The purpose of these interviews is to speak with people who have created successful outcomes, for themselves and for others in the world of sports, business, and other endeavors. It then follows that the person interviewed will be talking about their life and / or business philosophy that they have grown into over the years.
Rarely is the path to any goal or successful outcome an easy and direct ride. Yet the public most often sees or hears only about the end result and / or when the media picks it up. What’s missed and what the public often doesn’t hear about is all that happened in route, the work that was done, the sacrifices made, the life lessons learned, and the temporary setbacks that had to be overcome on the way to any given goal or destination.
My objective is that through these interviews, the reader will pick up pearls of wisdom and overriding universal life principles that they can apply to their own life regardless of their destination.
– Joseph Sale, Founder, Optimum Performance / Human Performance Systems
Joe Sale: Michael, please talk about your new book Creative Thinkering, as well as your background, history, and story leading up to the writing of this book.
Michael Michalko: As an officer in the United States Army, I organized a team of NATO intelligence specialists and international academics in Frankfurt, Germany, to research, collect, and categorize all known inventive-thinking methods. This international team applied those methods to various NATO military, political, and social problems. In doing so it produced a variety of breakthrough ideas and creative solutions to new and old problems. After leaving the military, I facilitated think tanks using these creative thinking techniques for government agencies and then later corporations.
I and my team in the military were imbued with a can-do spirit. Nothing was considered impossible. We never considered why something couldn’t be done. We always figured out how to get it done. It was this can-do attitude that influenced my life. I also discovered that creative geniuses have had this can-do spirit throughout history as well. Those who think they can, can. Those who think they can’t, can’t.
I discovered how easily you can resurrect your natural creativity by simply using the same creative thinking techniques that creative geniuses have used throughout history. I began to ponder questions such as: Why isn’t everyone creative? Why does education foster less instead of more ingenuity? Why is expertise often the enemy of innovation? Why is it that the people who know more create less, and the people who know less, create more? Why is it that the more expert one becomes in his or her area of expertise, the fewer ideas they have?
It is as though we’ve unlearned creativity. In school, we were taught how past thinkers interpreted the world. We were not taught how to think, we were taught to reproduce what past thinkers thought. When confronted with a problem, we were taught to analytically select the most promising approach based on past history, excluding all other approaches, and to work logically within a carefully defined direction towards a solution. Instead of looking for possibilities, we are taught to look for ways to exclude them. It’s as if we entered school as a question mark and graduated as a period.
Natural creative thinking requires the generation of associations and connections between two or more unrelated subjects. Those considered “geniuses” are those who have managed to retain their natural ability to generate associations and connections between two or more dissimilar subjects to create new categories and concepts. This process of “conceptual blending,” will reawaken the type of spontaneous and creative thought processes that give rise to original ideas and innovation in both business and life.
Joe Sale: Most, if not all of your books and your work have been focused on human creativity, brain function, cognition, and inventive thinking methods. Have you always been interested in these related topics?
Michael Michalko: We are tacitly taught that we exist and just are. We study atoms, for example, and are taught that atoms are all true to their own nature. An atom cannot change its nature. It just is. We have been taught that all people are true to their own genes, environment and nature. We are objects. We are taught to be “Me,” instead of “I.”
When you think of yourself as Me, you are limited. The Me is always limited. When you believe how others—parents, teachers, peers, colleagues, and others—describe you, you become that. You might want to be an artist, but others might tell you that you have no talent, training, or temperament to be an artist. The Me will say, “Who do you think you are? You are just an ordinary person.”
When you were a child you felt you were everything. There was no limit to what was possible. You formed the thought “this is who I am. I am the greatest. I am the best.” You interpreted your own experiences, because you were the subject of your own life. Remember when you were the subject of your life how happy, positive, and full of life you were? Remember feeling like the most important person in the universe?
We are born to be the subject of our life and to interpret our own set of experiences. It is not your experiences that determine who you are. It is your interpretation of your experiences that determines who you are. We are not taught this. Instead of being the subject of our life, we are tacitly taught to be the object. We are taught to be a Me instead of “I am.” Instead of interpreting our own experiences, we allow others to interpret our experiences for us.
