Thinking Strategies of Creative Giants, Part 2

An Interview with Michael Michalko, author of Cracking Creativity
By Vern Burkhardt
Seeing what no one else is seeing. Thinking what no one else is thinking. Merely understanding the strategies for cracking creativity will not result in the generation of creative ideas and creative solutions. If we actually use them we might even become creative geniuses—perhaps the best type of intelligence.

VB: Michael, 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 MichalkoMichael Michalko:To experience mind popping, try the following experiment. Write a letter to your unconscious about a problem you have been working on. Make the letter as detailed as possible. Describe the problem, what steps you have taken, the gaps, what is needed, what the obstacles are, the ideal solution and so on.

Instruct your subconscious to find the solution. Write that your mission is to find the solution to the problem. I would like the solution in two days. Seal the letter and put it away. Forget it. Open the letter in two days. If the problem still has not been solved, write on the bottom of the letter, "Let me know the minute you solve this."

Sooner or later, when you are most relaxed and removed, ideas and solutions will pop up from your subconscious.

A while back, I worked with a group of engineers who were looking for ways to safely and efficiently remove ice from power lines during ice storms. They were stonewalled. Finally, they agreed to write letters to their unconscious. One of the engineers named his subconscious mind "Aristotle," and wrote his letter about the problem in detail.

We met three days later, and the engineer who wrote "Aristotle," said that he had had a bizarre dream. He was hiking through the woods carrying a backpack filled with jars of honey when suddenly a bear chased him up and tree and shook the tree until he fell.

Cracking CreativityAnother engineer laughing said "I got it! Here’s the idea. We’ll put honey pots on top of each power pole." He said this would attract bears and the bears would climb the poles to get the honey. Their climbing would cause the poles to sway and the ice would vibrate off the wires.

Suddenly, they all got their inspiration. Working with the principle of vibration, they got the idea of bringing in helicopters to hover over the lines. Their hovering vibrated the ice off the power lines.

VB: Several times in Cracking Creativity you recommend drawing a picture to get one’s right brain involved. What are some other ways of engaging one's right brain?

Michael Michalko: One exercise that energizes your right brain is to try and illustrate a word so that its appearance conveys meaning as well as the word. For example, the word table can be the image of a table.

Some other objects you could try to illustrate so that its appearance conveys its meaning include:
Another exercise for your right brain is to create an assemblage. This exercise helps you conceptualize a creative product using materials on hand.

  • Place a sheet of paper on the table.

  • Take out at least ten items, things like money, credit cards, keys, driver’s license, notes, coins—different things that are nearby.

  • First create in your mind an assemblage you are about to make. Don’t think about the materials you have in hand. Instead, think about the shape you would like your assemblage to have. What are the rhythms you want? The texture? Where would you want it to be active? Passive? Where do things overlap and where are they isolated? Think in general and overall pictures and leave out the details. Don’t think about great art. Just think about what you want to see on the paper.

  • Now form a more specific idea of the final assemblage. You are moving from the many possibilities it can be to the possibility you actually want it to be.

  • As you look at the paper, imagine the assemblage you want to create. Make sure you’ve formed this image before you move to the next step.

  • Create the assemblage. Place the items on the paper. Since the composing stage is already done, it’s time to bring your creation into physical existence.

  • Ask yourself how closely did it come to your conception? Become an audience for the assemblage. Look at it for its own sake—independent of the fact that you have created it.

  • Then take the items off the paper and go through the same steps to make another assemblage following the same steps.

VB: You also describe Leonardo da Vinci’s random scribbling technique.

Michael Michalko: Leonardo would close his eyes, totally relax, and cover a sheet of paper with random lines and scribbles. He would then open his eyes and look for images and patterns, objects, faces, or events in the scribble. Many of his inventions came forth unbeckoned from this random scribbling.

Scribbling allows you to put your abstract ideas into a tangible form. Imagine yourself flying over your challenge or problem in an airplane to get a clear overview. While in the air, sketch what you see below you. Sketch as many alternative concepts as you think you see. You are your own audience. Therefore, you can draw or sketch freely without worrying about what anyone will think. Sketching is a way of talking to yourself. Thomas Edison made hundreds of sketches and doodles before beginning to formulate an idea. GE has a collection of his doodles about the light bulb, most of which are indecipherable to anyone but Edison.

VB: Are left-handed, right-brain-dominant people more likely to naturally be highly creative?

