Michael Michalko: An interview by Bob Morris

Michael Michalko

Michael Michalko is one of the most highly acclaimed creativity experts in the world and author of the best sellers Thinkertoys (A Handbook of Business Creativity), ThinkPak (A Brainstorming Card Deck), Creative Thinkering (Putting your Imagination to Work), and Cracking Creativity (The Secrets Of Creative Genius).

As an officer in the United States Army, Michael 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, Michael facilitated CIA think tanks using his creative thinking techniques. Michael later applied these creative-thinking techniques to problems in the corporate world with outstanding successes.  Michael 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, Michael has worked with clients in countries around the world.


Morris: Before discussing any of your books, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Michalko: My mother was my greatest influence because she taught me by example that your life and happiness is determined by what you choose to or refuse to do.

We do not choose to be born. We do not choose our parents. We do not choose our historical epoch, or the country of our birth, or the immediate circumstances of our upbringing. We do not, most of us, choose to die; nor do we choose the time or conditions of our death. But within all this realm of choicelessness, we do choose how we shall live: with purpose or adrift, with joy or with joylessness, with hope or with despair, with humor or with sadness, with a positive outlook or a negative outlook, with pride or with shame, with inspiration or with defeat and with honor or with dishonor. We decide that what makes us significant or insignificant. We decide to be creative or to be indifferent. No matter how indifferent the universe may be to our choices and decisions, these choices and decisions are ours to make. We decide. We choose. In the end, the meaning of our own life is decided by what we choose to do or what we refuse to do. And as we decide and choose, so are our destinies formed.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Michalko: While in the military I observed that the more an expert one became in an area of military specialization, the less creative and innovative that person became. The paradox is that people who know more, see less; and the people who know less, see more. Consequently, the majority of the generals had a fixed mindset about what is possible and what is not. The creative and innovative solutions to military problem came from the youngest noncoms and officers who still had open minds.

I discovered the same paradox in civilian life. An example of this is when Apple Computer Inc. founder, Steve Jobs, attempted, without success, to get Atari and Hewlett-Packard interested in his and Steve Wozniak’s personal computer. As Steve recounts, “So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary; we’ll come work for you.’ And their experts laughed and said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t gotten through college yet.”

It seems that once a person has formed an expectation concerning the subject being observed–this influences future perceptions of the subject.  Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., thought the idea of a personal computer absurd, as he said, “there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocketry, was ridiculed by every scientist for his revolutionary liquid-fueled rockets. Even the New York Times chimed in with an editorial in 1921 by scientists who claimed that Goddard lacked even the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high school science classes. Pierrre Pachet, a renowned physiology professor and expert, declared, “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.”

If we experience any strain in imagining a possibility, we quickly conclude it’s impossible. This principle also helps explain why evolutionary change often goes unnoticed by the experts. The greater the commitment of the expert to their established view, the more difficult it is for the expert to do anything more than to continue repeating their established view. It also explains the phenomenon of a beginner who comes up with the breakthrough insight or idea that was overlooked by the experts who worked on the same problem for years.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Michalko: The realization that most educated people have a fixed mindset that encourages robotic thinking and determines a person’s outlook and behavior. Think of the fixed mindset shaped like an upside down funnel. At the wide bottom, there is a wide variety of different experiences. At the top, there is the narrow opening which represents a fixed mindset that superimposes itself on all the experiences. Once people with a fixed mindset have settled on a perspective, they close off all other lines of thought. Whereas, a creative thinker’s mind is shaped like a right side up funnel with the narrow opening over one experience. At the wide top there is a wide variety of different ways to see and think about the one experience. This represents a creative thinker’s growth mindset.

Imagine a mud puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world.  I find myself in this hole and I find that it fits me perfectly. In fact, it fits me so well, it must have been made to have me in it. Everything is fine and there is no need for me to worry about changing anything.” Yet every day as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up, the puddle gets smaller and smaller. Yet the puddle frantically hangs on to the notion that everything’s going to be all right, because the puddle believes the world is what it is and was meant to have him in it. The moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.

People with fixed mindsets are like the mud puddle. They were taught by authority figures that their genes, family, education and environment have determined their destiny, and they, like the atom, just are. Many of them were taught that they are not creative. Consequently, they believe they are a certain kind of person and there is not much they can do to change that. They might be able change some small things but the important part of who they are can’t be changed.

It was this realization that encouraged me to research, write and teach the importance of understanding these cognitive mindsets, how they influence us and how we can easily change the dynamics of a mindset and change the way we think and see things.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Michalko: What I learned from observing and listening to academics in college was their curious tendency to assimilate new information into their pre-existing views. Their mental image of the established view interferes with their perception and understanding of new ideas and concepts. In the case of real life, physicists could not see Einstein’s theory of relativity because of their established, accepted view. For years, they tried to incorporate his view into the established view without success.

Experts always try to assimilate new insights, ideas and concepts into their view. What happens in real life is, despite ambiguous stimuli, people form some sort of tentative hypothesis about what they see. The longer they are exposed to this hypothesis, the greater confidence they develop in this initial and perhaps erroneous impression, so the greater the impact this initial hypothesis has on subsequent perceptions.

Suppose an expert has an established theory about the danger of boxes and their effect on human life and the environment. The theory is that boxes might be harmful and the use of boxes should be regulated. Now, suppose that I leave a box on the floor, and my wife trips on it, falling against my son, who is carrying a carton of eggs, which then fall and break. The expert’s approach to an event like this would be that the best way to prevent the breakage of eggs would be to outlaw leaving boxes on the floor. As silly as this example is, it is analogous to what is happening in the world of global warming. If you survey the history of science, it is apparent that most individuals who have created radical innovations did not do so simply because they knew more than others. One of the most important experiences Noble laureate, Richard Feynman, had in his life was reading a copy of James Watson’s typescript of what was to become his famous book, The Double Helix, about his discovery, together with Francis Crick, of the structure of DNA. Feynman had become unproductive and began to believe he had run out of ideas. The discovery Feynman made 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.

As told in Watson’s classic memoir, The Double Helix, it was a tale of boundless ambition, impatience with authority and disdain, if not contempt, for received opinion. “A goodly number of scientists,” Watson explained, “are not only narrow-minded and dull but also just stupid.” Feynman wrote one word, in capitals: DISREGARD on his notepad when he read that. This word became his motto. That, he said, was the whole point. That was what he had forgotten, and why he had been making so little progress. The way for thinkers like himself to make a breakthrough was to be ignorant of what everybody else was doing and make their own interpretations and guesses.

So Feynman “stopped trying to keep up with what others were doing and went back to his roots, comparing experiment with theory, making guesses that were all his own.” Thus he became creative 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.