I have learned that the artist is not a special person; but that every person is a special kind of artist. It is this knowledge that inspired my research and work in creativity, cognition and inventive thinking methods.
Joe Sale : Michael, what are the primary duplicatable patterns that you have found, that lead to high end creativity?
Michael Michalko: The primary duplicatable pattern that leads to creativity is synthesis. Synthesis involves lining up dissimilar subjects and combining parts of each into a new idea. This strongly resembles the creative process of genetic recombination in nature. Chromosomes exchange genes to create emergent new beings. Think of parts and counterparts of ideas as genes that combine and recombine to create new patterns which lead to new ideas.
It is not possible for the human brain to deliberately concentrate on two separate objects or ideas—no matter how dissimilar—without eventually forming a connection between them. No two inputs can remain separate in your mind no matter how remote they are from each other.
Try an experiment. Pick eight random words and give the list to someone or to a small group. For example: flower pot, baby, glass, grasshopper, coffee pot, box, toast, and garage. Ask them to divide the words into two groups without giving them any rationale for the division. You’ll discover that people will come up with some very creative classifications. They’ll group them according to words with the letter o, things that touch water, objects made in factories, and so on. No one ever says there is no connection, they invent them.
Though we seldom think about it, making connections in such a manner are conceptual creative acts. The thinking of individuals is riddled with creative acts. These small creative acts are close cousins to the most highly creative acts. They are just not on the highest plane.
The invention of the cash register is a good example of connecting a problem with an insightful solution from an unrelated field. Its inventor, Jake Ritty, was a restaurant owner from Ohio, who in 1879 hit upon the idea of a cash register while traveling on a ship for pleasure. During the voyage, the passengers were taken on a tour of the ship. In the engine room, Jake was captivated by seeing a machine which recorded the number of times the ship’s propeller rotated. What he saw in this machine was an idea of a machine that counts.
Back in Ohio, using the same principle as the ship’s machine, he made a machine which could add items and record the amounts. This hand-operated machine, which he started using in his restaurant, was the first cash register. Ritty told the curious business people who inquired about his invention, that he got the idea from “Divine Inspiration.”
Joe Sale: What is the biggest misconception about creative thinking that you have encountered in today’s world?
Michael Michalko: A simple belief. People who believe they are creative are creative; and people who do not believe they are creative are not. If a person believes he is called by God to be a priest and has the intention to become a priest he will become a priest by going through the motions of being a priest.
I have worked with countless individuals who were convinced they were not creative. Once they understood how creative geniuses lived, thought and worked and learned their creative thinking techniques that showed them how to think in different ways, they found that not only could they be creative but suddenly life and work became more fascinating and fun.
Joe Sale: Is creativity a capacity that everyone has but through lack of use can be lost or become atrophied like a muscle?
Michael Michalko: It’s not lack of use, it is a lack of understanding of what creativity is. The most creative force in the universe is nature. Think of nature and biological evolution. Creativity operates according to Darwin’s theory of biological evolution. According to Darwin, nature creates many possibilities through blind trial and error and then lets the process of natural selection decide which species survive. In nature, 95% of new species fail and die within a short period of time.
Genius is analogous to biological evolution in that it requires the unpredictable generation of a large quantity of alternatives and conjectures. From this quantity of alternatives and conjectures, the genius retains the best ideas for further development and communication.
An important aspect of this theory is that you need some means of producing variation in your ideas and for this variation to be truly effective, it must be blind. To count as blind, the variations are shaped by random, chance, or unrelated factors.
In nature, a gene pool totally lacking in variation would be unable to adapt to changing circumstances, with consequences which would be fatal to the species’ survival. In time the genetically encoded wisdom would convert to foolishness.
A comparable process operates within us. Every individual has the ability to create ideas based on his or her existing patterns of thinking, on the way he or she was taught to think. But without any provision for variations, ideas eventually stagnate and lose their adaptive advantages. In the end, if you always think the way you’ve always thought, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. The same-old, same-old ideas.
Joe Sale: Michael, is there a relationship between imagination, visualization, and creativity?
