The French artist Henri Matisse argued, in writing about painting portraits, that the character of a human face is seen in the whole and not in the particular and, in fact, may not be captured by particular features at all. The whole captures the essence of a face. To make his point, he drew four self-portraits of Matisse.
These drawings are remarkable. The features are different in each drawing. In one he has a weak chin, in another a very strong chin. In one he has a huge Roman nose, in another a small pudgy nose. In one the eyes are far apart, in another they are close together. And yet in each of the four faces, when we look at the whole we see the unmistakable face and character of Henri Matisse.
If we studied the drawings logically, we would separate out the different features (the chins, noses, eyes, glasses, etc.) and compare them for similarities and differences. We would eventually become expert in separating and defining the differences between the various noses, chins, eyes, and other features. Our understanding of what the drawings represent would be based on the particulars of the four different sketches, and we could not realize that all four are of the same man.
Robert Dilts, an expert in Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), wrote about another enlightening experiment which was done by gestalt psychologists with a group of dogs in Anchor Point magazine. The dogs were trained to approach something when shown a “white” square and avoid it when shown a “gray” square. When the dogs learned this, the experimenters switched to using a gray square and a black square. The dogs immediately shifted to approaching the object in response to the gray square (which had previously triggered avoidance), and avoiding the object when shown the black square (which had not been conditioned to anything). Presumably, rather than perceive the gray as an absolute stimulus, the dogs were responding to the deeper essence of “lighter versus darker” as opposed to gray, white or black as being properties.
You can train a human to approach something when shown a white square and avoid it when shown a gray square. When the squares are switched to gray and black, the human will still avoid the gray square. Once gray has been defined in our minds, we see the gray as independent and entirely self-contained. This means nothing can interact with it or exert an influence on it. It, in fact, becomes an absolute.
We have lost the sensitivity to deeper relationships, functions, and patterns because we are educated to focus on the particulars of experience as opposed to the universals. We see them as independent parts of an objective reality. For example, if the average person were asked to build automobiles, that person would undoubtedly study how cars are made and then reproduce the same system without looking for alternatives.
Creative thinkers do not think this way. They think in terms of essences, functions, and patterns which frees their imagination from the constraints of words, labels, and categories.
What Do Pigs and Cars Have in Common
When Henry Ford decided to build automobiles, he didn’t think of how cars are manufactured. He thought of essences. He looked at “how things are made” and “how things are taken apart.” Among his many experiences was his visit to a slaughterhouse, where he watched how workers slaughtered pigs. Conceptually blending the slaughterhouse method of disassembling pigs with assembling cars, he created the concept of the assembly line that made the Model T possible.
Why Did the U.S. Postal Service Have to Wait for Federal Express to Show Them How to Make Overnight Deliveries Possible?
The U.S. Postal Service and UPS both worked on the challenge of making overnight deliveries using established systems and theories. They thought logically in terms of packages and points. If, for instance, you want to connect one hundred markets with one another, and if you do it all with direct point-to-point deliveries, it will take one hundred times ninety-nine – or ninety-nine hundred – direct deliveries. They concluded that there was no way they could make it economically feasible.
Fred Smith did not think in terms of delivering packages within established systems. Instead he perceived the essence of all delivery systems to be “movement.” So, Smith wondered about the concept of movement, and thought about how things are moved from one place to another. He thought about how information is moved, and how banks move money around the world. Both information systems and banks, he discovered, put all points in a network and connect them through a central hub . He decided to create a delivery system – Federal Express, now known as FedEx – that operates essentially the way information and bank clearinghouses do.
If you take any individual transaction, this kind of system seems absurd – it means making at least one extra stop. But if you look at the network as a whole, it’s an efficient way to create an enormous number of connections. But if you go through a single clearinghouse system, it will take at most one hundred deliveries. So you’re looking at a system that is about one hundred times as efficient. His delivery system is so efficient that the same idea was subsequently employed in, of course, all air cargo delivery systems in industry.
It is important to realize that the patterns of moving money, information, and goods do not describe an actual idea or fact – they describe the potential for an idea or fact of nature. Banks and delivery systems, for example, are not in themselves phenomena and did not become phenomena until they were observed and conceptually blended into one phenomenon in the mind of Fred Smith.