Make your own interpretations of your experiences to shape your own beliefs and concepts about your world. This is the lesson Feynman called the most important of his life. This is the lesson I learned during my college years.

Morris: I wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard someone say, “I’m just not very creative.” What is your response to that lament?

Michalko: The only difference between people who are creative and people who are not is a simple belief. Creative people believe they are creative. People who believe they are not creative, are not. Once you have a particular identity and set of beliefs about yourself, you become interested in seeking out the skills needed to express your identity and beliefs. This is why people who believe they are creative become creative. They work at becoming more creative every day by learning and using new skills and techniques. If you believe you are not creative, then there is no need to learn how to become creative and you don’t. The reality is that believing you are not creative excuses you from trying or attempting anything new. When someone tells you that they are not creative, you are talking to someone who has no interest and will make no effort to be a creative thinker. They have become mentally lazy.

Mentally lazy people are conditioned to circumvent deliberative and creative thinking wherever possible through rote memorization and robotic learning of formulas and principles. We have been trained to seek out the neural path of least resistance, searching out responses that have worked in the past, rather than approach a problem on its own terms. This kind of thinking is dehumanizing and naturalizes intellectual laziness which promotes an impulse toward doing whatever is easiest or doing nothing at all.

Here is a general law of nature: When organisms no longer use something they have—no matter what it is, eyes, brilliant colors, wings, or even brains—that something rapidly evolves and becomes lost. Consider flight in birds. Birds typically live longer than mammals of the same size, in part because they can escape from predators more easily. However, flight can take a lot of energy, and it keeps you small. Thus, if there aren’t any predators—as on remote islands—the birds become lazy and flightlessness quickly evolves.

Like the birds on remote islands that lost their ability to fly, people who proclaim they are not creative are losing the ability to think creatively because they don’t have to think creatively in order to survive.

Morris: In your opinion, what are the most significant differences between creativity and innovation?

Michalko:  I think the best statement about difference is Theodore Levitt’s classic definition of creativity and innovation:  “Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.”

“Innovative” is an “external” word. It can be measured. It generally talks about things that have been tested properly and found to have worked in the real world. “Creative”, however, is more of an “internal” word. It’s subjective and far harder to define. It’s an inward journey, not outward, which is why a lot of people in business try to keep the word out of their official lexicon, preferring instead more neutral, more externally-focused language like “Value”, “Excellence”, “Quality” and yes, “Innovation”.

Morris: In recent years, there has been an abundance of business articles and books about design such as Roger Martin’s The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage as well as Tim Brown’s Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation and Tom Lockwood’s Design Thinking: Integrating Innovation, Customer Experience, and Brand Value.

Here’s my question: To what extent (if any) do the core principles of business design differ from those you emphasize in your own works?

Michalko:  Design Thinking is systems thinking in naming a particular approach to understanding and solving problems. All these system approaches cultivate an attitude which puts the major emphasis on separating experience into different categories (such as empathy, creativity and rationality in design thinking). This encourages people to analyze everything into independent elements that can be dealt with separately. We do this for what intellectuals call logical “understanding,” which means the ability to define, control, and predict things. This is different from what I emphasize in my work.

I believe the mind is like the universe. You have billions of bits of thoughts, observations, and information floating around in your conscious and subconscious mind, totally unobserved, with each bit presenting a multitude of possibilities which evolve and change over time. These thoughts are in multiple states such as words, phrases, metaphors, images, feelings, dreams, symbols, abstractions, voices, and so on. Particles of thought pop up out of nothingness and become entangled with other thoughts influencing each other instantaneously. Much like subatomic particles, these entities have no real existence; they exist only in a probabilistic state of many different possibilities.

Just as subatomic particles do not exist unless observed, your subconscious thoughts do not exist until you observe them. In other words, there is no thought independent of you, the observer. It is your conscious choice that is responsible for manifesting both the proverbial falling tree and theyou who hears it. No observer, no sound, no tree.

When you are brainstorming for ideas and have a thought, the value of that thought depends upon how you interact with it. We are educated to be critical, judgmental, logical thinkers and to instantly evaluate and judge thoughts based on our past experiences. If there is any ambiguity, the judgment is invariably negative and the thought dissipates back into nothingness. The ordinary mind has no tolerance for ambiguity because it is conditioned to simplify the complexities of life. We are taught to be exclusionary thinkers, which means we exclude anything that is not immediately related to our subject.

Creative geniuses do not think this way. When they brainstorm for ideas, their first objective is to observe and record all thoughts and ideas as possibilities. They observe without judgment. This is why all their thoughts and ideas come into existence as possibilities. Creative geniuses also think inclusively which means they include everything no matter how unrelated or absurd. This is a basic requirement of creative thinking. Creative thinking requires the generation of associations and connections between two or more dissimilar subjects.

Creative geniuses intuitively know that it is important to record their thoughts so they can observe them in their creative consciousness. By recording all possibilities, without judgment, they think discontinuously, which is why geniuses have a tolerance for ambiguity. Much like quantum gravity, as we understand it now, discontinuous thought seems to do away with cause and effect. The logic of tock following tick or output following input just doesn’t apply in the quantum gravity universe or in the discontinuous thinking processes of the creative mind.

The key to productive creative thinking is to harvest the quantum wave-like proliferations of thoughts which abound in our subconscious mind. We make these real by observing, recording and interacting with them. After a conscious preparation to produce new ideas, list every thought, particle of thought, hunch, and, in short, everything that comes to mind without categorizing, evaluating or judging.

Morris: Isaac Asimov once observed, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, ‘hmm… that’s funny…'” Obviously, he is referring to anomalies. Do you agree with him? Please explain.

Michalko:  Whenever we attempt to do something and fail, we end up doing something else. As simplistic as this statement may seem, it is the first principle of creative accident. We may ask ourselves why we have failed to do what we intended, and this is the reasonable, expected thing to do. But the creative accident provokes a different question: What have we done? Answering that question in a novel, unexpected way is the essential creative act. It is not luck but creative insight of the highest order.

The discovery of the electromagnetic laws was a creative accident. The relationship between electricity and magnetism was first observed in 1820 by Oersted in a public lecture at which he was demonstrating the “well known fact” that electricity and magnetism were completely independent phenomena. This time the experiment failed! – an electric current produced a magnetic effect. Oersted was observant enough to notice this effect, honest enough to admit it, and diligent enough to follow up and publish. Maxwell used these experiments to extend Newton’s methods of modeling and mathematical analysis in the mechanical and visible world to the invisible world of electricity and magnetism and derived Maxwell’s Laws which opened the doors to our modern age of electricity and electronics.

