Why are so many Americans unwilling to take personal responsibility and help themselves?

WHO WAS THIS MAN? He grew up in poverty in what modern psychologists call a dysfunctional family. He was tall, gangly and foolish looking. His clothes were always too tight and small. Following are some of his life experiences:

  • AGE 22, FAILED IN BUSINESS.
  • AGE 23, RAN FOR STATE LEGISLATURE AND WAS DEFEATED.
  • AGE 24, FAILED AGAIN IN BUSINESS.
  • AGE 25, ELECTED TO LEGISLATURE.
  • AGE 26, REJECTED BY THE WOMAN HE LOVED.
  • AGE 27, HAD A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN.
  • AGE 29, DEFEATED FOR SPEAKER.
  • AGE 32, DEFEATED FOR ELECTOR.
  • AGE 33, MARRIED A WOMAN WHO WAS FOUND TO BE MENTALLY UNSTABLE.
  • AGE 34, DEFEATED FOR CONGRESS.
  • AGE 37, ELECTED TO CONGRESS.
  • AGE 39, DEFEATED FOR CONGRESS.
  • AGE 46, DEFEATED FOR SENATE.
  • AGE 47, DEFEATED FOR VICE PRESIDENT.
  • AGE 49, DEFEATED FOR SENATE.

ANSWER: The man was Abraham Lincoln and at age 52 he became President of the United States. Lincoln did not choose his experiences of failure and defeat, but he did choose how to respond. He realized that he was not reacting to an event but to how he interpreted the event. His life is testimony to the uniquely human potential to turn defeats into triumphs and to turn ones predicament into a human achievement. For those events that were not up to him it was his own attitude that determined their influence on him. When he was no longer able to change a situation, he changed himself. Lincoln’s attitude was characterized as the “American Spirit.”

Lincoln was not born with a positive “can do” attitude. On the contrary, his life is testimony that a positive attitude toward ones experiences takes considerable effort. The path of least resistance is always not to try and give up.  Lincoln learned to expect difficulties, and, so was not traumatized and defeated when faced with problems but viewed them as part of the natural course of events. Lincoln learned the harder one works to sustain a positive interpretation, the more one appreciates life.

Sidney Weinberg is another example of the American spirit. He was born in 1891, one of eleven children of Pincus Weinberg, a struggling Polish-born liquor wholesaler and bootlegger in Brooklyn. Sidney was short, a “Kewpie doll,” as the New Yorker writer E. J. Kahn, Jr., described him, “in constant danger of being swallowed whole by executive-size chairs.” He pronounced his name “Wine-boig.” He left school at fifteen. He had scars on his back from knife fights in his preteen days, when he sold evening newspapers at the Hamilton Avenue terminus of the Manhattan-Brooklyn ferry.

At sixteen, he made a visit to Wall Street, keeping an eye out for a “nice-looking, tall building,” as he later recalled. He picked 43 Exchange Place, where he started at the top floor and worked his way down, asking at every office, “Want a boy?” By the end of the day, he had reached the third-floor offices of a small brokerage house. There were no openings. He returned to the brokerage house the next morning. He lied that he was told to come back, and bluffed himself into a job assisting the janitor, for three dollars a week. The small brokerage house was Goldman Sachs.

From that point, Charles Ellis tells us in his book, “The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs,” Weinberg’s rise was inexorable. Early on, he was asked to carry a flagpole on the trolley uptown to the Sachs family’s town house. The door was opened by Paul Sachs, the grandson of the firm’s founder, and Sachs took a shine to him. Weinberg was soon promoted to the mailroom, which he promptly reorganized. Sachs sent him to Browne’s Business College, in Brooklyn, to learn penmanship. By 1925, the firm had bought him a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. By 1927, he had made partner. By 1930, he was a senior partner, and for the next thirty-nine years-until his death, in 1969-Weinberg was Goldman Sachs, turning it from a floundering, mid-tier partnership into the premier investment bank in the world.

