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.



Imagine you gave your fiancée an engagement ring that cost over $10,000. After three months, your fiancée returns the ring to you and breaks off the engagement. You return to the jeweler with the ring and try to sell the ring back. You are only offered $3500. What do you do?

This happened to Josh Opperman. All he had left was the fancy ring he had worked so hard to save up for. What could he do? He thought what happened to him must happen to other people. There must be a population of people who bought expensive jewelry for someone and were rejected. Then when they tried to return the jewelry were shocked at the way less than the purchase price jewelers offered for the item. He saw this as a possible business opportunity.

He started a business called I Do Now I Don’t. It is an e-commerce site that allows people to sell gently used engagement rings or any other fancy jewelry and other accessories to other users for way less than going to a jewelry store. He created a unique opportunity where sellers receive more money than ever thought possible, while at the same time the buyers can buy diamonds and jewelry at below retail prices; for the first time ever, a unique model that adds value to both sides of the equation. His idea has been featured on CNN, The Today Show, Fox News, and in The New York Times.

Thomas Edison put it this way: “Make it a habit to keep on the lookout for novel and interesting ideas that others have used successfully. Your idea needs to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you are working on.” Josh’s new business is basically an adaptation of Craig’s List used for the buying and selling of gently used jewelry.

Another example of adaptation comes from the medical field. Dr. Peter Pronovost, a critical care specialist at the Johns Hopkins medical center in Baltimore, thought he knew how to minimize human error. It was, as Dr. Atul Gawande describes it in his provocative new book, “The Checklist Manifesto,” an idea so simple that it seemed downright loopy.

In 2001 Dr. Pronovost borrowed a concept from the aviation industry: a checklist, the kind that pilots use to clear their planes for takeoff. In an experiment Dr. Pronovost used the checklist strategy to attack just one common problem in the I.C.U., infections in patients with central intravenous lines (catheters that deliver medications or fluids directly into a major vein). Central lines can be breeding grounds for pathogens; in the Hopkins I.C.U. at the time, about one line in nine became infected, increasing the likelihood of prolonged illness, further surgery or death.

Dr. Pronovost wrote down the five things that doctors needed to do when inserting central lines to avoid subsequent infection: wash hands with soap; clean the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic; cover the patient’s entire body with sterile drapes; wear a mask, hat, sterile gown and gloves; and put a sterile dressing over the insertion site after the line was in. Many of his colleagues thought his idea was a no-brainer. It seemed silly to make a checklist for something so obvious.”

But Dr. Pronovost knew that about one-third of the time doctors were skipping at least one of these critical steps. What would happen if they never skipped any? He gave the five-point checklist to the nurses in the I.C.U. and, with the encouragement of hospital administrators, told them to check off each item when a doctor inserted a central line — and to call out any doctor who was cutting corners. The new rule made it clear: if doctors didn’t follow every step, the nurses would have backup from the administration to intervene.

The nurses were strict, the doctors toed the line, and within one year the central line infection rate in the Hopkins I.C.U. had dropped from 11 percent to zero. Two years after the checklist was introduced, Dr. Pronovost calculated, it had prevented 43 infections, avoided 8 I.C.U. deaths and saved the hospital millions of dollars.

Based on this success, Dr. Pronovost and his colleagues wrote up checklists for other situations in the I.C.U., like mechanical ventilation. (Were antacids prescribed to prevent stomach ulcers? Was the bed propped up 30 degrees to keep the windpipe clear of saliva?) The average length of stay in the I.C.U. dropped by half, and 21 fewer I.C.U. patients died than had died the previous year.

When looking for ideas become an expert at adaptation, ask:
⦁ What else is like this?
⦁ What other idea does this suggest?
⦁ Does the past offer a parallel?
⦁ What could I copy?
⦁ Whom could I emulate?
⦁ What idea could I incorporate?
⦁ What other process could be adapted?
⦁ What else could be adapted?
⦁ What different contexts can I put my concept in?
⦁ What ideas outside my field can I incorporate?
⦁ What ideas inside my field can I incorporate?

Learn the techniques creative geniuses have used to create ideas.


Years back, I submitted my first manuscript Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques to commercial publishers. All the major publishers responded that they did not review manuscripts that were not represented by agents. When I approached the major agents, I was told that they not represent anyone who was not published. It was a classic Catch-22.

I regarded this as simply another challenge to be overcome. I thought about the creative thinking techniques used by Leonardo da Vinci that I researched and wrote about in my book Cracking Creativity (The Secrets of Creative Genius). He believed that it is impossible for the human mind to deliberate on two separate ideas or objects, no matter how dissimilar, without eventually forming a connection between the two. These connections give you a different way to focus on the information and a different way to interpret what you are focusing on which leads to creative ideas that you cannot get using your usual way of thinking.