Michael Michalko: The explosion of creativity in the Renaissance was intimately tied to the recording and conveying of a vast body of knowledge in a parallel language; a language of drawings, diagrams and graphs–as, for instance, in the renowned diagrams and sketches of Galileo. It was Galileo who revolutionized science by mastering the subtleties of perspective by making his thought visible with diagrams and drawings, while his contemporaries used conventional verbal and algebraic approaches. His diagrams of celestial bodies unfolded a deeply visual logic that produced precise insights far beyond those achieved by his peers and changed the history of science.
Leonardo da Vinci also used drawings, diagrams, and graphs as a way to capture information, a way to formulate problems, and the means of solving the problem. It is obvious that in Leonardo’s notebooks, the diagrams and drawings are the focal points, not the words. That is, his pictures were not intended as simply illustrations of his notes; rather, the notes were intended as comments on the pictures. Language took such a secondary role for Leonardo da Vinci that he viewed it as a way to name or describe discoveries, not to make them.
In his essay, On Truth and Lies, German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzche, made a brilliant argument that a verbal description of reality was rendered impossible by the structure of language itself. It’s no wonder that many geniuses, such as the physicist, Richard Feynman, preferred to think visually. Richard Feynman’s great secret in putting quantum electrodynamics on center stage was that he developed a way to do it visually with diagrams, rather than writing down formulae as other physicists were doing. This led to the famous Feynman diagrams which everybody uses now for any kind of calculation in field theory. What Feynman did was to look at all the collected information, rearranged it into diagrams, and found the idea that had been lying dormant. His diagrams made it possible for physicists to look at a world that was previously unimaginable.
When Albert Einstein had thought through a problem, he thought in terms of visual and spatial forms rather than thinking along purely mathematical or verbal lines of reasoning. In fact, he believed that words and numbers, as they are written or spoken, did not play a significant role in his thinking process.
Words tend to impose strong, subtle pressures on us to see the world as fixed, fragmented, and static. Whereas quantum physics has demonstrated that the world is dynamic, fluid and constantly evolving. We were taught the world is a noun. Creative geniuses have always interpreted the world as a verb.
Joe Sale: Is there a relationship between feelings, emotions, and creativity?
Michael Michalko: When you look at the behaviors lives of creative geniuses throughout the history of the world, you will find that the form of their behavior and contents of their creativity are inextricably connected and can’t be separated. An example is Michelangelo, who was hired to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. His rivals persuaded Pope Julius II to hire him because they knew that the sculptor Michelangelo had rarely used color and had never painted in fresco. Fresco was a complicated process. First the artist mixed sand and lime and spread the mix over the wall. Next the artist applied colors but had to it fast, while the wall was still wet or fresh. When it dried, the colors fused chemically with the lime and called fresco. They mixed sand and lime and spread the mix over the wall. Next they applied their colors but had to do it fast, while the wall was still wet or fresh. When it dried, the colors fused chemically with the lime and became permanent. Michelangelo had never used color or painted in a fresco. His competitors were convinced he would turn down the commission due to his inexperience with fresco. If he did accept it, they were convinced the result would be amateurish and planned to use it to point out his inadequacies to the Pope and the art world.
Michelangelo believed he was the greatest artist in the world and he could create masterpieces using any medium. He acted on that belief by accepting the commission. He executed the frescos in great discomfort, having to work with his face looking upwards, which impaired his sight so badly that for months he could not read save with his head turned backwards for months. By acting upon his belief and going through the motions, he created the masterpiece that established him as the artist of the age. Another example is how Leonardo da Vinci created the emotions he wanted when he painted the Mona Lisa.
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 the melancholic atmosphere that painters usually give in many portraits. He attributed that to the solitariness of the artists and their environment. According to Giorgio Vasari (1568), 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.
Joe Sale : A venture capitalist was quoted as saying that over 50% of new inventions come from individuals who are not directly in that field. This statement seems to line up with a question you ask in the Introduction of your book, Creative Thinkering, “Why is it that the more expert people become in their field, the less creative and innovative they become?” What are your thoughts on this?
