What I Was Not Taught In School About Creative Thinking

Following are twelve things about creative thinking that I learned during my lifetime of work in the field of creative thinking that I wished I had been taught when I was a student but was not.

1.YOU ARE CREATIVE. The artist is not a special person, each one of us is a special kind of artist. Every one of us is born a creative, spontaneous thinker. The only difference between people who are creative and people who are not is a simple belief. Creative people believe they are creative. People who believe they are not creative, are not. Once you have a particular identity and set of beliefs about yourself, you become interested in seeking out the skills needed to express your identity and beliefs. This is why people who believe they are creative become creative. If you believe you are not creative, then there is no need to learn how to become creative and you don’t. The reality is that believing you are not creative excuses you from trying or attempting anything new. When someone tells you that they are not creative, you are talking to someone who has no interest and will make no effort to be a creative thinker.

2.  CREATIVE THINKING IS WORK. You must have passion and the determination to immerse yourself in the process of creating new and different ideas. Then you must have patience to persevere against all adversity. All creative geniuses work passionately hard and produce incredible numbers of ideas, most of which are bad. In fact, more bad poems were written by the major poets than by minor poets. Thomas Edison created 3000 different ideas for lighting systems before he evaluated them for practicality and profitability. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart produced more than six hundred pieces of music, including forty-one symphonies and some forty-odd operas and masses, during his short creative life. Rembrandt produced around 650 paintings and 2,000 drawings and Picasso executed more than 20,000 works. Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets. Some were masterpieces, while others were no better than his contemporaries could have written, and some were simply bad.

3. YOU MUST GO THROUGH THE MOTIONS. When you are producing ideas, you are replenishing neurotransmitters linked to genes that are being turned on and off in response to what your brain is doing, which in turn is responding to challenges. When you go through the motions of trying to come up with new ideas, you are energizing your brain by increasing the number of contacts between neurons. The more times you try to get ideas, the more active your brain becomes and the more creative you become. If you want to become an artist and all you did was paint a picture every day, you will become an artist. You may not become another Vincent Van Gogh, but you will become more of an artist than someone who has never tried.

4. YOUR BRAIN IS NOT A COMPUTER. Your brain is a dynamic system that evolves its patterns of activity rather than computes them like a computer. It thrives on the creative energy of feedback from experiences real or fictional. You can synthesize experience; literally create it in your own imagination. The human brain cannot tell the difference between an “actual” experience and an experience imagined vividly and in detail. This discovery is what enabled Albert Einstein to create his thought experiments with imaginary scenarios that led to his revolutionary ideas about space and time. One day, for example, he imagined falling in love. Then he imagined meeting the woman he fell in love with two weeks after he fell in love. This led to his theory of acausality. The same process of synthesizing experience allowed Walt Disney to bring his fantasies to life.5.

5. THERE IS NO ONE RIGHT ANSWER. Reality is ambiguous. Aristotle said it is either A or not-A. It cannot be both. The sky is either blue or not blue. This is black and white thinking as the sky is a billion different shades of blue. A beam of light is either a wave or not a wave (A or not-A). Physicists discovered that light can be either a wave or particle depending on the viewpoint of the observer. The only certainty in life is uncertainty. When trying to get ideas, do not censor or evaluate them as they occur. Nothing kills creativity faster than self-censorship of ideas while generating them. Think of all your ideas as possibilities and generate as many as you can before you decide which ones to select. The world is not black or white. It is grey.

6. NEVER STOP WITH YOUR FIRST GOOD IDEA. Always strive to find a better one and continue until you have one that is still better. In 1862, Phillip Reis demonstrated his invention which could transmit music over the wires. He was days away from improving it into a telephone that could transmit speech. Every communication expert in Germany dissuaded him from making improvements, as they said the telegraph is good enough. No one would buy or use a telephone. Ten years later, Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. Spencer Silver developed a new adhesive for 3M that stuck to objects but could easily be lifted off. It was first marketed as a bulletin board adhesive so the boards could be moved easily from place to place. There was no market for it. Silver didn’t discard it. One day Arthur Fry, another 3M employee, was singing in the church’s choir when his page marker fell out of his hymnal. Fry coated his page markers with Silver’s adhesive and discovered the markers stayed in place, yet lifted off without damaging the page. Hence the Post-it Notes were born. Thomas Edison was always trying to spring board from one idea to another in his work. He spring boarded his work from the telephone (sounds transmitted) to the phonograph (sounds recorded) and, finally, to motion pictures (images recorded).

7. EXPECT THE EXPERTS TO BE NEGATIVE. The more expert and specialized a person becomes, the more their mindset becomes narrowed and the more fixated they become on confirming what they believe to be absolute. Consequently, when confronted with new and different ideas, their focus will be on conformity. Does it conform to what I know is right? If not, experts will spend all their time showing and explaining why it can’t be done and why it can’t work. They will not look for ways to make it work or get it done because this might demonstrate that what they regarded as absolute is not absolute at all. This is why when Fred Smith created Federal Express, every delivery expert in the U.S. predicted its certain doom. After all, they said, if this delivery concept was doable, the Post Office or UPS would have done it long ago and this is why the experts at IBM said there were no more than six people on earth who had need of a personal computer. Thomas Edison is quoted as saying “His greatest blessing in life was the lack of a formal education. Had he been educated,” he said “he would have realized that what he accomplished in life was not possible to do.”

