourceful in this mood.
  41. I feel superb! I think I can work to the best of my ability.
  42. Things look good. Things look great!
  43. I feel that many of my friendships will stick with me in the future.
  44. I feel highly perceptive and refreshed.
  45. I can find the good in almost everything.
  46. In a buoyant mood like this one, I can work fast and do it right the first time.
  47. I can concentrate hard on anything I do.
  48. My thinking is clear and rapid.
  49. Life is so much fun; it seems to offer so many sources of fulfillment.
  50. Things will be better and better today.
  51. I can make decisions rapidly and correctly, and I can defend them against criticisms easily.
  52. I feel industrious as heck — I want something to do!
  53. Life is firmly in my control.
  54. I wish somebody would play some good, loud music!
  55. This is great — I really do feel good. I am elated about things!
  56. I’m really feeling sharp now.
  57. This is just one of those days when I’m ready to go!
  58. Wow, I feel great! 

You’ll find yourself feeling good about yourself and thinking harmonious thoughts. When you are in a good mood, you find your body exhibiting it in your behavior. You’ll smile, and you’ll walk briskly. 


Leonardo da Vinci once observed that it’s no mystery why it is fun to be around happy people and depressing to be around depressed people. He also observed a melancholy atmosphere in many portraits. He attributed that to the solitariness of artists and their environment. According to Giorgio Vasari, Leonardo, while painting the Mona Lisa, employed singers, musicians, and jesters to chase away his melancholy as he painted. As a result, he painted a smile so pleasing that it seems divine and as alive as the original. 

To discover the creative thinking techniques creative geniuses have used throughout history in the arts, sciences and business read CRACKING CREATIVITY by Michael Michalko.

A Simple Way to Get Ideas

A major characteristic of creative thinking is the ability to generate a host of associations and connections between dissimilar subjects. This is difficult for the average person to do so voluntarily because we have not been taught to process information this way. When we use our imagination to develop new ideas, those ideas are heavily structured in predictable ways by the properties of existing categories and concepts. Thomas Edison once said that his greatest blessing in life was his lack of formal education. Otherwise, he would have learned that what he had done in his career was impossible to do. 

Think for a moment about a pine cone. What relationship does a pine cone have with the processes of reading and writing? In France, 1818, a nine-year old boy blinded himself accidentally with a hole puncher while helping his father make horse harnesses.  A few years later the boy was sitting in the yard thinking about his inability to read and write when a friend handed him a pine cone. He ran his fingers over the cone and noted the tiny differences between the scales. He conceptually blended the feel of different pine cone scales with reading and writing and realized he could create an alphabet of raised dots on paper so the blind could feel and read what was written with it. In this way Louis Braille opened up a whole new world for the blind. 

Braille cross-fertilized a pine cone with the process of reading to revolutionize the world for the blind. Another way to stimulate your imagination when looking to cross-fertilize concepts for ideas is to casually skim books.  The guidelines are: 

  • Select the topic of your challenge. For example, business growth.
  • Pick up a book or two on totally unrelated topics, either nonfiction or fiction.
  • Skim the book quickly looking only for ideas that relate to or are parallel to your subject. For example, you might find some incredible innovative ideas about business growth by skimming a book about bees build colonies.

The CEO of a greeting card company wanted to create an innovative Christmas card. One day she skimmed a book about the pollution in the Pacific ocean. A discussion about biodegradables in the book sparked her idea. Biodegradable Christmas cards.

After the holiday season, recipients of the card can now plant them instead of throwing them away. The paper can be planted indoors or outside, so you can choose according to the temperature and conditions at the time of planting. Cover the soil (outside or in a pot) with the paper. Spread about half a centimeter layer of soil over the paper and tamp down gently.

The company then expanded its product lines to include biodegradable greeting cards for all occasions and biodegradable confetti for weddings and other celebrations.

For more creative thinking techniques read Michael Michalko’s Thinkertoys.

Pay Attention and Discover the Ideas that are Right before Your Eyes

How many “f’s” are in the following paragraph:

“The necessity of training farmhands for first class farms in the fatherly handling of farm livestock is foremost in the minds of farm owners. Since the forefathers of the farm owners trained the farmhands for first class farms in the fatherly handling of farm livestock, the farm owners feel they should carry on with the family tradition of training farmhands of first class farms in the fatherly handling of farm livestock because they believe it is the basis of good fundamental farm management. Total number of f’s is………?”  (The answer is at the end of the article.)