Michael Michalko: Those left-handed, right-brain-dominant people who believe they are highly creative are. The ones who believe they aren’t, are not.

VB: How do your strategies for "seeing what no one else is seeing" assist one in being creative?

Michael Michalko: The process of perception links people to their environment and is critical to accurate understanding of the world about us. Yet research into human perception demonstrates that the process is beset by many pitfalls. Moreover, the circumstances under which intelligent analysis is conducted are precisely the circumstances in which accurate perception tends to be most difficult.

People tend to think of perception as a passive process. We see, hear, smell, taste, or feel stimuli that impinge upon our senses. We think that if we are objective, we record what is actually there. Yet perception is demonstrably an active rather than a passive process. It constructs rather than records reality. Perception implies understanding as well as awareness. It is a process of inference in which people construct their own version of reality on the basis of information provided through the five senses.

What people in general and analysts in particular, perceive, and how readily they perceive it, are strongly influenced by their past experience, education, cultural values, and role requirements. As well as by the stimuli recorded by their receptor organs.

Many experiments have been conducted to show the extraordinary extent to which the information obtained by an observer depends upon the observer's own assumptions and preconceptions. We tend to perceive what we expect to perceive.

A corollary of this principle is that it takes more information, and more unambiguous information, to recognize an unexpected phenomenon than an expected one.

All my strategies in "See what no one else is seeing" are designed to change your habitual ways of perceiving things. Genius often comes from finding a different perspective.

VB: You offer nine strategies for thinking what no one else is thinking. Would you talk about how they work?

Michael Michalko: Creativity implies a deviance from past experiences and procedures. In nature, a genetic mutation is a variation that is created by a random or chance event which ignores the conventional wisdom contained in parental chromosomes. Nature then lets the process of natural selection decide which variations survive and thrive. An analogous process operates within geniuses. Creative geniuses produce a rich variety of original ideas and solutions, because they ignore conventional ways of thinking and look for different ways to think about problems. They deliberately change the way they think by provoking different thinking patterns which incorporate random, chance, and unrelated factors into their thinking process. These different thinking patterns enable them to look at the same information as everyone else and see something different.

The nine strategies for thinking what no one else is thinking are particular thinking strategies that have enabled creative geniuses to produce a rich variety of original ideas and creative solutions to problems by provoking different thinking patterns.

The strategies do not render the creative experience, they suggest it. To illustrate, let’s say you accept my notion that the best way to see my neighborhood is to stand on the roof of my house. This does not render the experience—it is a suggestion. To realize the experience, you can’t will yourself to fly up to the roof. You need a specific tool, such as a ladder, that allows you to get onto the roof and look around.

In the same way, if you accept my notion that geniuses get ideas by combining things in novel ways, you can’t will yourself to suddenly start thinking this way. You need specific techniques to show you how to do it. This is why each strategy contains specific techniques and practical tools with precise instructions on how to implement the strategy to get the ideas you need in your business and personal life.

VB: A number of the creative strategies you talk about work not only for individuals but also for groups. Which ones have you found to be especially effective in promoting group creativity?

Michael Michalko: Actually, just about all of them can easily be modified to use with groups.

VB: You describe a strategy of working backwards using a structured technique of imagining you are living in the future, such as in 2050, and thinking back to the problem you are working on. How can one put oneself into a mindset that goes so far into the future, given the rapidly increasing pace of technological and other changes? Or am I missing the point?

Michael Michalko: Try asking yourself this question, "What is impossible to do now in your business that, if it were possible, would change the nature of your business forever?"

This gets you thinking about the future almost involuntarily. Then try to figure out how to do it and see how close you can come to what you imagine.

VB: You say words tend to impose strong, subtle pressures on us to see the world as fixed, fragmented, and static. Einstein thought in mental images and symbols instead of words. How can one train oneself to eliminate self talk in words and, instead, think in images and symbols?

Michael Michalko: One way to train yourself to think visually is to use pattern language, which I describe in Thinkertoys as "Ideatoons." It was originally invented by architects Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein, to help create new building designs. The visual, flexible nature of pattern language makes it a useful creative device for seeing new and different relationships between attributes. You do this by drawing abstract visual symbols that you create to substitute for words.

  • The basic procedure is to list the components or attributes of your subject.

