East West Publishing Interview Excerpts
Idani: Does more pressure in a company mean generally less creativity?
Michalko: Ideas come when they want. No amount of pressure can inspire truly original ideas. One needs to work on problems and then forget them for a while and come back at some later time and continue working on them. Our conscious minds are sometimes blocked from creating new ideas because we are too fixated. When we discontinue work on the problem for a period of time, our fixation fades, allowing our subconscious minds to freely create new possibilities. This is what happened to Nobel laureate Melvin Calvin. While idly sitting in his car waiting for his wife to complete an errand, he found the answer to a puzzling inconsistency in his research on photosynthesis. It occurred just like that — quite suddenly — and suddenly also, in a matter of seconds, the path of carbon became apparent to him.
Archimedes got his sudden insight about the principle of displacement while daydreaming in his bath. According to legend, he was so excited by his discovery that he rushed naked through the streets shouting, “Eureka!” (I’ve found it.) Henri Poincare, the French genius, spoke of incredible ideas and insights that came to him with suddenness and immediate certainty out of the blue. So dramatic are the ideas that arrive that the precise moment in which the idea arrived can be remembered in unusual detail. Charles Darwin could point to the exact spot on a road where he arrived at the solution for the origin of species while riding in his carriage and not thinking about his subject. Other geniuses offer similar experiences. Like a sudden flash of lightning, ideas and solutions seemingly appear out of nowhere.
Idani: Is there a name for this phenomenon?
Michalko: This phenomenon was labeled “mind popping” by George Mandler, a leading researcher in the problems of the consciousness. Mind popping is when a solution or idea seems to appear after a period of incubation out of nowhere. That this “mind popping” is a commonplace phenomenon was shown in a survey of distinguished scientists conducted over a half-century ago. A majority of the scientists reported that they got their “mind popping” ideas and insights when not thinking about the problem. Ideas came while walking, recreating, or working on some other unrelated problem. This suggests how the creative act came to be associated with “divine inspiration” for the illumination appears to be involuntary.
Idani: How can the average person “mind pop?”
Michalko: To experience “mind popping,” try the following experiment. Write a letter to your unconscious about a problem you have been working on. Make the letter as detailed as possible. Describe the problem, what steps you have taken, the gaps, what is needed, what the obstacles are, the ideal solution, and so on. Instruct your subconscious to find the solution. Write “Your mission is to find the solution to the problem. I would like the solution in three days.” Seal the letter and put it away (or actually mail the letter to yourself). Forget it. Open the letter in three days. If the problem still has not been solved, write on the bottom of the letter “Let me know the minute you solve this.” Sooner or later, when you are most relaxed and removed, ideas and solutions will pop up from your subconscious.
Idani: How can employees calm down when they are under pressure in order to be ready for creativity?
Michalko: Act as if you are calm and confident and you will become calm and confident. Your psychology is determined by your behavior and actions. Cognitive scientists have long been interested in the connection between behavior and attitude. Recently two 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 felt poorly, too, so they began to keep track. They began monitoring their body during facial movements. 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 rate and body temperatures of two groups of people. One group was asked to remember and relive the most sorrowful experience in their life. 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 this the next time you’re feeling stressed and want to feel happy and positive. Smile wide, not just with your mouth but with raised cheeks as well. Then try walking with long strides and looking straight ahead. You will be amazed at how fast your facial expressions can change your emotions. Not only that but your colleagues will start emulating your behavior as well and the whole work atmosphere will become more positive.
Another way to trigger positive emotions to eliminate stress is to remember and copy the facial expressions you had on a pleasant or happy day. One of the most pleasant days of my life was when I was sailing. I was at that spot on a sailing boat at the very front. Being there, seeing the water go underneath you, feeling the waves. Hearing nothing but the wind rippling the sales. This is where I found and still find perfect peace.
Every time I want to feel that peaceful experience, I only have to think “sailing boat” and imagine my facial expression when sailing and then mimic it. Holding the facial expression creates the same peaceful feeling within me that I feel when actually sailing.
Sit back and relax. Think of one of the most pleasant or joyful days of your life. Imagine the expression you had on your face. Mimic that facial expression and hold it. You’ll find that by duplicating the expression you will revive the emotions that you felt on that day.
Idani: Can you use stress positively for your creativity?
Michalko: You can put pressure on yourself to produce a large number of ideas. A distinguishing characteristic of creative genius is immense productivity. Thomas Edison held 1,093 patents, still the record. He 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. Bach wrote a cantata every week, even when he was sick or exhausted. Mozart produced more than six hundred pieces of music. Einstein is best known for his paper on relativity, but he published 248 other papers. T.S. Elliot’s numerous drafts of “The Waste Land” constitute a jumble of good and bad passages that eventually was turned into a masterpiece. In a study of 2,036 scientists throughout history, Dean Kean Simonton of the University of California, Davis, found that the most respected produced not only great works, but also more “bad” ones. Out of their massive quantity of work came quality. Geniuses produce. Period.
Increasing your idea production requires conscious effort. Suppose I asked you to spend three minutes thinking of alternative uses of 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.
A specific quota focuses your energy in a competitive way that guarantees fluency and flexibility of thought. To meet the quota, you find yourself listing all the usual uses for a brick (build a wall, fireplace, outdoor barbeque, and so on) as well as listing everything that comes to mind (anchor, projectiles in riots, ballast, device to hold down newspaper, a tool for leveling dirt, material for sculptures, doorstop and so on) as we stretch our imagination to meet the quota. By causing us to exert effort, it allows us to generate more imaginative alternatives than we otherwise would.
Idani: What is the most widespread creativity technique in companies? Is it effective?
Michalko: Traditional brainstorming is probably the most widespread creativity technique used in companies. However, few corporate people know how to facilitate a brainstorming session. On the whole, most corporate brainstorming sessions are poorly conducted, ineffective, and a complete waste of time. People congregate in a room. No one is told to prepare anything in advance. People sit around a table and wait for someone else to offer ideas. The ones that do usually offer marginal ideas that are safe. If someone offers an outrageous or fantastical idea, it is usually dismissed out of hand. The facilitator is skilled in shooting down such ideas. The lesson learned from the facilitator is usually to keep your mouth shut or you’ll be ridiculed or made to look stupid. Eventually everyone stops participating. Consequently you have a group of people who come with nothing and leave with nothing of value.
It reminds me of a Japanese story about ten old men. Ten old men decided to celebrate the New Year with a big crock of hot sake wine. Since none of them could provide for all, they each agreed to bring one jug of wine for the large heating bowl. On the way to his wine cellar, each old man thought, “My wine is too valuable to share! No one will know. It’ll never show. It’ll still be fine. I’ll bring a jug of water instead of the wine.” And so when they gathered with the jugs they brought, all ten old men poured the contents of their jugs ceremoniously into the big bowl and then looked sheepishly at one another as they heated and poured hot water for all.