The rags-to-riches story-that staple of American biography-has over the years been given two very different interpretations. The nineteenth-century version stressed the value of compensating for disadvantage. If you wanted to end up on top, the thinking went, it was better to start at the bottom, because it was there that you learned the discipline and motivation essential for success. “New York merchants preferred to hire boys who lived in poverty, on the theory that they worked harder, and were more resolute, obedient, honest, grateful, loyal, and cheerful than middle class boys,” Irvin G. Wyllie wrote in his 1954 study “The Self-Made Man in America.” Andrew Carnegie, whose personal history was the defining self-made-man narrative of the nineteenth century, insisted that there was an advantage to being “cradled, nursed and reared in the stimulating school of poverty. Carnegie believed that poverty forces you to confront adversity and you soon learn how to embrace and overcome it. It is by overcoming adversity that your character becomes strong and your life becomes meaningful.

The character of Lincoln and Weinberg were not exceptions. Once upon a time in America character, integrity, hard work, and independence were the norm. Americans took pride in overcoming adversity and learning from it. They were strong individuals and supremely confident. Americans believed that all one was entitled to was a natural birth. Everything else was up to the person. This was “The American Dream.” Thomas Jefferson summarized it this way: “Nothing can stop the man with right mental attitude from achieving his goal; however, nothing on earth can help the man with wrong mental attitude.”

lech-walesa-lech-walesa-it-is-hardly-possible-to-build-anything-ifToday, that belief has been shattered. After World War II, intellectuals proselytized “inevitability theories” about how everyone’s life was shaped by genetic or environmental factors that were beyond their control. There began a promiscuity of the teaching of helplessness and the “can do” American spirit was replaced by the “we are all helpless victims” spirit. If your destiny is already predetermined by internal and external factors that you cannot change, why work hard and try to persevere and succeed? Our helplessness is learned.

A classic example of learned helplessness is from the motion picture “Freedom Writers,” which is a movie about a young teacher who tries to inspire students who have learned to be helpless. The students allowed their ethnicity, their economic status, and their social environment to determine the fate of their success. Often, members of the same social environment think in similar patterns, drawing the same inferences and or conclusion.

Many politicians, community organizers, community leaders and spokespeople for minorities preach the concept of helplessness and continually reinforce it in their campaigns, speeches, and social actions. The message is you are not personally responsible. Other people are. Your adversity was caused by other groups, government, other political parties, banks, corporations, other religions, the other sex, the wealthy, or something in history that happened hundreds of years ago. The message is one of entitlement. If you are not able to provide, you are entitled to financial, housing, food, education, and employment assistance from society. Society is responsible for your well-being, not you.

The emphasis is not on the individual learning how to overcome adversity; the emphasis is on how to use adversity to gain socioeconomic entitlements from government. The more adversity one can claim they face, the more benefits that person will receive. For example, the more children a single unemployed mother has the more financial rewards she receives. Unemployment benefits are constantly being extended which provides an incentive to stay home. Illegal immigrants are gaining socioeconomic benefits and civil rights for their potential votes.

We now elect politicians based on the entitlements and bounties they generously offer with tax dollars. The helpless have become dependent upon the politicians for entitlements, and the politicians have become dependent upon the helpless for votes. In fact, many politicians were the teachers and promoters of helplessness as community organizers, counselors, and minority advocates before they were elected. Other politicians come from the public sector where they promoted the same agenda.

When you listen to the campaign promises of politicians, you will hear them tell you about the benefits and rewards voters will receive from them if they are elected. In addition, they will tell you about the entitlements their challengers will take away from citizens if they are not.  Political campaigns are now all about who can give the helpless the most. We no longer ask “What can we do for our government? “as JFK suggested when the American dream was strong. We ask “What can our government do for us.”

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Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. http://creativethinking.net/WP01_Home.htm

What Have You Learned About the Meaning of Life?

LIFE

After a seminar about creative thinking I gave, I found that someone had slipped a sheet of paper into my pile of notes. I was never able to identify the author or find out why he or she slipped it to me. The sheet was titled “What I have learned about life” and listed several thoughts, some of which I found fascinating. Following is the list:

  • This is it!
  • There are no hidden meanings.
  • You can’t get there from here, and besides, there is nowhere else to go.
  • We are all already dying, and we will be dead for a very long time.
  • Nothing lasts.
  • There is no way of getting all you want.
  • You can’t have anything unless you let go of it.
  • You only get to keep what you give away.
  • There is no particular reason why you lost out on some things.
  • The world is not necessarily just. Being good does not pay off and there is no compensation for misfortune.
  • You have a responsibility to do your best none-the-less.
  • It is a random universe to which we bring order.
  • You don’t really control anything.
  • You can’t make anyone love you.
  • No one is any stronger or any weaker than anyone else.
  • Everyone is, in their own way, vulnerable.
  • There are no great men.
  • If you have a hero, look again, you’ve diminished yourself in some way.
  • Everyone lies, cheats, and pretends. -
  • All evil is potential vitality in need of transformation
  • All of you is worth something if only you will own it.
  • Progress is an illusion.
  • Evil can be displaced, but never eradicated, and all solutions breed new problems.
  • Yet, it is necessary to keep on struggling towards solutions.
  • Childhood is a nightmare.
  • Each of us is, ultimately, alone.
  • The most important things, each man must do for himself.
  • Love is not enough, but it sure helps things.
  • We have only ourselves and one another. That may not be much’ but that is all there is.
  • How strange, that every so often, it all seems worth it.
  • We must live with the ambiguity of partial freedom, partial powers, and partial knowledge.
  • All important decisions must be made on the basis of insufficient data.
  • Yet we are responsible for everything we do.
  • No excuses will be accepted.
  • You can run, but you cannot hide.
  • It is most important to run out of scapegoats.
  • We must learn the power of living with our helplessness.
  • The only victory lies in surrender to oneself.
  • All of the significant battles are waged within the self.
  • You are free to do whatever you like, you need only face the consequences.
  • What do you know, for sure, anyway?
  • Learn to forgive yourself, again, and again and again, and again and again and again and again and again.

What is your list of things you have learned about life during your lifetime?

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(Michael Michalko is the author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses;   Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. http://www.creativethinking.net)

Seven Sins that Kill Creativity in America

seven

SIN ONE. WE DO NOT BELIEVE WE ARE CREATIVE

People do not believe they are creative. We have been taught that we are the product of our genes, our parents, our family history, our personal history, our I.Q., and our education. Consequently, we have been conditioned to have a fixed mindset about creativity and believe only a select few are born creative and the rest not. Because we believe we are not creative, we spend our lives observing only those things in our experiences that confirm this belief. We spend our lives knowing and living within the limitations we believe we have. We listen to our “inner” voice that keeps telling us not to pretend to be something we’re not. Believing we are not creative makes us comfortable to be cognitively lazy.

SIN TWO. WE BELIEVE THE MYTHS ABOUT CREATIVITY

We believe many of the myths about creativity that have been promulgated over the years. We’re told creativity is rare, mysterious, and magical and comes from a universal unconsciousness, a sudden spark of “Aha!” or the divine. We believe only special people are genetically endowed to be creative and that normal educated people cannot be creative and should not embarrass themselves by trying. Additionally, we also believe creative types are depressed, crazy, freaky, unbalanced, disruptive, different, argumentative, abnormal, flaky, and trouble makers.  We should be thankful we are normal and think the way we were taught to think. 

SIN THREE. WE FEAR FAILURE

The most important thing for many people is to never make a mistake or fail. The fixed mind-set regards failure as a personal insult, and when they fail they withdraw, lie and try to avoid future challenges or risks.

At one time in America people believed that all a person was entitled to was a natural birth. Everything else was up to the person, and a person’s pride and passion came from overcoming the adversities in life. Failure was seen as an opportunity rather than insult. Once Thomas Edison’s assistant asked him why he didn’t give up on the light bulb. After all, he failed 5,000 times. Edison’s responded by saying he didn’t know what his assistant meant by the word “failed,” because Edison believed he discovered 5000 things that don’t work. This was the era when creative thinking flourished in America. People like Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse did not know they could not think unconventionally and so they did.

After World War II, psychologists promulgated “Inevitability theories” about how everyone’s life was shaped by genetic or environmental factors that were beyond their control. There began a promiscuity of the teaching of helplessness that has dimmed the human spirit and has created a “culture of helplessness.” It is this culture of helplessness that has cultivated the mindset that fears failure.

This fixed mindset of fear is grounded in the belief that talent is genetic—you’re born an artist, writer, or entrepreneur. Consequently, many of us never try anything we haven’t tried before. We attempt only those things where we have the past experience and knowledge and know we can succeed. This culture of helplessness cultivated by educators encourages us to look for reasons why we cannot succeed.  

