Change Your Words and You Can Change Your Life


Language affects our perception, attitude, behavior, and how we live our lives.

Language profoundly shapes the way we think. Benjamin Lee Whorf, a renowned linguist, used the Hopi Indian language as an example. Whorf believed the Hopi had no grammatical forms, constructions or expressions that refer directly to what we call “time.” Consequently, Hopi speakers think about time in a way that is very different from the way most of the rest of us — with our obsession with past, present, and future — think about it. To the Hopi, said Whorf, all time is “now.” There is no past or future, only “now.”

All this new linguist research shows us that the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express. The structures that exist in our languages profoundly shape how we construct reality, and help make us as smart and sophisticated as we are.

Joseph Campbell wrote that there is a “curious, extremely interesting term in Japanese that refers to a very special manner of polite, aristocratic speech known as “play language,” (asobase kotoba), whereby, instead of saying to a person, for example, “I see that you have come to Tokyo,” one would express the observation by saying, “I see that you are playing at being in Tokyo” — the idea being that the person addressed is in such control of his life and his powers that for him everything is a play, a game. He is able to enter into life as one would enter into a game, freely and with ease.” What a glorious way to approach life. What has to be done is attacked with such a will that in the performance one is literally “in play.” “I am playing at being fired from my job.” “My wife is playing being mad at me for not helping her paint the room.” This attitude that “play” language cultivates is the attitude described by Nietzsche as love of one’s fate.

Ralph Summy, who directs the Matsunaga Institute for Peace, is well aware of the influence of language and encourages students to replace violent emotions by replacing violent expressions with nonviolent language. Instead of describing someone as “shooting a hole in an argument,” he suggests, that this person could be described as “unraveling a ball of yarn.” Summy also recommends that the expression “to kill two birds with one stone” be replaced by “to stroke two birds with one hand.” “Dressed to kill,” he adds, might become “dressed to thrill.” Substituting new language, Summy concludes, “arrests people’s attention and paves the way for discussion on a range of peace topics.” His work with language suggests that by paying attention and substituting nonviolent for violent words can change attitudes and make for a kinder dialogue..

You can also use language to prime how an individual thinks. In a pair of studies about the influence of language, researchers at the University of British Columbia had participants play a “dictator game.” The game is simple: you’re offered ten one one-dollar coins and told to take as many as you want and leave the rest for the player in the other room (who is, unbeknown to you, a research confederate). The fair split, of course, is fifth-fifty, but most anonymous “dictators” play selfishly, leaving little or nothing for the other player.  In the control group the vast majority of participants kept everything or nearly everything.

In the experimental condition, the researchers next prompted thoughts of God by using a well-established “priming” technique: participants, who again included both theists and atheists, first had to unscramble sentences containing words such as God, divine, love, and sacred. That way, going into the dictator game again, players had God on their minds without being consciously aware of it. Sure enough, the “God prime” worked like a charm leading to fairer splits. Without the God prime, only a few of the participants split the money evenly, but when primed with the religious words, 62 percent did.

The language you use can even change your relationship with animals. We typically regard ourselves as superior to other animals, which we see as lower forms of life. We see them as “its.” “Look a bear. It is looking for food.” In contrast to our relationship to animals, the Native American Algonquin and Lakota Sioux regarded the animals as equal to humans, and in many ways superior, as expressed in their language. They addressed all animal life—“thou,” as objects of reverence: the dog, the crow, the buffalo, the snake were all “thou.” The ego that perceives “thou” is not the same ego that perceives “it.” Whenever you see a dog, cat or bird, silently think the word “Thou.” Try it for a day and discover for yourself how a simple word change can make a dramatic change in your perception of all life.

Language patterns affect our perception, attitude, behavior and how we live our lives. Words convey certain qualities of subjective experience that makes them unique and indispensable in understanding the current psychodynamics out of which an individual is operating. These subtle, yet utterly compelling differences are immediately evident when you apply different verbs to the same content. For example, following are some typical statements made by people who desire to become more creative in their personal and business lives.

  • I wish to be creative.
  •  I can be creative.
  • I’m able to be creative.
  • I should be creative.
  • I need to be creative.
  • I will be creative.

Which of the statements has the best chance of becoming a creative thinker? I think you will agree with me that it is the one who said, “I will be creative.”


This One has a Story to Tell

Try another exercise that demonstrates the power of words. Write a long story about something that has happened to you. Do not write “I” or “me,” but instead write “this one” or “this body” to represent you, and “that body” or “that person,” to represent other people in the story. For example, “This one remembers a Christmas with other bodies when this one was young that was the most disappointing Christmas of this one’s life.” “This body received no gifts from the other bodies which made this one sad and depressed.”

The words you use will have let you feel you are writing a story about someone else, even though it’s about you. You will feel strange and start thinking thoughts about yourself that you have never thought before.