If you found less than the correct amount, you probably ignored the f’s in the word of. If you missed the count, you probably said, “Of course, it was right in front of my eyes the whole time”. Many times in life we see things and automatically know what we’re seeing without any cognitive processing whatsoever. For example, who doesn’t recognize the famous coke logo?



Ordinarily we do not make the fullest use of our faculty to see.

We are aware that we move through life looking at a tremendous quantity of knowledge, objects and scenes; and yet, we look but do not see. By the way, the logo above the article reads coca-coca not coca-cola.

PAY ATTENTION. Paying attention to the world around you will help you develop the extraordinary capacity to look at mundane things and see the miraculous. Really paying attention to what you see will enable you to develop a kind of binary vision where you perceive what others see but, you will notice something different as well.

Engineers in George Westinghouse’s heyday knew more than he did about natural gas, railroads and electricity. Yet, they looked but did not see. Westinghouse paid attention. He became intrigued with the ordinary water well and took it apart. He examined the separate parts, modified some and reassembled it into a way to transmit clean natural gas thereby creating the natural gas industry.

Estee Lauder was an obsessed young woman desperately trying to puff out her products. She paid attention to everything going on around her searching for an answer. What could make a breakthrough? What could make the difference? Is it product, distribution, marketing? Then she hit on her “gift with purchase” strategy, which she calls the highlight of her life. From that flash of genius, she created a marketing marvel valued at nearly $2 billion. Lauder, at 81, is still paying attention by sniffing out new fragrances and new products for her company.

An idea can be found anywhere. Maybe it’s up in the hills under the leaves or hiding in a ditch somewhere. Maybe it’s never found. But what you find by paying attention, whatever you find, is always part of the missing, and that in itself will lead to something. With paying attention comes intense  interest, and after interest comes tiny truths and after tiny truths, comes passion and with passion comes a will to create. Ray Kroc, founder of McDonalds, paid so much attention to the mundane french fry that to him it became almost sacrosanct.

Edwin Crosby Johnson II, one of the creators of the mutual fund industry, expressed the market in terms of passionate rhapsody: The stock market was like a “beautiful woman endlessly fascinating, endlessly complex, always changing, always mystifying……the market represents everything that everyone has ever hoped, feared, hated, or loved. It is all of life.” When Forest Mars met for the first time with executives of his newly created Mars Inc., he announced, ” I am a religious man.” Then he dropped to his knees and intoned: “I pray for Milky Way, I pray for Snickers……”

Following is an exercise designed to help you improve your ability to pay pure attention to the world around you. This exercise was developed by Minor White who taught photography at MIT.

Select a photograph or picture that gives you pleasure. The more detailed the photo or picture the better. Get comfortable and relax. Set a timer or alarm for ten minutes. Look at the photograph or picture until the timer goes off without moving. Don’t move a muscle. Stay focused on the image. Do not allow your mind to free associate. Pay attention only to the photograph or picture in front of you. Concentrate only on the image before you. After the timer goes off, turn away from the image and recall your experience. Review the experience visually rather than with words. Accept whatever the experience is for what it is. After your review and your experience becomes kind of a flavor, go about your everyday work, trying to recall the experience whenever you can. You’ll begin to experience an intense awareness that you can find only by paying pure attention. Recall the experience frequently and recall it visually.

(The number of F’s is 37. This includes the last F in the last question at the end of the paragraph.)

For an effective brainstorming tool check out Michael Michalko’s Thinkpak.

From bright ideas to right ideas: capturing the creative spark: thinking in new ways opens the mind to boundless possibilities and creative solutions.

COVER.ThinkertoysCreating new ideas means challenging all assumptions and thinking productively by looking at things in as many different ways as possible. Typically, we think reproductively–that is, on the basis of similar problems encountered in the past. When confronted with a new problem, we fixate on something in our past that worked before, exclude all other approaches, and work within a clearly defined direction toward the solution of the problem.

In contrast, creative thinkers confronted with a problem ask, “How many different ways can I look at it? How can I rethink the way I see it? How many different ways can I solve it?” They don’t ask, “What have I been taught by someone else about how to solve this?” They tend to come up with many different responses, some of which are unconventional and possibly unique.

With productive thinking, we generate as many alternative approaches as we can, considering both the least obvious and the most likely. This willingness to explore all approaches is essential. Someone once asked Einstein 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.