Michael Michalko: Once we have a belief, we tend to look to confirm that belief by what we observe. Psychologists call this phenomenon “confirmation bias.” This is a phenomenon where people, once they believe a proposition is true will force everything else to add fresh support and confirmation for it. Think of the last new car you bought. Remember continuing to read ads and reviews about your new car, but avoiding all ads and reviews of other makes and models.
English psychologist Peter Wason in a famous experiment gave subjects the three number sequence, “2-4-6,” and asked them to guess the rule he used to devise the rule. The individuals were then told to generate and write down other triads of numbers as examples of the rule, and the experimenter would determine whether the triads were examples of the rule. Finally, the individual was told that when they were certain, they could state the rule.
Wason discovered that his subjects immediately assumed they knew the rule and generated triads that were consistent with their belief—they attempted to confirm their hypothesis. Typically, in his experiments subjects formed a wrong idea—counting by twos—and then searched for confirming evidence. For example, they would offer examples such as 6-8-10, 31-33-35, 102-104-106, and so forth. Each time Wason would say yes, it conformed to his rule. The rule that people believed to be true was numbers increasing by 2.
In the end, he would explain that all the subjects’ hunches conformed to the rule, but counting by twos was not the rule. The rule was simply numbers ascending such as 2-4-8, 1-2-3, 2-31-105, and so on. All one had to do to test the rule was to offer different examples of sets of three such as 4-5-6 or 10-8-6 to disqualify alternatives.
Since there was no penalty for being wrong, one could easily have discovered his rule had they not spent their time confirming what they had already accepted. Typically subjects formed a wrong idea —counting by twos—and then searched for confirming evidence. For example, 6-8-10, 31-33-35, and so forth.
All of the subjects’ responses were anchored by the belief of numbers increasing by two. In the same way, managers who believe in structured thinking and their own theories will only observe what they think confirms their theory and disregard the rest.
Einstein once called a person with thirty years experience a person with one year’s experience repeated thirty times. Thomas Edison once advised aspiring inventors to always ask an expert if something can be done. If they say “no,” the go ahead and do it. Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, once told me that all he wanted in life was a Ben Franklin store franchise and a salary of $65,000 a year. He tried to change the way Ben Franklin retailed.
At that time the corporate executives ordered the merchandise and “pushed it” onto the franchises to sell. Walton wanted to “pull” the merchandise he needed from corporate. He told me that no matter what he said or did he could not get them to even consider his idea. “They,” he said, “forced me to go out and start my own retail organization and become the richest man in America.”
Joe Sale: What is the link, if any, between creativity and innovation? Can creativity and innovation be considered synonymous?
Michael Michalko: Creating and innovating are both verbs that mean, more or less, the same thing. In the military we called the process of creative thinking “improvising,” which to us meant creating something new out of whatever we had on hand.
Language predisposes our mind to a certain way of thinking. Consider a rose. Using words, one might say a rose is a red, pink, or white flower one gives to a beautiful woman, a pleasant hostess, or to a deceased friend. Notice how the tagging of a complex flower with a simple verbal description detours human curiosity by predisposing us along a certain avenue of thought. It’s as if the language we use draws a magic circle around us, a circle from which there is no escape save by stepping out of the circle ( language) into another. Consider the difficulties of physicists, such as Ernest Rutherford, in the early days of atomic physics. The word atom meant indivisible in Greek. The notion that the atom was indivisible was a fixed one, and it was only when physicists stepped out of their verbal-mathematical language circle of thinking and into the visual circle of thinking were they able to demonstrate graphically that the atom was a divisible unit of matter.
Joe Sale: Does the process of asking the right questions influence creativity?
Michael Michalko: Genius is often finding a perspective no one else has found. This entails not only asking multiple questions, but looking at the problem from multiple viewpoints. The key is to learn how to look at the same thing as everyone else and see something different.
Einstein was once asked what the difference was between him and the average person. He replied, “Ask the average person to find a needle in a haystack. He or she will stop when they find a needle. Me, on the other hand, will go through the entire haystack looking for all the possible needles.
Joe Sale: Can you comment on left brain vs. right brain dominance and creative thinking?
