A Simple Way to Get Ideas

A major characteristic of creative thinking is the ability to generate a host of associations and connections between dissimilar subjects. This is difficult for the average person to do so voluntarily because we have not been taught to process information this way. When we use our imagination to develop new ideas, those ideas are heavily structured in predictable ways by the properties of existing categories and concepts. Thomas Edison once said that his greatest blessing in life was his lack of formal education. Otherwise, he would have learned that what he had done in his career was impossible to do. 

Think for a moment about a pine cone. What relationship does a pine cone have with the processes of reading and writing? In France, 1818, a nine-year old boy blinded himself accidentally with a hole puncher 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 pine cone. He ran his fingers over the cone and noted the tiny differences between the scales. He conceptually blended the feel of different pine cone 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. 

Braille cross-fertilized a pine cone with the process of reading to revolutionize the world for the blind. Another way to stimulate your imagination when looking to cross-fertilize concepts for ideas is to casually skim books.  The guidelines are: 

  • Select the topic of your challenge. For example, business growth.
  • Pick up a book or two on totally unrelated topics, either nonfiction or fiction.
  • Skim the book quickly looking only for ideas that relate to or are parallel to your subject. For example, you might find some incredible innovative ideas about business growth by skimming a book about bees build colonies.

The CEO of a greeting card company wanted to create an innovative Christmas card. One day she skimmed a book about the pollution in the Pacific ocean. A discussion about biodegradables in the book sparked her idea. Biodegradable Christmas cards.

After the holiday season, recipients of the card can now plant them instead of throwing them away. The paper can be planted indoors or outside, so you can choose according to the temperature and conditions at the time of planting. Cover the soil (outside or in a pot) with the paper. Spread about half a centimeter layer of soil over the paper and tamp down gently.

The company then expanded its product lines to include biodegradable greeting cards for all occasions and biodegradable confetti for weddings and other celebrations.

For more creative thinking techniques read Michael Michalko’sCOVER.Thinkertoys




Pay Attention and Discover the Ideas that are Right before Your Eyes


How many “f’s” are in the following paragraph:

“The necessity of training farmhands for first class farms in the fatherly handling of farm livestock is foremost in the minds of farm owners. Since the forefathers of the farm owners trained the farmhands for first class farms in the fatherly handling of farm livestock, the farm owners feel they should carry on with the family tradition of training farmhands of first class farms in the fatherly handling of farm livestock because they believe it is the basis of good fundamental farm management. Total number of f’s is………?”  (The answer is at the end of the article.)

If you found less than the correct amount, you probably ignored the f’s in the word of. If you missed the count, you probably said, “Of course, it was right in front of my eyes the whole time”. Many times in life we see things and automatically know what we’re seeing without any cognitive processing whatsoever. For example, who doesn’t recognize the famous coke logo?

the letter t twice (2)

Ordinarily we do not make the fullest use of our faculty to see.

We are aware that we move through life looking at a tremendous quantity of knowledge, objects and scenes; and yet, we look but do not see. By the way, the logo above the article reads coca-coca not coca-cola.

PAY ATTENTION. Paying attention to the world around you will help you develop the extraordinary capacity to look at mundane things and see the miraculous. Really paying attention to what you see will enable you to develop a kind of binary vision where you perceive what others see but, you will notice something different as well.

Engineers in George Westinghouse’s heyday knew more than he did about natural gas, railroads and electricity. Yet, they looked but did not see. Westinghouse paid attention. He became intrigued with the ordinary water well and took it apart. He examined the separate parts, modified some and reassembled it into a way to transmit clean natural gas thereby creating the natural gas industry.

Estee Lauder was an obsessed young woman desperately trying to puff out her products. She paid attention to everything going on around her searching for an answer. What could make a breakthrough? What could make the difference? Is it product, distribution, marketing? Then she hit on her “gift with purchase” strategy, which she calls the highlight of her life. From that flash of genius, she created a marketing marvel valued at nearly $2 billion. Lauder, at 81, is still paying attention by sniffing out new fragrances and new products for her company.