Whenever Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman was stuck on a problem, he would invent new thinking strategies. He felt his secret was his ability to disregard how past thinkers thought about problems and would invent new ways to think instead. If something didn’t work, he would look at it several different ways until he found a way that moved his imagination. He was wonderfully productive. He could do in 10 minutes something that might take the average physicist a year.

Feynman proposed teaching productive thinking in our schools instead of reproductive thinking. He believed that the successful mathematician is an inventor of new ways of thinking in given situations. Even if the old ways are well known, he believed it is usually better to invent your own way or a new way than to apply what is already known.

For example, the addition problem 29 + 3 is considered a third-grade problem because it requires the advanced technique of carrying. Feynman pointed out that a first grader could handle it by counting in sequence 30, 31, 32. A child could mark numbers on a line and count off the spaces–a method useful in understanding measurements and fractions. Children can write larger numbers in columns and carry sums larger than 10, or use fingers or algebra for other, seemingly more complicated problems (e.g., 2 times what plus 3 is 7?). Feynman encouraged teaching people to figure out how to think about problems many different ways using trial and error.

Reproductive thinking is rigid thinking. This is why we often fail when confronted with a new problem that is similar to past experiences only in superficial ways but is different from previously encountered problems in its deep structure. Interpreting such problems through the prism of past experience leads to setbacks and stagnation. When Univac first developed a computer, for example, company managers refused to talk to business people because they said the computer had no business applications. Then along came IBM. IBM managers themselves once said that, according to their past experiences in the computer market, there was virtually no market for the personal computer. In fact, they said they were absolutely certain there were no more than five or six people in the entire world who had need for a personal computer. Then along came Apple.

Innovation vs. Education

The greatest obstacle to innovative thinking is education. A great deal of education in the United States may be regarded as the inculcation of mind-sets. We are taught how to handle problems and new phenomena with fixed mental attitudes based on what past thinkers thought, predetermining our response to problems or situations. In short, we are taught what to think instead of how to think.

Consequently, we tend to process information the same way over and over again instead of searching for alternatives. Once we know what works or can be done, we find it hard to consider alternative ideas. Let’s say we use television commercials to advertise our product during a popular prime-time sitcom. We are fairly happy with the results, and the television campaign seems to work. Are we going to check out other ideas that we don’t think will be as good or better? Are we likely to explore alternative ways to advertise our product? Probably not.

Even when we actively seek information to test our ideas, we usually ignore paths that might lead us to discover alternatives. An interesting experiment conducted by British psychologist Peter Watson demonstrates this attitude. Watson would present subjects with three numbers in a sequence, such as 2, 4, 6. He would then ask subjects to explain the number rule for the sequence and to give other examples of the rule. Subjects could ask as many questions as they wished without penalty.

He found that almost invariably most people initially said “4, 6, 8” or some similar sequence. And Watson would say, yes, that is an example of a number rule. Then they would say, “20, 22, 24” or “50, 52, 54”–all numbers increasing by two. After a few guesses and after getting affirmative answers each time, subjects were confident that the rule was to increase numbers by two without exploring alternative possibilities.

Actually, the rule Watson was looking for was much simpler–numbers increasing. It could be “1, 2, 3” or “10, 20, 40” or “400, 678, 10,944.” Testing such an alternative would be easy. All the subjects had to say was “1, 2, 3” or “5, 4, 3” to see if they got a positive or negative answer, and that information would tell them a lot about their guess about the rule.

In his hundreds of experiments, Watson never had an instance in which someone spontaneously offered an alternative hypothesis. In short, his subjects did not even try to find out if there is a simpler, or even another, rule.

Creative types do not think this way. They will always look for alternative ways to think about a subject. Even when the old ways are well established, the creative will invent new ways of thinking. If something does not work, they look at it several different ways until they find a new line of thought. It is this willingness to entertain different perspectives and alternative ideas that broadens their thinking and opens them up to new information and the new possibilities that the rest of us don’t see.

Finding the Best Idea

Creativity demands great quantities of alternatives. Quantity breeds quality. Imagine a pearl diver on an island in the South Seas. He pushes his canoe off from shore, paddles out into the lagoon, dives deep into the water, picks an oyster off the bottom, surfaces, climbs into his boat, paddles to shore, and opens the shell. Finding nothing inside but an oyster, he pushes his canoe off again, and begins paddling into the lagoon.