  • Then using 3 X 5 inch index cards, illustrate each component by drawing an abstract graphic symbol. Each drawing should represent a specific component or attribute and be on its own index card. Draw whatever feels right.

  • Place all of the file cards on a table with the graphic symbols facing up. Group and regroup the symbols randomly into various relationships. Try letting the cards arrange themselves without conscious direction, as if they were telling you where they wanted to be. Mix and match the symbols to provoke ideas.

  • Look for ideas and thoughts that you can link to your challenge. Try to force relationships. Try free-associating. Record the most idea-provoking arrangements.

  • When stalemated, you may want to add additional symbols or even start an entirely new set.

Another exercise I like is—imagine that a delegation of Martians has just landed in Central Park, New York City, or any other location you choose. They do not understand any Earth languages—only graphic symbols. Prepare a short speech composed of graphic symbols to welcome them and tell them what kind of place Central Park or your chosen location is.

VB: One of your interesting insights is that a more abstract definition of a problem can lead to a more creative and innovative solution. Why does this work?

Michael Michalko: One can always look at any system from different levels of abstraction. A very fine-grained description of a beach would include every position of every grain of sand. Viewed from a higher vantage point, the details become smeared together, and the grains become a smooth expanse of brown. At this level of description, different qualities emerge—the shape of the coastline, the height of the dunes, and so on.

Abstraction is one of the most basic principles in restructuring a problem. For instance, the standard procedure in physical science is to make observations or to collect systematic data and to derive principles and theories therefrom. Einstein despaired of creating new knowledge from already existing knowledge. How, he thought, can the conclusion go beyond the premises? So he reversed this procedure and worked at a higher level of abstraction. This bold stance enabled him to creatively examine first principles, such as the constancy of speed of light independent of relative motion. The abstractions that others were not willing to accept because they could not be demonstrated by experimentation, Einstein took as his starting premise and simply reasoned therefrom.

VB: One of your creative techniques is to list absurd or crazy ideas about a problem. Then to pose the question of whether the ideas are crazy enough. Would you talk about that question?

Michael Michalko: Once Wolgang Pauli, the discoverer of electron spin, was presenting a new theory of elementary particles before a professional audience. An extended discussion followed, in which Niels Bohrs summarized to Pauli that everyone had agreed that his theory is crazy. The question which divided them was whether it was crazy enough to have a chance of being correct. Bohrs said his own feeling was that it was not crazy enough.

A logic hides in Bohrs illogic. In genius, there is a tolerance for unpredictable avenues of thought. The result of unpredictable thinking may be just what is needed to shift the context enough to lead to a new perspective. Paul Cezanne, the father of modern painting, coined a wonderful phrase that captures the whole paradoxical process of mixing unpredictable thinking and intentional tactics. He called the creator’s creative activity "making a find."

VB: It seems that in many of the creative techniques you describe there is a large element of fun, of playfulness. Is this an important ingredient for freeing our minds for creative endeavors?

Michael Michalko: Absolutely. Here is an example of an exercise I often use to loosen rigid, play-by-the–rules, uptight personalities.

With participants sitting at tables in groups of 6 to 10, tell everyone to take off their shoes under the table. Then talk for a few minutes about how it feels to be sitting in a serious business meeting with your shoes off. Talk about the fact that taking off your shoes is natural at home and on holiday, but not always in business settings.

Then ask them to exchange shoes, actually put on someone else’s shoes. Ask them to try to make a big change, such as men put on women’s shoes and vice versa. Try walking in them. Talk about how that feels. Talk about social norms and begin talking about what it is like to be a bit outside the box.

Next have all of the shoes put up on the table. Let everyone sit looking at all the shoes for awhile. Watch the nervousness. They will be experiencing a very weird and uncomfortable and anti-social thing. Talk about what it feels like to have someone else’s shoes up on the table in front of you. Talk about how we deal with discomfort—typically by trying to reduce it. But point out that improvement implies change and change nearly always brings discomfort. Innovative change must be really outside the box and it will bring even bigger discomfort.

Now, announce a contest, such as one of the teams will receive a big contract. The team that will get the contract will be the one that builds the highest structure of shoes. The contest will be conducted by measuring the distance from the top of the table surface to the highest point of any shoe. Don’t discuss it, just say it, and tell them they have four minutes and say "go."

Watch what they do, so that you will have plenty to talk about when you debrief. Look for how quickly or slowly the various groups get into the task. Look for the emergence of natural leaders. Look for cycles of build-up or down-build in another way.