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

9. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS FAILURE. Whenever you try to do something and do not succeed, you do not fail. You have produced a result. It’s what you do with the result that’s important. You have learned something that does not work. Always ask “What have I learned about what doesn’t work?”, “Can this explain something that I didn’t set out to explain?”, and “What have I discovered that I didn’t set out to discover?” Whenever someone tells you that they have never made a mistake, you are talking to someone who has never tried anything new.

Take the first airplane. On Dec. 8, 1903, Samuel Pierpont Langley, a leading government- funded scientist, launched with much fanfare his flying machine on the Potomac. It plummeted into the river. Nine days later, Orville and Wilbur Wright got the first plane off the ground. Why did these bicycle mechanics succeed when a famous scientist failed? Because Langley hired experts to execute his theoretical concepts without going a series of trials and errors.

Studying the Wrights’ diaries, you see that insight and execution are inextricably woven together. Over years, as they solved problems like wing shape and wing warping, they made several mistakes which inspired several adjustments all of which involved a small spark of insight that led to other insights. Their numerous mistakes led to unexpected alternative ways which, in turn, led to the numerous discoveries that made flight possible.

10. YOU DO NOT SEE THINGS AS THEY ARE; YOU SEE THEM AS YOU ARE. Interpret your own experiences. All experiences are neutral. They have no meaning. You give them meaning by the way you choose to interpret them. If you are a priest, you see evidence of God everywhere. If you are an atheist, you see the absence of God everywhere. IBM observed that no one in the world had a personal computer. IBM interpreted this to mean there was no market. College dropouts, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, looked at the same absence of personal computers and saw a massive opportunity. Once Thomas Edison was approached by an assistant while working on the filament for the light bulb. The assistant asked Edison why he didn’t give up. “After all,” he said, “you have failed 5000 times.” Edison looked at him and told him that he didn’t understand what the assistant meant by failure, because, Edison said, “I have discovered 5000 things that don’t work.” You construct your own reality by how you choose to interpret your experiences.

11. ALWAYS APPROACH A PROBLEM ON ITS OWN TERMS. Do not trust your first perspective of a problem as it will be too biased toward your usual way of thinking. Always look at your problem from multiple perspectives. Always remember that genius is finding a perspective no one else has taken. Look for different ways to look at the problem. Write the problem statement several times using different words. Take another role, for example, how would someone else see it, how would your favorite teacher, a physician, an author, a politician, and so on see it? Draw a picture of the problem, make a model, or mold a sculpture. Take a walk and look for things that metaphorically represent the problem and force connections between those things and the problem (How is a broken store window like my communications problem with my students?) Ask your friends and strangers how they see the problem. Ask a child. Ask a grandparent. Imagine you are the problem. When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

12. LEARN TO THINK UNCONVENTIONALLY. Creative geniuses do not think analytically and logically. Conventional, logical, analytical thinkers are exclusive thinkers which means they exclude all information that is not related to the problem. They look for ways to eliminate possibilities. Creative geniuses are inclusive thinkers which mean they look for ways to include everything, including things that are dissimilar and totally unrelated. Generating associations and connections between unrelated or dissimilar subjects is how they provoke different thinking patterns in their brain. These new patterns lead to new connections which give them a different way to focus on the information and different ways to interpret what they are focusing on. This is how original and truly novel ideas are created. Albert Einstein once famously remarked “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

And, finally, Creativity is paradoxical. To create, a person must have knowledge but forget the knowledge, must see unexpected connections in things but not have a mental disorder, must work hard but spend time doing nothing as information incubates, must create many ideas yet most of them are useless, must look at the same thing as everyone else, yet see something different, must desire success but embrace failure, must be persistent but not stubborn, and must listen to experts but know how to disregard them.

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



Once we have settled on a perspective, we close off but one line of thought. Certain kinds of ideas occur to us, but only those kinds and no others. Have you ever looked closely at the wheels on a railroad train? They are flanged. That is, they have a lip on the inside to prevent them from sliding off the track. Originally train wheels were not flanged–instead, the railroad tracks were. Because the problem of railroad safety had been expressed as: “How can the tracks be made safer for trains to ride on?” hundreds of thousands of miles of track were manufactured with an unnecessary steel lip. Only when the problem was redefined as: “How can the wheels be made to secure the track more securely?” was the flanged wheel invented.

One of the many ways in which we have become cognitively lazy is to accept our initial impression of the problem that it encounters. Once we settle on an initial perspective we don’t seek alternative ways of looking at the problem. Like our first impressions of people, our initial perspective on problems and situations are apt to be narrow and superficial. We see no more than we expect to see based on our past experiences in life, education and work.

Most of us look at a scene rather than look into it. People tend to think of perception as a passive process. We see, hear, smell, taste or feel stimuli that impinge upon our senses. We think that if we are at all objective, we record what is actually there. Yet perception is demonstrably an active rather than a passive process; it constructs rather than records “reality.” You construct how you choose to see the world.


Consider the following problem. Four cards are laid out with their faces displaying respectively, an A, a B, a 4 and a 7.

A    B    4    7

You are told that each card has a letter on one side and a number on the other. You are then given a rule, whose truth you are expected to evaluate. The rule is: “If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other.” You are then allowed to turn over two, but only two, cards in order to determine whether the rule is correct as stated.