An idea can be found anywhere. Maybe it’s up in the hills under the leaves or hiding in a ditch somewhere. Maybe it’s never found. But what you find by paying attention, whatever you find, is always part of the missing, and that in itself will lead to something. With paying attention comes intense  interest, and after interest comes tiny truths and after tiny truths, comes passion and with passion comes a will to create. Ray Kroc, founder of McDonalds, paid so much attention to the mundane french fry that to him it became almost sacrosanct.

Edwin Crosby Johnson II, one of the creators of the mutual fund industry, expressed the market in terms of passionate rhapsody: The stock market was like a “beautiful woman endlessly fascinating, endlessly complex, always changing, always mystifying……the market represents everything that everyone has ever hoped, feared, hated, or loved. It is all of life.” When Forest Mars met for the first time with executives of his newly created Mars Inc., he announced, ” I am a religious man.” Then he dropped to his knees and intoned: “I pray for Milky Way, I pray for Snickers……”

Following is an exercise designed to help you improve your ability to pay pure attention to the world around you. This exercise was developed by Minor White who taught photography at MIT.

Select a photograph or picture that gives you pleasure. The more detailed the photo or picture the better. Get comfortable and relax. Set a timer or alarm for ten minutes. Look at the photograph or picture until the timer goes off without moving. Don’t move a muscle. Stay focused on the image. Do not allow your mind to free associate. Pay attention only to the photograph or picture in front of you. Concentrate only on the image before you. After the timer goes off, turn away from the image and recall your experience. Review the experience visually rather than with words. Accept whatever the experience is for what it is. After your review and your experience becomes kind of a flavor, go about your everyday work, trying to recall the experience whenever you can. You’ll begin to experience an intense awareness that you can find only by paying pure attention. Recall the experience frequently and recall it visually.

(The number of F’s is 37. This includes the last F in the last question at the end of the paragraph.)

For an effective brainstorming tool check out Michael Michalko’s Thinkpak. Pic_Cover_ThinkPak3_T





From bright ideas to right ideas: capturing the creative spark: thinking in new ways opens the mind to boundless possibilities and creative solutions.

cooperative dogsCreating new ideas means challenging all assumptions and thinking productively by looking at things in as many different ways as possible. Typically, we think reproductively–that is, on the basis of similar problems encountered in the past. When confronted with a new problem, we fixate on something in our past that worked before, exclude all other approaches, and work within a clearly defined direction toward the solution of the problem.

In contrast, creative thinkers confronted with a problem ask, “How many different ways can I look at it? How can I rethink the way I see it? How many different ways can I solve it?” They don’t ask, “What have I been taught by someone else about how to solve this?” They tend to come up with many different responses, some of which are unconventional and possibly unique.

With productive thinking, we generate as many alternative approaches as we can, considering both the least obvious and the most likely. This willingness to explore all approaches is essential. Someone once asked Einstein what the difference was between him and the average person. He said that, if you asked the average person to find a needle in the haystack, the person would stop when he or she found a needle. He, on the other hand, would tear through the entire haystack looking for all the possible needles.

Whenever Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman was stuck on a problem, he would invent new thinking strategies. He felt his secret was his ability to disregard how past thinkers thought about problems and would invent new ways to think instead. 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 in 10 minutes something that might take the average physicist a year.

Feynman proposed teaching productive thinking in our schools instead of reproductive thinking. He believed that the successful mathematician is an inventor of new ways of thinking in given situations. Even if the old ways are well known, he believed it is usually better to invent your own way or a new way than to apply what is already known.

For example, the addition problem 29 + 3 is considered a third-grade problem because it requires the advanced technique of carrying. Feynman pointed out that a first grader could handle it by counting in sequence 30, 31, 32. A child could mark numbers on a line and count off the spaces–a method useful in understanding measurements and fractions. Children can write larger numbers in columns and carry sums larger than 10, or use fingers or algebra for other, seemingly more complicated problems (e.g., 2 times what plus 3 is 7?). Feynman encouraged teaching people to figure out how to think about problems many different ways using trial and error.

Reproductive thinking is rigid thinking. This is why we often fail when confronted with a new problem that is similar to past experiences only in superficial ways but is different from previously encountered problems in its deep structure. Interpreting such problems through the prism of past experience leads to setbacks and stagnation. When Univac first developed a computer, for example, company managers refused to talk to business people because they said the computer had no business applications. Then along came IBM. IBM managers themselves once said that, according to their past experiences in the computer market, there was 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. Then along came Apple.