B.F. Skinner advised people that when you are working on something and find something interesting, drop everything else and study it. In fact, he emphasized this as a first principle of scientific methodology. This is what William Shockley and a multi-discipline Bell labs team did. They were formed to invent the MOS transistor and ended up instead with the junction transistor and the new science of semiconductor physics. These developments eventually led to the MOS transistor and then to the integrated circuit and to new breakthroughs in electronics and computers. William Shockley described it as a process of “creative failure methodology.”

Richard Feynman, a Nobel Laureate physicist, had an interesting practical test that he applied when reaching a judgment about a new idea: for example, did it explain something unrelated to the original problem. E.g., “What can you explain that you didn’t set out to explain?”and, “What did you discover that you didn’t set out to discover?” In 1938, 27 year old Roy Plunkett set out to invent a new refrigerant. Instead, he created a glob of white waxy material that conducted heat and did not stick to surfaces. Fascinated by this “unexpected” material, he abandoned his original line of research and experimented with this interesting material, which eventually became known by its household name, “Teflon.”

In principle, the unexpected event that gives rise to a creative invention is not all that different from the unexpected automobile breakdown that forces us to spend a night in a new and interesting town, the book sent to us in error that excites our imagination, or the closed restaurant that forces us to explore a different cuisine. But when looking for ideas or creative solutions, many of us ignore the unexpected and, consequently, loose the opportunity to turn chance into a creative opportunity.

Morris: Let’s say that a Fortune 500 company retains you to help create such a culture. Where do you start? Why?

Michalko:  I would suggest to do what Michelangelo would do. Michelangelo’s masterpiece, David, revealed his ability to do what others could not: if other artists required special marble and ideal conditions, he could create a masterpiece from whatever was available, including marble already hopelessly mangled by others. Back in 1463, the authorities of the cathedral of Florence acquired a sixteen-foot-high chunk of white marble to be carved into a sculpture. Two well-known sculptors worked on the piece and gave up, and the mangled block was put in storage. Other sculptors were brought in and asked to continue the work. They all demanded expensive new marble,  special tools, and assistants. These experts demanded “ideal” conditions and materials. Anything less, they said, could not produce art. Their demands were not economically feasible, so the project was scrapped by the cathedral. Forty years later, Michelangelo took the mangled block of marble from storage and carved it into the youthful, courageous “David” within eighteen months. He took what existed and sculpted it into the world’s greatest statue.

Take what you have, what already exists and develop your own creativity program by following these guidelines:

(1) Brainstorm with your employees to identify all the good ideas your organization has come up with over the past two years. What were the ideas for new products, processes, and services? What were the ideas for new ways to organize and new ways to communicate? List all the ideas that have been proven to be successful.

(2) Next, have an open discussion to analyze the ideas. Who came up with the ideas? How did they arise? What inspired the people to come up with the ideas? Did they arise during work or at home?  Can they describe the process in detail? What were the barriers and obstacles? What were the problems that had to be overcome? How were they overcome? Were the ideas accepted as is or were they elaborated on over time? How were they embellished? What was the process? Were the ideas immediately accepted or did they have to be sold? If they had to be sold, how were they sold? Who helped get the ideas recognized and implemented? Do the people who suggested the ideas feel that they were rewarded adequately? Were they recognized? Were the achievements celebrated by the organization?

(3) Now, brainstorm for common factors. What do the good ideas have in common? Who are the people who contributed the ideas? Were they contributed by many different people, or were they contributed by one or two individuals? Were they contributed by people skilled or trained in creative thinking? If so, how were they trained? What inspired the ideas? Did they use a particular technique? Did the ideas come out of group brainstorming sessions? If so, how was the session conducted and who facilitated it? Is there a particular department that is more effective than others in stimulating good ideas? Is there a particular supervisor who is more effective than others in stimulating good ideas? Are there particular employees who are creative? Can they describe how they generate ideas?  Do they use a defined methodology? Were the ideas generated under high pressure conditions or were the conditions relaxed? What was the physical environment like? What materials were used?

(4) Finally, after the common factors have been identified and listed, develop a program to insure that these common factors are used to stimulate creativity. This exercise won’t cost you a cent, and it’s highly likely that the program and guidelines you develop will be more realistic and useful than one you pay someone else to develop for you. It’s also eminently educational and useful for everyone involved. Everyone is encouraged to think about the creative process and how it realistically relates to them in the organization.

Morris: While you served as an officer in the U.S. Army, you organized a team of NATO intelligence specialists and international academics in Frankfurt, Germany, to research, collect, and categorize all known methods of thinking. In your opinion, which of these methods would be most appropriate when teaching students in grades 9-12? Please explain.

Michalko:  Productive thinking is the method I would choose. It encourages discovery, invention, quantity, inclusive thinking, and originality. An example of a productive thinker is Noble prize winner Richard Feynman. Whenever he was stuck on a problem he would invent new thinking strategies. He felt the secret to his genius was his ability to disregard how past thinkers thought about problems and, instead, would invent new ways to think. He was so “unstuck” that if something didn’t work, he would look at it several different ways until he found a way that moved his imagination. He was wonderfully productive. He could do something in ten minutes that might take the average physicist a year.

Feynman proposed teaching productive thinking in our educational institutions in lieu of reproductive thinking. He believed that the successful user of mathematics is an inventor of new ways of thinking in given situations. He believed that even if the old ways are well known, it is usually better to invent your own way or a new way than it is to look it up and apply what you’ve looked up.

The problem 29 + 3 is considered a third-grade problem, because it requires the advanced technique of carrying; yet Feynman pointed out that a first grader could handle it by thinking 30, 31, 32. A child could mark numbers on a line and count off the spaces–a method that becomes useful in understanding measurements and fractions. One can write larger numbers in columns and carry sums larger than 10. Use fingers or algebra (2 times what plus 3 is 7?). He encouraged the teaching of an attitude where people are taught to figure out how to think about problems many different ways using trial and error.

We 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.

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.

Morris:  If there were another monument comparable with the one on Mt. Rushmore for creative thinkers, who would be your four choices? Please explain your reasons for each selection.

Michalko: My four choices would be:

1.              Hay. The most important invention of the last two thousand years was hay. In the classical world of Greece and Rome and in all earlier times, there was no hay. Civilization could exist only in warm climates where horses could stay alive through the winter by grazing. Without grass in winter you could not have horses, and without horses you could not have urban civilization. Some time during the so-called dark ages, some unknown genius invented hay, forests were turned into meadows, hay was reaped and stored, and civilization moved north over the Alps.