SIN FOUR. WE FAIL TO ACT

Because we fear failure we not act. We avoid taking action. If we don’t act, we can’t fail. If we are forced to take action, we do not do anything until we have a perfect plan which will take into account any and everything that can happen. We make sure the plan details all the human and material resources you need. We will seek the guidance and direction of every expert and authority we are able to approach. If any authority figure or expert expresses even the slightest doubt, we will not take the risk of failure and abandon the plan.

All art is a reaction the first line drawn. If no line is drawn there will be no art. Similarly, if you don’t take action when you need new ideas in your personal and business lives and do nothing, nothing bad can happen and nothing is the result. In our culture of helplessness, nothing is better than even the slightest chance of failure, because failure means we are worthless.

SIN FIVE. WE FAIL TO PRODUCE IDEAS

We are taught to be critical, judgmental, negative and reproductive thinkers. In our “culture of helplessness,” we take pride in dissecting ideas and thoughts of others and demonstrating their flaws. The more negative we can be, the more intelligent we appear to others. In meetings, the person who is master of destroying ideas becomes the most dominant one. The first thought we have when confronted with a new idea is “Okay, now what’s wrong with it?”

When forced to come up with ideas, we come up with only a few. These are the ideas we always come up with because these are the same old safe ideas that are closest to our consciousness. Our judgmental mind will censor anything that is new, ambiguous or novel. We respond to new ideas the way our immune system responds to a deadly virus. Our inner voice will advise us to “Not look stupid,” “Give up. You don’t have the background or expertise,” “It’s not relevant,” “If it was any good, it would already have been done before” “This will never be approved,” “where’s the proof? “This is not logical,” “Don’t be silly,” “You’ll look stupid,” and so on. Anything that is not verifiable by our past experiences and beliefs is not possible.

Instead of looking for ways to make things work and get things done, we spend our time looking for reasons why things can’t work or get done.

SIN SIX. WE FAIL TO LOOK AT THINGS IN DIFFERENT WAYS

square and circles

Most people see the pattern in the illustration above as a square composed of smaller squares or circles or as alternate rows of squares and circles

It cannot be easily seen as columns of alternate squares and circles. Once it’s pointed out that it can also be viewed as columns of alternate squares and circles, we, of course, see it. This is because we have become habituated to passively organize similar items together in our minds. Geniuses, on the other hand, subvert habituation by actively looking for alternative ways to look at things and alternative ways to think about them.

One of the many ways in which people attempt to make thinking easier is to solve the first impression of the problem that they encounter. This enables them to approach the problem with predetermined concepts and they end up seeing what they expect to see based on their past experiences. Once you accept the initial perspective, you close off all other lines of thought. Certain kinds of ideas will occur to you, but only those kind and no others. Settling with the first perspective keeps things simple and helps you avoid ambiguity.

With creative thinking, one generates as many alternative approaches as one can. You consider the least obvious as well as the most likely approaches. It is the willingness to explore all approaches that is important, even after one has found a promising one. Einstein was once asked what the difference was between him and the average person. He said that if you asked the average person to find a needle in the haystack, the person would stop when he or she found a needle. He, on the other hand, would tear through the entire haystack looking for all the possible needles.

We are taught to follow a certain thinking process and must never entertain alternative ways of looking at the problem or different ways of thinking about it. Keep doing what you are doing. The more times you think the same way, the better you become at producing orderly and predictable ideas. Always think the way you’ve always thought to always get what you’ve always got.

SIN SEVEN. FAILURE TO ACCEPT PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY

It is not our fault we are not creative. It’s the teachers who are responsible and our parents, the churches, our genetics, the government, lack of time, lack of resources, lack of an inspiring environment, lack of suitable technology, lack of encouragement, too much sugar, lack of financial rewards, the organization, the bosses, lack of entitlements, lack of any guarantee of success, and, after all, most of us are born left-brained not right-brained. You can’t expect people to be something they’re not. In our “culture of helplessness,” we have learned that we cannot change our attitude, behavior, beliefs or the way we think.

SUMMARY. 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 hard at learning how to think creatively and produce great quantities of ideas. 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.