Review Michael Michalko’s works and books about creative thinking at


What I Learned from Charles Darwin about Creative Thinking


I became interested in Darwin in college when I read about Darwin’s experience with John Gould. When Darwin returned to England after he visited the Galapagos, he distributed his finch specimens to professional zoologists to be properly identified. One of the most distinguished experts was John Gould. What was the most revealing was not what happened to Darwin, but what had not happened to Gould.

Darwin’s notes show Gould taking him through all the birds he has named. Gould kept flip-flopping back and forth about the number of different species of finches: the information was there, but he didn’t quite know what to make of it. He assumed that since God made one set of birds when he created the world, the specimens from different locations would be identical. It didn’t occur to him to look for differences by location. Gould thought that the birds were so different that they might be distinct species.

What was remarkable to me about the encounter is the completely different impact it had on the two men. Gould thought the way he had been taught to think, like an expert taxonomist, and didn’t see, in the finches, the textbook example of evolution unfolding right before him. Darwin didn’t even know they were finches. So the guy who had the intelligence, knowledge and the expertise didn’t see it, and the guy with far less knowledge and expertise comes up with an idea that shaped the way we think about the world.

Darwin came up with the idea because he was a productive thinker. He generated a multiplicity of perspectives and theories. Gould would compare new ideas and theories with his existing patterns of experience. He thought reproductively. If the ideas didn’t fit with what he had been taught, he rejected them as worthless. On the other hand, Darwin was willing to disregard what past thinkers thought and was willing to entertain different perspectives and different theories to see where they would lead to.

Most us are educated to think like John Gould. We were all born as spontaneous, creative thinkers. Yet a great deal of our education may be regarded as the inculcation of mindsets. We were taught how to handle problems and new phenomena with fixed mental attitudes (based on what past thinkers thought) that predetermine our response to problems or situations. In short, we were taught more “what” to think instead of “how” to think. We entered school as a question mark and graduated as a period.

Consequently, we tend to process information the same way over and over again instead of searching for alternatives ways. Once we think we know what works or can be done, it becomes hard for us to consider alternative ideas. We tend to develop narrow ideas and stick with them until proven wrong. Let’s say to advertise our product, we use television commercials 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 to see if we are right, we usually ignore paths that might lead us to discover alternatives. Following is an interesting experiment, which was originally conducted by the British psychologist Peter Watson that demonstrates this attitude. Watson would present subjects with the following three numbers in sequence.

2          4        6  

He would then ask subjects to explain the number rule for the sequence and to give other examples of the rule. The subjects could ask as many questions as they wished without penalty.

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

Actually, the rule Watson was looking for is much simpler– it’s simply numbers increasing. They could be 1, 2, 3 or 10, 20, 40 or 400, 678, 10,944. And testing such an alternative would be easy. All the subjects had to say was 1, 2, 3 to Watson to test it and it would be affirmed. Or, for example, a subject could throw out any series of numbers, for example, 5, 4, 3 to see if they got a positive or negative answer. And that information would tell them a lot about whether their guess about the rule is true.

The profound discovery Watson made was that most people process the same information over and over until proven wrong, without searching for alternatives, even when there is no penalty for asking questions that give them a negative answer. In his hundreds of experiments, he, incredibly, never had an instance in which someone spontaneously offered an alternative hypotheses to find out if it were true. In short, his subjects didn’t even try to find out if there is a simpler or even, another, rule.

Creative geniuses don’t think this way. The creative genius will always look for alternative ways to think about a subject. Even when the old ways are well established, the genius will invent new ways of thinking. If something doesn’t 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.

In summary, creative geniuses are productive thinkers. To change the way you think and become a more productive thinker, you need to learn how to think like a genius. When you need original ideas or creative solutions for your business and personal problems, you need to:

  • Generate a multiplicity of different perspectives about your subject until you find the perspective you want. Genius often comes from finding a new perspective that no one else has taken.
  • Generate a large quantity of alternatives and conjectures. From this quantity, retain the best ideas for further development and elaboration.
  • Produce variation in your ideas by incorporating random, chance or unrelated factors.

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

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

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

Learn more about Michael Michalko and his books about creative thinking by visiting:



Thomas Edison’s Creative Thinking Habits


(We can’t all be Edisons, but there are definitely things we can do to generate better ideas.)

Many Americans have bought the conventional wisdom that creativity is an innate gift, dividing us into two groups: “artistic types: painters, musicians, directors, actors, writers, mimes, comedians” and those deemed not especially creative, who usually wind up in business, accounting, law, or health care.

But the legendary career of inventor Thomas Alva Edison illustrates how creativity can be cultivated by anyone, in any industry. His work methods reveal that the true keys to unlocking creativity are learned traits namely perseverance and an open-minded approach to learning. A shrewd businessman, Edison used his creativity not only in developing new inventions but also in bringing them to market and winning out financially over competitors.