2.              Johann Gutenberg for his invention of the printing press which ushered in the information age.

3.              Michael Faraday. Michael Faraday discovered how to induce an electric current, described by Asimov as ‘probably the greatest single electrical discovery in history’, on August 29, 1831. Following this, ’10 days of decisive experiment’ ended in his paper on ‘The Induction of Electric Currents (7).”

4.              The Wright brothers for the airplane which symbolizes the essence of invention by being composed of other inventions: the wheel, the bicycle, a glider, a prop, and a 12 horse power engine. The airplane is important because it diminishes our parochial view;  it too changed the manner of warfare and one can argue that it was an early form of the space shuttle.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Creative Thinkering. When and why did you decide to write it?

Michalko: I wanted to convey a simple message which is that there is nothing mysterious about creative thinking. Creative thinking simply requires the generation of associations and connections between two or more dissimilar subjects. It is quite simply combining subjects together to create new ideas. Geniuses are geniuses because they form more novel combinations than the average person.

Morris: Of course, the word “thinkering” attracts attention. Why not “thinking”?

Michalko: I titled this book Creative Thinkering. The word “Thinkering” is itself a combination of the words “thinker” and “thinking.” Enfolding the two words into the one word “thinkering” symbolizes how both the creative personality and the creative thinking process, like form and content in nature, are inextricably connected and cannot be separated.

Morris: You devote Part I to Creative Thinking (not Thinkering) and then Part II to The Creative Thinker (not Thinkerer). Why did you organize and present the material in that sequence?

Michalko:  Part 1 – Creative thinking. We are educated to be analytical, logical thinkers. Consequently, we have the ability to make common associations between similar subjects. We are far better at associating two words (e.g. apples and bananas are both fruit) than we are at forcing connections between words that seem to have no association (e.g. can opener and pea pod).

On Intelligence explains how our ability to associate related concepts limits our ability to be creative. We form mental walls between associations of related concepts and concepts that are not related. For example, if asked to improve the can opener, we will make connections from all of our common experiences and associations with can openers.  Consequently, our fixation with our common associations will produce ideas that are very similar to the can openers that exist.

Part 1 develops the skill of forcing connections between unrelated things which will tear down the walls between unrelated concepts. This is probably the single most important creative thinking skill when it comes to creative thinking. What, for example, are the connections between a can opener and a pea pod?

The essence of a can opener is “opening.” How do things in other domains open? For example, in nature, a pea pod opens when a seam weakens as the pod ripens. Thinking simultaneously about a pea pod and a can opener in the same mental space will force a connection between the pea pod “seam” and a can opener. This inspires the idea of “opening a can by pulling a weak seam (like a pea pod). Instead of an idea to improve the can opener, we produced an idea for a new can design.

Part 2 – Creative Thinker.  In our society today, there is an almost universal tendency to ignore the dynamic interconnectedness of all things. Similarly, there are a number of parts that make up a creative thinking person, all of which are interconnected. One part cannot be changed without changing everything. If you change one part, you affect all parts.

To continue further, think of the sentence “The mouse is confined in a box.” A box can be made by nailing six boards together. But it’s obvious that no box can hold a mouse unless the box has “containment.” If you study each board, you will discover that no single board has any containment, since the mouse can just walk away from it. And if there is no containment in one board, there can’t be any in six boards. So the box can have no containment at all. Theoretically, then, the mouse should be able to escape.

What, then, keeps the mouse confined? Of course, it is the way a box prevents motion in all directions, because each board bars escape in a certain direction. The left side keeps the mouse from going left; the right keeps it from going right, the top keeps it from leaping out, and so on. The secret of a box simply lies in how the boards are arranged to prevent motion in all directions! That’s what “containing” means. So it’s silly to expect any separate board by itself to contain.

The reason a box seems non- mysterious is that we understand perfectly that no single board can contain by itself. Everyone understands how the boards of a well well-made box interact to prevent motion in any direction. The same applies to the word “creative.” It is foolish to use this word to describe the smallest components of a process, because this word was invented to describe how larger assemblies interact.

Similarly, the creative thinker is a result of the assembly and interactions of certain critical human traits. First, you must have the intention and desire to be creative; secondly, you must consciously cultivate positive speaking and thinking patterns; and lastly, you must act like a creative thinker; and go through the motions of being creative every day.

Morris: I agree with you that formal education has prepared us to be analytical thinkers, to make connections and decisions that are – or at least seem to be – logical. That is, “to process information based on what has happened in the past, what past thinkers thought, and what exists now.” How specifically does this approach in formal education inhibit (if not preclude) the development of new ideas?

Michalko:  Reproductive thinking fosters rigidity of thought. This is why we so often fail when confronted with a new problem that is similar to past experiences only in superficial ways, or on the surface, and is different from previously encountered problems in its deep structure. Interpreting such a problem through the prism of past experience will, by definition, lead the thinker astray. Reproductive thinking leads us to the usual ideas and not to original ones. If you always think the way you’ve always thought, you’ll always get what you’ve always got–the same old, same old ideas.

In 1968, the Swiss dominated the watch industry. The Swiss themselves invented the electronic watch movement at their research institute in Neuchatel, Switzerland. It was rejected by every Swiss watch manufacturer. Based on their past experiences in the industry, they believed this couldn’t possibly be the watch of the future. After all, it was battery powered, did not have bearings or a mainspring and almost no gears. Seiko took one look at this invention that the Swiss manufacturers rejected  at the World Watch Congress that year and took over the world watch market. When Univac invented the computer, they refused to talk to business people who inquired about it, because they said the computer was invented for scientists and had no business applications. Then along came IBM.  IBM, itself, once said that according to their past experiences in the computer market, there is virtually no market for the personal computer. In fact, they said they were absolutely certain there were no more than five or six people in the entire world who had need for a personal computer.  And along came Apple.

Morris: What is conceptual blending and why is it “the most important factor in creative thinking”?

Michalko:  Creativity in all domains, including science, technology, medicine, the arts, and day-to-day living, emerges from the basic mental operation of conceptually blending of dissimilar subjects.  When analyzed, creative ideas are always new combinations of old ideas. A poet does not generally make up new words. Rather, old words are put together in new ways. The French poet Paul Valery described his poetry this way, “It takes two to invent anything. The one makes up combinations; the other chooses, recognizes what he wishes and what is important to him in the mass of things which the former has imparted to him.” Consider Einstein’s theory of relativity in science.  He did not invent the concepts of energy, mass, or speed of light. Rather, he combined these ideas in a new and useful way.