Leonardo called this technique “connecting the unconnected.” A blueprint for how to use this technique is in my book and includes several different ways on how to find random subjects that are unrelated to your challenge. One way uses a visual picture or illustration that you randomly select.

Accordingly, I took out a deck of Tarot cards (Gypsy fortune-telling cards). The cards are beautifully illustrated and titled such as “Tower,” “the Moon, “the Fool,” and so on. I shuffled the deck, closed my eyes, and randomly pulled out a card. The card I pulled was the “Death” card. Intrigued, I began to wonder what connections there were between death and getting a publisher to read my manuscript. What does death have to do with publishers reviewing manuscripts?

I thought of death: the causes, grieving, burials, rituals, memorial services, the undertakers, decomposition, cultural attitudes, wakes, preparations for burial, epitaphs, gravestones, eulogies, obituaries, and so on. The card also displayed death wearing a suit of armor and appearing majestically powerful to the people he approached.

The two thoughts I had that I made connections with getting published were:

  1. Death means leaving one’s loved ones and friends behind.
  2. Death appears in the picture as a knight wearing shining armor facing people who are fearful.

Leaving one’s friends behind made me think of editors leaving one publisher for a better position with a competing publisher. I also assumed the editors who left for more prestigious jobs with other companies were highly valued by their previous companies.  Human nature being what it is, perhaps, the departing editor left his former boss and co-workers jealous and resentful. Perhaps they were not willing to help or assist him succeed at his new company.

Then I got my idea. I went to the library and looked up Publisher’s Weekly, the publishing industry journal. Inside I found a section titled “People on the Move.” It described people’s movement in the industry. I discovered that one of the editors (I’ll refer to him as Tom) at Random House had moved on to become publisher for a competing company. I became interested in the people he left behind at his former publisher.

My idea was to write a letter to Tom’s former editor-in-chief where he worked before he left to work for a competitor. My letter read as follows:

Dear Editor-in-Chief:

My manuscript that your editor Tom X was so excited about is finally finished. I promised Tom that I would submit the manuscript to him as soon as I finished it.

However, I cannot locate Tom X. Your company’s receptionist told me he is no longer employed by your company and was not able to give me his current address. I would very much appreciate it if you would please let me know how and where I can contact him so I can deliver my promised manuscript.

Michael Michalko

I sent this letter to three different publishers about three different editors who had accepted better jobs with other publishers. All three publishers demanded the manuscript immediately. One called and threatened me with a lawsuit unless I delivered the manuscript to them ASAP. All three wanted the publishing rights and got into a bidding war for the contract. I received a lucrative advance from the high bidder. All offers were from companies who claimed they would not review manuscripts not represented by agents. They all ended up bidding against each other for a manuscript that was not represented by an agent.

Thank you, Leonardo da Vinci, for showing me once again how to get the unconventional idea by connecting the unconnected.


Does society really value creativity? People say they want more creative people, more creative ideas and solutions, but do they really?

The Greek philosopher Democritus (460-370 BC) promulgated the atomic theory, which asserted that the universe is composed of two elements: the atoms and the void in which they exist and move. Many contemporary historians of the philosophy of science consider Democritus to be the “father of modern science” because of his stunning insight about the universe centuries before our understanding of atomic structure, which did not occur until the early 19th century.

All of his ideas were rejected by all of the Greek philosophers and scientists at the time because his beliefs contrasted with those of Aristotle who, according to his followers, was the ultimate authority about the universe. Their commitment to Aristotle and his theories about the universe caused them to feel a great uncertainty in imagining any other possibility. Plato is said to have disliked him and his atomic theory so much that he wished all his books burned. Democritus was ignored by the Athens intellectual community for the rest of his life.

Did the ancient Greeks desire creative ideas? Yes. They prided themselves for their creativity in the arts, science and society. They proclaimed Greece as the “enlightened society,” and built architectural monuments to their creativity. Yet the rejection of Democritus is just one of many historical examples of breakthrough ideas that were automatically rejected because of their novelty and their nonconformance with existing beliefs which caused a general feeling of uncertainty.

History also recounts how physicists could not see Einstein’s theory of relativity because of their established, accepted views. For years, they tried to incorporate his view into the established view without success. Interestingly, the skeptical physicists never did accept his theory, instead they eventually died and subsequent generations of physicists who were not prejudiced by the past were able to accept and understand Einstein. What we learn from history is that our established view interferes with our perception and understanding of new ideas and concepts.

Do people desire creative ideas and innovation today? Most us would answer with a loud ‘YES, OF COURSE’ asserting that creativity is the engine of discovery in the arts, science and industry, and is the fundamental driving force of positive change, and is associated with intelligence, wisdom, and goodness.

