Thinking Strategies of Creative Giants

An Interview with Michael Michalko, author of Cracking Creativity
By Vern Burkhardt
Creative geniuses know how to think rather than what to think. They have child-like curiosity. They ask bold questions. They generate and entertain many ideas, not just the first idea that comes to mind. "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."

Vern Burkhardt (VB): Michael, you have been described as one of America's foremost creativity experts. Would you tell us about your background and how it influences your observations and understanding of creativity?

Michael MichalkoMichael 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 governments 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 it could be done. It was this can-do attitude that influenced my life. I also discovered that creative geniuses have this can-do spirit as well.

Those who think they can, can. Those who think they can’t, can’t.

VB: On the home page of your website, you feature the following quote: "The artist is not a special person; every person is a special kind of artist." Would you talk about that quote?

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.

"The artist is not a special person; every person is a special kind of artist," reminds us to take back our lives and be an I and not a Me.

VB: You have been quoted as saying there are two basic secrets to unleashing one's inner genius for creativity—constantly try to improve your ideas and products and challenge your assumptions. How did you unleash your creative genius in order to develop your techniques and secrets for increasing one's creativity?

Michael Michalko: Georges Bracque, a French painter who with Pablo Picasso originated cubism and the cubist style to become one of the major figures of 20th-century art, always said that the only thing that counts in painting is the intention. And it's true. What counts is what one wants to do and not what one does. That's what's important.

The process of becoming creative starts with a simple, sincere desire—an intention to be creative. Your intention is your seed. Your intention will create criteria, which will determine what, out of the vast range of possible experiences you are attending at the time, will help you accomplish what you want. The criteria then will help you interpret meaning from each of the selected experiences.

My blessing in life was my intention, my desire, and passion to figure out how creative geniuses throughout history got their ideas.

VB: In December 2007 we discussed your book Thinkertoys, which offers concrete techniques for helping one become an active thinker. During our conversation you said both linear thinking and intuitive thinking are necessary for optimum creativity. But we didn't discuss Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck. What do the cards look like, how do you use them and how do they enhance ideation and creativity?

Michael Michalko: There are 56 idea-stimulating cards which are a checklist of questions designed to help users to view subjects in a new light. There are a variety of ways they can be used including randomly and sequentially. Also included are evaluation techniques to help users test, shape and refine ideas into realistic creations.

VB: I understand the Thinkpak is based on your acronym SCAMPER. Would you explain?

Michael Michalko: Every new idea is an addition or modification to something that already exists. You take a subject and change it into something else by using the SCAMPER questions which are subsumed in the following categories:
You prod your imagination with SCAMPER questions, and then continue asking "How can…?" "What else?" "How else?" For example, take a simple paperclip, substitute plastic for metal, add color, and produce plastic clips in various colors so that clipped papers can be color coded, thereby creating another use for clips.

VB: The 2nd edition of Thinkpak was issued in 2006. What changes did you make with this edition and has it been popular?

Michael Michalko: The deck is popular for both individual and group brainstorming. The changes of the 2nd edition were essentially cosmetic. Listening to users of the 1st edition, the publisher produced the cards with heavier stock and made the design much more attractive.

VB: Do you use mind mapping and, if so, do you use software to assist you? For example, did you use it to develop the chapter headings of your books or to design the Thinkpak card deck?

Michael Michalko: Yes, I use mind mapping along with several other techniques. And no I don’t use software all that much. Restricting your thinking to one technique or to a software program, in my opinion, limits your creativity.

Consider a child building something with a Lego construction set. She can build all kinds of structures and when she’s finished she can pick up pieces and move them, add more pieces, divide structures into new structures and so on. There are clear constraints on the set and construction. They can’t be put together any which way. They will not stay together if unbalanced and gravity pulls them apart.

These constraints are inherent in the objects and their design. It is the design of the pieces that imposes these limitations. The child quickly learns the ways the Legos go together and the ways they don’t go together. She ends up building a wide variety of structures that satisfy the Legos design and constraints.

If the only constraint were making something out of plastic and the child had at her disposal every method of melting and molding plastic, the Lego constructions themselves would be only a tiny fraction of the possible products. It would make the Lego constructions look contrived and unmotivated when compared to her other products.

With Legos it is the constraints that are inherent in the design that limit what can be built. With us it is the constraints that are inherent in using one or two isolated systems of thinking—mindmapping or someone’s software program—that limit our imagination and inventiveness.

VB: In your dedication to your mother, Frances Busten Michalko, in Cracking Creativity, you described her as the "rose in the garden of my life." Would you tell us more?