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Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.

http://creativethinking.net/WP01_Home.htm

What Would You Have Done?

report carda

The above is a copy of a school report for Nobel prize winner, Dr John Gurdon, from his days studying Biology at Eton College. His professor a Mister Gaddum noted that for Gurdon to study science would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part, and on the part of those teachers who have to teach him.

My question is: If you were John’s parent, would you have discouraged his interest in science and directed his attention to another field of study?

Dr. Gurdon said that this was the only item about him that he ever framed. It hangs on a wall behind his desk as a reminder to trust your own instincts. It was at Oxford as a postgraduate student that he published his groundbreaking research on genetics and proved for the first time that every cell in the body contains the same genes. He did so by taking a cell from an adult frog’s intestine, removing its genes and implanting them into an egg cell, which grew into a clone of the adult frog.  The idea was controversial at the time because it contradicted previous studies by much more senior scientists, and it was a decade before the then-graduate student’s work became widely accepted.

But it later led directly to the subsequent discovery by Prof Yamanaka that adult cells can be “reprogrammed” into stem cells for use in medicine. This means that cells from someone’s skin can be made into stem cells which, in turn, can turn into any type of tissue in the body, meaning they can replace diseased or damaged tissue in patients.

Not allowing yourself to get discouraged by others is the most important lesson Dr. Gurdon learned in his life. Trust your own instincts. Albert Einstein was expelled from school because his attitude had a negative effect on serious students; he failed his university entrance exam and had to attend a trade school for one year before finally being admitted; and was the only one in his graduating class who did not get a teaching position because no professor would recommend him. One professor said Einstein was “the laziest dog” the university ever had. Beethoven’s parents were told he was too stupid to be a music composer. Charles Darwin’s colleagues called him a fool and what he was doing “fool’s experiments” when he worked on his theory of biological evolution.  Walt Disney was fired from his first job on a newspaper because “he lacked imagination.” Thomas Edison had only two years of formal schooling, was totally deaf in one ear and was hard of hearing in the other, was fired from his first job as a newsboy and later fired from his job as a telegrapher; and still he became the most famous inventor in the history of the U.S.

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(Michael Michalko is the author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses; Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. http://www.creativethinking.net)

THIS IS GOOD

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.

A friend told me a story he heard when he taught psychology as a guest lecturer in Africa. He and his students were discussing the merits of positive thinking, when one of the students related a story that was commonly told in his tribe. The chief of the village had a friend who had the habit of remarking “this is good” about every occurrence in life no matter what it was. One day the chief and his friend were out hunting. The king’s friend loaded a gun and handed it to the king, but alas he loaded it wrong and when the chief fired it, it exploded and his thumb and two fingers were blown off.

“This is good!” exclaimed his friend.

The shocked and bleeding chief was furious. “How can you say this is good you idiot! Leave me you moron. I want nothing more to do with you!” he shouted.

About a year later the chief went hunting by himself. Cannibals captured him and took him to their village. They tied his hands, stacked some wood, set up a stake and bound him to it. As they came near to set fire to the wood, they noticed that he was missing a thumb and two fingers. Being superstitious, they never ate anyone who was less than whole. They untied the king and sent him on his way.

Full of remorse the chief rushed to his friend and hugged him. “You were right, it was good,” The chief told his friend how the missing thumb and fingers saved his life and added, “I feel so ashamed for having insulted and ignored you all these months.

“No! This is good!” responded his delighted friend.

“Oh, how could that be good my friend, I did a terrible thing to you while I owe you my life.”

“It is good” said his friend, “because if you hadn’t dismissed me I would have been hunting with you and they would have killed me.”

The average person actively seeks only the information that confirms our their beliefs and theories about themselves 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.

People who believe they can and people who believe they can’t are both right.

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To discover more about the power of creative thinking read creativity expert Michael Michalko’s book CRACKING CREATIVITY.

http://www.amazon.com/Cracking-Creativity-Secrets-Creative-Genius/dp/1580083110/ref=pd_sim_b_2?ie=UTF8&refRID=16NCRBEMHRCEQ1RAZG5V

Why Experts Create Few New Ideas

I have always been intrigued by the paradox of expertise. It seems that the more expert one becomes in an area of specialization, the less creative and innovative that person becomes. The paradox is that people who know more, see less; and the people who know less, see more.