Still while most people strongly endorse a positive view of creativity, historians have discovered that scientific institutions, business, education, medical, military, nonprofit, political organizations, and leaders and decision-makers in all fields routinely reject creative ideas much like the Greeks rejected atomic theory.

Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocket propulsion, endured ridicule and derision from his contemporary scientific peers who stated his ideas were ludicrous and impossible. The New York Times even chimed in with an editorial written by scientists that Goddard lacked even a high school understanding of rocket propulsion. This example is not unique.  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.”

Ken Olsen, 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.” Other examples are:

•             Pierrre Pachet,  a renowned physiology professor and expert declared, “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.”

•             Every major corporation in the country rejected Chester Carlson’s invention of xerography. They said, “Why would anyone buy an expensive copy machine when carbon paper is so cheap and plentiful.”

•             Fred Smith’s Yale University management professor gave Fred a ‘C’ because Fred’s paper proposal to provide overnight delivery service was not a feasible business idea. Fred’s proposal became Federal Express. Incidentally, every delivery expert in the U.S. doomed FedEx to failure as they said no one will pay a fancy price for speed and reliability.

•             Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899 said.”Everything that can be invented has been invented.” He urged the closing of the patent office as there no longer was a need for it.

•             Western Union president William Orton rejected Bell’s offer to sell his struggling telephone company for $100,000. He said “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.  What use could this company make of an electrical toy?”

•            “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” said David Sarnoff’s associates, in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.

•             “TV won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first 6 months.  People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”(Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, 1946).

•             “Airplanes are interesting toys for hobbyists but of no military value.”(Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre / French commander of Allied forces during the closing months of World War I, 1918).

Once people establish a hypothesis about the way things are, they develop a deeply-rooted bias against anything that causes them to feel uncertain, anxious or confused about their pre-established hypothesis. This bias against uncertainty is activated when people are asked to evaluate new, novel ideas and interferes with the participants’ ability to recognize a creative idea. The insidious nature of this bias is that there is strong societal pressure to endorse creativity and its products and a strong social desirability bias against expressing any view of creativity as negative.  The resulting state is similar to that identified in research on racial bias; a conflict between an explicit preference towards creativity and unacknowledged negative associations with creativity. 

So we say we strongly support creativity while routinely rejecting creative ideas and never admitting it. This is because creative ideas are novel and different which makes us feel uncertain and afraid.

Learn how to become a creative thinker: http://creativethinking.net/#sthash.SXV5T2cu.dpbs


There is no such thing as failure. Failure is only a word that human beings use to judge a given situation. The artificial judgments of failure only keep you from trying something and erring or making a mistake. Yet those mistakes and errors are the way we learn and the way we grow.

Whenever we attempt to do something and fail, we end up doing something else or producing something else. You have not failed; you have produced some other result. The two most important questions to ask are: “What have I learned?” and “What have I done?”

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

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

Failures, mistakes and errors are the way we learn and the way we grow. Many of the world’s greatest successes have learned how to fail their way to success. Some of the more famous are:

Albert Einstein: Most of us take Einstein’s name as synonymous with genius, but he didn’t always show such promise. Einstein did not speak until he was four and did not read until he was seven, causing his teachers and parents to think he was mentally handicapped, slow and anti-social. Eventually, he was expelled from school and was refused admittance to the Zurich Polytechnic School. He attended a trade school for one year and was finally admitted to the University. He was the only one of his graduating class unable to get a teaching position because no professor would recommend him. One professor labeled him as the laziest dog they ever had in the university. The only job he was able to get was an entry-level position in a government patent office.

Robert Goddard: Goddard today is hailed for his research and experimentation with liquid-fueled rockets, but during his lifetime his ideas were often rejected and mocked by his scientific peers who thought they were outrageous and impossible. The New York Times once reported that Goddard seemed to lack a high school student’s basic understanding of rocketry. Today rockets and space travel don’t seem far-fetched at all, due largely in part to the work of this scientist who worked against the feelings of the time.

Abraham Lincoln: While today he is remembered as one of the greatest leaders of our nation, Lincoln’s life wasn’t so easy. In his youth he went to war a captain and returned a private (if you’re not familiar with military ranks, just know that private is as low as it goes.) Lincoln didn’t stop failing there, however. He started numerous failed businesses, went bankrupt twice and was defeated in 26 campaigns he made for public office.

J. K. Rowling: Rowling may be rolling in a lot of Harry Potter dough today, but before she published the series of novels, she was nearly penniless, severely depressed, divorced, trying to raise a child on her own while attending school and writing a novel. Rowling went from depending on welfare to survive to being one of the richest women in the world in a span of only five years through her hard work and determination.