Edison was granted 1,093 patents for inventions that ranged from the lightbulb, typewriter, electric pen, phonograph, motion picture camera and alkaline storage battery—to the talking doll and a concrete house that could be built in one day from a cast-iron mold. When he died in 1931, he left 3500 notebooks which are preserved today in the temperature-controlled vaults of the West Orange Laboratory Archives at the Edison National Historic Site in New Jersey.

The notebooks read like a turbulent brainstorm and present a verbal and visual biography of Edison’s mind at work. Spanning most of his six-decade career, the notebooks are yielding fresh clues as to how Edison, who had virtually no formal education, could achieve such an astounding inventive record that is still unrivaled. The notebooks illustrate how Edison conceived his ideas from their earliest inceptions and show in great detail how he developed and implemented them. Following are some of Edison’s creative-thinking strategies, which you might bend to your will.

  1. QUANTITY. For starters, Edison believed to discover a good idea you had to generate many ideas. Out of quantity comes quality. He set idea quotas for all his workers. His own quota was one minor invention every 10 days and a major invention every six months. It took over 50,000 experiments to invent the alkaline storage cell battery and 9000 to perfect the lightbulb. Edison looked at creativity as simply good, honest, hard work. Genius, he once said, is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. For every brilliant idea he had there was a dud like 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, or the perpetual cigar which consisted of a hollow tube with a spring clip that moved tobacco forward as it burned. Although the cigar was a marketing failure, its companion product, the cigar lighter, was a marketing success.

Increasing your idea production requires conscious effort. Suppose I asked you to spend three minutes thinking of alternative uses of 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.

A specific quota focuses your energy in a competitive way that guarantees fluency and flexibility of thought. To meet the quota, you find yourself listing all the usual uses for a brick (build a wall, fireplace, outdoor barbeque, and so on) as well as listing everything that comes to mind (anchor, projectiles in riots, ballast, device to hold down newspaper, a tool for leveling dirt, material for sculptures, doorstop and so on) as we stretch our imagination to meet the quota. By causing us to exert effort, it allows us to generate more imaginative alternatives than we otherwise would.

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

To prove this to yourself, try the following exercise. Following is a list of five words. Write the first association that occurs to you for each word. Now do this five more times and for each time write an association that is different from the association you gave the same word on the previous occasions.






You will note that the latter associations are much more original and unique than the earlier ones. The first responses are the common, dominant associations you have for that word. By arranging to give responses that are not common or dominant, there is an increase in originality and imaginativeness of the responses.

A way to guarantee productivity of your creative thought is to give yourself an idea quota. For example, an idea quota of 40 ideas if you’re looking for ideas alone or a quota 120 ideas if a group is brainstorming for ideas. By forcing yourself to come up with 40 ideas, you put your internal critic on hold and write everything down, including the obvious and weak. The first thirdwill be the same-old, same-old ideas you always get. The second third will be more interesting and the last third will show more insight, curiosity and complexity.

  1. CHALLENGE ALL ASSUMPTIONS. Edison felt his lack of formal education was, in fact, his blessing. This enabled him to approach his work of invention with far fewer assumptions than his more educated competitors, which included many theoretical scientists, renowned Ph.D.s, and engineers. He approached any idea or experience with wild enthusiasm and would try anything out of the ordinary, including even making phonograph needles out of compressed rainforest nuts and clamping his teeth onto a phonograph horn to use as a hearing aid, feeling the sound vibrate through his jaw. This wild enthusiasm inspired him to consistently challenge assumptions.

He felt that in some ways too much education corrupted people by prompting them to make so many assumptions that they were unable to see many of nature’s great possibilities. When Edison created a system of practical lighting, he conceived of wiring his circuits in parallel and of using high-resistance filaments in his bulbs, two things that were not considered possible by scientific experts, in fact, were not considered at all because they were assumed to be totally incompatible until Edison put them together.

Before Edison hired a research assistant, he would invite the candidate over for a bowl of soup. If the person seasoned the soup before tasting it, Edison would not hire the candidate. He did not want people who had so many built-in assumptions into their everyday life, that they would even assume the soup is not properly seasoned. He wanted people who consistently challenged assumptions and tried different things.

An easy way to challenge assumptions is to simply reverse them and try to make the reversal work. The guidelines are:

1.  List your assumptions about a subject.

2.  Challenge your fundamental assumptions by reversing them. Write down the opposite of each assumption.

3.  Ask yourself how to accomplish each reversal. List as many useful viewpoints as you can.

Suppose, for example, you want to start a novel restaurant.You would begin by listing the assumptions you make about restaurants. One assumption might be: All restaurants have menus, written, verbal or implied.