Cracking CreativityMichael Michalko: I learned many things about life from observing how my mother reacted to bad times, tragedies, disappointments and failure.

For one example, I had always believed that your attitude determines your behavior. My mother demonstrated that the opposite is also true. Your behavior influences your attitude. In short, you become what you pretend to be.

No matter how difficult a situation, my mother would always behave as if everything will be all right and things would be fine. She was always smiling and positive no matter the circumstance. As children we would mimic her behavior and soon we, too, believed that we were fine.

Later in life, I became curious about the link between the behavior of religious monks and belief. I observed that 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 novice 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.

I discovered that 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. Yet, when the novice adopts the pose of a monk and makes it obvious to themselves and others by playing a role, their brains soon follows 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 the novice has the intention of becoming a monk and goes through the motions of acting like a monk, the novice becomes a monk.

In Spain I also learned that the surrealist artist Salvadore 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 pretend he was an extrovert genius.

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, his brain soon adapted itself to the role he was playing. He became what he pretended to be.

Cognitive scientists are discovering that the brain is a dynamical system—an organ that evolves its patterns of activity rather than computes them like a computer. It thrives on the creative energy of feedback from experiences either real or fictional.

My mother knew this intuitively, practiced it, and became a remarkably good, compassionate person of faith who has made all my brothers and sister proud.

VB: Your book provides a wealth of information and techniques for increasing one's creativity. What is the best way to benefit from Cracking Creativity—to actually begin to apply its techniques and suggestions?

Michael Michalko: All art is a reaction to the first line drawn. Nothing happens in life until you act. Rather than waiting until you feel in the mood and creative, take out a piece of paper and pencil and start listing all the ways you can profit by becoming more creative in your work and personal lives. Just write down thoughts and ideas and keep doing it. Soon you will find yourself inspired to open the book and start learning and applying the techniques.

I use a simple technique to get started when I have writer’s block. I simply sit down and write, "O, lend me to some peaceful gloom," over and over until my own thoughts and words come, which come, surprisingly, soon. Then I just keep going. Works like a charm.

VB: You deliver a positive message. Creativity is not genetically predetermined—it can be learned. You point out that most of us are taught to simply reproduce ideas and solutions that have worked in the past. Whereas to be creative we need to learn productive thinking—to not settle for how one has been taught but rather to generate as many different possible solutions to a problem or challenge as we can.

What changes should be made in the educational system to ensure that we promote creativity in children and that they learn these productive thinking skills? I presume you would not suggest, in this ever increasing technology and knowledge explosion, we take a lesson from Thomas Edison's view that too much education can stifle creativity?

Michael Michalko: With productive thinking, one generates as many alternative approaches as one can. You consider the least obvious as well as the most likely approaches. It is the willingness to explore all approaches that is important, even after one has found a promising one.

Einstein was once asked 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.

Teachers should be taught the difference between productive and reproductive thinking and how to teach productive thinking by showing how creative geniuses throughout history created their ideas. My overall prescription for education itself is to establish a new government body modeled after the Federal Reserve that would set science policy and policy for teaching creative thinking without Congressional input, input from teachers’ unions, or input from any other biased organization.

There is a remarkable unwillingness of our educators to conform to the new world of technology and knowledge we live in. As a consequence the United States is losing its innovation edge to China and India. Chinese and Indian children are required to take more science courses and courses on creative thinking and innovation than students in the United States—comparing high school education in the three countries.

Of college graduates, 30 to 45 percent in India and China have engineering degrees, compared with 5 percent in the United States. Most alarming is that 60 percent of engineering doctorates from American universities are granted to foreign nationals, but they are no longer staying here to work. The number of new patents in the U.S. is declining while new patents in China and India are rising dramatically.

VB: How can parents and other care givers ensure children have the optimum opportunity to become creative geniuses?

Michael Michalko: One child works out clever ways to arrange some blocks in rows and stacks. A second child plays at rearranging how he or she thinks. Everyone can praise the first child's castles and towers, but no one can see what the second child has done. And one may even get the false impression that the child has a lack of interest and curiosity.

But if the second child persists in seeking better ways to learn, this can lead to silent growth in which some better ways to learn may lead to better ways to learn to learn. Then, later, we'll observe an awesome, qualitative change, with no apparent cause—and give to it some empty name like talent, aptitude, or gift. The second child resembles Albert Einstein who was labeled as a "slow" learner and did not speak at all for the first years of his life.