Walt Disney: Today Disney rakes in billions from merchandise, movies and theme parks around the world, but Walt Disney had many personal failures. He was fired by a newspaper editor because, “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” After that, Disney started a number of businesses that didn’t last too long and ended with bankruptcy and failure. He kept trying and learning, however, and eventually found a recipe for success that worked.

Harland David Sanders: Perhaps better known as Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, Sanders had a hard time selling his chicken at first. In fact, his famous secret chicken recipe was rejected 1,009 times before a restaurant accepted it. He learned not to fear rejection and persevered.

Thomas Edison: In his early years, teachers told Edison he was “too stupid to learn anything.” Work was no better, as he was fired from his first two jobs for not being productive enough. Even as an inventor, Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. One day, an assistant asked him why he didn’t give up. After all, he failed over a thousand times. Edison replied that he had not failed once. He had discovered over 1000 things that don’t work.

Ludwig van Beethoven: In his formative years, young Beethoven was incredibly awkward on the violin and was often so busy working on his own compositions that he neglected to practice. Despite his love of composing, his teachers felt he was hopeless at it and would never succeed with the violin or in composing. In fact, his music teacher told his parents he was too stupid to be a music composer.

Stephen King: The first book by this author, the iconic thriller Carrie, received 30 rejections, finally causing King to give up and throw it in the trash. His wife fished it out and encouraged him to resubmit it, and the rest is history, with King now having hundreds of books published and the distinction of being one of the best-selling authors of all time.

Bill Gates: Gates didn’t seem destined for success after dropping out of Harvard. He started a business with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen called Traf-O-Data. While this early idea for a business failed miserably, Gates did not despair and give up. Instead he learned much from the failure and later created the global empire that is Microsoft.

Henry Ford: While Ford is today known for his innovative assembly line and American-made cars, he wasn’t an instant success. In fact, his early businesses failed and left him broke five times. He was advised by countless people not to get into the manufacturing of automobiles because he had neither the capital or know how.

F. W. Woolworth: Some may not know this name today, but Woolworth was once one of the biggest names in department stores in the U.S. Before starting his own business, young Woolworth worked at a dry goods store and was not allowed to wait on customers because his boss said he lacked the sense needed to do so. Woolworth also had many ideas of how to market dry goods – all of which were rejected by his boss. He quit and marketing ideas became the foundation of his phenomenal retail success with his own stores.

Akio Morita: You may not have heard of Morita but you’ve undoubtedly heard of his company, Sony. Sony’s first product was a rice cooker that unfortunately didn’t cook rice so much as burn it, selling less than 100 units. The rice cooker was the object of scorn and laughter by the business community. This did not discourage Morita and his partners as they pushed forward to create a multi-billion-dollar company.

Orville and Wilbur Wright: These brothers battled depression and family illness before starting the bicycle shop that would lead them to experimenting with flight. They were competing against the best engineering and scientific minds in America at the time, who were all well financed and supported by the government and capital investors to make the first airplane. After numerous attempts at creating flying machines, several years of hard work, and tons of failed prototypes, the brothers finally created a plane that could get airborne and stay there.

Vincent Van Gogh: During his lifetime, Van Gogh sold only one painting, and this was to a friend and only for a very small amount of money. While Van Gogh was never a success during his life, he plugged on with painting, sometimes starving to complete his over 800 known works. Today, they bring in hundreds of millions of dollars each.

Fred Astaire: In his first screen test, the testing director of MGM noted that Astaire “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Not handsome. Can dance a little.” Astaire went on to become an incredibly successful actor, singer and dancer and kept that note in his Beverly Hills home to remind him of where he came from.

Steven Spielberg: While today Spielberg’s name is synonymous with big budget, he was rejected from the University of Southern California School of Theater, Film and Television three times. He eventually attended school at another location, only to drop out to become a director before finishing. Thirty-five years after starting his degree, Spielberg returned to school in 2002 to finally complete his work and earn his BA.

Charles Darwin was chastised by his father for being lazy and too dreamy. Darwin himself once wrote that his father and teachers considered him rather below the common standard of intellect. When Charles Darwin first presented his research on evolution, it was met with little enthusiasm. He continued to work on his theory of evolution when all of his colleagues called him a fool and what he was doing “a fool’s experiment.”

Jack Canfield was rejected 144 times before he found a publisher for his book, Chicken Soup for the Soul. When Jack told the publisher he wanted to sell 1.5 million books in the first 18 months, the publisher laughed and said he’d be lucky to sell 20,000. That first book sold more than 8 million copies in America and 10 million copies around the world. Canfield’s book brand is now a $1 Billion brand.