Next, you would reverse this to: I will start a restaurant that does not have a menu of any kind.Now, look for ways to make the “reversal” work and list every idea you can. “How can I operate a viable restaurant that does not have a menu?”

One idea would be to have the chef come to the table and display what the chef bought that day at the meat market, fish market and vegetable market. The customer checks off the ingredients he or she likes and the chef prepares a special dish based on the “selected” ingredients. The chef also names the dish after the customer and prints out the recipe for the customer to take home. You might call the restaurant “The Creative Chef.”

  1. NOTHING IS WASTED. When an experiment failed, Edison would always ask what the failure revealed and would enthusiastically record what he had learned. His notebooks contain pages of material on what he learned from his abortive ideas, including his many experiments on will power (he conducted countless experiments with rubber tubes extended from his forehead trying to will the physical movement of a pendulum). Once when an assistant asked why he continued to persist trying to discover a long-lasting filament for the light bulb after failing thousands of times, Edison explained that he didn’t understand the question. In his mind he hadn’t failed once. Instead, he said he discovered thousands of things that didn’t work. Finally, he completed Patent 251,539 for the light bulb that ensured his fame and fortune.

He had an enormous talent for appropriating ideas that may have failed in one instance and using them for something else. For example, when it became clear in 1900 that an iron-ore mining venture in which Edison was financially committed was failing and on the brink of bankruptcy, he spent a weekend studying the company’s resources and came up with a detailed plan to redirect the company’s efforts toward the manufacture of Portland cement, which could capitalize on the same equipment, materials and distribution systems of the iron-ore company.

  1. RECORD YOUR IDEAS. Edison relentlessly recorded and illustrated every problem worked on in his notebooks. Whenever he succeeded with a new idea, Edison would review his notebooks to rethink ideas and inventions he=s abandoned in the past in the light of what he’d recently learned. If he was mentally blocked working on a new idea, he would review his notebooks to see if there was some thought or insight that could trigger a new approach. For example, Edison’s unsuccessful work to develop an undersea telegraph cable ultimately led to a breakthrough on a telephone transmitter. He took the principle for the unsuccessful undersea telegraph cable “variable resistance” and incorporated it into the design of a telephone transmitter that adapted to the changing sound waves of the caller’s voice. This technique instantly became the industry standard.

Edison would often jot down his observations of the natural world, failed patents and research papers written by other inventors, and ideas others had come up with in other fields. He would also routinely comb a wide variety of diverse publications for novel ideas that sparked his interest and record them in his notebooks. He advised his assistants to make it a habit to keep on the lookout for novel and interesting ideas that others have used successfully on other problems in other fields. To Edison, your idea needs to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you are working on.

Edison’s lesson is to record your ideas and other novel ideas in a notebook.  When confronted with a problem, review your notebook and look for ways to cross-fertilize ideas, techniques and conceptual models by transferring them from one problem to the next.

  1. CONSTANTLY IMPROVE YOUR IDEAS AND PRODUCTS AND THE IDEAS AND PRODUCTS OF OTHERS. Contrary to popular belief, Edison did not invent the light bulb: his genius, rather, was to perfect the bulb as a consumer item. Edison also studied all his inventions and ideas as springboards for other inventions and ideas in their own right. To Edison, the telephone (sounds transmitted) suggested the phonograph (sounds recorded), which suggested motion pictures (images recorded). Simple, in retrospect, isn’t it? Genius usually is.

Einstein believed that every new idea is some addition or modification to something that already exists. You take a subject and manipulate or change it into something else. There are nine principle ways you can manipulate a subject. These ways were first formally suggested by Alex Osborn, the father of brainstorming, and later arranged by Bob Eberle into the mnemonic SCAMPER.

S = Substitute?

C = Combine?

A = Adapt?

M = Magnify? = Modify?

P = Put to other uses?

E = Eliminate?

R = Rearrange? = Reverse?

You isolate the subject you want to think about and ask the checklist of SCAMPER questions to see  what new ideas and thoughts emerge. Think about any subject from improving the ordinary paperclip to reorganizing your corporation and apply the “Scamper” checklist of questions. You’ll find that ideas start popping up almost involuntarily, as you ask:

Can you substitute something?

Can you combine your subject with something else?

Can you adapt something to your subject?

Can you magnify or add to it?

Can you modify or change it in some fashion?

Can you put it to some other use?

Can you eliminate something from it?

Can you rearrange it?

What happens when you reverse it?

Edison was tireless in his persistence to change a subject into something else through “trial and error” until he found the idea that worked. In Edison’s 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 while others are curved and as long as six feet tall. This collection of rejected ideas is a visual testament to Edison’s approach to creativity which was, in essence, to try out every possible design he could possibly conceive of. Once asked to describe the key to creativity, he reportedly said to never quit working on your subject until you get what you’re after.