The best advice I can give to this question is what the Greek philosopher Diogenes said to Alexander the Great. The story goes that while Diogenes was relaxing in the sunlight one morning, Alexander, thrilled to meet the famous philosopher, asked if there was any favor he might do for him. Diogenes replied, "Yes. Stand out of my sunlight."

VB: How could Cracking Creativity be used to assist employees and managers, and perhaps also children, to become more creative?

Michael Michalko: It can be used to inspire people to be more open minded and inclusive in their thinking processes, challenge assumptions, and how to look at the world in different ways.

Creativity demands that we should approach a problem on its own terms and look for a multiplicity of ways of looking at it and a multiplicity of ways of solving it. We are not taught that. We have been taught that there are clear constraints on what is logical and what is not.

Aristotelian logic is black or white thinking and reasoning. For example, it states that identity is either this or that. A = A or A is not non-A. I pour a pile of sugar on the table. This is a pile of sugar or it is not a pile of sugar. It cannot be both. It can’t be A and not A.

Suppose I sweep off the sugar from the table and start again. This time I place a grain of sugar on the table. Does one grain of sugar constitute a pile of sugar? If I add another grain, does it become a pile? How many grains must I add to make a pile of sugar? Can I even have a pile of sugar? If I added an infinite number of grains of sugar, does it ever constitute a pile?

Look at a chair, a chair is a chair or it is not a chair. It cannot be both according to the constraints of logic. Yet suppose I take a chair and gradually dismantle it—take a leg off, a bit of the back, half of the seat and so on. At what point exactly does it cease being a chair and start becoming a heap of wood?

This cannot be determined, because the chair has no power to define itself. Nor is there any ideal chair form that magically appears when all the wood is arranged a certain way at a definite point of assembly. Your mind is the only thing that can make a distinction between a chair and a heap of wood. And there is no system of thinking, no logical rules, no steps or procedures, or decision trees that can help you decide when to cease calling it a chair or to begin calling it a pile of wood.

Let’s start again. This time I call the chair Michael’s chair. As I dismantle it, I replace the parts with brand new parts, placing the old parts on the floor. As I replace all the parts, a friend builds another chair using my old parts. Now we have a chair with all the parts replaced and a second chair made out of the original materials. So which one is Michael’s chair now? Is it the one with all new parts or the one with all the old parts?

We tend not to challenge things we have not been taught and tend to pretty much accept things the way they are. This is particularly true in business where you hear, "this is our policy," or "this is the way it has always been done here," or similar expressions. Whenever I hear these expressions, I think of an experiment that was done with five monkeys.

Start with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stair, spray all the monkeys with ice cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result—all the monkeys are sprayed with ice cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, turn off the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and will want to climb the stairs. To his surprise, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.

Again, replace a third monkey with a new one. The new one goes to the stairs and is attacked. Two of the four monkeys that beat him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs, or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

After replacing the fourth and fifth monkeys with new ones, all the monkeys that have been sprayed with cold water have been replaced. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs. Why not? Because as far as they know that’s the way it’s always been around here.

VB: You say creativity is inhibited by structured thinking that is logical and goal-oriented. Why has structured thinking dominated management approaches over the years given it is counterproductive from a creativity point of view?

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. Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, once told me that all he needed 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."

VB: Would you elaborate on your view that creative genius which produces a large diversity of ideas and alternatives is analogous to biological evolution which produces a large gene pool?

Michael Michalko: Creative genius 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.

VB: You say the process of synthesis, combining previously unrelated ideas or subjects to make something new, is regarded by many experts as the essence of creativity. Would you talk about the process of synthesis?

Michael Michalko: 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 hit upon the idea of a counting machine while on a pleasure trip.

In 1879, Jake was travelling on a ship to Europe across the Atlantic. 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.

He was so excited by his insight that on reaching Europe, he caught the next ship home, so that he could assemble his invention. 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.

VB: You recommend that we relentlessly keep notes about our ideas, observations, and creative attempts. And that we record information about all the ideas, concepts and problems we are working on. How does one establish the discipline of systematically keeping notes like creative geniuses, such as Edison? What is your secret to consistently doing it?

Michael Michalko: The secret is that it is no secret. Make it a habit to keep the written record of your creativity attempts in a notebook, on file cards or in your computer. A record not only guarantees that the thoughts and ideas will last, since they are committed to paper or computer files, but will inspire you into other thoughts and ideas.

The simple act of recording his ideas enabled Leonardo da Vinci to dwell on his ideas and improve them over time by elaborating on them. Thus, Leonardo was able to take simple concepts and work them into incredibly complex inventions that were years ahead of their time, such as the helicopter, the bicycle, and the diving suit.

