Understanding Creativity: Making the Impossible Possible

IdeaConnection Interview with Michael Michalko, Author of Creative Thinkering, Thinkertoys , Cracking Creativity
By Vern Burkhardt
"Imagination gives us the impertinence to imagine making the impossible possible… Think of something in your business that is impossible to do, but that would, if it were possible to do, change the nature of your business forever."
Creative Thinkering, page 129

Vern Burkhardt (VB): What does it mean to be creative?

photo of Michael MichalkoMichael Michalko: Being creative means the ability to generate associations and connections between dissimilar subjects. We're all born to be spontaneous, creative thinkers. Something happens to us.

When you look at any pre-schooler, they're always looking at all the possibilities. They're thinking inclusively. If you give a pre-schooler a box, they'll make it into an airplane, car, desk, or a chair, or they'll draw a face on it and it will become an imaginary friend. They're thinking inclusively. Then they go to school and they're turned from question marks into periods.

It's my experience in life that the only difference between people who are and are not creative is a simple belief. People who are creative believe they are, and people who are not believe they are not creative. If you think you are creative, you have a certain identity and set of beliefs and you seek to express that identity. To express it you need to learn the skills of becoming a creative thinker. So you learn the skills of becoming creative and then you indeed become creative. People who believe they are not creative have a set of beliefs that gives them the excuse not to even try to be creative. So people who say they are not creative are people who have seldom, if ever, tried to be creative.

VB: It is self-fulfilling.

Michael Michalko: Yes. Look at Vincent Van Gogh. He decided to be an artist even though everyone told him he couldn't because he didn't have the talent or schooling. Yet he believed he was an artist. He learned how to become an artist, painted every day as an artist would do, and became one of the greatest artists of the ages.

It all starts with a simple belief, an intention. Whenever somebody tells me they're not creative I say to myself, 'Here's a person who has never tried to come up with new and original ideas.'

VB: In addition to a simple belief would you agree it also takes practice?

Michael Michalko: Yes, you have to do it. All art is a reaction to the first line drawn. If you don't take action nothing will happen.

People who stand around waiting for inspiration are living a futile life. You have to do it. You have to go through the motions.

In Tibet there are apprentice monks who spin dishes on little plates on top of small, slender reeds. They're twirling prayers off into the Divine Space. The apprentice monk might be thinking, 'I don't know if I want to be a monk. Maybe I should be in the army. Maybe I would rather have a family or start a business. I'm not at all sure I'm suited for a religious life.' But by going through the motions of spinning those plates over a long time, they become a monk.

You become what you pretend to be. Without the action, without the doing, nothing will happen.

VB: Are all thoughts merely possibilities in our conscious and unconscious minds?

Michael Michalko: Quantum physics says that things exist in multiple states and are best characterized as a set of probabilities that become real when an interaction occurs, such as a measurement or observation. I believe this also applies to our minds. We have thoughts that have multiple forms and they're creating alternate pathways and outcomes. When we force an interaction by observing or thinking about these thoughts they collapse into a conscious stream of thoughts.

VB: It's hard to get our minds around this.

Michael Michalko: Yes, it is. There are so many paradoxes and uncertainties in life. People want to be certain. The only thing that is certain in life is uncertainty.

The paradox of creativity is that you have to work hard, but do nothing. You have to come up with a lot of ideas, yet most of the ideas are useless. You have to look at the same thing as everyone else but see something different. You have to make unusual connections between dissimilar things but not be mentally arranged. You have to look at familiar things yet make them unfamiliar. You have to look at unfamiliar things yet make them familiar.

It's one paradox after the other. You have to desire success but learn how to fail. You have to have knowledge, but forget the knowledge. When you think about creativity paradoxically, it all makes sense. At lease it makes sense to me.

VB: Is it a matter of one's perspective which determines whether an idea is useless?

Michael Michalko: Yes, it's a perspective, but in a way creativity is pretty similar to Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Nature creates many species through trial and error yet most of these die off through the process of natural selection.

One thing, which creative geniuses all have in common, is the fact that they produce great quantities of ideas. Most of these ideas are useless. In fact, more bad poems are written by the major poets than by the minor poets simply because the major poets write more poetry. Many of Edison's inventions were useless, such as the eternal cigar – an aluminum tube that you pack tobacco in, which no one ever bought.

Historically, creative geniuses are remembered for their successes, not their failures. The one thing they have learned is that you have to learn how to fail to be successful in creative thinking.

When Thomas Edison was working on a filament for his light bulb, he failed 5,000 times. An assistant came to him and said, "Tom, when are you going to give up? You have failed 5,000 times." And Edison replied, "I don't know what you're talking about because I have discovered 5,000 things that don't work."

It's all how you decide to look at it. You create and construct your own reality. All experiences are neutral. You give it the meaning.

For example, if I'm walking down the street and a woman bumps into me, it has no meaning at all. I give it the meaning. I could say, "She's an aggressive feminist who did that on purpose to show me she's the boss." Or I could say, "I'm getting older. I should be more careful how I walk." Or I could say, "The architect has poorly designed these sidewalks for the amount of traffic we have." Or I could say, "I think she's flirting with me." I am the one who gives this experience the meaning.

VB: In Creative Thinkering you say, "The human brain cannot deliberately concentrate on two separate objects or ideas, no matter how dissimilar, no matter how remote, without eventually forming a connection between them." Is this how original ideas are formed?

Michael Michalko: Yes. The first person I know of who wrote about this was Leonardo Da Vinci. Da Vinci was not allowed to go to university because he was the son of a single mother, so he was self-taught. He discovered the principle that you can't think of two things simultaneously without connections being formed. This is how he got his ideas – by himself. He wrote about it in his notebooks. He wrote backwards so if someone came across his notebooks they wouldn't be able to read them without a mirror.