Innovation vs. Education

The greatest obstacle to innovative thinking is education. A great deal of education in the United States may be regarded as the inculcation of mind-sets. We are taught how to handle problems and new phenomena with fixed mental attitudes based on what past thinkers thought, predetermining our response to problems or situations. In short, we are taught what to think instead of how to think.

Consequently, we tend to process information the same way over and over again instead of searching for alternatives. Once we know what works or can be done, we find it hard to consider alternative ideas. Let’s say we use television commercials to advertise our product during a popular prime-time sitcom. We are fairly happy with the results, and the television campaign seems to work. Are we going to check out other ideas that we don’t think will be as good or better? Are we likely to explore alternative ways to advertise our product? Probably not.

Even when we actively seek information to test our ideas, we usually ignore paths that might lead us to discover alternatives. An interesting experiment conducted by British psychologist Peter Watson demonstrates this attitude. Watson would present subjects with three numbers in a sequence, such as 2, 4, 6. He would then ask subjects to explain the number rule for the sequence and to give other examples of the rule. Subjects could ask as many questions as they wished without penalty.

He found that almost invariably most people initially said “4, 6, 8″ or some similar sequence. And Watson would say, yes, that is an example of a number rule. Then they would say, “20, 22, 24″ or “50, 52, 54″–all numbers increasing by two. After a few guesses and after getting affirmative answers each time, subjects were confident that the rule was to increase numbers by two without exploring alternative possibilities.

Actually, the rule Watson was looking for was much simpler–numbers increasing. It could be “1, 2, 3″ or “10, 20, 40″ or “400, 678, 10,944.” Testing such an alternative would be easy. All the subjects had to say was “1, 2, 3″ or “5, 4, 3″ to see if they got a positive or negative answer, and that information would tell them a lot about their guess about the rule.

In his hundreds of experiments, Watson never had an instance in which someone spontaneously offered an alternative hypothesis. In short, his subjects did not even try to find out if there is a simpler, or even another, rule.

Creative types do not think this way. They will always look for alternative ways to think about a subject. Even when the old ways are well established, the creative will invent new ways of thinking. If something does not work, they look at it several different ways until they find a new line of thought. It is this willingness to entertain different perspectives and alternative ideas that broadens their thinking and opens them up to new information and the new possibilities that the rest of us don’t see.

Finding the Best Idea

Creativity demands great quantities of alternatives. Quantity breeds quality. Imagine a pearl diver on an island in the South Seas. He pushes his canoe off from shore, paddles out into the lagoon, dives deep into the water, picks an oyster off the bottom, surfaces, climbs into his boat, paddles to shore, and opens the shell. Finding nothing inside but an oyster, he pushes his canoe off again, and begins paddling into the lagoon.

What an incredible waste of time. The reasonable thing to do is to dive again and again, fill up the canoe with oysters, and then return to shore. Pearls are rare–a diver must open many oysters before finding one–and only a foolish person would waste time and energy making a separate trip for each oyster. It’s the same with producing ideas. Many times we’ll produce one or two ideas and proceed as if they are the answer. But creative ideas, like pearls, occur infrequently. So the sensible thing to do is to produce many ideas. Just as a good idea may stop you from going on to discover a great one, a great idea may stop you from discovering the right one.

In Edison’s New Jersey laboratory, there is a staggering display of hundreds of phonograph horns of every shape, size, and material. Some are round, square, angular, thin, short, squat, curved, or as much as six feet tall. This collection of rejected ideas is a visual testament to Edison’s thinking strategy–which was, in essence, to explore every conceivable possibility. For every brilliant idea Edison had, there were many duds, such as the horse-drawn contraption that would collect snow and ice in the winter and compress it into blocks that families could use in the summer as a refrigerant.

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 40 uses for the brick as fast as you can, you would have quite a few in a short period of time. Such a quota and time limit focuses your energy in a competitive way that guarantees fluency of thought.

Edison guaranteed productivity by giving himself and his assistants idea quotas. His own personal quota was one minor invention every 10 days and a major invention every six months. A way to guarantee productivity of your creative thought is to give yourself an idea quota. By forcing yourself to come up with many 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 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, too, thought must flow before it becomes really creative. Early ideas are usually not true ideas: 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 and habitual and to produce the unusual and imaginative.