Think for a moment about a pinecone. What relationship does a pinecone have with the processes of reading and writing? In France, in 1818, a nine-year-old boy accidentally blinded himself while helping his father make horse harnesses. A few years later, the boy was sitting in the yard thinking about his inability to read and write when a friend handed him a pinecone. He ran his fingers over the cone and noted the tiny differences between the scales. He conceptually blended the feel of different pine pinecone scales with reading and writing, and realized he could create an alphabet of raised dots on paper so the blind could feel and read what was written with it. In this way, Louis Braille opened up a whole new world for the blind.

Morris: Please explain your use of the caterpillar and butterfly metaphor in the Introduction.

Michalko:  I metaphorically think of the caterpillar and butterfly when I think of how people can change. In metamorphosis, little things that biologists call imaginal disc cells begin to crop up in the body of the  caterpillar. At first, they have difficulty surviving. It isn’t until they begin to combine and interact with each other that they get stronger and are able to resist being attacked by the immune system.  Then these imaginal disc cells replace the caterpillar cells, and the caterpillar becomes a butterfly.

I think that is a beautiful metaphor for the process of becoming a creative personality. We do not inherit our behavioral traits directly from, through our genes. Instead we develop traits through the dynamic process of how we interact with our environment. At first your changes may have difficulty surviving (much like the first cells of a butterfly), but over time — as you consistently work to change your perceptions, thinking patterns, speaking patterns, attitude, and the way you act — you will find these forces linking up and changing the way you interact with your environment. Like a caterpillar who was surprised when it became a butterfly, you will be surprised when you find yourself transformed from a dull, passive onlooker into an active creative thinker who can change the world we live in.

Morris: How specifically does a human mind resemble a cathedral?

Michalko: When you are born, your mind is like a cathedral with a long central hall where information enters and intermingles and combines with other information without distinction.

Education changes that. Education changes the cathedral of your mind into a long hall with doors on the sides of the hall that lead to private rooms segregated from the main assembly. When information enters the hall, it’s labeled and boxed and then directed to one of the private rooms and is trapped inside. One room is labeled for biology, one room is labeled for electronics, one room for business, one room for religion, one room is for language, one is for math and so on. We’re taught when we need ideas or solutions to go to the appropriate room and search inside for the appropriate boxes.

We’re taught not to mix the contents of the rooms. E.g., if you’re working on a business problem, stay in the business room and stay out of all the other rooms. If you’re working on a medical problem, stay out of the religion room and so on. The more education a person has, the more boxes and the more private rooms they have.

Morris: With regard to Leonardo da Vinci, you observe, “His mind integrated information instead of segregating it. This is why he was polymathic. He created breakthroughs in art, science, engineering, military science, invention, and medicine.” What structure does his mind resemble?

Michalko:  Leonardo da Vinci was not allowed to attend a university because he was born out of wedlock. Because of his lack of a formal education, his mind remained like a cathedral with a long central hall without separate rooms. He enjoyed fluidity of thought as his concepts, thoughts, and ideas intermixed, combined, blended and danced with each other. His mind integrated information instead of segregating it. This is why his genius was polymathic. He created breakthroughs in art, science, engineering, military science, invention and medicine.

Morris: Please identify the lessons about creative thinking that can be learned from each of these thought leaders, listed in alphabetical order. First, Paul Cézanne.

Michalko: The French artist, Paul Cezanne, changed the nature of art by introducing a multiplicity of perspectives and brought forth a new visual consciousness with his multiple versions of Mont Sainte-Victoire and the multiple versions of the apples on his tablecloth. In physics, Einstein suggested that even the distinction between matter and energy might depend upon a point of view. What was wave from one point of view was particle in another; what was field in one experiment was trajectory in another. The multiplication of different perspectives multiplies the possibilities.

Morris:  Next, Walt Disney.

Michalko:  How to fantasize and imagineer your ideas into practical ideas. Disney had a three stage creative thinking process. First, he was the dreamer and would dream up all kinds of fantastical ideas. The next stage, he became the realist and would try to imagineer these fantastical ideas into something practical and profitable. Finally, he was the critic and would try to poke holes into all the ideas. The ideas that survived this stage would be the ones he worked on.


Morris:  Then, Johannes Gutenberg.

Michalko:  Johann Guttenberg, a German goldsmith, invented a moveable-type printing press and in so doing, revolutionized the storage and transmission of information. Guttenberg’s invention ushered in the “Information Age.” The printing press is an example of conceptually blending two subjects from different domains into a breakthrough idea.

One day he took an excursion to visit a wine orchard during harvesting season. While watching the wine press in operation, he was struck by the fact the when the black grapes were crushed by the press, they left imprints on the sides. He blended the concept of a grape press with the concept of moveable type. All he had to do was to transfer the same principle of a grape press to a letter press. And so, in a flash, he said “God had revealed to me the secret that I demanded of him.”

Morris:  Also, Max Planck.

Michalko: Plank taught us to learn to tolerate ambiguity. He said “We need to reach an accommodation with uncertainty. Not only is the universe uncertain, but so too is human knowledge. Science as a process should never have fostered any illusions about this: it was always about provisional truths – and knew it. Perhaps it’s time for us to finally accept that we shouldn’t believe in science because we think it’s certain, but precisely because it’s not.”

A tolerance of ambiguity is necessary to make imaginative links and to become open and nonjudgmental to all experiences.  Creativity is a process that demands the generation of a quantity of alternative possibilities which can only be accomplished with a tolerance for ambiguity.

Morris:  Finally, Fred Smith.

Michalko: Fred Smith created Federal Express by creating a delivery system the way a bank clearinghouse moves money. He thought in terms of essences (how do things move), functions (what is delivery) and patterns (what are the patterns made by the movement of things) which enabled him to make abstract connections and conceptualize an innovative delivery system.

We have been educated not to do this. Over time we have cultivated the habit of putting the major emphasis on separating subjects into particulars and focusing on the particulars. To better visualize what I mean, imagine an aquarium containing a fish. Imagine also that you are unable to see the aquarium directly and your knowledge about it and what it contains comes from three television cameras, one directed at the aquarium’s front, another at the rear and the other directed at its side.

Most people assume that the fish on each of the screens are separate entities. After all, because the cameras are set at different angles, each of the images will be slightly different. They would then believe they are watching three different fishes. In the same way, by focusing on the particulars of experience, we remain blind to essences, functions, and patterns in our experiences.

A creative thinker would observe a certain relationship between them. When one turns, the other also makes a slightly different but corresponding turn; when one faces the front, the other always faces toward the side. Because of the patterns of movement, the creative thinker would soon conclude that either the three fish must be instantaneously communicating with one another, or the thinker is looking at the same fish from three different perspectives.