One of his personal techniques for coming up with good ideas was to take a paint-filled sponge and throw it against the wall. Then he looked at the patterns the paint had made. One day he was looking at a paint splatter and he said, "This looks like a rider and a horse." Then he said, 'But the horse looks like it's on wheels'. And then, 'This could be a metal horse with wheels.' Out of that came the idea of the bicycle.

He would conceptually blend things naturally as he went through life. He was walking one day thinking about sound and started throwing pebbles into a pond. He was looking at the ripples that emanated from where the pebble had hit the water when he heard a church bell in the distance. The thought, 'church bells…ripples in the pond' occurred to him and he came up with the idea that sound travels in waves.

It's our natural way of thinking but we're taught not to think this way when we go to school. In school, we're taught to be linear, analytical, logical, exclusive thinkers. This means we learn how to exclude possibilities instead of including them. We want to exclude anything that's not related to the problem instead of including all possibilities.

Da Vinci never went to university, he was entirely self-taught. He continued to think like a child throughout his whole life, and has gone down in history as one of the most prolific geniuses of all time. To Da Vinci, knowledge was knowledge. There was no such thing as a barrier between biology and literature or the military sciences.

VB: It is surprising that he was formally uneducated, but is recognized as one of history's most creative and brilliant people.

Michael Michalko: Yes, but I find this is common with a lot of creative geniuses. They did very poorly in school. Thomas Edison said his greatest blessing in life was his lack of a formal education because had he gone to school, he would have discovered that what he did was not possible to do. As you likely know he attended school only for a few months, was taught reading, writing, and arithmetic by his mother, but taught himself mainly by reading on his own.

Albert Einstein's parents were told he was mentally disturbed when he was a child. He was expelled from school because he was a bad influence on serious students. He was denied entrance to university because he failed the test. He had to go to trade school for a year. When he finally graduated from university, he was the only one in his class who did not get a teaching assignment, because no professor would recommend him. One professor called him "the laziest dog" they ever had. The only job Einstein could get was an entry-level job in a government patent office.

Beethoven's parents were told he was too stupid to be a music composer.

Isaac Newton's parents were told he was the most unlikely student they ever had.

It seems many creative geniuses intuitively knew that the way they were being taught to think was not how to think, but what to think.

VB: In more modern times, do you think the fact that Steve Jobs didn't go to university is one of the reasons he was so creative?

Michael Michalko: Oh absolutely. He, too, was the son of a single mother. She put him up for adoption and made his adoptive parents, who were working class people, not college graduates, sign an affidavit saying they would send him to college. They spent their life savings and sent him to Reed College, one of the most expensive schools in the country.

In his first semester Steve Jobs was bored. He didn't understand how any of what he was being taught had any meaning for him and his life. He thought about all the money his parents were spending and quit school.

He monitored a calligraphy class simply because he had an interest in calligraphy. He had no way of knowing whether it would have any value with regard to what he would do in his life. When he invented the personal computer he said the reason it had many font faces was because of the calligraphy class he took. And, he said, Microsoft copied him, otherwise we wouldn't have all these font faces.

When he went to Hewlett Packard and tried to get a job he said, "Look. This is our invention. All we want is a paycheck and the opportunity to work on it." They told him, "Steve, you don't have a college education. You don't know what you're talking about when it comes to this computer technology. Go get your degree then come back and talk to us." Atari told them the same thing. So Steve Jobs went on his own and changed the world.

VB: Generally speaking, today a PhD is still considered to be a requirement for being an acclaimed expert.

Michael Michalko: Yes. The 'massification' of higher education has been a real sin in this country. Matthew B. Crawford with a political science PhD from the University of Chicago wrote a book published in 2010 titled Shop Class as Soulcraft. He was working in a Washington think tank, but was depressed all the time because he couldn't see any meaning to what he was doing. In his mind all he was doing was satisfying his boss. His boss was doing nothing but leading – like a cheerleader trying to increase everybody's morale. Crawford couldn't see any meaning to this work; he couldn't sleep, and felt he couldn't continue to live like this. So he quit. He opened up a motorcycle repair shop, became a motorcycle mechanic, and says he's never been happier. He found 'joy and meaning'.

When I went to college you were made to feel you had to go to college. If you didn't you were considered stupid or lazy, or there was something wrong with you. When you graduated from college you had to take a job where you wore a white shirt and made money. It made no difference what the job was, but you had to be clean, make money, and wear a white shirt. It caused a lot of dissatisfaction in our culture. That's how it was when I went to school and it's still that way.

VB: Returning to our earlier discussion about forming a connection between two separate objects or ideas, is this why metaphors are so useful in communication?

Michael Michalko: I think we speak metaphorically because of the creative spontaneity we're born with. Look at any metaphor, like 'they are digging their financial grave'. You know what I'm talking about, but when you think about it the inputs 'digging a grave' and 'investing money' make no sense. The meaning is not there with either input. The meaning is in the conceptual blending of these two disparate concepts. When you put them together, you know immediately what is meant.

When we communicate metaphorically it is through the conceptual blending of words. This is an example of the creative thinking we're all born with, but which most of us lose.

VB: Metaphors spark images?

Michael Michalko: Right. You're visualizing.

Most creative geniuses use words that communicate their ideas to others, but like Einstein with his 'combinatory play', they'll think with images and then conceptually blend these images to come up with new meanings.

Einstein imagined himself as a blind beetle circling the earth. He imagined a woman falling in love and then two weeks later meeting the man she fell in love with. Out of causes and effects came his General Theory of Relativity.

Einstein thought with his whole body – emotionally, physically, and mentally. He said the night before he came up with his General Theory of Relativity it was like he had a raging storm in his head. His head was hurting. He was close to the theory but felt it would never make sense to him the way it would make sense to other people. Then he went to bed. The next morning when he woke up everything was clear. All the details were there.