What an incredible waste of time. The reasonable thing to do is to dive again and again, fill up the canoe with oysters, and then return to shore. Pearls are rare–a diver must open many oysters before finding one–and only a foolish person would waste time and energy making a separate trip for each oyster. It’s the same with producing ideas. Many times we’ll produce one or two ideas and proceed as if they are the answer. But creative ideas, like pearls, occur infrequently. So the sensible thing to do is to produce many ideas. Just as a good idea may stop you from going on to discover a great one, a great idea may stop you from discovering the right one.

In Edison’s New Jersey laboratory, there is a staggering display of hundreds of phonograph horns of every shape, size, and material. Some are round, square, angular, thin, short, squat, curved, or as much as six feet tall. This collection of rejected ideas is a visual testament to Edison’s thinking strategy–which was, in essence, to explore every conceivable possibility. For every brilliant idea Edison had, there were many duds, such as the horse-drawn contraption that would collect snow and ice in the winter and compress it into blocks that families could use in the summer as a refrigerant.

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 as fast as you can, you would have quite a few in a short period of time. Such a quota and time limit focuses your energy in a competitive way that guarantees fluency of thought.

Edison guaranteed productivity by giving himself and his assistants idea quotas. His own personal quota was one minor invention every 10 days and a major invention every six months. A way to guarantee productivity of your creative thought is to give yourself an idea quota. By forcing yourself to come up with many ideas, you put your internal critic on hold and write everything down, including the obvious and weak. The first third will be the same old ideas you always get; the second third will be more interesting; and the last third will show more insight, curiosity, and complexity.

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, too, thought must flow before it becomes really creative. Early ideas are usually not true ideas: 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 and habitual and to produce the unusual and imaginative.

When you wish to create something new or come up with a creative solution to a problem, you often need to distance yourself from first-born ideas. If I want to surprise my wife on Valentine’s Day, I know that I must disregard the first idea that comes to mind for what to do. I probably will have to disregard the second, third, and fourth as well. In order to come up with something creative, I have to get beyond habitual responses intentionally to create something new. For original ideas or creative solutions for your business and personal problems:

  • Generate a multiplicity of different perspectives about your subject until you find the perspective you want.
  • Generate a large quantity of alternatives and conjectures, retaining the best ideas for further development and elaboration.
  • Produce variation in your ideas by incorporating random, chance, or unrelated factors.

Getting New Perspectives

I try to encourage people to look at things using a multiplicity of perspectives. One of the many ways in which a mind attempts to make life easier is to solve the first impression of the problem that it encounters. Like our first impressions of people, our initial perspective on problems and situations are apt to be narrow and superficial. We see no more than we have been conditioned to see. Stereotyped notions block clear vision and crowd out imagination.

Leonardo da Vinci believed that, to gain knowledge about the form of problems, you begin by learning how to restructure the problem to see it in many different ways. He felt the first way he looked at a problem was too biased toward his usual way of seeing things. He would look 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. Leonardo called this thinking strategy saper vedere–knowing how to see.

Innovation often comes from finding a new perspective that no one else has taken. Einstein’s theory of relativity is, in essence, a description of the interaction between different perspectives. Freud would transform the meaning of something by putting it into a different framework or context; for example, by framing the unconscious as a part of him that was infantile. Freud began to help his patients change how they thought and reacted to their own behavior.

Consider the letter-string FFMMTT. You would probably describe this as three pairs of letters. If you are given KLMMNOTUV, you would probably see it as three letter triplets. In each case, the letters MM are perceived differently, either as one chunk or as elements of two different chunks. If you were given MM alone, you would have no reason for seeing it as either and now would see it as a simple pair of letters. It is the context of the information that inclines you to describe something in a certain way and perhaps to abandon an initial description for another.

The more times you state a problem in different ways, the more likely that your perspective will change and deepen. When Einstein thought about a problem, he always found it necessary to formulate his subject in as many different ways as possible. He was once asked what he would do if someone told him that a huge comet would hit and totally destroy the earth in one hour. Einstein said he would spend 55 minutes figuring out how to formulate the question and five minutes solving it.

Blending Concepts

Creative thinking is the natural way to think, not a different way of thinking. We have been taught to think reproductively and logically and linearly. We have been told that creativity itself must be taught and learned in the same fashion as other academic subjects. This is not so.
The heart of imagination is conceptual blending, a cognitive process that operates below the level of consciousness. It involves linking two cognitive concepts to create new meaning and explains abstract thought and creativity, a basic mental operation that is unique to the human species. Blends, which occur constantly without our awareness, are critical for the creation of emergent meanings, ideas, and global insight.