Michael Michalko: When it comes to creativity, myths keep giving most people reasons not to try. Only artists have creativity and creativity is rare, we’re told. Creativity is mysterious and magical and divine, people say. It’s in your right brain, the headlines swear.
None of these beliefs is true, not even slightly. The brain hemisphere distinction is based largely on clinical studies of about 40 “split-brain” patients–people whose brains were severed surgically in order to treat seizures or other neurological problems. The initial studies of such patients, conducted in the 1960s, seemed to show significant functional differences between the left and right cerebral hemispheres. In the 1980s, however, scientists began to reinterpret the data. The problem is split-brain patients all have abnormal brains to begin with.
As a practical matter, the right-hemisphere myth is nonsense because virtually no one has a split brain. The two halves of our brain are connected by an immense structure called the corpus callosum, and the hemispheres also communicate through the sense organs. Creativity has no precise location in the human brain, and people who promise to reactivate your “neural creativity zones” are just yanking your chain.
Joe Sale: Michael, in our previous conversation, you mentioned the concept, that all human experiences are neutral, and the related concept that all human experiences are only imbued with the meaning we give it. Can you elaborate on that? What is the significance of these concepts?
Michael Michalko : A field of grass is given its character, essentially, by those experiences which happen over and over again–millions of times. The germination of the grass seed, the blowing wind, the flowering of the grass, the hatching of insects, being beaten down by thunderstorms, the paths made by animals and hikers, and so on. It is a whole system of interdependent events that determine the nature of the field of grass.
It is also roughly true that the nature of our beliefs and perceptions are interpreted from our experiences. The field of grass cannot change its character. Grass cannot interpret and shape its experiences to create a different nature. We are not a field of grass. We can choose to interpret our experiences anyway we wish. You know as well as I do that few of us are even aware of what this means.
We automatically interpret all of our experiences without realizing it. Are they good experiences, bad ones, what do they mean and so on? We do this without much thought, if any, to what the interpretations mean. For instance, if someone bumps into you, you wonder why. The event of her bumping into you is neutral in itself. It has no meaning. It’s your interpretation of the bumping that gives it meaning, and this meaning shapes your perception of the experience.
You may interpret the “bump” as rude behavior. You may interpret her as being deliberately aggressive, or you may feel you are of such little consequence that you’re deliberately unnoticed and bumped around by others. Or you may choose to use the experience as an example of feminist aggression, or you may interpret the bump as her way of flirting with you. Your interpretation of the experience determines your perception.
Think of roses and thorns. You can complain because roses have thorns, or you can rejoice because thorns have roses. You can choose to interpret experiences any way you wish. It is not the experience that determines who you are; it is your interpretation of the experience. You do not see things as they are; you see them as you are.
We are each given a set of experiences in life. The experiences are neutral. They have no meaning. It is how we interpret the experiences that give them meaning. The interpretations of experiences shape your beliefs and theories about the world. Your beliefs and theories, in turn, decide what you observe in the world to confirm your beliefs which, in turn, reinforce your interpretations. It is the interpretation of these experiences that create your beliefs and perceptions of the world.
Once upon a time, two explorers came upon a spectacular, perfectly tended garden of vegetables in the middle of jungle. One explorer says, “What a beautiful garden. It looks so perfect. Surely, a gardener must tend this garden.” The other disagrees, “There is no way a gardener can tend this garden. It is in the middle of the jungle, hundreds of miles from civilization. There is so sign of human life anywhere. Surely, it is some kind of natural phenomenon.” After much argument, they agree to set up camp and watch the garden to see if someone shows up to tend the garden.
They stay for months and no one shows up. “See,” said the Doubter. “There is no gardener, for surely he would have appeared by now to tend the garden, which is still perfect. It must be a random creation of nature.” The Believer argued, “No, there must be a gardener. He may be invisible, intangible, and eternally elusive to our understanding. But it is not possible for such a beautiful, well tended garden to exist in the middle of the jungle without being tended. The garden, itself, is proof of the existence of the gardener, and I have faith that the gardener will return to his garden.”