If you worked this problem silently, you will almost certainly miss it, as have the large percentage of subjects to whom it has been presented. Most subjects realize that there is no need to select the card bearing the consonant, since it is irrelevant to the rule; they also appreciate that it is essential to turn over the card with the vowel, for an odd number opposite would prove the rule incorrect.

The wording of the problem determines the perspective most people mentally default to almost immediately. Most people assume that the object is to examine the cards to ascertain that if a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other; and if a card has an even number on one side, then it has a vowel on the other side. This assumption leads them to make the fatal error of picking the card with the even number, because the even number is mentioned in the rule. But, in fact, it is irrelevant whether there is a vowel or a consonant on the other side, since the rule does not take a stand on what must be opposite to even numbers.

On the other hand, it is essential to pick the card with the odd number on it. If that card has a consonant on it, the result is irrelevant. If, however, the card has a vowel on it, the rule in question has been proved incorrect, for the card must (according to the rule) have an even (and not an odd) number on it.

The content of this specific problem influenced the way we constructed our perception of the problem. This perception created the assumption that leads to error. This should give one pause about mentally defaulting to first impressions. Leonardo Da Vinci wrote in his notebooks that one should always assume that your first impression of a problem is usually biased toward your usual way of thinking. He suggested looking at your problem in at least three different ways to get a better understanding.

“If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other.” Here we are working with letters and numbers. Transposing the words to read “If a card has an even number on one side, then……….” Clarifies the problem and gives us a different perspective on even numbered cards. It becomes apparent that what even numbered cards have on the other side has no significance. The rule is only concerned with cards that have vowels on one side.

Sigmund Freud would “reframe” something to transform its meaning by putting it into a different framework or context than it has previously been perceived. For example, by reframing the “unconscious” as a part of him that was “infantile,” Freud began to help his patients change the way they thought and reacted to their own behavior.

The important thing is not to persist with one way of looking at the problem. Consider the following interesting twist, again using four cards. This time, however, we reframe the problem by substituting journeys and modes of transportation for letters and numbers. Each card has a city on one side and a mode of transportation on the other.


This time, the cards have printed on them the legends, respectively, Los Angeles, New York, airplane, and car; and the rule is reframed to read: “Every time I go to Los Angeles, I travel by airplane. While this rule is identical to the number-letter version, it poses little difficulty for individuals. In fact, now 80 percent of subjects immediately realize the need to turn over the card with “car” on it.

Apparently, one realizes that if the card with “car” on it has the name “Los Angeles” on the back, the rule has been proved incorrect; whereas it is immaterial what it says on the back of the airplane since, as far as the rule is concerned, one can go to New York any way one wants.

Why is it that 80 percent of subjects get this problem right, whereas only 10 percent know which cards to turn over in the vowel-number version? By changing the content (cities and modes of transportation substituted for letters and numbers), we restructured the problem, which dramatically changed our reasoning. The structure of a problem colors our perspective and the way we think.

The above thought experiment is a variation on the Wason selection task that was devised by Peter Wason. The Wason selection task was originally developed as a test of logical reasoning, but it has increasingly been used by psychologists to analyze the structure of human reasoning mechanisms.

The significant point about this test is that we are incredibly bad at it. And it doesn’t make much difference what the level of education is of the person taking the test. Moreover, even training in formal logic seems to make little difference to a person’s performance. The mistake that we tend to make is fairly standard. People almost always recognize that they have to pick up the card with the vowel, but they fail to see that they also have to pick up the card with the odd number. They think instead that they have to pick up the card with the even number.

One of the most interesting things about this phenomenon is that even when the correct answer is pointed out, people feel resistance to it. It apparently feels “right” that the card with the even number should be picked up. It feels right because your initial perspective is biased toward the usual way of thinking. It is only when you look at it from different perspectives that you get a deeper understanding of the problem.


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.






In the history of art, most people could easily argue that Salvador Dalí is the father of surrealistic art. Surrealism is the art of writing or painting unreal or unpredictable works of art using the images or words from an imaginary world. Dali’s art is the definition of surrealism. Throughout his art he clearly elaborates on juxtaposition (putting similar images near each other), the disposition (changing the shape of an object), and morphing of objects, ranging from melted objects dripping, to crutches holding distorted figures, to women with heads of bouquets of flowers.

Surrealism is the stressing of subconscious or irrational significance of imagery, or in more simplistic terms, the use of dreamlike imagery. Dalí’s absurd imagination has him painting pictures of figures no person would even dream of creating. How was Salvador Dali able to conjure up these extraordinary images from his subconscious that he used in his surrealistic paintings?

Dali was intrigued with the images which occur at the boundary between sleeping and waking. They can occur when people are falling asleep, or when they are starting to wake up, and they tend to be extremely vivid, colorful and bizarre. He experimented with various ways of generating and capturing these fantastical images.

His favorite technique is that he would put a tin plate on the floor and then sit by a chair beside it, holding a spoon over the plate. He would then totally relax his body; sometimes he would begin to fall asleep. The moment that he began to doze the spoon would slip from his fingers and clang on the plate, immediately waking him to capture the surreal images.