VB: "It is no coincidence that the most creative and innovative people throughout history have been experts at forcing new mental connections via the conceptual blending of unrelated subjects." Can we train our mind to continually improve its ability to do this, such as by doing the many thought experiments you include in your book?

Michael Michalko: Sure. Most of these techniques are in my books. We use a list of random words, or you could randomly select things and start thinking metaphorically. It's very easy to do.

I have a friend, for example, who wanted to publish a book. He discovered publishers wouldn't look at manuscripts unless you had an agent. Then he discovered that agents wouldn't represent him because they only represented published authors. So he used my technique called 'Brute Thinking' from Thinkertoys. He had a deck of Tarot cards and randomly selected one card, the card of Death. He wondered, "How does this relate to getting a publisher to look at my manuscript?" He thought of all aspects of death and dying for three or four days. Then he stopped thinking about it and began to incubate the information in his subconscious mind. One day as he was walking down the street, suddenly an idea hit him. He said, "I get it. Death means leaving one's friends and loved ones behind."

So he went to the library and got the industry journal, Publishers' Weekly. They have a section in there called, "People on the Move." It would say, "Bill Smith, Editor at Harper Collins has moved on to Scriveners to become Editor-in-Chief." My friend wrote a letter to the old boss at Harper Collins and said, "Dear Editor-in-Chief: The manuscript that Bill Smith was so hot after is finished, however, I cannot find Bill Smith. Please let me know where he is so I can get my manuscript to him." He did this with 10 companies and soon they were calling him in the middle of the night asking for his manuscript. One even threatened him with a lawsuit if he didn't provide it. He then went to an agent and said, "I'm getting all these offers and don't know how I should handle them." The agent immediately signed him as a client, and organized an auction for his book. This is the kind of idea you can't get using your usual way of thinking.

Look at any disruptive idea. Gutenberg had been trying for years to come up with an idea for making copies of manuscripts. One day, while off work, he watched workers pressing grapes and made the connection between grape pressing and engraving blocks of wood to create images on paper. He called his movable type printing press "an idea from God."

I think there is an explanation for the notion that ideas with wisdom have come from God, divine inspiration, or 'out of the blue'. It comes from working on a problem, and then letting the problem incubate in your subconscious mind. Your subconscious mind never stops working. It works 24 hours a day, combining and re-combining bits of information several different ways until you get the right combination, and then a new idea bubbles up into your conscious mind.

VB: "Every individual has the ability to create ideas based on his or her existing patterns of thinking, which are based on education and experience." Do you think our past experience is a significant problem to be overcome if we want to be highly creative?

Michael Michalko: I do. Our education has inhibited creative thinking to a great degree because of rote memorization and robotic learning of principles and formula, and teaching us to think reproductively.

If you think reproductively when confronted with a problem your mind simply defaults to something you learned in the past, something you applied to other problems. You never approach the problem on its own terms.

Education teaches us to become cognitively lazy. It's easier for us, whenever working with a problem, to apply something learned from someone else.

Because we no longer think deliberately or creatively, we have naturalized intellectual laziness. Consequently, when people are confronted with problems and their thinking patterns don't default immediately to something in their past, they conclude that it can't be solved.

VB: "One of the hallmarks of a creative thinker is the ability to tolerate ambiguity, dissonance, inconsistency, and things out of place." How does this work?

Michael Michalko: The mind has a natural tendency to be intolerant of ambiguity. The mind wants to automatically simplify the complexity of experiences. Just as you can't put an object in more than one pigeonhole, you can't put a mental construct in more than one mind pigeonhole without a conscious effort.

People have an awful need to be certain. They feel good, comfortable, and safe when they think someone is certain about something. Like global warming. When Al Gore came out and said, "The debate is over. The science is in. There's no longer any discussion. Global warming is man-made." It's the certainty of it that makes people feel good.

This is one of the reasons why new ideas are hard for people to accept in industry. I live in Rochester, the home of Kodak. At one time Kodak was the company in the world. The people who worked there were prosperous, had pensions, all the other benefits. Everybody was happy. It seemed like there was no end to its prosperity. I remember Kodak advertised itself as being a very creative and innovative company. They created a humor room. They had a creativity room. They brought in top creative thinkers to teach their staff how to think. They came up with all these brilliant ideas long before digital photography, and they even were among the first, if not the first, to design a digital photography camera.

They had all these ideas, but they implemented not a single one because of fear of failure. They thought, 'We know we're making money with film. We don't know if we're going to make money with these new ideas.' Consequently, not one of these innovative ideas – not one – was accepted or implemented. I did a lot of work at Kodak at one time and know they had many new ideas. Now they've filed for bankruptcy protection. It was a large organization that could not transform itself.

VB: Kodak was clinging to its aging technology. They wanted to hang onto their historical revenue streams.

Michael Michalko: Right. But they had so many innovative ideas. They could have been at the forefront. But these ideas were shelved simply because they could not tolerate the ambiguity. They wanted to be absolutely certain everything would work, which, of course, is impossible when you implement a new idea.

There's no such thing as certainty. Often one of our major problems is not so much coming up with the new ideas, but getting people to implement breakthrough ideas in business.

VB: You observe that it is the thinking patterns that formal education has firmly wired in our brains, which limit our imagination and inventiveness. What changes need to be made to the education system so the end result is an enhancement of imagination and inventiveness?

Michael Michalko: Kids should be taught discovery – how to discover things themselves. For example, a first grade class was given a third grade arithmetic problem with instructions, "You figure out how to solve this by yourself." Every kid did so using different methods. One counted fingers. Another counted the spaces on a ruler. One even solved it algebraically. The conclusion was, 'This is the way children learn how to think, and this is the way they should be taught.'