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 got through college yet.”

What is it that freezes the expert’s thought and makes it difficult to consider new things that deviate from their theories?

The figure below illustrates a series of progressively modified drawings that change almost imperceptibly from a man into a woman. When test subjects are shown the entire series of drawings one by one, their perception of this intermediate drawing is biased according to which end of the series they started from. Test subjects who start by viewing a picture that is clearly a man are biased in favor of continuing to see a man long after an “objective observer” (an observer who has seen only a single picture) recognizes that the man is now a woman. Similarly, test subjects who start at the woman end of the series are biased in favor of continuing to see a woman. Once an observer has formed an image–that is, once he or she has developed an expectation concerning the subject being observed–this influences future perceptions of the subject.

man to woman - Copy (2)

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 expert. 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.

There is also a tendency to assimilate new data into pre-existing images. In the early 1900s Psychologist Cheves W. Perky demonstrated this principle in several experiments. She would ask a group of subjects to form a mental image of a banana, and to mentally project it on a blank wall. She then surreptitiously projected a very dim slide of a banana. Anyone coming into the room sees the slide immediately, but the subjects did not. Perky claimed that the subjects incorporated the slide into their mental image of a banana. State-of-the-art experiments have borne out what is now called the Perky effect: holding a mental image interferes perception and understanding.

This is why experts always assimilate new insights, ideas and concepts into their view. Their mental image of the established view interferes with their perception and understanding of new ideas and concepts. In the case of the Perky experiment with the slide of a banana, the students did not see the slide. 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.

What happened in this experiment is what happens in real life; despite ambiguous stimuli, people form some sort of tentative hypothesis about what they see. The longer they are exposed to this blurred image, 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. The chief difference is that in the case of atmospheric CO2 and climate catastrophe, the chain of inference is longer and less plausible than in my example.

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 the 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 that are simply incoherent, overlooked by the experts who worked on the same problem for years.

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.

Michael Michalko is author of Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. http://www.creativethinking.net

Are Your Memories True or False?

EGG

A few years ago, the actor Alan Alda, visited a group of memory researchers at the University of California, Irvine, for a TV show he was making. During a picnic lunch, one of the scientists offered Alda a hard-boiled egg. He turned it down, explaining that as a child he had made himself sick eating too many eggs.

In fact, this had never happened, yet Alda believed it was real. How so? The egg incident was a false memory planted by one of UC Irvine’s researchers, Elizabeth Loftus. Before the visit, Loftus had sent Alda a questionnaire about his food preferences and personality. She later told him that a computer analysis of his answers had revealed some facts about his childhood, including that he once made himself sick eating too many eggs. There was no such analysis but it was enough to convince Alda.

Your memory may feel like a reliable record of the past, but it is not. Loftus has spent the past 30 years studying the ease with which we can form “memories” of nonexistent events. She has convinced countless people that they have seen or done things when they haven’t – even quite extreme events such as being attacked by animals or almost drowning. Her work has revealed much about how our brains form and retain memories.

While I wouldn’t want to plant a memory of a nonexistent childhood trauma in your own brain, there is a less dramatic demonstration of how easy it is to form a false memory called the Deese-Roediger-McDermott paradigm. Try the following thought experiment:

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT

Read the first two lists of words and pause for a few minutes. Then read list 3 and put a tick against the words that were in the first two. Now go back and check your answers…

List 1

apple, vegetable, orange, kiwi,

citrus, ripe, pear, banana, berry,

cherry, basket, juice, salad, bowl,

cocktail

.

.

List 2

web, insect, bug, fright, fly,

arachnid, crawl, tarantula, poison,

bite, creepy, animal, ugly, feelers, small

.

.

NOW WAIT A FEW MINUTES. THEN SCROLL DOWN.

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.

.

.

.

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.

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Check the following words that you remember from being on List 1 or List 2

Spider, feather, citrus, ugly, robber,

Piano, goat, ground, cherry, bitter,

Insect, fruit, suburb, kiwi, quick,

Mouse, pile, fish

.

How did you do?

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Michael Michalko author of Creative Thinkering. http://www.amazon.com/Creative-Thinkering-Putting-Your-Imagination/dp/160868024X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1324323478&sr=8-1

 

 

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