  1. BE EXPLORATORY. Whenever Edison was working on something and found something else “interesting,” he would drop everything else and explore it. In developing the electric light Edison and his assistants decided to use platinum for the filament, but it stayed lit only briefly and was scarce and expensive. One day Edison absentmindedly rolled some lampblack in his fingers while working with a platinum filament. He looked at the twisted piece of lampblack and got his “Eureka moment,” Why not try to use carbon for the filament. His first carbon bulb burned for thirteen hours with the power of thirty candles; a few days later he got it up to one hundred hours by twisting and shaping the filament like a horseshoe.

The interesting aspect of carbon to Edison was the fact that he could twist it like rope. Edison was not the first person in his lab to notice that you could twist carbon, but he was the first to pursue it. Whenever Edison found something interesting, he would explore it intellectually before he applied his emotions and prejudices. The others working on the light bulb had emotionally decided that the filament should be platinum and were blind to the interesting aspects of carbon. They lacked the will to explore carbon, once they had made a decision that platinum was the answer.

To explore a subject with your intellect, you need to will yourself to direct your attention in different ways. A tool to help you do this is the PMI. The PMI is an attention-directing tool that is designed to deliberately direct your attention to all the positive, negative and interesting aspects about your subject. Carrying out a PMI is simple. What is not simple is to deliberately concentrate your attention in one direction after another when your emotions and prejudices have already decided how you should feel about your subject.

Once you have the will to do a PMI, than the natural challenge to your intelligence is to find as many positive, negative, and interesting points as you can. Instead of using intelligence to support your emotions and prejudice, you are now using it to explore the subject matter. The guidelines are:

  1. Make three columns on a sheet of paper. Title the columns Plus, Minus, and Interesting.
  2. Under the Plus column, list all the positive aspects about the subject that you can.
  3. Under the Minus column, list all the negative aspects that you can.
  4. Under the Interesting column, list all those things that are worth noting but do not fit under either Plus or Minus. The Interesting items help us to react to the inherent, interesting aspects in an idea and not just to judgement feelings and emotions about the idea.

With the PMI, you use your intelligence to explore the subject matter. At the end of the exploration, emotions and feelings can be used to make a decision about the matter. The difference is that the emotions are now applied after the exploration instead of being applied before and so preventing exploration. With a PMI, one of three things can happen:

1.   You do not change your mind.

2.   You may change your mind about the idea.

3.   You may move from an interesting aspect of the idea to another idea. For example, in the early days of 1944, scientists at the Radiation Laboratory at MIT developed a new-type radar that could detect a tower at a distance of six miles, but by spring when humidity increased, the system did not work anymore. To their frustration, they discovered that they had somehow developed a radar that was tuned to the natural frequency of water vapor. Rather than trashing their work, they looked for ways to use this interesting aspect for some other purpose. Their work developed the technology that eventually led to the microwave oven.

The PMI forces you to explore every aspect of your subject. Once a point has been thought and put down under any of the headings, that point cannot be “unthought,” and it will influence the final decision. You react to what you put down and your feelings change.

Finally, if you want to become more creative, start acting like you are creative. Suppose that you wanted to be an artist: You would begin behaving like an artist by painting every day. You may not become another Vincent Van Gogh, but you’ll become more of an artist than someone who has never tried. Similarly, to increase your creativity start acting like Thomas Edison. Cultivate the following creative-thinking habits:

When looking for ideas, create lots of ideas.

Consistently challenge assumptions.

Record your ideas and the ideas of others in a notebook.

Learn from your failures and the failures of others.

Constantly look for ways to improve your ideas and products and the ideas and products of others.

Be exploratory.

You may not become the next Thomas Edison but you will become much more creative than someone who has never tried.






At this very moment, you are actually moving your eyes over a white page dotted with black marks. Your mind recognizes and transforms the marks into patterns which we call words and sentences. Our minds created the patterns when we first learned to talk and read. Now we no longer see the words as patterns of black marks and lose ourselves in what we are reading.

The patterns are so hard wired in our brains that we no longer can imagine the black marks being anything else but letters, words, and sentences. Look at this page and try not to see the words and letters, but only black shapes on white paper; that is, try to see the original input that you had when you were a two-year-old. You’ll find that it’s impossible because of the word patterns stored in your brain.

We learn from new experiences, spot resemblances in those experiences, and translate those resemblances into patterns. Imagine if you had to relearn each day how to tie your shoelaces, how to read, how to drive to work, or how to do your job. We couldn’t function the way we do as human beings if our minds were not able to recognize and respond to patterns.