For example, if you were teaching Darwin's Theory of Biological Evolution, you wouldn't have children study the existing theory. You would give them what Darwin had to work with. You would list all the species he had, ask the students to examine them, and see what theories they come up with about how species and human life evolved.

The other major thing is you have to make education fun and get students thinking in terms of alternatives. Teach students to always come up with as many alternatives as they can for any existing problem. There is no such thing as one right answer. One of the problems in education is our love of certainty. It makes us feel comfortable and safe, we don't have to think, and Aristotelian logic will say it's either A or not A. The sky is either blue or it's not blue. Well, Da Vinci would say it's a billion different shades of blue.

When Einstein was a small boy he hated algebra. He refused to do the work. His Uncle made it into a game of hunting wild animals. The idea was to locate the x, capture it, and rename the wild animal. Einstein had so much fun doing this he ended up working on algebra and thinking algebraically instead of playing with his schoolmates.

VB: Are you optimistic educators will make the required changes?

Michael Michalko: No, I'm not.

A lot of reform is required, but there's a problem with the reform of any system if the people who created the problems are the ones doing the reforming. This means seldom will anything of consequence ever happen.

It's almost like we have to start from ground zero again. We are now educated to be cognitively lazy. We don't know how to approach problems on their own terms. We don't know how to look at them in many different ways. We don't know how to use different ways of thinking to solve a problem.

The Nobel Laureate Physicist Richard P. Feynman was travelling to a seminar with a PhD student. Feynman was at Cornell at the time but had not been able to achieve much of anything. He had written some articles that were peer reviewed but had done nothing significant and it bothered him. He was reading a book about DNA on the train, The Double Helix by James D. Watson. He got so excited he stayed up all night reading it.

The next day he woke up the PhD student and said, "Read this. Don't do anything before you read this. Read it right now." The student read it and then Richard P. Feynman said, "What do you think?" The student replied, "These people disregarded everything that other people were doing with DNA. They totally disregarded all the experts, all the authorities and, even though they didn't have the backgrounds, they went their own way and did their own experiments." Richard P. Feynman yelled out, "Exactly and that's what I have forgotten." He wrote the word, 'Disregard' and he said, "This is what I have forgotten. Disregard what other people are doing and make your own interpretations and guesses." From that point on, he changed his whole career.

VB: If they wish, could adults unlearn the inhibitions to creativity they learned in school?

Michael Michalko: Oh sure. You construct your own reality.

If you want to become creative, you will. You control your own life. It's the way you perceive your experiences. If you feel you need to change the way you think you can easily do so. It's how you choose to look at your experiences.

The amazing thing is we think when we have an experience that our thoughts about it are objective. But they're not. You construct your own reality.

Remember the Japanese film, 'Ikuru', about a clerk who worked in the same monotonous bureaucratic position for thirty years. Watanabe's wife was dead and his son and daughter-in-law, who live with him, cared mainly about his pension and their inheritance. His son was embarrassed because his father did not make much money. Watanabe's boss ignored him because he didn't think Watanabe was much of a talent. And the other relatives had little use for him. He was kind of bent over, depressed all the time, and had pretty much given up on everything in life. He considered himself to be nothing but a total loser. Then he found out he had terminal stomach cancer. When he found out he was dying, he suddenly changed. He decided to build a park in a Tokyo slum for poor children – by himself – which he did. Now his son was ashamed that his father was in the slum all the time. His relatives kept telling him to stop acting like a fool. The boss pretended he didn't know him. But Watanabe no longer cared because he had become the subject of his life not the object of his life. He had become what he wanted to be instead of being what other people expected him to be. He died swinging on a swing in a snowstorm, smiling.

You can see this in the people who are the subjects in their lives. I happen to be thinking about the football player, Tim Tebow, this morning. He has become a big sensation in sports but everybody marvels at his personality. What they're marveling at is his example. He reminds us that we all should be like this. We should all be the subjects of our lives and not the objects. People could say to Tebow, "You can't pass. You can't play." but it wouldn't bother him because he'll work harder. And if he still couldn't play, it wouldn't be the end of the world for him. He is the subject of his life.

I remember years ago we were in Montreal at a Russian delicatessen on a Sunday morning. For no reason at all a woman got up and started to sing opera. Everybody was transfixed. I was thinking to myself, 'This is how all people should be. Like her. She's the subject of her life.' The patrons stayed there all afternoon and other people got up and start singing. Instead of thinking about why things can't change, you simply change them.

VB: Is logical thinking the antithesis of creative thinking?

Michael Michalko: I don't believe in polarization when it comes to thinking. To me, thinking is a process. It's logical and creative, and you can have an inter-mix of the two.

At a seminar somebody came out with a crazy idea, and Niels Bohr, the physicist said, "That idea is absolutely crazy. The only question I have is, is it crazy enough for me to work on?" Creative people love working on crazy and absurd ideas. As Einstein said, "If your ideas at first aren't absurd there's no hope for them."

Absurd or crazy ideas give you a way to break up your thinking patterns.

VB: Would it be overstating it to say you can't just sit and will yourself to come up with new ideas and insights? Do you have to trick your mind by exposing it to dissimilar subjects or concepts?

Michael Michalko: Yes. The common factor in the way we think is the build up of thinking patterns that allow us to simplify the assimilation of complex inputs. If I ask you how much is 6 times 6, 36 automatically appears. We don't even remember how we got this answer. We drive to work every day on autopilot. We automatically think reproductively, and we're not even aware of how routinized we have become.

Imagine a block of ice and me tipping warm water from a pitcher onto the block of ice. You'll notice that ruts are created. After a while, a small amount of water will activate an entire rut. This is the pattern recognition/pattern completion process the brain goes through. A small amount of information will activate an entire thinking pattern that will generate your answer.

Creativity occurs when you tilt the block of ice in a different direction forcing the water into other ruts, which will make new connections. These new connections give you different ways to focus and interpret what you're looking at.