VB: What are some of the things we might observe?

Michael Michalko: Just watch.

A variety of teaching points emerge such as handling shoes bonds the team. Things are most uncomfortable when we think too much about them. Participants notice that when they just start doing the task a lot of the discomfort goes away. It’s not stealing, when you take an idea from observing another team. That is the basis of benchmarking in business improvement.

Innovation often proceeds through cycles of trying something, dismantling it, trying another tack, and so on. Rarely do you just sit and think and work it all out in your mind. Doing helps stimulate thinking—an important lesson. The thought processes involved in the most creative approaches are often the combinations of several ideas and concepts.

VB: You say our initial, early ideas are usually poor in quality because they are the habitual, familiar, safe ones. Ideas generated later will likely be more imaginative and creative. Is brainstorming in groups one of the best ways of generating a large number of new and productive ideas? What other approaches might also be useful?

Michael Michalko: Increasing your idea production requires conscious effort. Suppose I asked you to spend three minutes thinking of alternative uses for the common brick. No doubt, you would come up with some, but my hunch is not very many. The average adult comes up with three to six ideas. However, if I asked you to list forty uses for the brick as fast as you can, you would have quite a few in a short period of time.

A quota and time limit focused your energy in a competitive way that guaranteed fluency of thought. It should be evident that the quota is not only more effective at focusing your energy but also a more productive method of generating alternatives. To meet the quota, you find yourself listing all the usual uses for a brick such as build a wall, fireplace, or outdoor barbeque. You will also list everything that comes to mind—such as anchor, projectiles in riots, ballast, device to hold down newspaper, a tool for leveling dirt, material for sculptures, doorstop, and so on—as we stretch our imagination to meet the quota. By causing us to exert effort, it allows us to generate more imaginative alternatives than we otherwise would.

Thomas Edison guaranteed productivity by giving himself and his assistants idea quotas. His personal quota was one minor invention every ten days and a major invention every six months. A way to guarantee productivity of your creative thought is to give yourself an idea quota.

For example, an idea quota might be forty ideas if you're looking for ideas alone or 120 if a group is brainstorming for ideas. By forcing yourself to come up with a quota of ideas, you put your internal critic on hold and write everything down, including the obvious and weak. The first third will be the same-old, same-old ideas you always get. The second third will be more interesting and the last third will show more insight, curiosity, and complexity.

Initial ideas are usually poorer in quality than later ideas. Just as water must run from a faucet for a while to be crystal clear, cool and free of particles, so thought must flow before it becomes creative. Early ideas are usually not true ideas. Exactly why this is so is not known, but one hypothesis is that familiar and safe responses lie closest to the surface of our consciousness and therefore are naturally thought of first.

Creative thinking depends on continuing the flow of ideas long enough to purge the common, habitual ones and produce the unusual and imaginative.

VB: Of the best brainstorming techniques you identified from around the world, which is your favorite?

Michael Michalko: Horst Geschka and his associates at the Batelle Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, developed a variety of group creative-thinking techniques called Brainwriting, which is one of my favorites.

In traditional brainstorming groups, people suggest ideas one at a time. This is serial processing of information—only one idea is offered at a time in a series. By contrast Brainwriting allows multiple ideas to be suggested at the same time. This is parallel processing of information—many ideas are produced in parallel.

If a brainwriting group has ten members, up to ten ideas will be generated for every one generated in a typical brainstorming session of ten members. Brainwriting increases idea production dramatically.

Here’s how it works:
  • First, discuss the problem to clarify it. Write the problem in a location visible to all group members.

  • Distribute three inch by five inch index cards to each participant and instruct them to silently write their ideas on the cards. One idea per card. Whereas group brainstorming involves participants shouting ideas out loud, brainwriting has people silently writing down ideas. As participants complete a card, they pass it silently to the person on the right.

  • Tell the group members to read the cards they are passed and to regard them as stimulation cards. They are to write down any new ideas inspired by the stimulation cards on blank cards and pass them to the person on their right. Within a few minutes, several idea cards will be rotating around the table.

  • After about 25 minutes, collect all cards and have the group members tape them to a wall. The cards should be arranged into columns according to different categories of ideas, with a title card above each column. Eliminate the duplicates.

  • Evaluate the ideas by giving each participant a packet of self-sticking dots and have them place the dots on their preferred ideas. They can allocate the dots in any manner desired, placing them all on one idea, one each on five different ideas, or any other combination.

