To be a Creative Thinker, Act like One

Our attitudes influence our behavior, and this is true. But it’s also true that our behavior can influence our attitudes. Tibetan monks say their prayers by whirling their prayer wheels on which their prayers are inscribed. The whirling wheels spin the prayers into divine space. Sometimes, a monk will keep a dozen or so prayer wheels rotating like some juggling act in which whirling plates are balanced on top of long thin sticks.

Many novice monks are not all that emotionally or spiritually involved at first. At first, it may be that the novice is thinking about his family, his doubts about a religious vocation or something else while he is going through the motions of spinning his prayer wheel. When the novice adopts the pose of a monk and makes it obvious to himself and others by playing a role, his brain will soon follow the role they are playing. It is not enough for the novice to have the intention of becoming a monk: the novice must act like a monk and rotate the prayer wheels. If one has the intention of becoming a monk and goes through the motions of acting like a monk, one will become a monk.

If you want to become an artist and all you do is go through the motions of painting a picture every day, you will become an artist. You may not become another Michelangelo but you will become more of an artist than someone who has never tried. 

The Greek philosopher Diogenes was once noticed begging from 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 beginning 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 create and strengthen the attitude we wish to cultivate.

Another example is the personal experience of the great surrealist artist Salvador Dali. Dali was described by his fellow students at the Madrid art academy as “morbidly” shy according to his biographer Ian Gibson. He had a great fear of blushing and his shame about blushing drove him into solitude. It was his uncle who gave him the sage advice to become an actor in his relations with the people around him. He instructed him to pretend he was an extrovert and to act like an extrovert with everyone including his closest companions. Dali did just that to disguise his mortification. Every day he went through the motions of being an extrovert and, eventually, he became celebrated as the most extroverted, fearless, uninhibited and gregarious personalities of his time. He became what he pretended to be.

Michelangelo was another artist who believed he was the greatest artist in the world and could master any form of art by going through the motions and learning the skills needed. His rivals persuaded Junius II to hire him to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel because they knew Michelangelo had seldom used color or painted in fresco. They were sure he would turn down the commission due to his inexperience. They planned to use his refusal as proof of his lack of talent. If he did accept it, they were convinced the result would be clownish and planned to use the result to point out his inadequacies to the art world.

Michelangelo accepted the commission. He practiced with colors and painting in fresco until he was satisfied with his results. He executed the frescos in great discomfort, having to work with his face looking upwards, which impaired his sight so badly that he could not read save with his head turned backwards for months. By going through the motions of practicing painting with color and fresco, he created the masterpiece that established him as the artist of the age.


Think, for a moment, about social occasions-visits, dates, dinners out with friends, gatherings, birthday parties, weddings, etc. Even when you’re unhappy or depressed, these occasions force us to act as if we were happy. Observing other’s faces, postures, and voices, we unconsciously mimic their reactions. We synchronize our movements, posture, and tone of voice with theirs. Then by mimicking happy people, we become happy. Conversely, when you are in a happy mood and attend a funeral mimicking sad people you become sad and depressed.

CIA researchers have long been interested in developing techniques to help them study facial expressions of suspects. Two of the 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 the following thought experiment.


•             Lower your eyebrows.

•             Raise your upper eyelid.

•             Narrow the eyelids.

•             Press your lips together.

Hold this expression and you will generate anger. Your heartbeat will go up ten or twelve beats. Your hands will get hot, and you will 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’s stretching the edges of your mouth back without feeling uncomfortable. Hold it there for five minutes or so. You’ll find yourself inexplicably in a happy mood. Then try walking with long strides and looking straight ahead. You will amaze yourself at how fast your facial expressions can change your emotions.

Emotion doesn’t just go from the inside out. It goes from the outside in.


  1. We appreciate you this auspicious writeup. The item in reality had been a fun bank account this. Peek sophisticated in order to a lot more introduced reasonable on your part! Incidentally, the best way can most people keep up a correspondence?

  2. Michael, while i had not previously tried the exercises you suggest, I had gotten into doing what i call “fake it ’til you make it” until it became a natural part of my being.

    Yet, I was amazed at how the facial expressions worked as i tried them. Wow!

    I feel so fortunate to have discovered you through your book “Thinkering” and to now be able to follow you on Creative Thinking is fabulous.


Comments are closed.