The extraordinary images seem to appear from nowhere, but there is a logic. The unconscious is a living, moving stream of energy from which thoughts gradually rise to the conscious level and take on a definite form. Your unconscious is like a hydrant in the yard while your consciousness is like a faucet upstairs in the house. Once you know how to turn on the hydrant, a constant supply of images can flow freely from the faucet. These forms give rise to new thoughts as you interpret the strange conjunctions and chance combinations.

Following is a blueprint for the technique.


  • Think about your challenge. Consider your progress, your obstacles, your alternatives, and so on. Then push it away and relax.
  • Totally relax your body. Sit on a chair. Hold a spoon loosely in one of your hands over a plate. Try to achieve the deepest muscle relaxation you can.
  • Quiet your mind. Do not think of what went on during the day or your challenges and problems. Clear your mind of chatter.
  • Quiet your eyes. You cannot look for these images. Be passive. You need to achieve a total absence of any kind of voluntary attention. Become helpless and involuntary and directionless. You can enter the hypnogogic state this way, and, should you begin to fall asleep, you will drop the spoon and awaken in time to capture the images.
  • Record your experiences immediately after they occur. The images will be mixed and unexpected and will recede rapidly. They could be patterns, clouds of colors, or objects.
  • Look for the associative link. Write down the first things that occur to you after your experience. Look for links and connections to your challenge. Ask questions such as:

What puzzles me?

Is there any relationship to the challenge?

Any new insights? Messages?

What’s out of place?

What disturbs me?

What do the images remind me of?

What are the similarities?

What analogies can I make?

What associations can I make?

How do the images represent the solution to the problem?

A restaurant owner used this technique to inspire new promotion ideas. When the noise awakened him, he kept seeing giant neon images of different foods: neon ice cream, neon pickles, neon chips, neon coffee, and so on. The associative link he saw between the various foods and his challenge was to somehow to use the food itself as a promotion.

The idea: He offers various free food items according to the day of week, the time of day, and the season. For instance, he might offer free pickles on Monday, free ice cream between 2 and 4 P.M. on Tuesdays, free coffee on Wednesday nights, free sweet rolls on Friday mornings, free salads between 6 and 8 P.M. on Saturdays and so on. He advertises the free food items with neon signs, but you never know what food items are being offered free until you go into the restaurant. The sheer variety of free items and the intriguing way in which they are offered has made his restaurant a popular place to eat.

Another promotion he created as a result of seeing images of different foods is a frequent-eater program. Anyone who hosts five meals in a calendar month gets $30 worth of free meals. The minimum bill is $20 but he says the average is $30 a head. These two promotions have made him a success.

The images you summon up with this technique have an individual structure that may indicate an underlying idea or theme. Your subconscious mind is trying to communicate something specific to you, though it may not be immediately comprehensible. The images can be used as armatures on which to hang new relationships and associations.

A college professor who taught a mixed-media art class was bored with the traditional first assignment of painting a self-portrait. He wanted an exercise that would explore space and perception. Using hypnogogic imagery for inspiration, he saw technicolor trees dressed up like human beings walking around and talking. He thought about this image for days, and then the idea for a new assignment struck.

The idea: He had his students personalize a two-by-four board and carry it around with them everywhere. The students shaped and designed their boards to express their experiences, personalities, and interests. The board served as a yardstick for students to relate to their environment and forced them to work with materials they wouldn’t normally use.

One student made an environmental statement by painting her board blue and black, attaching tree branches and press clippings about forest fires, and scorching parts of it. Another student made his board an extension of his Mexican heritage. He decorated it like Mexican folk art, with carvings of an eagle, snake, and cactus. He depicted his family tree and attached cloth poinsettias, a rosary, and even a piñata.


Learn the creative thinking strategies and techniques used by creative geniuses throughout history to create their breakthrough ideas. http://creativethinking.net/#sthash.SXV5T2cu.dpbs







We are stoked to have Michael Michalko contributing his experience and insights to Think Jar Collective. Michael is a world renowned creativity expert and has written a number of important books on the subject of enhancing creative thinking. We’re grateful he took the time to chat about his experience practicing and teaching creative problem solving over the last forty years.

Ben Weinlick of Think Jar Collective: In reading a bit about your background, it looks like in your early career you got into creative problem solving through the US military and the CIA. That seems to me like a unique entry point into creative problem solving. Can you tell us a bit about how that came about? 

Michael Michalko: I was temporarily assigned to NATO headquarters when I was a second lieutenant in the US Army. One day I was asked to facilitate a meeting of high ranking officers after the guest lecturer failed to arrive. Instead of presenting what the officers expected, I facilitated a brainstorming meeting using some basic creative thinking techniques I had self learned. It was a huge success. Some of the participants were high-ranking staff officers of the US 7th army. Consequently, I was immediately reassigned by the US 7th army to organize and facilitate think tanks designed to generate innovative and creative ideas for the US 7th Army.

At that point I organized a team of US Army, NATO intelligence specialists, and international academics in Frankfurt, Germany, to research, collect, and categorize all known inventive-thinking methods. The purpose was to research methods and strategies to generate different ways of thinking for participants in brainstorming sessions. After the research stage was completed, I organized a team of army intelligence personnel to collate the research and to create step-by-step instructions on how the average person could use them. Our team applied those methods to various military, political, and social problems and produced variety of breakthrough ideas and creative solutions to new and old problems the US Army, NATO and the CIA faced.