When we learn something, we program it into our brain and stop thinking about or looking for alternatives. Over time these thinking patterns become stronger and stronger, not only cognitively but physiologically as well. Habitual pattern recognition provides us with instant interpretations and enables us to react quickly to our environment. Though pattern recognition simplifies the complexities of life and makes it easier, it also limits our perception of the world and our ability to create new ideas and unique solutions to problems.

The dominant factor in the way our minds work is the buildup of patterns that enable us to simplify the assimilation of complex data. These patterns are based on our reproducing our past experiences in life, education, and work that have been successful in the past. These patterns enable us to perform routine tasks rapidly and accurately. When confronted with a problem, the information self-organizes into thinking patterns that are based on our past experiences. Then the mind analytically selects the most promising approach and applies it to the problem.

For example, when asked what is 6 X 6, 36 automatically appears. These number patterns rapidly produce answers for us without conscious thought. For example, to demonstrate how quickly these patterns produce answers, add up the following numbers in your head as quickly as you can. Take 1000 and add 40 to it. Now add another 1000. Now add 30. Add another 1000. Now add 20. Now add another 1000. Now add 10. What is the total?

Our confidence in our ability to add according to the way we were taught in base ten encourages us to process the information this way and jump to a conclusion. If your total is 5,000, then you are wrong. 96% of people who add these simple numbers get the wrong answer. The numbers are arranged in such a way to set people up to get the wrong answer when adding using base ten. The correct answer is 4,100.

The mind was imagined as a collection of programs based on fixed knowledge transferred from sources of people and institutions regarded as authorities (i.e., parents, teachers, experts, pundits, gurus, etc.) to you. When confronted with a problem, your mind analytically selects the most promising program, excluding all other approaches, and works within a clearly defined direction towards the solution of the problem.

According to this model of the brain, neurons replace transistors. And just as most of us are unaware of the architecture of a computer that manipulates the colorful pictures and symbols we see on a computer screen, we are equally unaware of how our brains operate. It’s like you know that two plus two equals four, not because you worked through the solution; but because the answer appears automatically without conscious thought.

It’s almost as if our education has hard wired our brains to circumvent deliberative and creative thinking wherever possible through rote memorization and robotic learning of formulas and principles. We have been trained to seek out the neural path of least resistance, searching out responses that have worked in the past first, rather than approach a problem on its own terms.

Read the following:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabridge Uinvervtisy, it deosnt mttaer in waht oredr the litteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a ttoal mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is besauae ocne we laren how to raed we bgien to aargnre the lteerts in our mnid to see waht we epxcet tp see. The huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. We do tihs ucnsolniuscoy.

Amazing, isn’t it? These are jumbled letters, not words, yet our minds see them as words. How is this possible? How do our minds do this?

Think of your mind as a bowl of butter with a surface that is perfectly flat. Imagine gently pouring hot water on the butter from a teaspoon and then gently tipping the bowl so that it runs off. After many repetitions of this process, the surface of the butter will self-organize into ruts, indentations, and grooves.

New water will automatically flow into the existing grooves. After a while, it would take only a tiny bit of water to activate an entire channel. Even if much of the water is out of the channel, the existing channel will be selected.

When information enters the mind, it self-organizes into patterns and ruts much like the hot water on butter. New information automatically flows into the preformed grooves. After a while, the channels become so deep it takes only a bit of information to activate an entire channel. This is the pattern recognition and pattern completion process of the brain. Even if much of the information is out of the channel, the pattern will be activated. The mind automatically corrects and completes the information to select and activate a pattern.

This is why you can read the jumbled letters above as words. The first and last letters of the words are correct. For example, in the word “According” I kept the “A” and “g” and mixed up the rest into the nonsense word “Aoccdrnig.” Just this tiny bit of information (the first and last letters) is enough to activate the word pattern in your brain and you read “According.”

This is also why when we sit down and try to will new ideas or solutions; we tend to keep coming up with the same-old, same-old ideas. Information is flowing down the same ruts and grooves making the same-old connections producing the same old ideas over and over again. Even tiny bits of information are enough to activate the same patterns over and over again.

These patterns enable us to simplify and cope with a complex world. These thinking patterns give us precision as we perform repetitive tasks, such as driving an automobile, writing a book, teaching a class or making a sales presentation. Patterns enable us to perform routine tasks rapidly and accurately. When we see something that we have seen before, we understand what it means immediately. We don’t have to spend time studying and analyzing it. For example, we automatically know that the logo below represents the Coca Cola Company.

coca cola

Habits, thinking patterns and routines with which we approach life gradually accumulate until they significantly reduce our awareness of other possibilities. It’s as if a cage is built up around our imagination over time and its effects slowly become obvious. Because the accumulation of thinking patterns goes almost unnoticed until the cage reduces our awareness significantly. Have you noticed, for example, that the logo is not a logo for coca–cola? It reads coca–coca.