Morris: What is the “lesson” from nature that you discuss in Chapter 5. Why is it especially important to the creative process?

Michalko: The most creative force is nature. The first thing we learn about nature is its extraordinary productivity. Nature creates many possibilities through blind “trial and error” and then lets the process of natural selection decide which species survive. In nature, 95% of new species fail and die. Over time, the gene pool for the surviving species stabilizes and thrives, but eventually seeks variation. In nature, a gene pool totally lacking in variation would be unable to adapt to changing circumstances, with consequences which would be fatal to the species’ survival. In time the genetically encoded wisdom would convert to foolishness.

Nature creates genetic mutations to provide the variations needed for survival. Nature cannot will mutations. 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.

A comparable process operates within us. Every individual has the ability to create ideas based on his or her existing patterns of thinking which are based on past education and experience. But without any provision for variations, ideas eventually stagnate and lose their adaptive advantages. In the end, if you always think the way you’ve always thought, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. The same-old ideas. Just as nature cannot will mutations, we cannot will variations in our thinking patterns.

Morris: What about Leonardo da Vinci’s “secret” that you discuss in the next chapter?

Michalko:  Leonardo da Vinci was the first to write about the importance of introducing random and chance events to produce variation in one’s thinking patterns.  He suggested that you will find inspiration for marvelous ideas if you look for random subjects to conceptually blend with your challenge. He would gaze at the stains on the walls, or ashes of a fire, or the shapes of clouds, or patterns in mud or in similar places. He would imagine seeing trees, battles, landscapes, figures with lively movements, and so on, and then excite his mind by conceptually blending his subject with the subjects and events he imagined with his subject. Da Vinci would occasionally throw a paint-filled sponge against the wall and contemplate the random stains and what they might represent.

He discovered that 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. No two inputs can remain separate in your mind no matter how remote they are from each other. According to his own story, Isaac Newton conceived the concept of universal gravitation when he observed an apple falling and, at the same time, noticed the moon in the sky. These random simultaneous images inspired him to speculate on whether the same laws governed the falling apple and the moon orbiting the earth. This in turn led him to develop the laws of mechanics and established mathematical analysis and modeling as the principal foundations of science and engineering. Newton’s conceptual combination created new science. The same process can help you to get the ideas you need in the business world.

Morris: Please explain why the way we look at objects can change the way they look. For example?

Michalko: Our expectation of how things are supposed to be replaces our seeing. In one experiment, one group of subjects were first taught to use tools in the ordinary way—e.g., pliers to grip and unfasten wires, or a paper clip to hold papers together. Then the subjects were presented with problems that could only be solved by using the tools in a novel way. They scored almost no successes. Another group were given the tools without instruction and presented the same problems. They scored many more successes. What happened was that the normal learned-use of the tools produced a fixation on one concept of the tool, which prevented the imagining of more novel and relevant uses.

Because you map an object to a particular function, you have difficulties perceiving it in a different way. This is an example of functional fixedness which illustrates a mental set – a person’s tendency to respond to a given task in a manner based on past experience.

It’s the seeing of things without any predetermined concepts that’s important in creativity. Reducing your preconceptions when you face a new problem is a vital element in the creative process.  Arthur Erickson, world famous architect, was always looking for ways to reduce his preconceptions by changing the way he looked at things. In one exercise, he asked his assistants to draw a picture of themselves in a position of movement. Next, he had them create a device (made of plastic, wood, paper or metal) to support that position.

At the end of the exercise, Erickson pointed out to his assistants that they have been designing furniture. As he put it: “If I had said, “Look, we’re going to design a chair or a bed, they would have explored the design on the basis of previous memories of chairs or beds. But by approaching the model from the opposite and essential direction, I was able to make them realize the vital aspects of furniture.”

Morris: You assert, “all dualities and opposites are not disjointed but polar.” OK, but so what? And what is the relevance to creative thinking?

Michalko: The principle to remember is that all dualities and opposites are not disjoined but polar. They do not confront each other from afar; they originate from a common center. Ordinary thinking conceals polarity and relativity because it employs terms and terminals, the poles, neglecting what lies in between them. The difference between front to and back, to be or not to be, hides their unity and mutuality. For example, “beginning—/end” has an intermediate “middle”; “past—/future” has “present”; and “love—/hate” has “indifference.”

Think of a circle and a straight line. They are opposites or so it seems. Yet if you make the circle larger and larger you will keep increasing the circumference of a circle (it will become flatter and flatter) until it reaches infinity and becomes an infinitely straight line.

Imagine the oppositional positions between Israel and Palestine?. A Franciscan monk was a speaker who spoke at an international seminar about world peace. He was asked if successful negotiations between Israel and Palestine were possible. He called two young  men up to the microphone: a Palestinian young man and a Jewish Israeli young man. “Imagine you are brothers,” he told them. “Your father has passed away. He has left you an inheritance with three assets,” represented symbolically by three coins, which  the monk placed on the podium.

“Your instructions are  to share the inheritance fairly, but you cannot split any of the assets,” the  young men were told. “Now you must try to find a creative solution that will get you the maximum possible benefit.” When the Palestinian said he would take two coins and give the Israeli one, everyone laughed again, and the monk said, “Well, okay, but this is how you sow the seeds of conflict. The Israeli said he was actually thinking of taking one coin and giving the Palestinian two. “Evidently,” the monk guessed, “you feel it’s worth the gamble of  investing in your adversary in this way, and hope to somehow benefit from it in the future from this.” The young men sat down.

Next, the monk asked two young women (again one was Israeli, the other Palestinian) to repeat the exercise. “I would keep one coin and give her two,” said the Israeli young woman , “on the condition that she donate her second one to a charity, maybe a children’s hospital.” “Good,” said the monk, and asked the Palestinian woman if she agreed. The young Palestinian said, “I would keep one for myself, and give one to her, and say that we should invest the third one together.” The entire audience stood and applauded for this solution.

This exercise demonstrated to the audience that the nationalistic opposites are not disjoined but polar. They do not confront each other from afar; they originate from a common center. Here the participants  in the exercise found the solution at the common center between the two. Instead of looking for reasons why two points of view are different, people should instead look for reasons why the two points of view may be compatible.

Morris: Now please explain “Michelangelo’s paradox.”

Michalko: The paradox is that for Michelangelo to build something, he had to take something away. After marveling at Michelangelo’s statue of Goliath-vanquishing David, the Pope asked the sculptor, “How do you know what to cut away?” Michelangelo’s reply? “It’s simple. I just remove everything that doesn’t look like David.”