BW: Wow, that’s unique. You might be the new candidate for the “most interesting man in the world”… I know you can’t talk about your work with NATO and the CIA, so maybe you could say a few things about what you see businesses and organizations struggle with when trying to become more creative?

MM: One of the biggest problems in the corporate world is the myth that creative people are born creative and others are not. This is perhaps why major corporate bureaucracies do so little to encourage or inspire creativity in all of their employees instead of a select few who are labeled creative.

Every one of us is born a creative, spontaneous thinker. The only difference between people who are creative and people who are not is a simple belief. People who believe they are creative and people who believe they are not are both right.

Once you have a particular identity and set of beliefs about yourself, you become interested in seeking out the skills needed to express your identity and beliefs. This is why people who believe they are creative become creative. They study and learn how to be creative.

If you believe you are not creative, then there is no need to learn how to become creative and you don’t. The reality is that believing you are not creative excuses you from trying or attempting anything new.

When someone tells you that they are not creative, you are talking to someone who has no interest and will make no effort to be a creative thinker.

Another major problem in the business world is the fear of failure. MBAs are taught to only do what is orderly, predictable and logical. Do only what has been successful in the past and, above all, avoid surprises. It is no wonder that with all of the hundreds of thousands of MBAs that have graduated not one has started a new industry or a notable business. Instead innovation comes from college dropouts like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

We have been educated to think critically and judgmentally. Consequently, business people imagine strong reasons for inaction and then allow it to become their reality, even before they make an attempt. Our fear is supported by an illusion that it is possible to fail, and that failure means we are worthless. An example is the demise of Kodak. Kodak scientists invented digital photography and had several patents on the technology long before competitors were even aware of the possibilities. Top management at Kodak refused to even experiment with marketing what they had because they said, “We make our money with film and making film is what Kodak does and will do.” The CEO and top managers retired multi-millionaires with their golden parachutes and stock options leaving the company bankrupt and hundreds of thousands of employees around the world jobless

The reality is that there is no such thing as failure. Whenever we attempt to do something and fail, we end up doing something else. You cannot fail, you can only produce results.

 Rather than judging some result as a failure, ask “What have I learned about what doesn’t work? Can this explain something that I didn’t set out to explain?  What can I do with these results?  and What have I discovered that I didn’t set out to discover?”

When Thomas Edison was seeking to invent the electric light bulb, he had thousands of failures. He would record the results, make adjustments and try again. It took him approximately 10,000 experiments to invent the perfect set-up for the electric light bulb. Once an assistant asked him why he persisted after so many failures. Edison responded by saying he had not failed once. He had learned 10,000 things that didn’t work.

BW: There seems to be some controversy these days around brainstorming and whether it actually produces relevant results. What do you think about brainstorming? Is it still relevant? If you think it is, what should people keep in mind so that brainstorming brings about good results?

MM: The notion that the collective intelligence of a group is larger than the intelligence of an individual can be traced back to primitive times when hunter-gather bands would meet to discuss and solve common problems. It is commonly understood and an accepted practice. What’s difficult is the willingness of a group to discipline itself to brainstorm for ideas openly and productively. Alex Osborne, an advertising executive in Buffalo, New York, recognized this and formalized brainstorming in 1941 as a systematic effort and disciplined practice to produce ideas in a group.

Osborne’s idea was to create an un-inhibiting environment that would encourage imaginative ideas and thoughts. The usual method is to have a small group discuss a problem. Ideas are offered by participants one at a time. One member records ideas and suggestions on a flip chart or chalk board. All withhold judgment. After the brainstorming session, the various ideas and suggestions are reviewed and evaluated and the group agrees on a final resolution.

There are many problems with traditional brainstorming. Sessions can be undercut by group uniformity pressures and perceived threats from managers and bosses. Other sessions fail because people find it difficult to avoid judging and evaluating ideas as they are offered. Personality differences also come into play: some people are naturally willing to talk, while others tend to be silent.

Group brainstorming, if done in the right spirit, can generate a rich variety of different perspectives and ideas about any given subject. That’s because individuals are magically different and unique from each other and share few common associations.  The way people retain their individuality while combining their efforts and talents is critical to creative collaboration.

Understanding that is vital to creating a cooperative synthesis. I have found that the following techniques are some of the best from around the world that are designed to help groups create a cooperative synthesis:


Horst Geschka and his associates at the Batelle Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, developed a variety of group creative-thinking techniques called Brainwriting which, like Feynman’s  innovative problem-solving approach, are designed to process ideas in parallel, spontaneous sequences. In traditional brainstorming groups, people suggest ideas one at a time. This is serial processing of information: i.e., only one idea is offered at a time in a series. Brainwriting, in contrast, allows multiple ideas to be suggested at the same time. This is parallel processing of information. If a brainwriting group has 10 members, up to 10 ideas will be generated for every one generated in a typical brainstorming session of 10 members. Brainwriting increases idea production dramatically.