The only way you can tilt the ice is with, say, a lever. Think of a creative thinking technique as a lever to tilt your mind to force you to come up with different thinking patterns that will come up with new, unconventional, and novel ideas.

VB: Without these levers the mind will use its established thinking patterns?

Michael Michalko: Yes. If you always think the way you always thought, you'll always get what you always got. You'll come up with the same old ideas over and over again without changing your thinking patterns.

You can't will a change in thinking patterns. You can't sit and say, "I'm going to think unconventionally." It doesn't just happen. You have to use a technique.

When you want ideas to improve a can opener, for example, if all you do is think about what you and others know about can openers, your improvement will be some minor, incremental change at best. Instead, think of the function of the can opener as an object. What does a can opener do? It opens things. And then ask yourself how do things open in the world? How do I open a door? In nature, how does a pea pod open? Then you force a connection between, say, a pea pod and opening a can and you'll say, "Well a pea pod opens when the seam weakens and the peas pop out." This won't inspire an idea for a minor modification of a can opener, but rather the idea of a can with a weak seam which you pull to open the can.

VB: Is exposing your mind to dissimilar concepts the same as what Albert Einstein described as 'combinatory play'?

Michael Michalko: Right, except he did it with images. He did not think in terms of words or numbers at all. He would fantasize, combine these images, fantasize scenarios with these images, and then speculate on what they meant.

VB: So concepts are not images?

Michael Michalko: I think they are. It depends on how used you are to thinking in terms of images or concepts. Visualization of images is a very fruitful technique because you get away from the labels and categories of things.

The secret to Einstein's success was that he was mentally slow as a child – he didn't read until he was about 9 or 10. He developed the skill of thinking in images, because he couldn't read or understand mathematics. When he became a mature adult he said he was able to look at problems, which other mature adults looked at mathematically or verbally, like a child.

VB: "When you perceive intelligently, you always perceive a function, not an object in the physical sense." Would you explain?

Michael Michalko: It's called functional fixedness. When we look at an object we think holistically. We think in terms of the object and not the function.

As I said with the can opener, a creative person would not think of a can opener. They would think of the function of opening – how do things open? The caution is functional fixedness blocks creative thinking because of the strong way in which we label and categorize things.

There's a famous experiment about this by a man named Karl Duncker. He had a candle, box of nails, hammer, and, other objects which he placed on a table. He said to his subjects, "I want you to hang this candle on the wall so it does not drip on the floor." Invariably the subjects would nail the candle to the wall or they'd hit the candle and then try to glue the candle to the wall and none of this worked. Few people thought about the box as being other than a container for the nails, as being an object that could be nailed to the wall to use as a platform for the candle. People could not get beyond the thought that a box is a container. I guarantee you a pre-schooler would have picked up right away that the box could be used for other things as well.

Karl Duncker referred to this as 'functional fixedness' that is a "mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem."

VB: Thinking within our own patterns.

Michael Michalko: Exactly. They've done many experiments like this. It's amazing how people cannot think of using something for a different task. If you have a hammer on a table and ask a person for a paperweight, they won't think of using the hammer, because a hammer is a hammer.

VB: "An original idea is not the sum of combined thoughts but depends on how their patterns are fitted together." How does this work?

Michael Michalko: I think it's like the genetic recombination which nature undergoes where chromosomes exchange genes, and these genes become intermixed and create a new bean. You do the same with ideas. You imagine ideas having sex with each other, exchanging their genes and coming up with something totally new and different. In this case the genes are parts of ideas.

When George de Mestral invented Velcro, he was thinking about how to improve the zipper. He began thinking about a burdock that had attached itself to his pant leg. He thought about burdock and zipper, conceptually blended the two, and came up with Velcro – a totally different idea from a zipper.

VB: "Thinking in terms of essences and principles frees your imagination from the constraints of words, labels, and categories." How do you train yourself to think other than through words?

Michael Michalko: I don't know if there's a way to describe it. The techniques I use are all based on models used by creative thinking geniuses.

Walt Disney, for example, used a three-step program when he wanted ideas. He called it, "Be a dreamer, be a realist, and be a critic." The first day he would imagine fantastic scenarios – fantasies. The next day he would assume the role of a realist and try to 'imagineer' these ideas back to earth, to something that could actually be done. The third day he would adopt the role of the critic and punch holes in all his ideas. The ones that survived were the ones he would work on.

VB: If 'experts' working with other experts are less likely to develop or create anything radically new in their field, what are some better alternatives for coming up with breakthrough ideas and solutions?

Michael Michalko: The more expert a person becomes in a particular area, the more fixated their mind-set becomes. The more fixated their mind-set becomes, the less likely they will be able to look at things in a new and objective way.

When you give an expert an idea, their first thought is, 'Does this idea conform to what I believe?' They're looking for conformity to something they already know or believe. If it doesn't, they spend all their time looking at why it can't be done or can't be made to work. People who are not expert will look at ways to make things work or get them done.

One of the paradoxes in creativity is to listen to experts but learn how to ignore them. That's what Feynman learned when he read The Double Helix. Know what the experts are doing in the field but ignore it. The people who know more, create less. The people who create more, know less.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, both college dropouts, revolutionized the world.

VB: Do you need a combination of experts, who have in-depth knowledge in a field, combined with creative people?

Michael Michalko: Most creative people are self-taught.

Einstein never went to class. When he had a test, he would memorize his roommate's notes, then write and pass the test. Da Vinci was self-taught. I don't know how much value experts have.

Univac invented the computer. They would not talk to any business that enquired about business applications because the Univac expert said, "It has no business application." Along came IBM and took over the market.