The artist genius of the ages is Michelangelo. His competitors once tried to set him up for failure or force him to forgo a commission because of the possibility of failure. Michelangelo’s competitors persuaded Junius II to assign to him a relatively obscure and difficult project. It was to fresco the ceiling of a private chapel. The chapel had already been copiously decorated with frescoes by many talented artists. Michelangelo would be commissioned to decorate the tunnel-vaulted ceiling. In this way, his rivals thought they would divert his energies from sculpture, in which they realized he was supreme. This, they argued, would make things hopeless for him, since he had no experience in fresco, he would certainly, they believed, do amateurish work as a painter. Without doubt, they thought, he would be compared unfavorably with Raphael, and even if the work were a success, being forced to do it would make him angry with the Pope, and thus one way or another they would succeed in their purpose of getting rid of him.

Michelangelo, protesting that painting was not his art, still took on the project. In every way it was a challenging task. He had never used color, nor had he painted in fresco. He executed the frescos in great discomfort, having to work with his face looking upwards, which impaired his sight so badly that he could not read or look at drawings save with his head turned backwards, and this lasted for several months. In that awkward curved space, Michelangelo managed to depict the history of the Earth from the Creation to Noah, surrounded by ancestors and prophets of Jesus and finally revealing the liberation of the soul. His enemies had stage managed the masterpiece that quickly established him as the artist genius of the age. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………. . . . . .

Take one of your failed ideas and use the technique described in ThinkPak to elaborate and modify it into something new. Amaze yourself.


Discover How Some Words Can Self-Define Themselves

Discover how some 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.

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 smiles.  Rearrange the letters of Santa into? (Ans. at bottom).

Other examples:

ASTRONOMER: When you rearrange the letters, it becomes:


ELECTION RESULTS: When you rearrange the letters, it becomes:


SLOT MACHINES: When you rearrange the letters, it becomes:


ANIMOSITY: When you rearrange the letters, it becomes:


DORMITORY: When you rearrange the letters, it becomes:


PRESBYTERIAN: When you rearrange the letters, it becomes:


THE EYES: When you rearrange the letters, it becomes:


THE MORSE CODE: When you rearrange the letters, it becomes:


SNOOZE ALARMS: When you rearrange the letters, it becomes:


ELEVEN PLUS TWO: When you rearrange the letters, it becomes:


A DECIMAL POINT: When you rearrange the letters. it becomes:


DESPERATION: When you rearrange the letters, it becomes:





How do geniuses come up with ideas? What is common to the thinking style that produced “Mona Lisa,” as well as the one that spawned the theory of relativity? What characterizes the thinking strategies of the Einsteins, Edisons, daVincis, Darwins, Picassos, Michelangelos, Galileos, Freuds, and Mozarts of history? What can we learn from them?

For years, scholars and researchers have tried to study genius by giving its vital statistics, as if piles of data somehow illuminated genius. In his 1904 study of genius, Havelock Ellis noted that most geniuses are fathered by men older than 30; had mothers younger than 25 and were usually sickly as children. Other scholars reported that many were celibate (Descartes), others were fatherless (Dickens) or motherless (Darwin). In the end, the piles of data illuminated nothing.

Academics have also tried to measure the links between intelligence and genius. But intelligence is not enough. Marilyn vos Savant, whose IQ of 228 is the highest ever recorded, has not exactly contributed much to science or art. She is, instead, a question-and-answer columnist for Parade magazine. Run-of-the-mill physicists have IQs much higher than Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman, who many acknowledge to be the last great American genius (his IQ was a merely respectable 122).

Genius is not about scoring 1600 on the SATs, mastering fourteen languages at the age of seven, finishing Mensa exercises in record time, having an extraordinarily high I.Q., or even about being smart. After considerable debate initiated by J. P. Guilford, a leading psychologist who called for a scientific focus on creativity in the sixties, psychologists reached the conclusion that creativity is not the same as intelligence. An individual can be far more creative than he or she is intelligent, or far more intelligent than creative.

Most people of average intelligence, given data or some problem, can figure out the expected conventional response. For example, when asked, “What is one-half of 13?” most of us immediately answer six and one-half. You probably reached the answer in a few seconds and then turned your attention back to the text.

Typically, we think reproductively, that is on the basis of similar problems encountered in the past. When confronted with problems, we fixate on something in our past that has worked before. We ask, “What have I been taught in life, education or work on how to solve the problem?” Then we analytically select the most promising approach based on past experiences, excluding all other approaches, and work within a clearly defined direction towards the solution of the problem. Because of the soundness of the steps based on past experiences, we become arrogantly certain of the correctness of our conclusion.