The basic guidelines are:

  1. First, discuss the problem to clarify it. Write the problem in a location visible to all group members.
  2. Distribute 3X5 index cards to each participant and instruct them to silently write their ideas on the cards. One idea per card.
  3. As participants complete a card, they pass it silently to the person on the right.
  4. Tell the group members to read the cards they are passed and to regard them as a stimulation card. Write down any new ideas inspired by the stimulation cards on blank cards and pass them to the person on their right. Within a few minutes, several idea cards will be rotating around the table.
  5. After 20-30 minutes, collect all cards and have the group members tape them to a wall. The cards should be arranged into columns according to different categories of ideas, with a title card above each column. Eliminate the duplicates.
  6. Evaluate the ideas by giving each participant a packet of self-sticking dots and have them place the dots on their preferred ideas. They can allocate the dots in any manner desired, placing them all on one idea, one each on five different ideas, or any other combination.

You can design your own brainwriting format based on the two principles:

(1) Idea generation is silent.

(2) Ideas are created spontaneously in parallel.

BW:  Why would you say creativity is important for people?

MM: What you think or believe is of no significance, the only thing of significance in life is what you do. Humans are blessed with a creative mind that enables them to continually improve life by overcoming adversity with creative ideas and innovative solutions. Though few of us realize it, one of the greatest ideas of all time was “hay.”

In earlier times, civilization could exist only in warm climates where horses could stay alive through the winter by grazing. Without grass in winter you could not have horses, and without horses you could not have urban civilization. Most people accepted this as a law of nature, which to them meant humans were destined to live in warm climates.

At some point, some unknown farmer took action. He invented hay which was a way to bring food to the horses instead of bringing horses to the food. Forests were turned into meadows, hay was reaped and stored, and civilization moved north over the Alps. So hay gave birth to Vienna and Paris and London and Berlin, and later to Moscow and New York. Unless this unknown genius had acted and invented hay, civilization would not have prospered.

Think of what our world would be without creativity.


Learn the creative thinking strategies and techniques creative geniuses have used throughout history to get their breakthrough ideas. http://creativethinking.net/#sthash.SXV5T2cu.dpbs



wright brothers

 The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, 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.

Samuel Pierpont Langley, was the leading government funded scientist because of his education and engineering experience. Langley and his assistants studied the problem of flight, consulted with experts around the world, researched the field comprehensively and finally produced the blueprint of his airplane. He bought the finest material and hired the best available craftsmen to build his airplane. Finally on December 8, 1903 with much attention and fanfare from the national media and politicians he launched his flying machine on the Potomac.  It plummeted directly into the river. It was a colossal failure.

Nine days later, Orville and Wilbur Wright got the first plane off the ground. Why did these bicycle mechanics succeed when a famous scientist failed? It was because Langley thought reproductively and only considered what great thinkers thought about how to manufacture a manmade machine that would fly. They had hired experts to execute his theoretical concepts without going a series of trial and errors. Studying the Wrights’ diaries, you see that insight and execution are inextricably woven together. Over years, as they solved problems like wing shape and wing warping, they made several mistakes that produced unintended results. They recorded and studied these unintended results which inspired several adjustments all of which involved a small spark of insight that led to other insights. Their numerous mistakes led to unexpected alternative ways which, in turn, led to the numerous discoveries that made flight possible.

The lesson the Wright brothers taught me was to create by acting, by doing, by going through the motions and discovering what doesn’t work and what does through trial and error. Langley, on the other hand, had been educated to think critically and judgmentally and to avoid failure at all cost. He imagined strong reasons for inaction until, in his mind, it was not possible to fail. Consequently, he spent a fortune on study and months of planning and designing his prototype before he made an attempt.

The Wright brothers did not believe that failure was something to be avoided at all costs. They embraced failure as a way to succeed.  Whenever they attempted to do something and failed, they ended up doing something else. They realized that you cannot fail, you can only produce results. What counted was what you did with the results. Rather than judging some result as a failure, ask “Why did it not work as I thought it should?” “What have I learned about what doesn’t work?”, “Can this explain something that I didn’t set out to explain?”, “What can I do with these results?”, and “What have I discovered that I didn’t set out to discover?” Answering these questions about their results is what gave the Wrights the creative insights they needed to succeed. It is the same with everything in life.

Before we are educated, our nature was to act spontaneously and produce results without fear.  As an infant, you learned how to walk by trial and error. The first time you made the effort you fell down and returned to crawling. You ignored your fears about falling and learned from the results you had produced. You stood up again and again and fell again and again. Eventually you stood with a wobble and then another fall. Finally, you walked upright. Suppose as infants we had learned to fear failure and avoid mistakes before attempting to walk. Many of us would still be crawling around on all fours.

Michael Michalko is a highly-acclaimed creativity expert and author of the best-seller Thinkertoys (A Handbook of Business Creativity), ThinkPak (A Brainstorming Card Deck),  Cracking Creativity (The Secrets of Creative Genius), and Creative Thinkering (Putting your Imagination to Work).  http://creativethinking.net/#sthash.SXV5T2cu.dpbs



Creative Thinking with Thinkertoys



A Review of Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko

Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko is a must have addition to your creativity library. That’s a strong opening argument for a book that is packed with practical user-friendly exercises designed to rip the moron out of your head and leave only the unrivalled brilliance of your innate creative genius.

Divided into four parts over 38 chapters, this meaty bible of creativity, deals first with Linear Thinkertoys. Here you will find exercises that are further divided into three groups.