IBM wondered whether there was a market for personal computers so they hired the best market research experts in the world to study and determine the size of the market for personal computers. They reported there was no market for personal computers. There were no more than 5 or 6 people on earth who would ever purchase a personal computer. Along came Steve Jobs and Bill Gates – college dropouts – and took over the world.

The Swiss at one time had the majority of the world's market share for watches. The Swiss invented the electronic watch movement, but no Swiss manufacturer would adopt it. Their experts said it didn't look like a watch and people wouldn't buy something that didn't look like a watch.

Chester Carlson invented the photocopier in 1938 in Rochester. Every major corporation turned him down because their experts said no one would buy an expensive copying machine because carbon paper was so cheap and plentiful. Who in their right mind would buy a machine to make copies?

I could go on. As Einstein said, if you're talking to somebody who says they've got 30 years experience and expertise, you're talking to a person who has one year of expertise repeated 30 times. They are very close-minded. Look at how often the experts in various industries and fields in this country fail.

VB: "We think we record what is actually there. Yet scientists and psychologists have proven that perception is demonstrably an active rather than a passive process; it constructs rather than records 'reality.'" How does this relate to creative thinking?

Michael Michalko: You see things, not the way they are, but the way you are.

Take the Grand Canyon. A priest sees it as God's handiwork. An artist sees a fantastic landscape. A cowboy sees a terrible place to herd cattle. An elementary school teacher sees a great classroom to teach natural history. A geologist sees a great place to study rock formations. We're seeing the same thing, but we're seeing different aspects of it.

We decide what we perceive. It's incredible how poorly we're able to see what is actually there. We see what we want to see—what meets our expectations.

There's a great training video that is a test of selective attention. It's called 'Gorilla in our Midst'. They have six people, 3 dressed in white tossing a basketball back and forth between them, and 3 in black have a second basketball and are also tossing their basketball among them. The experimenter will say to subjects before they watch the film that this is a test of their subjective abilities. "We want you to count the number of times a person in white passes the basketball to another person dressed in white. By the way, when this test was done it was found that females are much more accurate than males."

Then they show the video and the people taking the test concentrate on counting the passes between the white players. When the film is over the experimenter asks if anybody saw anything unusual and no one did. Then they show the film again, and what you see is a man dressed in a gorilla suit walking – not running – through the court with the basketball players. No one saw it even though at one point in the middle of the screen the gorilla stopped and patted himself on the chest before walking off the area being videoed. They were so intent on counting the tossing of the ball between the white players. The thing about females being more accurate than males was mentioned as another sleight-of-head to knock people off their concentration. They don't see the gorilla!

VB: The fact we construct rather than record reality should be a great caution against relying on witnesses, such as occurs in courtrooms. Do you have any advice for getting at the real reality that people have witnessed, or is this even possible?

Michael Michalko: I don't know how possible it is, but I would say they should carefully investigate the history of the witness. If a trained and competent police officer witnesses an accident, chances are it might be fairly accurate. If it's a social activist, chances are it probably won't be accurate. It's very difficult because perception is involved and it is often incredibly wrong.

All kinds of experiments have been done showing how people will even change their perception based on the words that are used. They'll be shown a film of a traffic accident and the experimenter will say, driver A smashed into driver B, who is at fault? Invariably, the people being studied will say driver A. The word "smashed" is aggressive. But if the experimenter were to say, driver A collided and slightly bumped into B, who is at fault? They'll say B. B shouldn't have been there.

Even the words will influence the way people witness accidents. I would hate to be on trial and have my life depend upon someone's eyewitness testimony against me.

VB: It is likely to be unreliable.

Michael Michalko: In my mind, yes. And many experiments bear this out.

VB: "Our stereotyped notions block clear vision and crowd out imagination. This happens without any alarms sounding, so we never realize it is occurring." Can we overcome this by being consciously aware of our stereotyped notions?

Michael Michalko: Yes I think so. If you are aware of your stereotyped notions, you can overcome your biases by making a conscious effort to do so.

I am thinking of the architect, Arthur Erikson, who often would try to teach people to think creatively and get rid of their stereotyped notions about things. At the start of a class he would say, "Draw a picture of a figure in motion." And his students would do that. Then he would say, "Now build a structure made of metal, wood, or plastic to support that figure." And without realizing it, his students were designing furniture.

Martin Skalski, a leading automobile designer, will say to his students, "Draw an abstract composition of something in motion." When they finish he will say, "Now use that as a stimulus for a new automobile design."

These teachers are tricking you into thinking more about the principles than the stereotyped notion. You can take a group of dogs and teach them to avoid a grey square and to approach a white square. When you change the grey square to black, and the white square to grey you'll find the dogs will now be attracted to the grey square and avoid the black square. They are reacting to the universal difference in the shades – one is darker than the other. If you do this with a human being, once the person is taught to avoid grey, no matter how many times you change the shades, the human will always avoid the grey. The human concentrates on the particular rather than the universal principle and avoiding grey becomes an absolute.

VB: How can one learn to see opposites simultaneously, and why would we want to enhance our ability to do so?

Michael Michalko: When you think in terms of two opposites simultaneously you'll discover a new kind of understanding beyond thought will bubble up into your consciousness. You will be able to look at things from a point of view you can't get from your usual way of thinking.

One day the physicist Neils Bohr was thinking about his best friend and said to himself, 'I love my best friend'. But his best friend had done something despicable and he said, 'I hate my best friend for what he did.' Then he reflected on his thinking, 'How can I love and hate my best friend simultaneously? But I can. I love and hate him simultaneously.' Then he said to himself, 'There could be a force in nature where simultaneous opposites can be held'. He discovered the principle of complementarity, a basic principle of quantum theory, where a light can be seen either as a wave or as a particle based on your point of view. Some objects have multiple properties that appear to be contradictory. Sometimes it is possible to switch back and forth between different views of an object to observe these properties, but in principle, it is impossible to view both at the same time, despite their simultaneous coexistence in reality.