Brainwriting ensures that the loudest voices don't prevail, participants feel less pressure from managers and bosses, and ideas can't be shot down as soon as they are offered.

Other formats for brainwriting can be developed but two principles should be followed. Idea generation must be silent. And ideas are created spontaneously in parallel. Idea Pool, Gallery, and Drawing Ideas are a few examples of alternative approaches you might consider.

VB: How do these three alternative approaches work?

Michael Michalko: With Idea Pool you ask participants to silently generate ideas on cards and place their cards in the center of the table instead of passing them to the person on their right. Whenever a participant wants or needs a stimulation card, they simply exchange their cards for cards from the pool.

Gallery reverses the normal process. Instead of moving ideas around for people to examine, the gallery moves people around. Post sheets of flip-chart paper around the room, one per participant.

Participants stand silently and write their ideas on their sheets for ten to 15 minutes. Then the participants spend 15 minutes walking around the "gallery" and look at the other ideas and take notes. Using the other ideas to stimulate further thought, participants return to their sheets and add to or refine their ideas.

After about ten minutes of additional writing, the participants examine all the ideas and select what they think are the best ones.

With Drawing Ideas participants are asked to draw or diagram their ideas instead of listing them. For example, how many windows are there in your house? Diagramming your house allows you inspect and count the windows. Post sheets of flip-chart paper and then ask the participants to draw a sketch or diagram of how the problem might be solved.

Then the participants walk around the "gallery" and take notes. Using the notes, they return and refine their own sketches. The group then examines all the sketches and constructs a final solution from parts of different sketches.

VB: You talk about the creative breakthroughs that can be made through collaborative thinking as compared to the more traditional competitive approach. Will the ability of large numbers of people to collaborate online mean that in future we will witness unparalleled creativity through the wisdom of the crowd?

Michael Michalko: The Japanese monkey, Macaca Fuscata, had been observed in the wild for a period of over 30 years.

In 1952, on the island of Koshima, scientists were providing monkeys with sweet potatoes dropped in the sand. The monkey liked the taste of the raw sweet potatoes, but they found the dirt unpleasant. So they ignored the potatoes and ate other vegetables.

An 18-month-old female named Imo discovered she could solve the problem by washing the potatoes in a nearby stream. She taught this trick to her mother. Her playmates also learned this new way and they taught their mothers too.

This "cultural" innovation was gradually picked up by various monkeys before the eyes of the scientists. Between 1952 and 1958 all the young monkeys learned to wash the sandy sweet potatoes to make them more palatable.

Only the parents who imitated their children learned this social improvement. Other adults kept eating the dirty sweet potatoes and paid no attention to what the other monkeys were doing.

Then something startling took place—an extraordinary event occurred. In the autumn of 1958, a certain number of Koshima monkeys were washing sweet potatoes—the exact number is not known. Let’s suppose that when the sun rose one morning there were 99 monkeys on Koshima Island who had learned to wash their sweet potatoes.

Let's further suppose that later that morning, the hundredth monkey learned to wash potatoes. By that evening almost everyone in the tribe was washing sweet potatoes before eating them. The added energy of this hundredth monkey somehow created an ideological breakthrough.

But wait, something even more surprising happened. The scientists dscovered that the behavior of washing the sweet potatoes then jumped over the sea. Colonies of monkeys on other islands and the mainland troop of monkeys at Takasakiyama began washing their sweet potatoes.

All the monkeys everywhere suddenly realized how to make the potatoes palatable by washing them.

Incredibly, it seems, when a certain critical number achieves an awareness, this new awareness may be communicated from mind to mind. Although the exact number may vary, this Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon means that when only a limited number of people know of a new way, it may remain the conscious property of these people.

But there is a point at which if only one more person tunes in to a new awareness, a field is strengthened so that this awareness is picked up by almost everyone.

The central idea is that when enough individuals in a population adopt a new idea or behavior, there occurs an ideological breakthrough that allows this new awareness to be communicated directly from mind to mind without the connection of external experience. And then all individuals in the population spontaneously adopt it. It may be that when enough of us hold something to be true, it becomes true for everyone.

Perhaps a timely example. Imagine what this could mean with the millions of people collaborating online. Just suppose a small group of Internet collaborators believed that the USA Senate and House of Representatives should be restructured and reformed.