Following Leonardo’s example, Edison relentlessly recorded and illustrated every step of his voyage to discovery in his 3,500 notebooks that were discovered after his death in 1931. His notebooks got him into habits.

They enabled him to cross-fertilize ideas, techniques, and conceptual models by transferring them from one problem to the next.

For example, when it became clear in 1900 that an iron-ore mining venture in which Edison was financially committed was failing and on the brink of bankruptcy, he spent a weekend poring over his notebooks and came up with a detailed plan to redirect the company’s efforts toward the manufacture of Portland cement, which could capitalize on the same model of the iron ore company.

Whenever he succeeded with a new idea, Edison would review his notebooks to rethink ideas and inventions he'd abandoned in the past in the light of what he'd recently learned. If he was mentally blocked working on a new idea, he would review his notebooks to see if there was some thought or insight that could trigger a new approach.

For example, Edison took his unsuccessful work to develop an undersea telegraph cable variable resistance and incorporated it into the design of a telephone transmitter that adapted to the changing sound waves of the caller's voice. This technique instantly became the industry standard.

Edison would often jot down his observations of the natural world, failed patents and research papers written by other inventors, and ideas others had come up with in other fields. He would also routinely comb a wide variety of diverse publications for novel ideas that sparked his interest and record them in his notebooks. He made it a habit to keep a lookout for novel and interesting ideas that others have used successfully on other problems in other fields. To Edison, your idea needs to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you’re working on.

Edison also studied his notebooks of past inventions and ideas to use as springboards for other inventions and ideas in their own right. To Edison, his diagrams and notes on the telephone (sounds transmitted) suggested the phonograph (sounds recorded), which notes and diagrams, in turn, suggested motion pictures (images recorded).

Simple, in retrospect, isn’t it? Genius usually is.

VB: You advise that the best ideas and insights occur when we are not thinking about a problem we have been working on. Is the secret to most of your methods for cracking creativity that they help us pull up and combine memories, ideas, images, and other memories from our subconscious? This in contrast to our conscious minds which can become fixated on past solutions or ways of thinking.

Michael Michalko: Incubation makes use of subconscious processing of information. It usually involves setting a problem aside for a few hours, days, or weeks and moving on to other projects. This allows the subconscious to continue to work on the original challenge. The more interested you are in solving the challenge, the more likely your subconscious will generate ideas.

Henri Poincare, the French genius, spoke of incredible ideas and insights that came to him with suddenness and immediate certainty out of the blue. So dramatic are the ideas that arrive that the precise moment in which the idea arrived can be remembered in unusual detail.

Charles Darwin could point to the exact spot on a road where he arrived at the solution for the origin of species while riding in his carriage and not thinking about his subject. Other geniuses offer similar experiences. Like a sudden flash of lightning, ideas and solutions seemingly appear out of nowhere.

Modern science recognizes this phenomenon of incubation and insight yet cannot account for why it occurs. That this is a commonplace phenomenon was shown in a survey of distinguished scientists conducted over a half-century ago. A majority of the scientists reported that they got their best ideas and insights when not thinking about the problem.

Ideas came while walking, recreating, or working on some other unrelated problem. This suggests how the creative act came to be associated with divine inspiration—the illumination appears to be involuntary.

William Carrier, a 25-year old Cornell University engineering graduate, was standing in the fog on a railway platform waiting for a train in Pittsburgh. He had been working on the problem of regulating humidity for a printing company. He gave up on the problem and decided to take a vacation.

Carrier gazed absent-mindedly at the train tracks and mist surrounding the station, wondering how late his train was going to be. Suddenly, the answer to one of the world's most vexing problems appeared to him out of the fog.

The answer was air-conditioning, which was the result of marrying two technologies—refrigeration and electricity. The idea was to blow air through a fine mist, and the mist would act like tiny condensers, drying out the air. Since the moisture content in the air varies with temperature&mdasah;cold is drier than warm air—changing the temperature of the mist would alter the humidity.

His invention fathered an industry that brought prosperity and growth to the hot, muggy areas of the world.

By taking a vacation from his problem, he removed the false and artificial limitations of time and solved his problem. In the same way, incubation will help you break the artificial limitations that you impose on yourself. The mind becomes less frantic and becomes more prone to deal with concepts, patterns, and even ridiculous combinations of thoughts, which is a great aid to creativity. It's like the breaking up of a long, bad winter.

The more problems, ideas and thoughts that you think about from time to time, the more complex becomes the network of information in your mind.

Our conscious minds are sometimes blocked from creating new ideas because we are too fixated. When we discontinue work on the problem for a period of time, our fixation fades, allowing our subconscious minds to freely create new possibilities.