The key is to move beyond logic to creative thinking by learning how to blend dissimilar concepts deliberately and consciously. Blending suspends your thought and allows an intelligence beyond thought to act and create something new. Consider Einstein imagining objects in motion and at rest at the same time. Consider Niels Bohr imagining light as a particle and wave. Or consider Edwin McMillan, in his studies of subatomic particles, imagining particles in states of too-high energy and too-low energy at the same time. These examples give a sense of the meaning of conceptual blending.

Your unconscious blends differing concepts for you by recognizing only those counterparts of each concept that are interesting to your unconscious mind based on your own unique set of circumstances and experiences. These counterparts are then projected into the blend by your unconsciousness. The blend then bubbles up into your conscious mind as ideas and insights. This is not logical thinking. This is creative thinking. This is the way prehistoric humans thought. This is how to create ideas, insights, and products that cannot be created using any other way of thinking.

When you drop a stone into a pond, you see a wave emanate outwardly in a plane. The stone jostles the water molecules, which, in turn, jostle neighboring water molecules. Thus, waves of relayed jostling molecules are propagated by the action of dropping the stone. Yet the waves are essences of neither the stone nor the water. Each wave is distinct and measurable and has its own integrity as it visibly grows and travels outward. The consequence is a new pattern of events that has a life of its own, independent of the stone that initiated the action. By dropping a stone into the pond, you created something that did not exist before: a wave.

In the same way, in order to generate ideas, you need a way to create new sets of patterns in your mind. You need one pattern reacting with another set of patterns to create new waves of ideas. Each new idea that you imagine is like dropping something new and strange into your challenge to see what pattern of waves you create in your imagination.

Creativity requires a lot of energy and hard work. In the physical world, objects resist change: Objects at rest remain so, and objects in motion continue in the same direction unless impacted by some force. In the same way, ideas resist movement from their current state. This is why, when people develop ideas, those ideas tend to resemble old ones.

Expertise and knowledge create a kind of conceptual inertia that inhibits and constrains creative thought in science, art, and industry. To overcome this inertia, you need to apply a great deal of cognitive effort and energy to develop the creative force to put your imagination in motion. Edison summarized it years ago when he said, “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.”

Your Words Become Your Thoughts


The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, was responsible for producing some of the greatest advances in human thought. Modern society and education have tended to focus more on the discoveries resulting from these strategies than on the mental processes through which the discoveries were made. Many of his discoveries were the result of his work with language.

According to Aristotle, words are sounds that become symbols of mental experience through the association with past experiences and the processes of the subconscious mind. As a result, words can both reflect and shape mental thought. By using verbal prompts, he was able to draw out related ideas through the process of association and generate a multiplicity of different perspectives.

Below is an illustration of scattered dots and splashes. Can you spot any specific object in the illustration? Spend a few moments trying before you read further.


The chaotic spread of dots and splashes creates a visual noise that monopolizes the brain and leaves so little processing power that it’s difficult for the brain to consciously perceive the object, making it effectively invisible. However, if I asked you to spot the dog, the word “dog” will trigger your subconscious mind. Your subconscious will process thoughts and information about your experiences with dogs and will shape the way you perceive the patterns in the illustration. Eventually, you will spot a dog in the center. One word changed your perception.

Words also shape thought. To start with, it’s helpful to carefully choose words when phrasing a problem. Imagine you are the person in the illustration below. Your challenge is to tie together the ends of the two strings suspended from the ceiling. The strings are located so you cannot reach one string with your outstretched hand while holding the second. The room is bare, and you have only the things with you that you have in your pocket today. How do you solve the problem?

man and string

Initially, you might state the problem as: “How can I get to the second string?” Phrasing it this way gives you only one perception of the problem and you would then waste your energy trying to get to the second string, which is not possible.

In order to avoid settling for your first perception of the problem, the phrase “In what ways might I…….?” will invite you to look for alternative perceptions. For example, if you phrased it “In what ways might I and the string get together?”, you will likely come up with the solution—to tie a small object (such as a key, ring, watch, or belt) to the end of one string and set it in motion like a pendulum, then grab it while still holding the second string in your hand.

In each and every experience there is a multitude of other experiences lying in wait. Once you chose one you marginalize the others. To say it very simply, the moment we call something “a” we have marginalized all of its other possible states (b, c, d, e, and so on) into nothingness because we don’t see them. Once the problem was shaped as how to get to the second string, all other possible perceptions were marginalized.