Group A: False Faces, Slice and Dice, Cherry Split, Think Bubbles and Scamper.In the words of the author, Michael Michalko,  “this group reorganizes known information in different ways by listing, dividing, combining, or manipulating it to give you new entry points for solving problems. Proceeding from these entry points, you can jump from one idea to another until you find the one you need.”

Group B: Tug-of-War, Idea Box, Idea Grid, Toothache Tree, Phoenix, The Great TransPacific and Storm Door Company, and Future Fruit.

Group C: Brutethink, Hall of Fame, Circle of Opportunity, Ideatoons, Clever Trevor. This group of exercises are designed to help you break out of old, established patterns of thought and burst into uncharted creative territory.

The second part, Intuitive Thinkertoys, covering chapters 22 to 33, focuses on exercises that help you “tap into your unconsciousness and find the ideas that you already have.” The exercises suggested deal with relaxation and ways to clear the mind (to become more receptive), how to use and develop the intuition, the process of incubation and idea hatching. You will also cover analogies, how to use fantasies to generate ideas, ways of invoking desired qualities and energies and how to access your genius through your dreams. You’ll also read about clever (but simple to use) creativity generating techniques used by brilliant artists such as Salvadore Dali, Da Vinci or the builders of the Pyramids.

The third part, Group Thinkertoys, covering just two exercises in Chapters 34 and 35, details the classic creativity exercise: Brainstorming and the lesser known Japanese exercise TKJ, known as Rice Storm.

Part four, Endtoys, closes up the book with WorrieWillie’s Guide to Prioritizing, MurderBoard (a way of spotting and killing off ‘bad’ ideas, and Backbone (a technique of associating disparate ideas to form new ones).

What I love about Thinkertoys is that it is so accessible. You just pick it up and open it to any chapter and you can find a pragmatic tool to enhance your creative thinking. It really is a bible of techniques, a manual of easy-to-follow instructions on generating good ideas.

“Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Business Creativity”, by Michael Michalko, is definitely worth the price of admission. And the ideas that you generate with it… well, put it this way, it makes this investment in this book the most solid, guaranteed to profit investment you are likely to make this year.





An easy way to generate a lot of ideas is to apply a checklist of nine creative-thinking principles that were first formally suggested by Alex Osborn and later arranged into the following mnemonic SCAMPER. S = Substitute? C = Combine? A = Adapt? M = Magnify? = Modify? P = Put to other uses? E = Eliminate? R = Rearrange? = Reverse?

SCAMPER is based on the notion that everything new is some addition or modification of something that already exists. You take a subject and change it into something else. (E.g., drilled petroleum becomes chemical feedstock becomes synthetic rubber becomes automobile tires. Natural gas becomes polyethylene becomes milk jugs. Mined ore becomes metal becomes wire becomes parts of a motor.)you can take anything that exists and change it into a new idea.

The blueprint for using SCAMPER is: (1) Isolate the subject you want to think about. (2) Ask the SCAMPER questions about each step of the subject and see what new ideas emerge. (3) For every new idea you discover, ask “How can…?” “What else…?” “How else…?” (4) List and evaluate the ideas.

Suppose you wanted to improve the ordinary paperclip? You would start looking for ideas by asking:

– What can be substituted in the clip? – What can I combine the clip with to make something else? – What can I adapt to the clip? – How can I modify the clip? – What can I magnify or add to the clip? – What other uses can I find for the clip? – What can be eliminated from the clip? – What is the reverse of a clip? – What other rearrangement of the clip might be better?

One manufacturer substituted plastic for metal, added color, and produced plastic clips in various colors so that clipped papers could be color-coded thereby finding another use for clips.

Think about any subject from improving your productivity to reorganizing your organization and apply the “Scamper” checklist of questions. You will find that ideas start popping up almost involuntarily, as you ask:

SUBSTITUTE SOMETHING? The principle of substitution is a sound way to develop alternative ideas to anything that exists. Think up ways of changing this for that and that for this. The scientist, Paul Ehrlich, kept substituting one color for another—well over 500 colors—until he found the right dye to color the veins of laboratory mice. You can substitute things, places, procedures, people, ideas, and even emotions. Ask:

Can you substitute something? Who else? What else? Can the rules be changed? Other ingredient? Other material? Other power? Other place? Other approach? What else instead? What other part instead of this?

COMBINE IT WITH SOMETHING ELSE? Much of creative thinking involves combining previously unrelated ideas or subjects to make something new. This process is called synthesis, and is regarded by many experts as the essence of creativity. Gregor Mendel created a whole new scientific discipline, genetics, by combining mathematics with biology. Ask:

What can be combined? Can we combine purposes? How about an assortment? A blend? An alloy? An ensemble? Combine units? Combine materials? What other article could be merged with this? How could we package a combination? What can be combined to multiply possible uses? Combine appeals?

ADAPT SOMETHING TO IT? One of the paradoxes of creativity is that in order to think originally, we must first familiarize ourselves with the ideas of others. 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.” Ask:

What else is like this? What other ideas does it 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?

MAGNIFY IT? An easy way to create a new idea is to take a subject and add something to it. Japanese engineer Yuma Shiraishi made the home VCR possible by figuring out how to lengthen videotapes so they would be long enough for feature-length movies. Ask:

What can be magnified, made larger, or extended? What can be exaggerated? Overstated? What can be added? More time? Stronger? Higher? Longer? How about greater frequency? Extra features? What can be duplicated? What can add extra value? How can I carry it to a dramatic extreme?