Thomas Edison, when he was working on his system of lighting, put together two concepts. One was wiring circuits in parallel with high resistant filaments. At the time these things were considered to be so incompatible that no one even thought about putting them together. But, again, when you're dealing with things in total opposites or that are not compatible, you will come up with new kinds of thinking beyond the way you usually think.

There was a mathematician in the 1400's who was thinking about a circle and noticed, as he made the circle larger, the curvature of the circumference became smaller. This why it seems the earth is flat. Then he discovered that if you keep making the circle larger until infinity, the circle, in fact, becomes a straight line. So a straight line and circle have this relationship to each other.

VB: "All invention and discovery is permeated by the idea of thinking the unthinkable." How does this work?

Michael Michalko: You come up with the type of idea that gets you out of your cone of expectations. You no longer are trying to come up with ideas that you think you should come up with.

There was a dish manufacturing company, which had employees who wrapped the dishes in newspapers for shipment. They found this inefficient because the employees would stop working to read the newspapers they were using as wrappings. They tried several approaches – involving both rewards and punishments – but nothing succeeded in stopping them from wasting time on the job.

One day at a brainstorming session one supervisor said, "I've got the answer. We will tape their eyes shut." Everybody laughed, but the CEO said, "That's it!" He called the Association for the Blind and hired blind workers to do their packaging. Not only did the company become extremely efficient, they also got all kinds of tax benefits from the government for hiring handicapped workers.

VB: Breaking away from our expectations and preconceived notions is one of the keys to creative thinking.

Michael Michalko: Right. It is.

VB: "Write letters to your subconscious mind." How does this work?

Michael Michalko: I got that idea from the author Norman Mailer. Whenever he was stonewalled he would write a letter to his subconscious mind saying, "Here is what I'm doing with a character and I'm stuck. Tell me what to do." He would sometimes mail the letter to himself, or put it in his desk and open it 3 days later.

In this process what's happening is an incubation of information, as we were talking about before. Your subconscious mind never stops. It keeps combining and recombining information in different ways. Eventually you'll come up with a combination that works. An idea will come when you least expect it.

In The Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell, the British mathematician, said he would work hard on a problem for hours or days. He said, "I would let the problem go underground. I forgot about it. I would come back a month later and invariably the problem would be solved."

Charles Darwin could point to the rock on the road that his carriage hit when suddenly his theory became very clear.

VB: Do you personally do this?

Michael Michalko: Yes, and from my personal experience I can advise that it works.

VB: You are a well-known expert on creativity. Are you always coming up with creative ideas even when not trying?

Michael Michalko: Yes. It starts when you come up with ideas when you're not trying. You work hard on a problem and then forget it. Walk away. The information will incubate in your subconscious mind and invariably one or more ideas will pop up when you least expect it – taking a shower, thinking about something totally different, or watching a football game.

Remember when you were in college you would cram for a test and then two weeks after the test the ideas were popping up. They were coming from your subconscious mind. The key is you have to work hard, feed your mind the information, and then let your subconscious do the work.

VB: The lesson is you should cram two or three weeks before your exams rather than the night before.

Michael Michalko: Two weeks before, yes. You've got that right.

VB: You provide workshops and seminars about fostering creative thinking. Would you tell us about them?

Michael Michalko: I'll tell you how it got started. I was in the military posted at NATO and was attending a lot of high level, top-secret meetings among Intelligence, the military, and civilian leaders. One night at the Officers' Club a General said to me, "As a young Lieutenant you've got to be excited about this position you have." I responded, "Why is that, sir?" He said, "Because you're sitting in on all these top-secret meetings. I can't remember anyone your age ever having access to these kinds of meetings. Aren't you excited about this?" I said, "No, sir. I'm not." And he said, "What?" So I told him, "Sir, I've attended these meetings and so far, to tell you the truth, I'm bored. These people keep saying the same things over and over. Most of the things they say are things they want you to hear." This led to a long discussion that ended with the General saying, "Ok you think you're smart. You're going to facilitate the meeting next month."

After dealing with the shock I went out and bought a book by Alex Osborne called Applied Imagination. Osborne was an advertising executive in Buffalo, New York, and is the person who pioneered the whole concept of brainstorming. I studied his techniques, facilitated the meeting, and we came up with all kinds of great ideas. So the General came to me and said, "Great job and guess what? This is your job from now on." So I had access to all of the intelligence services. I had them collect all known inventive thinking techniques they could find. We put together a team of people including some academics in Frankfurt, Germany, collated and rewrote the techniques, and started running think tanks using these techniques.

In '68 a secret twixt came through asking all of us in Intelligence to volunteer to go to South Vietnam to work as advisors to the South Vietnamese army. Not knowing the politics of what was going on, we all volunteered. The General came to me and said, "I'm freezing you in place." I replied, "What do you mean?" and he said, "You're not going anywhere. You're staying here because I have made your position indispensable." That made me angry because I wanted to go with my friends. I had pretty much decided that I enjoyed what I was doing so was going to make the army my career, but this changed my mind.

As I've said earlier, you give your experience it's meaning. Years later, in retrospect, what I thought was a curse turned out to be a blessing because some of my friends never came back from Viet Nam. But at the time I was devastated that one person could prevent me from responding to this call.

VB: What has been your most memorable speaking engagement?

Michael Michalko: It was also something that happened in the military, and is something I'll never forget. We were talking about changing yourself if you can't change your circumstances.

Someone in the audience got up and said, "I'd like to tell you a story about a Special Forces soldier. The soldier was part of an operation, called 'Operation Phoenix', which intercepted Viet Kong tax collectors who went from village to village collecting taxes to finance the war. Intercepting these tax collectors was quite successful so the Viet Kong put up bounties for the capture of Special Forces soldiers. Every time a Special Forces soldier was killed or captured the local Vietnamese were given a bounty.