In contrast, geniuses think productively, not reproductively. When confronted with a problem, they ask “How many different ways can I look at it?”, “How can I rethink the way I see it?”, and “How many different ways can I solve it?” instead of “What have I been taught by someone else on how to solve this?” They tend to come up with many different responses, some of which are unconventional and possibly unique. A productive thinker would say that there are many different ways to express “thirteen” and many different ways to halve something. Following are some examples.


13 = divided with a vertical line between the one and three = 1 and 3

THIR TEEN = 4 letters in each half.

XIII = split in half XI/II = gives you 11 and 2 in Roman numerals.

Or XIII divided in half horizontally gives you = 8 or VIII in Roman numerals.

(Note: As you can see, in addition to six and one half, by expressing 13 in different ways and halving it in different ways, one could say one-half of thirteen is 6.5, or 1 and 3, or 4, or 11 and 2, or 8, and so on.)

With productive 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.

How would you describe the pattern in the following illustration? Most people see the pattern 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. Whenever Noble prize winner Richard Feynman was stuck on a problem he would invent new thinking strategies. He felt the secret to his genius was his ability to disregard how past thinkers thought about problems and, instead, would invent new ways to think. He was so “unstuck” that if something didn’t work, he would look at it several different ways until he found a way that moved his imagination. He was wonderfully productive.

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

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

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

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

In nature, a gene pool that is totally lacking in variation would be totally unable to adapt to changing circumstances. In time, the genetically encoded wisdom would convert to foolishness, with consequences that would be fatal to the species’ survival. A comparable process operates within us as individuals. We all have a rich repertoire of ideas and concepts based on past experiences that enable us to survive and prosper. But without any provision for the variation of ideas, our usual ideas become stagnate and lose their advantages and in the end, we are defeated in our competition with our rivals. Consider the following:

  • In 1899 Charles Duell, the Director of the U.S. Patent Office, suggested that the government close the office because everything that can be invented has been invented.
  • In 1923, Robert Millikan, noted physicist and winner of the Noble Prize, said there is absolutely no likelihood that man can harness the power of the atom.
  • Phillip Reiss, a German, invented a machine that could transmit music in 1861. He was days away from inventing the telephone. Every communication expert in Germany persuaded him there was no market for such a device as the telegraph was good enough. Fifteen years later, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and became a multi-millionaire with Germany as his first most enthusiastic customer.
  • Chester Carlson invented xerography in 1938. Virtually every major corporation, including IBM and Kodak, scoffed at his idea and turned him down. They claimed that since carbon paper was cheap and plentiful, who in their right mind would buy an expensive copier.
  • Fred Smith, while a student at Yale, came up with the concept of Federal Express, a national overnight delivery service. The U.S. Postal Service, UPS, his own business professor, and virtually every delivery expert in the U.S., doomed his enterprise to failure. Based on their experiences in the industry, no one, they said, will pay a fancy price for speed and reliability.
  • When Charles 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 going back and forth about the number of different species of finches: the information is there, but he doesn’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 never occurred to him to look for differences by location. Gould thinks that the birds are so different that they are distinct species.What is remarkable about the encounter is the completely different impact it has on the two men. Gould thought the way he has been conditioned to think, like an expert taxonomist, and didn’t see the textbook case of evolution that unfolded right before him with the finches. Darwin didn’t even know they were finches. The person with the intelligence, knowledge and the expertise didn’t see it, and the person with far less knowledge and expertise comes up with an idea that shapes the way we think about the world.

I have always been impressed by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and have become fascinated with scholastic attempts to apply Darwinian ideas to creativity and genius. My own outlook about genius has roots in Donald Campbell’s blind-variation and selective-retention model of creative thought which he published in 1960. Campbell was not the first to see the connection between Darwinian ideas on evolution and creativity. As early as 1880, the great American philosopher, William James, in his essay “Great Men, Great Thoughts, and the Environment,” made the connection between Darwinian ideas and genius. Campbell’s work has since been elaborated on by a number of scholars including Dean Keith Simonton and Sarnoff Mednick. The work of these and many other scholars suggests that genius operates according to Darwin’s theory of biological evolution. Nature is extraordinarily productive. 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.

Genius is analogous to biological evolution in that it requires the unpredictable generation of a rich diversity of alternatives and conjectures. From this variety of alternatives and conjectures, the intellect retains the best ideas for further development and communication. An important aspect of this theory is that you need some means of producing variation in your ideas and for this variation to be truly effective, it must be “blind.” Blind variation implies a departure from reproductive (retained) knowledge.

How do creative geniuses generate so many alternatives and conjectures? Why are so many of their ideas so rich and varied? How do they produce the “blind” variations that lead to the original and novel? A growing cadre of scholars are offering evidence that one can characterize the way geniuses think. By studying the notebooks, correspondence, conversations and ideas of the world’s greatest thinkers, they have teased out particular common thinking strategies and styles of thought that enabled geniuses to generate a prodigious variety of novel and original ideas.