Both the Believer and Doubter interpreted the garden differently, and these two different interpretations led to two different beliefs. When you believe something, you have the feeling that you chose to believe or not believe based on reason and rational thinking. But this is not so, your beliefs are shaped by the way you interpret your experiences.
How you interpret experiences also helps determine how you feel. Professor Kahneman of Princeton University while researching happiness and well-being discovered that when he asked college students if they were happy, most said yes. However, if he first asked how many dates they had in the last month and then asked if they were happy, most said no. Their interpretation of the questions determined how they felt.
Try this little exercise. Select something you “need,” and then tell yourself it is something you “should have.” Can you feel the shift in your psychology? Next select something you “should have,” then tell yourself it is something you “need.” Try the following:
Change something you have to do to something you choose to do.
“I have to go to work” to “I choose to go to work.”
Change something you have to do to something you want to do.
“I have to clean the house” to “I want to clean the house.”
Change something you ought to do to something you would love to do.
“I ought to write her a thank you note” to “I would love to write her a thank you note.”
Your theory about the world is deduced from your interpretations and beliefs. That theory then determines what you observe in the world. At one time, ancient astronomers believed that the heavens were eternal and made of ether. This theory made it impossible for them to observe meteors as burning stones from outer space. Although the ancients witnessed meteor showers and found some on the ground, they couldn’t recognize them as meteors from outer space. They only sought out and observed only those things that confirmed their theory about the heavens.
We are like the ancient astronomers and actively seek out only that information that confirms our beliefs and theories about ourselves and the world. Religious people see evidence of God’s handiwork everywhere; whereas, atheists see evidence that there is no God everywhere. Conservatives see the evils of liberalism everywhere and liberals see the evils of conservatism everywhere. People who believe they are creative see evidence of their creativity everywhere, and people who do not believe they are creative see evidence that confirms this everywhere.
Joe Sale: Michael, the chapter in your book, You Become What You Pretend to Be, is excellent! In it you say that “the human brain cannot tell the difference between an actual experience and an experience imagined vividly in detail”. Can you share the practical application of that principle and an example?
Michael Michalko: You become what you pretend to be. The surrealist artist Salvador Dali 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 Dali to be an actor and to pretend he played the part of an extrovert. At first Dali was full of doubts as he began to act the part. When he adopted the pose of an extrovert and made it obvious to himself and others by acting the part, his brain soon adapted itself to the role he was playing. Dali’s pretending changed his psychology.
Another remarkable example is Victor Frankl’s account of being in a concentration camp in his book From Death-Camp to Existentialism. While most of his fellow inmates lost hope and died, Frankl reframed his experience and pretended to be an academic lecturer and occupied his mind creating lectures he would give after he was released from camp—lectures that would draw upon his experiences in the camp. He took a hopeless situation and transformed it in his mind to a source of rich experiences that he could use to help others overcome potentially deadening and hopeless situations.
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.
Another case in point is that of Air Force Colonel George Hall. He was a POW locked in the dark box of a North Vietnamese prison for seven grueling years. Every day Hall imagined he was a golf professional and played a full game of golf in his imagination. One week after he was released from his POW camp he entered the Greater New Orleans Open and shot a 76.
Another incredible account is that of Vera Fryling, a Jewish teenager on the run from the Gestapo, she lived undercover in Berlin during the Holocaust. During this time she imagined that she was a doctor, a psychiatrist in a free land. Overcoming the Nazis, Soviet army and a bout with cancer, Fryling ended up on the faculty of the San Francisco Medical School. “Imagination,” she says, “can help one transcend the insults life has dealt us.”
Joe Sale: Michael, in closing, please share the 1 life lesson, universal life principle, or universal law that has had the greatest impact on your life.
Michael Michalko: I met a Buddhist monk who was always joyful no matter how hard his life and become, and he was incredibly knowledgeable. He seemed to know a lot about many different subjects. I asked him what made him so joyful and knowledgeable. His reply was:
“Live every day as if you are going to die tomorrow.”
“Learn as much as you can as if you will live forever.”
The next week he was shot on his way to temple and died.
These principles have guided my life since then.