How then can we change our thinking patterns and escape the cage? Nature creates many possibilities through blind “trial and error” and then lets the process of natural selection decide which species survive. In nature, 95% of new species fail and die within a short period of time. Over time, the gene pool for the surviving species stabilizes and thrives, but eventually seeks variation. In nature, a gene pool totally lacking in variation would be unable to adapt to changing circumstances, with consequences which would be fatal to the species’ survival. In time the genetically encoded wisdom would convert to foolishness.

How does nature provide for variations? Nature creates genetic mutations to provide the variations needed for survival. A genetic mutation is a variation that is created by a random or chance event which ignores the conventional wisdom contained in parental chromosomes. Nature then lets the process of natural selection decide which variations survive and thrive.

A comparable process operates within us. Every individual has the ability to create ideas based on his or her existing patterns of thinking which are based on past education and experience. But without any provision for variations, ideas eventually stagnate and lose their adaptive advantages. In the end, if you always think the way you’ve always thought, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. The same-old ideas.

Look at the two lines of dots below.  Can you will yourself to see one line longer that the other?


You cannot. You cannot will yourself to look at things in a different way, no matter how inspired you are to do so. Think again about the dish of butter with all the preformed channels. Creativity occurs when we tilt the dish in a different direction and force the water (information) to create new channels and make new connections with other channels. These new connections give you different ways to focus your attention and different ways to interpret whatever you are focusing on.

Creative thinkers get variation by using creative thinking techniques which provoke different thinking patterns and provides them with a variety of alternatives and conjectures. From this variety of alternatives and conjectures, the intellect retains the best ideas for further development and communication. The majority of ideas, like the majority of new species in nature, fail and are discarded.

Johannes Guttenberg researched and experimented for years trying to find a better printing process. He studied the existing process and worked tirelessly to improve it without much success. It was Guttenberg’s chance visit to a winery where he observed a wine press in operation that provided the idea he needed to revolutionize the way we communicate information.

In the illustration, I add another variable (two straight lines). The lines of dots are still the same length (go ahead and measure them) but now the top line appears longer. The two lines provoked a different thinking pattern and gave you a different way to focus on the information and a different way to interpret what you are focusing on.


In a similar way, the screw mechanism Gutenberg observed in a wine press gave him a different way to focus on his printing problem. He combined “transferring of juice from grapes” with “transferring ink from moveable type to paper.” His insight was that he could use the screw mechanism found in a wine press in a printing press to mechanize the transfer of ink from moveable type to paper.

This simple innovation allowed for an assembly line-style printing production process that was much more efficient than pressing paper to ink by hand. For the first time in history, books could be mass-produced — at a fraction of the cost of conventional printing methods. His chance visit at a wine press permitted him to conceptually blend the “pressing grapes” process with the “printing process,” two totally unrelated subjects in two unrelated fields.

The quintessential activity of perception is the discovery of some abstract connection that links and does not separate parts of complex wholes. The essence of creative thinking is a complex blending of elements of two or more different subjects, all of which involve guesswork rather than certainty. Perception is far more than the recognition of members of already-established categories–it involves the spontaneous manufacture of new categories.

To get a unique perspective on your problem, try this creative thinking technique.


Gillette scientists were tasked with creating a better toothbrush.

  1. First determine the essence of the problem. What is the universal principle? Gillette scientists determined the essence of their problem was “cleaning.” How are things cleaned?
  2. Secondly, look in other worlds to observe how things are cleaned. The Gillette scientists generated a list of things in other worlds that incorporated the major principle of cleaning. Their list included such items as:
  • a. How is hair cleaned.
  • b. How are cars cleaned.
  • c. How are fish cleaned.
  • d. How are ears cleaned.
  • e. How are stoves cleaned.
  • f. How are waterways cleaned.
  • g. How is polluted air cleaned.
  1. Then select the most promising ones and describe in detail. The scientists focused on how cars were cleaned in car washes which have multiple soaping and brushing actions in different directions.
  2. Create an idea. The scientists conceptually blended how cars are cleaned with how teeth are cleaned and created the Oral B toothbrush which contains multiple brushes brushing in different directions and it became the bestselling toothbrush on the market.

Michael Michalko is the author of books on creative thinking including THINKERTOYS, CRACKING CREATIVITY and CREATIVE THINKERING. For more information visit




Below are four simple questions.  Try to answer all of them before looking at the answers.

#1:  How do you put a giraffe into a fridge?

#2:  How do you put an elephant into a fridge?

#3:  The King of the Jungle is holding a meeting for all of the animals.  One of them is not there.  Which one?

#4:  You are standing on the bank of an alligator infested river and have to get to the other side.  What do you do?.......














A survey by Accenture found that approximately 90% of managers are likely to incorrectly answer all of the questions.  Many school children under the age of six will actually get these questions right.  What does this say about management thinking? And now for the answers to the four question:

#1:  Open the fridge, put the giraffe inside, and then close the fridge.