One Lieutenant in the U.S. Army was captured and knew he was going to die. He was being tortured and thought, "I don't want to die but how can I possibly survive? How can I change myself?" He was not a religious person but his parents had been, and he remembered the only person he was aware of in history who could have handled the situation he was in. He thought about Christ who loved everyone, who died for man's sins, who forgave everyone. He kept saying to himself, over and over again, "I am Christ-like. I am Christ-like."

Then he started telling the people who were torturing him, "I love you. I forgive you. I understand what you are doing. Don't feel bad. I know you are going to kill me. If I were in your place, I would do the same. Never feel bad about what you're doing because I forgive you." The more he said it the more he believed it himself. The more he believed it, the more his sincerity came across to his captors. After a while, they found it difficult to torture and starve this prisoner so they started healing his wounds, feeding him, keeping him incognito from their superiors. He was repatriated after the war.

Every 3 years he goes back to Viet Nam to visit his captors. They have a big night of celebration – celebrating their friendship. This was a person who couldn't change his circumstance so he changed himself. By pretending to be Christ-like he became Christ-like in his mind, body and behavior, and it saved his life.

VB: I was intrigued with your advice about the human traits that result in a creative thinker. One was to act like a creative thinker and go through the motions of being creative everyday. Would you talk a bit about this?

Michael Michalko: Your attitude influences your behavior but your behavior also influences your attitude. Even though you may not believe you are a creative thinker, if you behave like one and go through the motions every day, you will get the attitude of a creative thinker and you will begin to believe you are a creative thinker.

For example, let's say you feel bad and you're depressed. You go to a wedding and everybody is happy, having a good time, laughing, and joking. You don't want to appear depressed because you don't want people coming up and saying, "What's wrong? You feel ok?" So you start mimicking the people who are laughing and smiling. Before long, you're happy simply as a result of mimicking others who are happy.

I know a guy who teaches skydiving. He said his students used to be terrified of their first jump. We were talking about being what you pretend to be and he said, "I thought about it. Now when I teach a class I force everybody to smile when they're in the class. I force them to smile when we get on the plane, as they jump. It's incredible the effect that making my students smile, even though they don't feel like smiling, has had on eliminating their fears."

The CIA had two researchers studying facial expressions. One day they stuck a pencil into their subjects mouths, which made them smile all day whether they felt like it or not. At the end of the day these participants in the study said, "I've never felt so good in my life." The next day they forced them to frown all day. At the end of the day, one said, "I've never felt so lousy" and another one said, "Me too." Just by forcing a facial expression it affected their emotions and the way they thought.

If all you want to do is become an artist, and you are like Vincent Van Gogh who painted every day, you will become an artist. You may not become a Van Gogh but you'll become more of an artist than someone who has never tried.

VB: Do you have any final advice for people who would like to become creative thinkers?

Michael Michalko: Just do it. Nothing happens in life until you take action. And always remember that all art is a reaction to the first line drawn. Until the first line is drawn nothing will happen.

What you think and what you know in the world is of little consequence. The only thing of consequence is what you do.

VB: Are there any other things about Creative Thinkering which we haven't discussed?

Michael Michalko: I can't think of any as we covered a lot. I guess your readers will have to read Creative Thinkering!

Understanding creativity may be the first step toward becoming more creative. Author Michael Michalko advises that in all knowledge domains, including day-to-day living, creativity emerges from conceptually blending dissimilar subjects. Creative ideas are new combinations of old ideas.

The next step is to believe we are creative and 'just do it'. Thinking about being creative is not being creative.

We sincerely hope Michael Michalko will write more books so we can continue to learn about 'creative thinkering'.

Michael Michalko's Bio:
As an officer in the United States Army, Michael Michalko organized a team of NATO intelligence specialists and international academics in Frankfurt, Germany, to research, collect, and categorize all known inventive-thinking methods. His international team applied those methods to various NATO military, political, and social problems and, in doing so, it produced a variety of breakthrough ideas and creative solutions to new and old problems. After leaving the military, he facilitated CIA think tanks using his creative thinking techniques.

Michael Michalko later applied these creative-thinking techniques to problems in the corporate world with outstanding successes. He has provided keynote speeches, workshops, and seminars on fostering creative thinking for clients who range from Fortune 500 corporations, such as DuPont, Kellogg's, General Electric, Kodak, Microsoft, Exxon, General Motors, Ford, USA, AT&T, Wal-Mart, Gillette, and Hallmark, to associations and governmental agencies. In addition to his work in the United States, he has worked with clients in countries around the world.

Michael Michalko is the author of Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work (2011), Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-thinking Technique (Second Edition 2006), Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius (2001), and ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck (2006). He is also co-author with Harold R. McAlindon of The Little Book of Big Ideas: Inspiration, Encouragement, and Tips to Stimulate Creativity and Improve Your Life (1999).

Michael Michalko's creative-thinking techniques, which were refined by his government and corporate practice, were published in his best seller Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-thinking Technique which the Wall Street Journal reported, "will change the way you think." Women In Business lauded it as "one of the most important business titles of the decade." USA said, "believe it or not, this wonderful book will have you challenging the seemingly impossible every day." Executive Book Summaries praised it by saying, "What we need is a compendium of ways to solve problems. Entrepreneur acclaimed it as "required reading for anyone in business." Success Magazine awarded Thinkertoys with a Gold Medal for being "one of the best of the best business books." The medal is awarded to books that have that made a major impact on readers who say they've experienced a change – an improvement in their lives and businesses.

Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius describes the common thinking strategies creative geniuses have used in the sciences, art, and industry throughout history and shows how we can apply them to become more creative in our business and personal lives.

ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck is designed to facilitate brainstorming sessions.

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