For example, something like instead of lawyers and politicians, people should be represented by average people in ordinary occupations in percentages (e.g., 8% doctors, 8% teachers, 8% corporate CEOs, 8% factory workers, 8% clergy, 8% senior citizens, 8% military, 8% law enforcement, 8% welfare workers, 8% housewives or house husbands, 8% lawyers, 8% self-employed, and so.

Also both houses are turned over every six years to ensure new blood and prevent the empires we now have with lawyers and politicians serving 30-plus years with full benefits for their entire family. Imagine if such beliefs could be spontaneously adopted.

VB: Cracking Creativity was published in 2001. Are there any chapters or content you would add if you were publishing an enhanced edition today?

Michael Michalko: Yes. I would add chapters on creative thinking techniques from other cultures. For example, the Japanese use a technique that explores Japanese ways of conceiving of things, as well as their technology and aesthetic sensibility.

The technique consists of 39 sets of paired photos laid side-by-side. The left side of each pair is devoted to a contemporary image and the right side presents an image from the past. The two are linked by a key word or phrase that unifies them in a single concept. Under the rubric, "Symbiosis with machines," for example, a photo of the modern humanoid robot called ASIMO is paired with a picture of a tea-carrying doll dating from the Edo period—1603 to 1868.

Both images symbolize the desire to create a tool or machine in the image of a human being and to treat it as part of the family.

VB: Of the many creative geniuses you have studied, who did you find most inspiring in terms of providing or exemplifying methods for generating creativity and new ideas?

Michael Michalko: Leonardo da Vinci. His curiosity into all things—art, science, military, industrial, flight, the sea—kept Leonardo from finishing many of his paintings. His work ranged from optics, anatomy and engineering to geology and hydraulics. He did not fragment knowledge into separate disciplines.

To Da Vinci there was simply knowledge or ignorance. His was a unified theory of creativity. There is an underlying unity of Leonardo's investigations, particularly his persistent belief that the earth is a macrocosm of the human organism. The earth's soil is its flesh, its rocky substructure is its bones, water runs through rivers like blood through veins, the tides are the earth's pulse or, at other moments, its breathing.

VB: Why do some consider Richard Feynman, physicist and 1965 Nobel Prize winner in Physics, to be the last great American genius? He died 20 years ago at the age of 70!

Michael Michalko: Richard Feynman did things that nobody else could do. The path he cleared for 20-century physics led from the making of the atomic bomb to a Nobel Prize-winning theory of quantum electrodynamics to his devastating expose of the Challenger space shuttle disaster.

One of the most important lessons I learned from Richard Feynman about thinking was something that happened in his life in 1967.

He had become unproductive as a physicist and began to believe he had run out of ideas. Dick (Feynman) had gotten to know the biologist James Watson during his sabbatical year as a graduate student in biology. Dick had an opportunity to renew their acquaintance when he visited Chicago early in 1967, and when they met, Watson gave Feynman a copy of the typescript of what was to become his famous book, The Double Helix.

The book is about Watson’s discovery, together with Francis Crick, of the structure of DNA. Feynman read the book straight through, the same day.

He had been accompanied on that trip by David Goodstein, then a young physicist just completing his PhD at Caltech. Late that night Feynman collared Goodstein and told him that he had to read Watson's book—immediately.

Goodstein did as he was told, reading through the night while Feynman paced up and down, or sat doodling on a pad of paper. Some time towards dawn, Goodstein looked up and commented to Feynman that the surprising thing was that Watson had been involved in making such a fundamental advance in science, and yet he had been completely out of touch with what everybody else in his field was doing.

Feynman held up the pad he had been doodling on. In the middle, surrounded by all kinds of scribble, was one word, in capitals: DISREGARD. That, he told Goodstein, was the whole point. That was what he had forgotten, and why he had been making so little progress.

The way for researchers like himself and Watson to make a breakthrough was to be ignorant of what everybody else was doing and plough their own furrow.

What had gone wrong for Feynman was that he had begun taking too seriously the idea that modern knowledge is a collective enterprise. Just trying to keep up with his field had suppressed his own sources of inspiration, which were in his own solitary questions and examinations.

This, indeed, is the fate of most research in most disciplines—to make the smallest, least threatening, possible addition to current knowledge. Anything more would be presumptuous, anything more might elicit the fatal, "Don't you know what so-and-so is doing?" from a Peer Reviewer.