When you wish to create something new or come up with a creative solution to a problem, you often need to distance yourself from first-born ideas. If I want to surprise my wife on Valentine’s Day, I know that I must disregard the first idea that comes to mind for what to do. I probably will have to disregard the second, third, and fourth as well. In order to come up with something creative, I have to get beyond habitual responses intentionally to create something new. For original ideas or creative solutions for your business and personal problems:

* Generate a multiplicity of different perspectives about your subject until you find the perspective you want.

* Generate a large quantity of alternatives and conjectures, retaining the best ideas for further development and elaboration.

* Produce variation in your ideas by incorporating random, chance, or unrelated factors.

Getting New Perspectives

I try to encourage people to look at things using a multiplicity of perspectives. One of the many ways in which a mind attempts to make life easier is to solve the first impression of the problem that it encounters. Like our first impressions of people, our initial perspective on problems and situations are apt to be narrow and superficial. We see no more than we have been conditioned to see. Stereotyped notions block clear vision and crowd out imagination.

Leonardo da Vinci believed that, to gain knowledge about the form of problems, you begin by learning how to restructure the problem to see it in many different ways. He felt the first way he looked at a problem was too biased toward his usual way of seeing things. He would look at it from one perspective and move to another perspective and still another. With each move, his understanding would deepen and he would begin to understand the essence of the problem. Leonardo called this thinking strategy saper vedere–knowing how to see.

Innovation often comes from finding a new perspective that no one else has taken. Einstein’s theory of relativity is, in essence, a description of the interaction between different perspectives. Freud would transform the meaning of something by putting it into a different framework or context; for example, by framing the unconscious as a part of him that was infantile, Freud began to help his patients change how they thought and reacted to their own behavior.

Consider the letter-string FFMMTT. You would probably describe this as three pairs of letters. If you are given KLMMNOTUV, you would probably see it as three letter triplets. In each case, the letters MM are perceived differently, either as one chunk or as elements of two different chunks. If you were given MM alone, you would have no reason for seeing it as either and now would see it as a simple pair of letters. It is the context of the information that inclines you to describe something in a certain way and perhaps to abandon an initial description for another.

The more times you state a problem in different ways, the more likely that your perspective will change and deepen. When Einstein thought about a problem, he always found it necessary to formulate his subject in as many different ways as possible. He was once asked what he would do if someone told him that a huge comet would hit and totally destroy the earth in one hour. Einstein said he would spend 55 minutes figuring out how to formulate the question and five minutes solving it.

Blending Concepts

Creative thinking is the natural way to think, not a different way of thinking. We have been taught to think reproductively and logically and linearly. We have been told that creativity itself must be taught and learned in the same fashion as other academic subjects. This is not so.

The heart of imagination is conceptual blending, a cognitive process that operates below the level of consciousness. It involves linking two cognitive concepts to create new meaning and explains abstract thought and creativity, a basic mental operation that is unique to the human species. Blends, which occur constantly without our awareness, are critical for the creation of emergent meanings, ideas, and global insight.

The key is to move beyond logic to Creative thinking by learning how to blend dissimilar concepts deliberately and consciously. Blending suspends your thought and allows an intelligence beyond thought to act and create something new. Consider Einstein imagining objects in motion and at rest at the same time. Consider Niels Bohr imagining light as a particle and wave. Or consider Edwin McMillan, in his studies of subatomic particles, imagining particles in states of too-high energy and too-low energy at the same time. These examples give a sense of the meaning of conceptual blending.

Your unconscious blends differing concepts for you by recognizing only those counterparts of each concept that are interesting to your unconscious mind based on your own unique set of circumstances and experiences. These counterparts are then projected into the blend by your unconsciousness. The blend then bubbles up into your conscious mind as ideas and insights. This is not logical thinking. This is creative thinking. This is the way prehistoric humans thought. This is how to create ideas, insights, and products that cannot be created using any other way of thinking.