Following are thumbnail descriptions of strategies that are common to the thinking styles of creative geniuses in science, art and industry throughout history.

GENIUSES LOOK AT PROBLEMS IN MANY DIFFERENT WAYS. Genius often comes from finding a new perspective that no one else has taken. Leonardo daVinci believed that to gain knowledge about the form of problems, you begin by learning how to restructure it in many different ways. He felt the first way he looked at a problem was too biased toward his usual way of seeing things. He would restructure his problem by looking at it from one perspective and move to another perspective and still another. With each move, his understanding would deepen and he would begin to understand the essence of the problem. Einstein’s theory of relativity is, in essence, a description of the interaction between different perspectives. Freud’s analytical methods were designed to find details that did not fit with traditional perspectives in order to find a completely new point of view.

In order to creatively solve a problem, the thinker must abandon the initial approach that stems from past experience and re-conceptualize the problem. By not settling with one perspective, geniuses do not merely solve existing problems, like inventing an environmentally-friendly fuel. They identify new ones.

GENIUSES MAKE THEIR THOUGHTS VISIBLE. The explosion of creativity in the Renaissance was intimately tied to the recording and conveying of a vast knowledge in a parallel language; a language of drawings, graphs and diagrams — as, for instance, in the renowned diagrams of daVinci and Galileo. Galileo revolutionized science by making his thought visible with diagrams, maps, and drawings while his contemporaries used conventional mathematical and verbal approaches.

Once geniuses obtain a certain minimal verbal facility, they seem to develop a skill in visual and spatial abilities which give them the flexibility to display information in different ways. When Einstein had thought through a problem, he always found it necessary to formulate his subject in as many different ways as possible, including diagrammatically. He had a very visual mind. He thought in terms of visual and spatial forms, rather than thinking along purely mathematical or verbal lines of reasoning. In fact, he believed that words and numbers, as they are written or spoken, did not play a significant role in his thinking process.

One of the most complete descriptions of Einstein’s philosophy of science was found in a letter to his friend, Maurice Solovine. In the letter, Einstein explained the difficulty of attempting to use words to explain his philosophy of science, because as he said, he thinks about such things schematically. The letter started with a simple drawing consisting of (1) straight line representing E (experiences), which are given to us, and (2) A (axioms), which are situated above the line but were not directly linked to the line.

Einstein explained that psychologically, the A rests upon the E. There exists, however, no logical path from E to A, but only an intuitive connection, which is always subject to revocation. From axioms, one can deduce certain deductions (S), which deductions may lay claim to being correct. In essence, Einstein was saying that it is the theory that determines what we observe. Einstein argued that scientific thinking is speculative, and only in its end product does it lead to a system that is characterized as “logical simplicity.” Unable to satisfactorily describe his thoughts in words, Einstein made his thought visible by diagramming his philosophy’s main features and characteristics.

GENIUSES PRODUCE. A distinguishing characteristic of genius is immense productivity. Thomas Edison held 1,093 patents, still the record. He guaranteed productivity by giving himself and his assistants idea quotas. His own personal quota was one minor invention every 10 days and a major invention every six months. Bach wrote a cantata every week, even when he was sick or exhausted. Mozart produced more than six hundred pieces of music. Einstein is best known for his paper on relativity, but he published 248 other papers. T. S. Elliot’s numerous drafts of “The Waste Land” constitute a jumble of good and bad passages that eventually was turned into a masterpiece. In a study of 2,036 scientists throughout history, Dean Kean Simonton of the University of California, Davis found that the most respected produced not only great works, but also more “bad” ones. Out of their massive quantity of work came quality. Geniuses produce. Period.

GENIUSES MAKE NOVEL COMBINATIONS. Dean Keith Simonton, in his 1989 book Scientific Genius, suggests that geniuses are geniuses because they form more novel combinations than the merely talented. His theory has etymology behind it: cogito — “I think — originally connoted “shake together”: intelligo the root of “intelligence” means to “select among.” This is a clear early intuition about the utility of permitting ideas and thoughts to randomly combine with each other and the utility of selecting from the many the few to retain. Like the highly playful child with a pail full of Legos, a genius is constantly combining and recombining ideas, images and thoughts into different combinations in their conscious and subconscious minds. Consider Einstein’s equation, E=mc2. Einstein did not invent the concepts of energy, mass, or speed of light. Rather, by combining these concepts in a novel way, he was able to look at the same world as everyone else and see something different. The laws of heredity on which the modern science of genetics is based are the results of Gregor Mendel who combined mathematics and biology to create a new science.