Interestingly, Dr. Albert Rothenberg, a noted researcher on the creative process, has extensively studied the use of opposites in the creative process. He identified a process he terms “Janusian thinking,” a process named after Janus, a Roman God who has two faces, each looking in the opposite direction.  Janusian thinking is the ability to imagine two opposites or contradictory ideas, concepts, or images existing simultaneously. Imagine, if you will, your mother existing as a young baby and old woman simultaneously, or your pet existing and not existing at the same time.

Morris: You cite one of my favorite Einstein quotations as a head note to Chapter 9: “If your idea is not at first absurd, there is no hope for it.” Please explain its relevance to the creative thinking process.

Michalko: The playful openness of creative geniuses is what allows them to explore unthinkable ideas. Thought is a process of fitting new situations into existing slots and pigeonholes in the mind. Just as you cannot put a physical thing into more than one physical pigeonhole at once, the processes of thought prevent you from putting a mental construct into more than one mental category at once. This is because the mind has a basic intolerance for ambiguity, and its first function is to reduce the complexity of its experiences.

When you come up with crazy or fantastical ideas, you step outside your cone of expectations and intentions. Once Wolfgang Pauli, the discoverer of electron spin, was presenting a new theory of elementary particles before a professional audience. An extended discussion followed. Niels Bohr summarized it for Pauli’s benefit by saying that everyone had agreed his theory was crazy. The question that divided them, he claimed, was whether it was crazy enough to have a chance of being correct. Bohr said his own feeling was that it wasn’t crazy enough. Logic hides in Bohr’s 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 and lead to a new perspective.

Morris: What is a “knowing the mind of God” discovery? For example?

Michalko: A well-known physicist once said that all the great discoveries in science were made when scientists were not thinking about a specific problem. In the 1970s, Frank Wilczek of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, deduced how the nuclei of atoms stay together, one of those rare “knowing the mind of God” discoveries. His breakthrough occurred when he was reviewing a totally different problem — in fact, a completely different force of nature.   He suddenly experienced a “mind pop,” and realized that a failed approach in one area would be successful in another.

Others in other fields report the same. Similarly, Bertrand Russell was quoted in The Conquest of Happiness as having said: “I have found, for example, that, if I have to write upon some rather difficult topic, the best plan is think about it with very great intensity — the greatest intensity with of which I am capable — for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak, that the work is to proceed underground. After some months, I return consciously to the topic and find that the work has been done. Before I had discovered this technique, I used to spend time in the intervening months worrying because I was making no progress; I arrived at the solution none the  sooner for this worry, and the worrying time during the intervening months was wasted.”

This is the process cognitive scientists call “incubation” which usually involves setting a problem aside for a few hours, days, or weeks and moving on to other projects. This allows the subconscious to continue to work on the original challenge. The more interested you are in solving the challenge, the more likely your subconscious will generate ideas. The creative act owes little to logic or reason. In their accounts of the circumstances under which big ideas occurred to them, scientists have often mentioned that the inspiration had no relation to the work they happened to be doing. Sometimes it came while they were traveling, shaving, or thinking about other matters. The creative process cannot be summoned at will or even cajoled by sacrificial offering. Indeed, it seems to occur most readily when the mind is relaxed and the imagination roaming freely.

Charles Darwin could point to the rock on the road that his carriage hit, when he suddenly got his insight for the theory of biological evolution. Suddenly he understood everything. All of it was there. Einstein said one night he was working on the theory of relativity and was all confused. He said, “it’s like I have a thunderstorm in my head and I had to go to sleep. I couldn’t think anymore. When I woke up in the morning, suddenly everything was there.” He called it knowing the mind of God.

Morris: Why does changing the way we speak change the way we feel?

Michalko: We have been conditioned to speak in deficit by describing what is missing, what is excluded, what’s wrong, what is not there. We often describe things, good or bad, in terms of what the experiences are not. Pay attention to how your friends and colleagues talk. You will find that many speak a language of exclusion, a language about “what is not,” instead of “what is,” or “what can be.” For example, this morning I ran into an old friend and asked him how he was feeling. He answered, “No complaints.” Now what does that mean? Does that mean he has a list of complaints taped on his bedroom wall that he reads every morning to see if he has anything to complain about?

You give an idea to your supervisor at work and you hear, “Not bad.” Does that mean every other idea you offered was bad? You suggest that you implement a new plan or idea and you hear, “It won’t hurt.” Does that mean that everything else you implemented did hurt? You want to do something and you hear “I don’t have a problem with it,” or “It certainly wouldn’t be out of the question to do that.”

How many times have you heard a friend say to you something like “Why don’t we get together on Monday?” or “Why don’t we get together for lunch?” What’s interesting is that when someone asks another person “Why don’t we,” the receiver frequently resists with some type of a “no.” When someone says “Why don’t we?”,  our first unconscious impulse is to begin to think of reasons why not to get together. The phraseology creates ambivalence. However, if you were to change the question to “How about getting together on Monday?” or “Let’s get together on Monday?”, the ambivalence disappears.

Your language influences your feelings, which also influence your thoughts. And our thoughts have a kind of a possessive quality which stays, gets stuck, and then gradually becomes habitual without our noticing it. If you brush your teeth every morning, you hardly notice how you’re doing it. It just goes by itself. Our thought does the same thing, and so do our feelings.

Suppose you go to Disneyland with your family and you have a wonderful time. I come up and ask you, “How did you like Disneyland?” If your response is, “Not bad,” that description of what is not will usually come across in a cool monotone barren of excitement or enthusiasm. But what if you say, “Great!”? You’ll notice that there is a difference in volume, in affect, in intonation – in the whole feeling associated with the word “great.” Your volume goes up. Your mouth gets more relaxed. Your thoughts and feelings are quite different when you talk about what’s there as opposed to what’s missing.

Often, we find ourselves at a loss for words when we try to express our sympathy to a friend who has lost a loved one. Many of us say things like, “I really don’t have the words to express my sorrow,” or “I don’t know what to say.” Suppose you change this to “It’s so difficult for me to find a way to express my sorrow,” or “It’s so difficult for me to find the words that would adequately express my deep sorrow for what you are going through.” By rephrasing into more positive terms, it does more good for you … and the other person.

By changing your language and speaking patterns to about “what’s there” in a positive way – you guarantee a feeling of optimism and real output in performance. The Ritz Carlton is one of the most storied hotel chains in the world. One of the most significant factors for their success is the language of the employees. They are trained to say, “It’s a pleasure,” instead of saying something like, “No problem,” whenever you thank them for doing a service or favor. This training in positive language, “It’s a pleasure,” has helped make them into optimistic employees, which, in turn, creates a pleasant hotel atmosphere.