When you drop a stone into a pond, you see a wave emanate outwardly in a plane. The stone jostles the water molecules, which, in turn, jostle neighboring water molecules. Thus, waves of relayed jostling molecules are propagated by the action of dropping the stone. Yet the waves are essences of neither the stone nor the water. Each wave is distinct and measurable and has its own integrity as it visibly grows and travels outward. The consequence is a new pattern of events that has a life of its own, independent of the stone that initiated the action. By dropping a stone into the pond, you created something that did not exist before: a wave.

In the same way, in order to generate ideas, you need a way to create new sets of patterns in your mind. You need one pattern reacting with another set of patterns to create new waves of ideas. Each new idea that you imagine is like dropping something new and strange into your challenge to see what pattern of waves you create in your imagination.

Creativity requires a lot of energy and hard work. In the physical world, objects resist change: Objects at rest remain so, and objects in motion continue in the same direction unless impacted by some force. In the same way, ideas resist movement from their current state. This is why, when people develop ideas, those ideas tend to resemble old ones.

Expertise and knowledge create a kind of conceptual inertia that inhibits and constrains creative thought in science, art, and industry. To overcome this inertia, you need to apply a great deal of cognitive effort and energy to develop the creative force to put your imagination in motion. Edison summarized it years ago when he said, “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.”


Michael Michalko


Test Your Flexible Thinking Skills

Associating seemingly disparate elements in new ways by finding a novel connection between them is the backbone of creativity. It is also the backbone of this book. To associate elements in new ways, you must think flexibly. Flexibility of thought is the ability to produce a large number of original ideas.

For a quick test of your mental flexibility, try the Remote Associates Test developed by Martha Mednick. For each set of three words, the goal is to find an associated word that all three have in common. For example, the words “wheel,” “electric,” and “high” can all be paired with “chair.”

  1. piggy               green               lash               __________
  2. surprise           line                   birthday       __________
  3. mark                shelf                 telephone    __________
  4. stick                 maker              tennis           __________
  5. blue                  cottage             cloth             __________
  6. motion            poke                 down            __________
  7. gem                  wall                  stepping       __________
  8. chorus             bee                   side               __________
  9. lunch               car                    gift                __________
  10. foul                  ground            pen                __________

How did you do? If you are like most people, you probably did not make all the associations.

In addition to thinking flexibly, one needs to use a variety of creative thinking techniques to keep your creative fire stoked, you need variety. Variety is the essence of all sensation; our senses are designed to respond to change and contrast. When a stimulus is unchanging or repetitious, sensation disappears.

Hold your hand over one eye and stare at the dot in the middle of the circle. After a few moments, the circle will fade and disappear. It will only reappear if you blink or shift your gaze to the X.

Disappearing dot



What happens is that the receptors in your eye get “tired” and stop responding, and nerve cells higher up in your sensory system switch off. This process is called sensory adaptation. You become blind to what is right before your eyes. The same phenomenon explains what is going on when you can no longer smell a gas leak that you noticed when you first entered the kitchen.

When your method for getting ideas is routine and unchanging, your imagination gets bored and switches off. One might term it “imagination adaptation.” You become blind to the opportunities right before your eyes, but do not realize it until someone else points out your blindness. Then, and only then, can you see what you had been looking at all along. If you can no longer recall your last original idea, you are suffering from this condition.

(The answers to the remote associates are: back, party, book, match, cheese, slow, stone, line, box, and play.)


For a variety of creative thinking techniques read Michael Michalko’s Thinkertoys. COVER.Thinkertoys

Art without Bias


The Boyle family is a famous family of collaborative artists based in London. The family creates paintings by reproducing small patches of the world in meticulous detail. They select their sites at random in the following manner.

  • A blindfolded person throws a dart into a large map of the world.
  • Then they call someone who lives near where the dart pinpointed — perhaps the curator of a nearby gallery — and asks them to throw a dart blindfolded at the local map.
  • Then they travel to the exact spot pinpointed on the local map.
  • Then one of them takes a right angle and hurls it into the air. The place it lands becomes the first corner of the new work.
  • The random selection serves several purposes: nothing is excluded as a potential subject; the particular is chosen as a representative of the whole and it reduces their subjective role as artists and creators to that of “presenters”. The Boyles call this a “motiveless technical” to present a slice of reality as objectively and truthfully as possible.