#2:  Open the fridge, remove the giraffe, put the elephant inside, and close the fridge.

#3:  The elephant.  The elephant is in the fridge.

#4:  You swim across the river because all the alligators are attending the meeting.

This is what the questions are trying to find out:

#1 checks to see if you try to make simple things complicated and make assumptions about problem boundaries.  Nobody actually said that the fridge was not big enough to put a giraffe inside!

#2 tests your ability to consider previous actions.  Who says that they are four separate questions?

#3 simply tests your memory.

#4 checks to see how quickly you learn.  After all, you must have answered question 4 correctly if you are a successful Senior Manager.


Learn how to get the original ideas you need to improve your personal and business lives. Visit:



Problems frequently give a vague sense of disquiet, a sense of things not going in quite the direction you had planned however, you have no clear thoughts of what the ‘right’ direction might be. This exercise that follows was suggested by St Ignatius Loyola (some 500 years ago).

It allows you to explore problems at a ‘deeper’ subconscious level by changing your perspective from the external to the personal. He suggested imaging yourself at different ages while experimenting with new ideas to solve problems. Begin by relaxing in a calm, quiet environment then:

  • Imagine your infancy, in your imagination think back to when you were a small, helpless, dependent, infant born into a particular environment
  • Imagine being5, imagine you are now 5, how did it feel to be 5? Can you picture images and memories from that time?
  • Imagine being 12, 25, 40, 65, after a few minutes, project your imagination to what you were like when you were 12, did you worry? What was important to you? What was your world like? Using the same method of thinking ask yourself the same questions for age 25 and 40 and 65.
  • Imagine being very, very old; imagine looking in the mirror when you are very old. What do you see? How you feel about yourself? Who are you? Take a retrospective look over your whole life – what really mattered? What would you have like to have done differently? Are you ready to die?
  • Imagine your death, what are your thoughts as you imagine yourself dying? Imagine your closest friends and relatives, what would they be thinking about you?
  • Imagine being reborn, after a few, or when you feel ready, imagine you are going to be reborn. You can be reborn, anywhere at any time as anything you desire. What would your choices be?
  • Return, when you feel ready to open your eyes, gradually look around you as if seeing everything for the first time.

All of us can change our perspectives by following St. Ignatius’s exercise. Peggy Dupra a middle school principal had a problem with her female pupils who were experimenting with lipstick. The girls were kissing the mirrors in the bathroom leaving their lip prints on bathroom mirrors. The maintenance department constantly asked her to have the pupils stop this practice. Peggy lectured, pleaded and threatened the girls with detention, but nothing seemed to help.

She and I discussed the situation, and I suggested the St. Ignatius technique which uses your imagination to change your age and circumstances both past and future. This exercise re-creates earlier and future selves. After a few moments, you’ll become aware of random thoughts, associations and images from past and future years. Eventually these thoughts and images will be accompanied by emotions–in some instances, very intense ones. This emotions are stimulated by the brain’s attempt to reconcile and synthesize the disparity the real “you” and the imagined “you.”

While the brain knows the imagined you isn’t really you, it will still respond from moment to moment as if it were real. You won’t just remember events; you will remember how you felt about them.

Peggy tried the exercise. She began remembering all sorts of past friends when you was twelve years old, and how she really felt at the time about the world. She more she remembered the more she felt like a young school girl. She laughed when she thought of her best friend Ellen of years ago and how they always tried to gross each other out in a game they called “Yechhhh!” She remembered one time when they spread the rumor that the cafeteria was using sewage water from a ditch to make pizzas to save water. The students refused to eat the pizza.

Suddenly thinking about how they grossed out students she got an insight on how to solve her bathroom lipstick problem. After conspiring with the janitor, she invited the girls into the bathroom saying she wanted them to witness the extra work they made for the janitor cleaning their lip prints. The janitor came in and stepped into an open toilet stall. He dipped his squeegee into a toilet, shook off the excess toilet water then used the squeegee to clean the mirrors. Changing her perspective from an adult to a young girl introduced a clever solution to her problem that she could not have discovered using her usual way of thinking.


Discover the creative thinking techniques and strategies used by creative geniuses throughout history to get their breakthrough ideas.



Michelangelo’s grocery list

michelangelos grocery list

This is Michelangelo’s grocery list that he drew and diagramed for his servants because they could not read or write. Today this scrap of paper is priceless because as mundane as it is, it still is a sample of his work. He once said “People say I am a God. I am not a God. Anyone can do what I do and have done. All they have to do is to be as willing and happy as I was to work as hard as I did to learn how.”

If you want to become more creative to improve your business and personal lives, learn the creative thinking techniques used by creative geniuses throughout the ages. Visit:


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