It’s the same with professional golf caddies. Rick Reilly in his book, Who’s Your Caddy?, writes about his experience as a caddy for Tom Lehman. Lehman had an uphill 12-footer. Reilly said, “Don’t be short.” There was an awful hush over the foursome. He broke the monster caddy rule: Never speak in the negative sense. He discovered that in the high stakes game of professional golf, you never put a negative thought into a golfer’s head. There can only be positive thoughts. Lehman missed the putt by four feet and fired Reilly after the round. Later, the other caddies explained to Reilly to learn how to only speak with positives. He should have said “It’s a little against the grain up there” or “It looks uphill” or “A firm putt should do it.”

Morris: Here’s a follow-up question. How and why can we become what we pretend to be?

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

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

You become what you pretend to be. The surrealist artist, Salvador Dali, was pathologically shy as a child. He hid in closets and avoided all human contact, until his uncle counseled him on how to overcome this shyness. He advised Dali to be an actor and to pretend he played the part of an extrovert. At first Dali was full of doubts as he began to act the part. But when he adopted the pose of an extrovert and made it obvious to himself and others by acting the part, his brain soon adapted itself to the role he was playing. Dali’s pretending changed his psychology.

When you look at the lives of creative geniuses throughout the history of the world, you will find that the form of their behavior and contents of their creativity are inextricably connected and can’t be separated. An example is Michelangelo, who was hired to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. His rivals persuaded Junius Pope Julius II to hire him because they knew that the sculptor Michelangelo had rarely used color and had never painted in fresco. Fresco was a complicated process. First the artist mixed sand and lime and spread the mix over the wall. Next the artist applied colors but had to do it fast, while the wall was still wet or fresh. When it dried, the colors fused chemically with the lime and called fresco. They mixed sand and lime and spread the mix over the wall. Next they applied their colors but had to do it fast, while the wall was still wet or fresh. When it dried, the colors fused chemically with the lime and became permanent. Michelangelo had never used color or painted in a fresco. They were sure his competitors were convinced he would turn down the commission due to his inexperience with fresco. If he did accept it, they were convinced the result would be amateurish and planned to use it to point out his inadequacies to the Pope and the art world.

Michelangelo believed he was the greatest artist in the world and he could create masterpieces using any medium. He acted on that belief by accepting the commission. He executed the frescos in great discomfort, having to work with his face looking upwards, which impaired his sight so badly that for months he could not read save with his head turned backwards. By acting upon his belief and going through the motions, he created the masterpiece that established him as the artist of the age.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Creative Thinkering, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Why?

Michalko: Your question reminds me of an ancient Chinese story about a rainmaker who was hired to bring rain to a parched part of China. The rainmaker came in a covered cart, a small, wizened, old man who sniffed the air with obvious disgust as he got out of his cart, and asked to be left alone in a cottage outside the village; even his meals were to be left outside the door.

Nothing was heard from him for three days, then it not only rained, but there was also a big downfall of snow, unknown at that time of the year. Very much impressed, the villagers sought him out and asked him how he could make it rain, and even snow. The rainmaker replied, “I have not made the rain or the snow; I am not responsible for it.” The villagers insisted that they had been in the midst of a terrible drought until he came, and then after three days, they even had quantities of snow.

“Oh, I can explain that. You see, the rain and snow were always here. But as soon as I got here, I saw that your minds were out of order and that you had forgotten how to see. So I remained here until once more you could see what was always right before your eyes.”

It is my hope that the strategies in this book will show you how to look for different ways to think about your problems. When you do that, you will rethink the way you see things and, you, like the Chinese villagers, will see what is right before your eyes.

Morris: I share your high regard for Victor Frankl and the experiences he so vividly and so courageously describes in his classics, Man’s Search for Meaning and From Death Camp to Existentialism. In your opinion, what lessons can be learned from his experiences and his attitude that can help us to live a more creative life?

Michalko: We are each given a set of experiences in life. The experiences are neutral. They have no meaning. It is how we interpret the experiences that give them meaning.

When I was a young boy I was discouraged with my school experiences. I was being bullied by the older students as I had entered school two years earlier than normal. One day I told my grandfather I wanted to give up and quit school. My grandfather filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Soon the pots came to a boil. In the first, he placed carrots, in the second he placed eggs and the last he placed ground coffee beans. He let them sit and boil, without saying a word. In about twenty minutes he turned off the burners. He fished the carrots out and placed them in a bowl. He pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. Then he ladled the coffee out into a cup.

He asked me, “Tell me, what do you see?” “Carrots, eggs, and coffee,” I replied. Then he asked me to feel the carrots, which i did and noted that they were soft and mushy. My grandfather then asked him to take an egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, I observed a hard-boiled egg. Finally, he asked me to taste the coffee. The coffee had a rich aroma and tasted great. Confused, I asked “I don’t understand. What does this mean, if anything?”

My grandfather laughed and explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity–boiling water–but each had reacted differently. “Which are you?” he asked me. “When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a carrot that seems strong, but with pain and adversity, becomes soft and loses strength? Are you the egg that appears not to change but whose heart is hardened? Or are you the coffee bean that changes the hot water, the very circumstance that brings the pain?”

When the water gets hot, it releases the fragrance and flavor. If you are like the coffee bean, when things are at their worst, your very attitude will change your environment for the better, making it sweet and palatable.” His lesson was that in life when you can’t change the circumstances, change yourself.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Michalko:  I had hoped to ask you a question. Here is the question I would have asked you. Imagine all you possess is a giant red paperclip. How would you add enough value for the paperclip to trade it for something to enhance your life?

One Answer: Kyle MacDonald wanted to see what value he could create for a giant red paperclip using his creative thinking. First, he decided to offer it on Craigslist where two women offered a fish-shaped pen in exchange. Before long, in return for the pen, he traded for a ceramic doorknob. And on it went, from a neon Budweiser sign to a recording contract to a snow globe branded with the logo of the rock band KISS which he traded to the actor Corbin Bernsen (who starred in the TV show “L.A. Law” years ago) who owns more than 6,000 snow globes for a speaking role in his new movie.

Then the town of Kipling, Saskatchewan, entered the barter-sequence. It gave Mr. MacDonald a renovated 1920s house on Main Street in return for the film role, which it then raffled off in a local “American Idol”-style audition won by a town resident. MacDonald and his girlfriend moved to Kipling, having achieved their goal of turning a paper clip into a house.

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Psychology Today Blog: Creative Thinkering



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  1. […] he will one day write. *     *     * To check out my interview of Michael, please click here. He is one of the most highly acclaimed creativity experts in the world. As an officer in the […]

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