Their incorporation of randomness into art removes the prejudices that the conditioning of our upbringing and culture impose. It makes it possible for us to look at the world or a small part of it, without being reminded consciously or unconsciously of myths and legends, art out of the past or present, art and myths of other cultures. We see without motive and without reminiscence.


To get a feel for this philosophy, create a motiveless poem using the following guidelines.









How Do You Know?


A field of grass is given its character, essentially, by those experiences which happen over and over again–millions of times.  The germination of the grass seed, the blowing wind, the flowering of the grass, the hatching of insects, being beaten down by thunderstorms, the paths made by animals and hikers, and so on.  It is a whole system of interdependent events that determine the nature of the field of grass.

It is also roughly true that the nature of our beliefs and perceptions are interpreted from our experiences.  The field of grass cannot change its character.  Grass cannot interpret and shape its experiences to create a different nature.  However, we are not a field of grass.  We can choose to interpret our experiences in any way we wish.  You know as well as I do that few of us are even aware of what this means.

(*-*)     AAA     (00)     I 000000 I     ^–^     I – – _ – – _ I

Look at the six designs above.  Assign a label to each of them by selecting one of the following words: “Indians,” “piggy nose,” “shy kitty,” “woman,” “sleeper,” and “bathroom.”

Now that you’ve assigned labels to the designs, ask yourself: “Why is this so easy to do?”  For example, if you labeled AAA as “Indians,” then how does an Indian village with its ponies, tents, campfires, etc. fit so comfortably into three letters?  The symbols have no meaning.  We give them meaning by how we choose to interpret them.  You have the freedom to select any meaning for any experience instead of being a victim who must assign one and only one meaning to each experience.

We automatically interpret all of our experiences without realizing it.  Are they good experiences, bad ones, what do they mean and so on?  We do this without much thought, if any, to what the interpretations mean.  For instance, if a woman bumps into you, you wonder why.  The event of her bumping into you is neutral in itself.  It has no meaning.  It’s your interpretation of the bumping that gives it meaning, and this meaning shapes your perception of the experience.

You may interpret the “bump” as rude or deliberately aggressive behavior.  Or you may feel you are of such little significance that you are deliberately unnoticed and bumped around by others. You may choose to use the experience as an example of feminist aggression, or you may interpret the bump as her way of flirting with you.  Your interpretation of the experience determines your perception.

Think of roses and thorns.  You can complain because roses have thorns, or you can rejoice because thorns have roses.  You can choose to interpret experiences any way you wish.  It is not the experience that determines who you are; it is your interpretation of the experience.  You do not see things as they are; you see them as you are.

Once upon a time, two explorers came upon a spectacular, perfectly tended garden of vegetables in the middle of jungle.  One explorer says, “What a beautiful garden.  It looks so perfect.  Surely, a gardener must tend this garden.” 

The other explorer disagrees, “There is no way a gardener can tend this garden.  It is in the middle of the jungle, hundreds of miles from civilization.  There is so sign of human life anywhere.  Surely, it is some kind of natural phenomenon.”

After much arguing, they agree to set up camp and watch for someone to show up and tend the garden.  They stay for months but nobody shows up.

“See,” said the Doubter. “There is no gardener, for surely he would have appeared by now to tend the garden, which is still perfect.  It must be a random creation of nature.”

The Believer argued, “No, there must be a gardener.  He may be invisible, intangible, and eternally elusive to our understanding.  But it is not possible for such a beautiful, well tended garden to exist in the middle of the jungle without being tended.  The garden, itself, is proof of the existence of the gardener, and I have faith that the gardener will return to tend his garden.”

Both the Believer and Doubter interpreted the garden differently, and these two different interpretations led to two different beliefs.  When you believe something, you have the feeling that you chose to believe, or to not believe, based on reason and rational thinking.  But this is not so, your beliefs are shaped by the way you interpret your experiences.

How you interpret experiences also helps determine how you feel.  While researching happiness and well-being, Professor Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University discovered that when he asked college students if they were happy, most said yes.  However, if he first asked how many dates they had in the last month and then asked if they were happy, most said no.  Their interpretation of the questions determined how they felt.