Anything more might invite dismissal as some off-the-wall speculation—not serious work.

So Feynman stopped trying to keep up with the scientific literature or compete with other theorists at their own game. He went back to his roots, comparing experiment with theory, making guesses that were all his own.

Thus he became productive again, as he had been when he had just been working things out for himself, before becoming a famous physicist in academia.

While this is an important lesson for science, it is a supreme lesson for any discipline where current knowledge can be dominated by theories that are simply incoherent. Trying to keep up with literature like that is a complete waste of time, even if contributions to it earn the praise of reviewers and are snapped up by prestigious journals.

To participate in this may prudently recommend itself to the careerist, but it holds little hope of making any real contributions to the progress of knowledge.

New ideas do not come from committees, and although this dynamic is so well understood as to be part of folk wisdom, researchers in many areas of science or scholarship are so blinded by their own herd mentality, or collectivist ideology, or rent-seeking behavior, that they commonly act, both for themselves and in judgment of others, in denial of it.

Of all the curious lessons of Richard Feynman's life, this is one of the best lessons he learned.

VB: Are you aware of any creative geniuses in business or politics in the world today?

Michael Michalko: Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are at the top of my list.

VB: You say that you agree with those who believe Machiavelli sparked the development of modern industrial society by combining what he learned from Leonardo da Vinci with his own insights about politics. Would you elaborate?

Michael Michalko: Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli combined talents to develop a novel weapon of war—the diversion of a river. In their collaboration process, Leonardo introduced Machiavelli to his concept of applied science.

Years later Machivelli combined what he had learned from Leonardo with his own insights into political organization and created a new political philosophy based on rationalism.

VB: What advice do you have for business or other organizational leaders who would like to promote a culture of creativity?

Michael Michalko: Instead of advice, I’ll paraphrase a parable of the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. A certain flock of geese lived together in a barnyard with high walls around it. Because the corn was good and the barnyard was secure, these geese would never take a risk.

One day a philosopher goose came among them. He was a very good philosopher and every week they listened quietly and attentively to his learned discourses.

"My fellow travelers on the way of life," he would say, "can you seriously imagine that this barnyard, with great high walls around it, is all there is to existence? I tell you, there is another and a greater world outside, a world of which we are only dimly aware.

Our forefathers knew of this outside world. Did they not stretch their wings and fly across the trackless wastes of desert and ocean, of green valley and wooded hill? But alas, here we remain in this barnyard, our wings folded and tucked into our sides, as we are content to puddle in the mud, never lifting our eyes to the heavens which should be our home."

The geese thought this was very fine lecturing. How poetical, they thought. How profoundly existential. What a flawless summary of the mystery of existence.

Often the philosopher spoke of the advantages of flight, calling on the geese to be what they were. After all, they had wings, he pointed out. What were wings for, but to fly with?

Often he reflected on the beauty and the wonder of life outside the barnyard, and the freedom of the skies. And every week the geese were uplifted, inspired, moved by the philosopher's message.

They hung on his every word. They devoted hours, weeks, indeed months to a thoroughgoing analysis and critical evaluation of his doctrines. They produced learned treatises on the ethical and spiritual implications of flight.

All this they did. But one thing they never did. They did not fly! For the corn was good, and the barnyard was secure!

These leaders already know what to do. The question is why don’t they? Are they like the geese in the parable?

VB: What questions should I have asked you but didn't?

Michael Michalko: "Think of an idea that can change the world?" And I would have answered, that is the challenge for your IdeaConnection readers.

VB: Thank you very much for taking the time to share with our readers how they can become creative geniuses if they work at it.

Michael Michalko: Thank you for your kindness, now go out and make it a good day.

Michael Michalko reminds us that all of us were born as spontaneous, creative thinkers. And then few are taught what to think rather than how to think. This means we learn to address problems and new situations with fixed mental attitudes that are not creative. By working hard and learning and following thinking approaches and strategies, we can crack creativity.

The strategies that Michalko describes in Cracking Creativity are worth reading provided one is willing to begin to use them.

Seeing what no one else is seeing:
  • Knowing how to see

  • Making your thought visible

Thinking what no one else is thinking:
  • Thinking fluently

  • Making novel combinations

  • Connecting the unconnected

  • Looking at the other side

  • Looking in other worlds

  • Finding what you are not looking for

  • Awakening the collaborative spirit

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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