This is what happened to Nobel laureate Melvin Calvin. While idly sitting in his car waiting for his wife to complete an errand, he found the answer to a puzzling inconsistency in his research on photosynthesis. It occurred just like that, quite suddenly, and suddenly in a matter of seconds the path of carbon became apparent to him.

We all know the impression of a heavy flash of lightning in the night. Within a second’s time we see a broad landscape, not only in its general outline but with every detail. Although we could never describe each single component of the picture, we feel that even the smallest leaf of grass does not escape our attention. We experience a view, immensely comprehensive and at the same time immensely detailed, that we could never have under normal daylight conditions. Our nerves and senses are strained by the suddenness of the event.

VB: Is the main benefit of your creative strategies that they jolt the mind out of established patterns of thinking, thus allowing new ideas to emerge?

Michael Michalko: Read the paragraph on this card:
Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabridge Uinvervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the litteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt thihg is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a ttoal mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a probelm. Tihs is besauae ocne we laren how to raed we gbien to aargnre the lteerts in our mnid to see waht we epxcet to see. The huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. We do tihs ucnsoniuscoly.
Amazing, isn’t it? These are jumbled letters not words, yet our minds see them as words. How is this possible? How do our minds do this?

Think of your mind as a bowl of butter with a surface that is perfectly flat. Imagine gently pouring warm water on the butter from a teaspoon and then gently tipping the bowl so that it runs off. After many repetitions of this process, the surface of the butter will self organize into ruts, indentations, and grooves.

New water will automatically flow into the preformed grooves. After a while, it would take only a tiny bit of water to activate an entire channel. Even if much of the water is out of the channel, the pre-formed channel will be selected.

When information enters the mind, it self-organizes into patterns and ruts much like the warm water on butter. New information will automatically flow into the preformed grooves. After a while, it takes only a bit of information to activate an entire channel. This is the pattern recognition and pattern completion process of the brain. Even if much of the information is out of the channel, the pre-formed pattern will be activated. The mind automatically corrects and completes the information to select and activate a pattern.

This is why you can read the jumbled letters as words on the card. The first and last letters of the words are correct. For example, in the word "According" I kept the "A" and "g" and mixed up the rest into the nonsense word "Aoccdrnig." Just this tiny bit of information—the first and last letters—is enough to activate the word pattern in your brain and you read "According."

This is why when we sit down and try to will new ideas or solutions, we tend to keep coming up with the same-old, same-old ideas. Information is flowing down the same ruts and grooves making the same-old connections producing the same-old ideas over and over again. Even tiny bits of information are enough to activate the same patterns over and over again.

Creativity occurs when you tilt the bowl of butter in a different direction forcing the information to make new channels which make different connections. In turn these give you new ways to focus on the information and new ways to interpret what you’re focusing on. This is the main benefit users realize using my techniques.

Just last week my brother-in-law wanted to re-design his business cards. Using one of the exercises in "Connecting the unconnected," he picked up a gardening magazine, closed his eyes, and randomly pointed to an advertisement for pumpkin seeds.

Thinking about seeds and business cards off and on for a few hours he made a connection. He had his business cards embedded with flower seeds. Once the customer reads the card, they place it in a glass of water and within a few days it will start to grow. This is the kind of idea you cannot get using your usual way of thinking.

VB: You introduce the term "mind popping" and provide an interesting suggestion for engaging our subconscious—write a letter to our subconscious about a problem we are working on and ask that it be solved. Have you actually done this with creative genius results?

Michael Michalko: To experience mind popping, try the following experiment. Write a letter to your unconscious about a problem you have been working on.

Vern’s note: The rest of Michael Michalko's response to this and other questions about creativity—such as ideatoons—will be included in next week's issue of the IdeaConnection Newsletter.

Conclusion: Most people think reproductively, based on past experiences. When confronted with problems many uncritically and often unconsciously select the most likely approaches based on their past experiences and follow these previous paths or directions without considering alternatives.

The encouraging news is creativity can be developed and cultivated. Creative geniuses think poductively”—when considering a problem they seek many different ways to solve it, to rethink it, to come up with unconventional and unique responses and ideas. They think of the least as well as the most likely solutions in order to generate ideas and different approaches.

It reminds me of a previous interview in which we were advised to always look for the next best idea—a bit like the concept of doing something tomorrow.

Michael Michalko is a highly acclaimed creativity expert and author of the best sellers Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Business Creativity, ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Cracking Creativity: The Secrets Of Creative Genius.

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