Your theory about the world is deduced from your interpretations and beliefs.  That theory then determines what you observe in the world.  At one time, ancient astronomers believed that the heavens were eternal and made of ether.  Their theory made it impossible for them to observe meteors as burning stones from outer space.  Although the ancients witnessed meteor showers and found some on the ground, they couldn’t recognize them as meteors from outer space.  They only sought out and observed only those things that confirmed their theory about the heavens.

We are like the ancient astronomers and actively seek only the information that confirms our beliefs and theories about ourselves and the world.  Religious people see evidence of God’s handiwork everywhere; whereas atheists see evidence that there is no God anywhere.  Conservatives see the evils of liberalism everywhere and liberals see the evils of conservatism everywhere.  Likewise, people who believe they are creative see evidence of their creativity everywhere, and people who do not believe they are creative see evidence everywhere that confirms their negative belief.  That which does not conform to our theories makes us feel uncomfortable and confused.  I’m reminded of a story told to me by “Black Cloud,” my Lakota Sioux good friend, who heard the story from his grandfather.

An old Sioux warrior had eight magnificent horses.  One night, during a great storm, they all escaped.  The other warriors came to comfort him.  They said, “How unlucky you are.  You must be very angry to have lost your horses.”

“Why?” replied the warrior.

“Because you have lost all your wealth.  Now you have nothing,” they responded.

“How do you know?” He said.

The next day the eight horses returned bringing with them twelve new stallions.  The warriors returned and joyously announced that now the old warrior must be very happy.

“Why?”  was his response.

“Because now you are even richer than before,”  They responded.

“How do you know?”  He again responded.

The following morning, the warrior’s young son got up early to break in the new horses.  He was thrown and broke both his legs.  The warriors came once more, and talked with the old warrior about how angry he must be at his misfortune and how terrible it was for his son to break both legs.

“How do you know?”  The warrior said once more.

Two weeks passed.  Then the chief announced that all able-bodied men and boys must join a war party to fight against a neighboring tribe.  The Lakotas won but at great cost as many men and young boys were killed.  When the remaining warriors returned, they told the old warrior that it was lucky his son had two broken legs, otherwise he could have been killed or injured in the great battle.”

“How do you know?” He said.

Change the way you look at things, and the things you look at change.


Creative thinking expert Michael Michalko’s new book “Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work” is now available from Amazon in paperback and kindle.



Your Words Become Your Thoughts

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was responsible for producing some of the greatest advances in human thought.  Modern society and education have tended to focus more on the discoveries resulting from these strategies than on the mental processes through which the discoveries were made. Many of his discoveries were the result of his work with language.

According to Aristotle, words are sounds that become symbols of mental experience through the association with past experiences and the processes of the subconscious mind. As a result, words can both reflect and shape mental thought. By using verbal prompts, he was able to draw out related ideas through the process of association and generate a multiplicity of different perspectives.

Below is an illustration of scattered dots and splashes. Can you spot any specific object in the illustration? Spend a few moments trying before you read further.


The chaotic spread of dots and splashes create a visual noise that monopolizes the brain and leaves so little processing power that it’s difficult for the brain to consciously perceive the object, making it effectively invisible. However, if I asked you to spot the dog, the word “dog” will trigger your subconscious mind. Your subconscious will process thoughts and information about your experiences with dogs and will shape the way you perceive the patterns in the illustration. Eventually, you will spot a dog in the center. One word changed your perception.

Words also shape thought. To start with, it’s helpful to carefully choose words when phrasing a problem. Imagine you are the person in the illustration below. Your challenge is to tie together the ends of the two strings suspended from the ceiling. The strings are located so you cannot reach one string with your outstretched hand while holding the second. The room is bare, and you have only the things with you that you have in your pocket today. How do you solve the problem?

man and string.jpeg

Initially, you might state the problem as: “How can I get to the second string?” Phrasing it this way gives you only one perception of the problem and you would then waste your energy trying to get to the second string, which is not possible.

In order to avoid settling for your first perception of the problem, the phrase “In what ways might I…….?” will invite you to look for alternative perceptions.  For example, if you phrased it (In what ways might I and the string get together?), you will likely come up with the solution—to tie a small object (such as a key, ring, watch, or belt) to the end of one string and set it in motion like a pendulum, then grab it while still holding the second string in your hand.

