Creating 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.
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.”