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.


(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)

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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.


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


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?


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:


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,




List 2

web, insect, bug, fright, fly,

arachnid, crawl, tarantula, poison,

bite, creepy, animal, ugly, feelers, small












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



How to Reverse Your Perspective to Create New Idea

old lady or young girl

Is this an illustration of an old woman or a young girl?

Many times we have to change our psychology to understand certain phenomena. Think of Michelangelo when he sculpted what may be the world’s most famous sculpture, David. He did not think of “building” something; he thought of “taking away” something from what was there. A quotation often attributed to him has it that “the more the marble wastes away, the more the sculpture grows.”

To understand a mirror you have to change your psychology. Why does a mirror seem to invert left and right but not top and bottom? That is, when you hold an open book up to a mirror, why are the letters of the text backward but not upside down, and why is your left hand the double’s right and your right the double’s left? When we look into a mirror we imagine ourselves reversed left to right, as if we had walked around behind a pane of glass to look through it. This conventional perspective is why we cannot explain what is happening with a mirror. To understand a mirror’s image, you have to psychologically reverse the way you perceive your image. Imagine your nose and the back of your head reversed, through the mirror. You have to imagine yourself reversed, “squashed” back to front. Stand in front of the mirror with one hand pointing east and the other west. Wave the east hand. The mirror image waves its east hand. Its west hand lies to the west. Its head is up and the feet are down. Once you look at a mirror with this perspective, you gain an understanding, about the axis of the mirror, which is the imaginary line on a mirror about which a body rotates. We have difficulty understanding the mirror until we change our perspective.

Similarly, we sometimes have difficulty coming up with ideas until we change our psychology. Early nomadic societies were all based on the principle of “getting to the water.” Only when they reversed this to “how can we get the water to come to us” did civilization begin to flourish. An easy way to change your thinking patterns when faced with a problem is to first list all your assumptions about the problem. Then reverse your assumptions and try to make the reversals work.

Following is a thought experiment about reversing a store policy. After you read the problem, try to come up with ideas before you read further.


A clothing retailer is concerned about the rate of garment returns. According to the store policy, a customer who returns a garment must receive a cash refund. Reverse this policy so that it says: if a customer returns a garment, the store doesn’t have to give a cash refund. Can you come up with ideas to make this reversal into a practical solution?


What can the store give the customer instead of a refund? One idea is to offer the customer a gift certificate worth more than the original purchase price. In effect this gives the customer a 10 percent reward for returning the unwanted garment. The policy would allow the store to keep most of the cash, and the customers would likely be happy with the reward. The real payback would occur when the customer returned with the gift certificate. A customer who returned a $100 garment would receive a gift certificate for $110. Psychology predicts that, when the customer returns to the store, he will go to the higher priced garments. For example, instead of shopping for an $l00 garment, he will be attracted to the $200 garments because, in his mind, it would “cost” him only $90. What a deal! Change the way you look at things by reversing them and looking at the other side.


For more creative thinking techniques read Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko. http://www.amazon.com/Thinkertoys-Handbook-Creative-Thinking-Techniques-Edition/dp/1580087736/ref=pd_sim_b_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=0T6TTX3RDA7VQ9NEJR5C

Rearrange the letters in words to discover how words self-define themselves



Creativity, it could be said, consists largely of rearranging what we know in order to find out what we do not know. Rearrangement usually offers countless alternatives for ideas, goods, and services. A baseball manager, for example, can shuffle his lineup 362,880 times

Take ordinary words and rearrange the letters to create new words that will surprise and startle you. For example, if life gives you limes, rearrange the letters of limes into smile :) Other examples:

ASTRONOMER: When you rearrange the letters, it becomes:


ELECTION RESULTS: When you rearrange the letters:


SLOT MACHINES: When you rearrange the letters:


ANIMOSITY: When you rearrange the letters:


DORMITORY: When you rearrange the letters:


PRESBYTERIAN: When you rearrange the letters:


THE EYES: When you rearrange the letters:


THE MORSE CODE: When you rearrange the letters:


SNOOZE ALARMS: When you rearrange the letters.


ELEVEN PLUS TWO: When you rearrange the letters:


A DECIMAL POINT: When you rearrange the letters:


DESPERATION: When you rearrange the letters:



Visit Michael Michalko at www.creativethinking.net

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