In each and every experience there is a multitude of other experiences lying in wait. Once you chose one you marginalize the others. To say it very simply, the moment we call something “a” we have marginalized all of its other possible states (b, c, d, e, and so on) into nothingness because we don’t see them. Once the problem was shaped as how to get to the second string all other possible perceptions were marginalized.

When you look at a problem using a multiplicity of perspectives instead of one stabilized view, you bring forth a new understanding of the possibilities. The important thing is not to persist with one way of looking at problems. Try to come up with different ways to look at them. When Richard Feynman, the Nobel Laureate physicist, was “stuck” with a problem, he would look at it in a different way. If one way didn’t work, he would switch to another. Whatever came up, he would always find another way to look at it.

CHANGE THE WORDS. A quick and easy way to generate a multiplicity of perspectives is to simply change the words. For every word a person uses, there is a mediating response which provides the meaning of that concept for that individual.  Many times they may not be responses in the usual sense but all provide meaning of that concept for that individual. When you change the words in your problem statement, you initiate an unobservable process in your mind that may lead to a new perspective.

Toyota asked employees for ideas on how they could become more productive. They received few suggestions. They reworded the question to: “In what ways might I make my job easier?” They were inundated with ideas. Even tiny changes with words can lead to unpredictable, cataclysmic results.

Examine your problem statement, identify the key words, and change them five to ten times to look at your problem through different perspectives. Suppose you want to increase sales. Look at the different perspectives created by just changing the verb: In what ways might I discover sales? In what ways might I adapt selling techniques from others? Provoke sales? Advertise sales? Target sales? Inspire sales? Teach sales? Encourage sales? Grow sales? Evolve sales? Complement sales? Acquire sales? Predict sales? Segregate sales? Motivate sales? Invest in sales? Renew sales? Combine sales? Organize sales? Upgrade sales?

Following is a list of verbs to use as a tool when formulating problem statements. Simply scan the list changing the verb when appropriate and you will find yourself producing several different ways to look at your problem.



PLAYING WITH VERBS AND NOUNS. Playing with verbs and nouns encourages you to think of perspectives that you would probably not think of spontaneously. Try changing the nouns into verbs and verbs into nouns in your problem statement. For example, a problem might be “How to sell more bottles ?” Changing the verbs into nouns and nouns into verbs makes this into “How to bottle more sales?” Bottling sales now suggests looking for ways to close sales, instead of ways to sell more bottles.

The problem “How to improve customer relations?” becomes “How to customize related improvements?” This new perspective leads one to consider customizing products and services for customers, customizing all relevant aspects of the customer relations department, and so on.

TRANSPOSE THE WORDS. One of Aristotle=s favorite ways to test a premise was what he called Aconvertibility.@ He felt that if a premise were true than the negative premise should be convertible. For example, if every pleasure is good, some good must be pleasure. By simply transposing words, you achieved a different perspective. Sometimes changing the order of words in a problem statement will create a verbal-conceptual chain that may trigger a different perspective.

In the following illustration, words were arranged in two different series, “A” and “B,” and subjects were asked to solve certain situations. When “skyscraper” was listed first, subjects tended to come up architectural concepts, and when “prayer” was transposed with “skyscraper” and listed first, it increased the likelihood of a religious direction.


SERIES A                                                                      SERIES B

SKYSCRAPER                                                               PRAYER

PRAYER                                                                       SKYSCRAPER

TEMPLE                                                                       TEMPLE

CATHEDRAL                                                                CATHEDRAL


To change the order, transpose the words in your problem. Following are some examples:

In what ways might I get a promotion?

To: In what ways might I promote myself?


In what ways might I advertise my T-shirts?

In what ways might I use my T-shirts to advertise?


In what ways might I learn how to use the Internet?

In what ways might I use the Internet to learn more?


“All words are pegs to hang ideas on.” ― Henry Ward Beecher


For more information about how to look at things differently, read Cracking Creativity (Secrets of Creative Genius) by creativity expert Michael Michalko http://www.amazon.com/Cracking-Creativity-Secrets-Creative-Genius/dp/1580083110/ref=pd_sim_b_2?ie=UTF8&refRID=16NCRBEMHRCEQ1RAZG5V








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