GENIUSES FORCE RELATIONSHIPS. If one particular style of thought stands out about creative genius, it is the ability to make juxtapositions between dissimilar subjects. Call it a facility to connect the unconnected that enables them to see things to which others are blind. Leonardo daVinci forced a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water. This enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves. In 1865, F. A. Kekule’ intuited the shape of the ring-like benzene molecule by forcing a relationship with a dream of a snake biting its tail. Samuel Morse was stumped trying to figure out how to produce a telegraphic signal enough to be received coast to coast. One day he saw tied horses being exchanged at a relay station and forced a connection between relay stations for horses and  signals. The solution was to give the traveling signal periodic boosts of power. Nickla Tesla forced a connection between the setting sun and a motor that made the AC motor possible by having the motor’s magnetic field rotate inside the motor just as the sun (from our perspective) rotates.

GENIUSES THINK IN OPPOSITES. Physicist and philosopher David Bohm believed geniuses were able to think different thoughts because they could tolerate ambivalence between opposites or two incompatible subjects. Dr. Albert Rothenberg, a noted researcher on the creative process, identified this ability in a wide variety of geniuses including Einstein, Mozart, Edison, Pasteur, Joseph Conrad, and Picasso in his 1990 book, The Emerging Goddess: The Creative Process in Art, Science and Other Fields. Physicist Niels Bohr believed that if you held opposites together, then you suspend your thought and your mind moves to a new level. The suspension of thought allows an intelligence beyond thought to act and create a new form. The swirling of opposites creates the conditions for a new point of view to bubble freely from your mind. Bohr’s ability to imagine light as both a particle and a wave led to his conception of the principle of complementarity. Thomas Edison’s invention of a practical system of lighting involved combining wiring in parallel circuits with high resistance filaments in his bulbs, two things that were not considered possible by conventional thinkers, in fact were not considered at all because of an assumed incompatibility. Because Edison could tolerate the ambivalence between two incompatible things, he could see the relationship that led to his breakthrough.

GENIUSES THINK METAPHORICALLY. Aristotle considered metaphor a sign of genius, believing that the individual who had the capacity to perceive resemblances between two separate areas of existence and link them together was a person of special gifts. If unlike things are really alike in some ways, perhaps, they are so in others. Alexander Graham Bell observed the comparison between the inner workings of the ear and the movement of a stout piece of membrane to move steel and conceived the telephone. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in one day, after developing an analogy between a toy funnel and the motions of a paper man and sound vibrations. Underwater construction was made possible by observing how shipworms tunnel into timber by first constructing tubes. Einstein derived and explained many of his abstract principles by drawing analogies with everyday occurrences such as rowing a boat or standing on a platform while a train passed by.

GENIUSES PREPARE THEMSELVES FOR CHANCE. Whenever we attempt to do something and fail, we end up doing something else. As simplistic as this statement may seem, it is the first principle of creative accident. We may ask ourselves why we have failed to do what we intended, and this is the reasonable, expected thing to do. But the creative accident provokes a different question: What have we done? Answering that question in a novel, unexpected way is the essential creative act. It is not luck, but creative insight of the highest order. Alexander Fleming was not the first physician to notice the mold formed on an exposed culture while studying deadly bacteria. A less gifted physician would have trashed this seemingly irrelevant event but Fleming noted it as “interesting” and wondered if it had potential. This “interesting” observation led to penicillin which has saved millions of lives. Thomas Edison, while pondering how to make a carbon filament, was mindlessly toying with a piece of putty, turning and twisting it in his fingers, when he looked down at his hands, the answer hit him between the eyes: twist the carbon, like rope. B. F. Skinner emphasized a first principle of scientific methodologists: when you find something interesting, drop everything else and study it. Too many fail to answer opportunity’s knock at the door because they have to finish some preconceived plan. Creative geniuses do not wait for the gifts of chance; instead, they actively seek the accidental discovery.


Recognizing the common thinking strategies of creative geniuses and applying them will make you more creative in your work and personal life. Creative geniuses are geniuses because they know “how” to think, instead of “what” to think. Sociologist Harriet Zuckerman published an interesting study of the Nobel Prize winners who were living in the United States in 1977. She discovered that six of Enrico Fermi’s students won the prize. Ernst Lawrence and Niels Bohr each had four. J. J. Thompson and Ernest Rutherford between them trained seventeen Nobel laureates. This was no accident. It is obvious that these Nobel laureates were not only creative in their own right, but were also able to teach others how to think creatively. Zuckerman’s subjects testified that their most influential masters taught them different thinking styles and strategies rather than what to think.

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. These books contain the creative thinking techniques used by creative geniuses throughout history to create their original and novel  ideas.