Valerio: Your speech about creative thinking tonight was fascinating and informative. I’ve long been a fan of your books and it’s a pleasure to finally meet you.
Michalko: Thank you.

Valerio: What are you most proud of?
Michalko: I’m proud that my work has taken the mystique out of creativity. I’ve shown that it isn’t magic, it’s learning how to think productively. I’m proud that my work in creativity is being adopted by many school systems around the world. In Osaka, Japan, programs modeled on my works are working so well that my programs are being spread across S.E. Asia. My works have been translated into many different languages making my ideas more and more accessible to more and more people. So that’s the kind of thing that’s extremely satisfying – seeing things happen that make a difference.

Valerio: How are the corporate environments?
Michalko: On the corporate level, my work has promoted the notion that innovation is necessary, and my techniques help people become more creative at their jobs. Recently, I spoke at an Innovation Summit attended by people from all over the world. One fellow approached me from Germany who is the Human Resource Director of a steel company. He told me that before a seminar I gave only 5% of the employees contributed suggestions and ideas, and after my seminar almost every employee is constantly coming up with ideas, suggestions, and new ways to do things. He called it a miracle shift in attitude.

Valerio: That’s interesting. Would you mind describing how you accomplished this?
Michalko: I enabled them to believe they are creative. One of the exercises I used is based on cognitive dissonance which is the work of psychologist Leon Festinger. In essence, this exercise creates a dissonance, a mental discomfort. This discomfort is a motivating factor that is psychologically powerful, as the person will strive to reduce it just as hunger leads you to action to reduce your feeling of hunger.

In the exercise, I asked each participant to write an essay arguing why they have the potential and attitude to become one of the most creative persons in your organization. I asked them to exaggerate their accomplishments. I had them make up lies about successes in creative thinking (e.g., “In college, I received a national recognition award for conceiving a global marketing partnership.” “In high school I painted an oil painting that won an international art contest. An art gallery bought it from me for $5000 and a collector bought it from the gallery for $90,000.” And so on.) I urged them to make up as much stuff as they could. Then I had them verbalize their arguments to other participants with the goal of persuading them that their arguments are right.

What happens is that arguing for what one does not believe is classed as “insincerity” or “hypocrisy,” neither of which is highly valued in our society. Therefore, a dissonance situation is created. This dissonance is uncomfortable and the participants feel a need to resolve it in one way or the other. So when faced with a decision, the participants had a choice between two alternatives. To resolve it, one factor or another contributing to it must be made to yield. The participants must choose between “I am not creative,” and “I have the potential to be creative.” The longer and the more enthusiastically the participants argued their points about being creative, the more they began to believe in their potential to be creative. The more they argued, the more enhanced this belief became. In the end, after a few more exercises of similar nature, the majority of the employees believed they are creative and acted like creative people.

Valerio: To change people’s attitudes toward creativity must be extremely gratifying for you.
Michalko: All my work is incredibly gratifying. There’s an owner of a textile factory, and on his own he used my books to teach his workers creative thinking. He told me that he really owes me over $7 million. That would be my share of his increased worth due to showing his workers how to be creative thinkers. He’s had a 25% increase in productivity every year. I’m also most gratified that the military war colleges and intelligence services have become well educated in my creative thinking strategies and have accomplished remarkable things in the war against terrorism.

Valerio: I read an article about an artist who said you changed the way he looked at things. How important is perspective?
Michalko: The artist you read about is a good friend of mine. He and I used to walk down the streets of San Francisco playing a game with perspectives. One of us would fix on some unusual perspective, like the perspective of an ant on a coin that fell out of someone’s pocket and was about to hit the sidewalk or the perspective of a bird in flight, just going by the buses or through an alleyway between buildings, or a dog trying to cross a busy street, and so on.

And what we would do is we would explain what we were seeing from that point of view to the other person, and based on the description, the other person would have to guess the perspective the describer was generating. It’s a fun exercise and opens your eyes to the various ways of looking at the world. If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

Genius often comes from finding a new perspective that no one else has taken. One of the many ways in which our 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’ve been conditioned to see — and stereotyped notions block clear vision and crowd out imagination. This happens without any alarms sounding, so we never realize it’s occurring.

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

Valerio: I get a kick out of your cynicism toward educators. I remember your quote of “We enter school as a question mark and graduate as a period.”
Michalko: My teachers, with few exceptions, taught me what to think and not how to think. Imagine yourself “locked in a room, and given a large batch of problems in Chinese” plus “a second batch of writing in Chinese which explain the answers to the problems” and “a set of rules” in English explaining how to correlate the answers with the questions. The rules correlate one set of symbols with another set of symbols, and show you how to give back certain sorts of Chinese symbols with certain sorts of shapes in response.

Those giving you the symbols call the first batch “Problems,” the second batch “Knowledge,” and the third batch “Answers.” You yourself know none of this. Nevertheless, you “get so good at following the instructions” that “from the point of view of someone outside the room” your responses are “absolutely indistinguishable from those of Chinese speakers.” You have inputs and outputs that are indistinguishable from those of a native Chinese speaker, and your answers are technically correct but you still understand nothing.

For example, in school, I was given a problem (The First Batch) “What wears out shoe leather?”, and the knowledge (The Second Batch) which gives me a label created by someone in the past which is “friction.” The answer I would give (after matching the problem with knowledge) is friction. This is a meaningless empty definition. Knowing the word “friction” is not understanding what wears out shoe leather. This is like the Chinese room. When you say “friction,” people assume you “know.” But all you know is the label. What wears out shoe leather are the bumps and grooves on the ground that tear off small pieces of leather as you walk over them. Understanding that is understanding what wears out shoe leather.

As a student I got so good at following the instructions that “from the point of view of someone outside the room” my responses were absolutely indistinguishable from those of the experts. Just by looking at my answers, nobody could tell I didn’t understand the answers. I remember reading a book for third graders. It had a picture of a toy truck that could move. The question in the book was “What makes the truck move?” The answer in the book was “energy.” This is not knowledge, this is labeling. You might as well say “God makes it move,” or “moveability” makes it move. To understand what makes it move, you have to take the truck apart and show how all the gears and parts interact with each other.

Valerio: Thanks, Michael.