When you look at a problem using a multiplicity of perspectives instead of one stabilized view, you bring forth a new understanding of the possibilities. The important thing is not to persist with one way of looking at problems. Try to come up with different ways to look at them. When Richard Feynman, the Nobel Laureate physicist, was “stuck” with a problem, he would look at it in a different way. If one way didn’t work, he would switch to another. Whatever came up, he would always find another way to look at it.

CHANGE THE WORDS. A quick and easy way to generate a multiplicity of perspectives is to simply change the words. For every word a person uses, there is a mediating response which provides the meaning of that concept for that individual. Many times, they may not be responses in the usual sense but all provide meaning of that concept for that individual. When you change the words in your problem statement, you initiate an unobservable process in your mind that may lead to a new perspective.

Toyota asked employees for ideas on how they could become more productive. They received few suggestions. They reworded the question to: “In what ways might I make my job easier?” They were inundated with ideas. Even tiny changes with words can lead to unpredictable, cataclysmic results.

Examine your problem statement, identify the key words, and change them five to ten times to look at your problem through different perspectives. Suppose you want to increase sales. Look at the different perspectives created by just changing the verb:

In what ways might I discover sales? In what ways might I adapt selling techniques from others?
Provoke sales? Advertise sales? Target sales? Inspire sales? Teach sales? Encourage sales? Grow sales? Evolve sales? Complement sales? Acquire sales? Predict sales? Segregate sales? Motivate sales? Invest in sales? Renew sales? Combine sales? Organize sales? Upgrade sales?

Following is a list of verbs to use as a tool when formulating problem statements. Simply scan the list, changing the verb when appropriate, and you will find yourself producing several different ways to look at your problem.


PLAYING WITH VERBS AND NOUNS. Playing with verbs and nouns encourages you to think of perspectives that you would probably not think of spontaneously. Try changing the nouns into verbs and verbs into nouns in your problem statement. For example, a problem might be “How to sell more bottles?” Changing the verbs into nouns and nouns into verbs makes this into “How to bottle more sales?” Bottling sales now suggests looking for ways to close sales, instead of ways to sell more bottles.

The problem “How to improve customer relations?” becomes “How to customize related improvements?” This new perspective leads one to consider customizing products and services for customers, customizing all relevant aspects of the customer relations department, and so on.

TRANSPOSE THE WORDS. One of Aristotle=s favorite ways to test a premise was what he called Aconvertibility.@ He felt that if a premise were true, then the negative premise should be convertible. For example, if every pleasure is good, some good must be pleasure. By simply transposing words, you achieved a different perspective. Sometimes changing the order of words in a problem statement will create a verbal-conceptual chain that may trigger a different perspective.

In the following illustration, words were arranged in two different series, “A” and “B,” and subjects were asked to solve certain situations. When “skyscraper” was listed first, subjects tended to come up with architectural concepts, and when “prayer” was transposed with skyscraper and listed first, it increased the likelihood of a religious direction.

SERIES A                                                                SERIES B
SKYSCRAPER                                                         PRAYER
PRAYER                                                             SKYSCRAPER
TEMPLE                                                              CATHEDRAL
CATHEDRAL                                                         TEMPLE

To change the order, transpose the words in your problem. Following are some examples:
In what ways might I get a promotion?
To: In what ways might I promote myself?

In what ways might I advertise my T-shirts?
In what ways might I use my T-shirts to advertise?

In what ways might I learn how to use the Internet?
In what ways might I use the Internet to learn more?

“All words are pegs to hang ideas on.”
― Henry Ward Beecher

For more information about how to look at things differently, read Cracking Creativity (Secrets of Creative Genius) by creativity expert Michael Michalko

The Difference Between the Way Creative Geniuses Think and the Way the Average Person Thinks

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.

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.

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. Exclusive thinking is fine when we absolutely know what information is relevant and what is not. Many situations, in fact, most, are ambiguous. 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. Continue reading

101 Tips on How to Become More Creative

outofideas1.            Take a walk and look for something interesting. Force a connection between it and your problem. E.g., you see a jar of honey in a shop’s window. What connections can you make between the honey and your problem?

2.            Open a dictionary, close your eyes, and randomly point to a word. Use the word in a sentence. Can you make any associations between the word or sentence and your problem.

3.            How is an iceberg like an idea that might help you solve your problem?

4.            Create an idea that is so dumb it will get you fired. Examine the dumb idea. Is there anything in the idea you can build on?

5.            Ask a child. Continue reading

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