MODIFY IT? What can be modified? Just about any aspect of anything. The hub-and-spoke transportation system that makes Federal Express work was a feature of at least three air freight services as early as 1930. What Fred Smith did was to modify the dimensions, process and purposes of the system and turned an old idea into an elegant concept. Ask:

How can this be altered for the better? What can be modified? Is there a new twist? Change meaning, color, motion, sound, odor, form, shape? Change name? What changes can be made in the plans? In the process? In marketing? Other changes? What other form could this take? What other package? Can the package be combined with the form?

PUT IT TO SOME OTHER USE? A subject takes its meaning from the context in which you put it. Change the context, and you change the meaning. George Washington Carver, botanist and chemist, discovered over 300 different uses for the lowly peanut. Ask:

What else can this be used for? Are there new ways to use as is? Other uses if modified? What else can be made from this? Other extension? Other markets?

ELIMINATE? Sometimes subtracting something from your subject yields new ideas. Trimming down ideas, objects, and processes may gradually narrow the subject down to its truly necessary part or function–or spotlight a part that=s appropriate for some other use. Ask:

What if this were smaller? Understate? What should I omit? Delete? Subtract? What=s not necessary? Should I divide it? Split it up? Separate it into different parts? Streamline? Make miniature? Condense? Compact? Can the rules be eliminated?

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

What other arrangement might be better? Interchange components? Other pattern? Other layout? Other sequence? Change the order? Transpose cause and effect? Change pace? Change schedule?

REVERSE IT TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS? Reversing your perspective opens your thinking. Look at opposites and you’ll see things you normally miss. Ask “What is the opposite of this?” to find a new way of looking at things. The historical breakthroughs of Columbus and Copernicus were the polar opposites of the current beliefs of their day. Ask:

What are the opposites? What are the negatives? Can I transpose positive and negative? Should I turn it around? Up instead of down? Down instead of up? Consider it backwards? Reverse roles? Do the unexpected?

Even the hot dog, as we know it, is the result of the right idea-spurring question being asked at the right time. Antoine Feutchwanger sold sausages at the Louisiana Exposition in 1904. He first sold them on plates, but this proved too expensive. He then offered white cotton gloves along with the franks to prevent customers from burning their fingers. The gloves also were expensive, and customers walked off with them. Antoine and his brother-in-law, a baker, sat down and brainstormed. “What could be added (MAGNIFY) to the frankfurter that would be inexpensive and would prevent people from burning their fingers?” His brother-in-law said: “What if I baked a long bun and slit it to hold the frank?” “Then you can sell the franks, and I can sell you the buns. Who knows, it might catch on. …………………………………………………………………………………………………..

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.



Wierd Habits and Rituals of Famous Historical Creative Thinkers


There is much anecdotal evidence to indicate that creative people are more often eccentric or more often have odd personality features than the non-creative population. Famous visionaries often develop a reputation for having a few eccentricities. Following are a few of the strange habits from Problema de logica and Madness of Psychiatry by Saxby Pridmore:

  • Hans Christian Anderson, the Danish author of children’s stories carried a coil of rope for fear of being caught in a hotel room fire.
  • When the wife of the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti died, as a token of his love, he placed his unpublished manuscripts beside her in her coffin. Seven years later he dug up the coffin, dusted off his papers and published them.
  • Sir Walter Scott had a salt cellar which was made from the fourth cervical vertebra of Charles I.
  • James Joyce kept a tiny pair of doll’s knickers in his pocket.
  • Marcel Proust wrote most of his novels lying in bed.
  • Composer Gioachino Rossini was completely bald and wore a wig. In exceptionally cold weather, however, he wore two or three wigs simultaneously.
  • Beethoven had no interest in personal cleanliness and his friends had to take his dirty clothes away and wash them while he slept.
  • Many great scientists as well as writers and artists have been eccentric. Sir Francis Galton, one of the most prolific scientists of all time regularly carried a brick wrapped in brown paper and tied with a piece of rope, so that he could stand on it to see over people’s heads when he was in a crowd.
  • Alexander Graham Bell kept his windows permanently covered to keep out the harmful rays of the moon.
  • Sir Joseph Banks was described by his biographer as “a wild and eccentric character,” who scared his neighbors.
  • Nicola Tesla, who gave his name to the unit of magnetism was celibate and said, “I don’t think that you can name many great inventions that have been made by married men”.
  • Henry Cavendish, a great chemist and physicist, was exceptionally shy and would only ever eat mutton. He communicated with his servants by letter, if he met one by accident, they were dismissed. He had a second staircase built in his house so that he could avoid them more easily.
  • Greek orator Demosthenes would force himself to stay focused on composing his orations by shaving off half of his hair, making him look so ridiculous that he wouldn’t be tempted to procrastinate by leaving his home. Victor Hugo would do something similar, forcing himself to meet his daily writing goals by having his valet hide his clothes. Yup, the guy who wrote “Les Miserables” liked to work in the nude.
  • Some writers need to go through the ritual of touching base with a favorite literary totem. For example, Somerset Maugham would read Voltaire’s “Candide” before starting work, while Willa Cather read the Bible.
  • Author William Faulkner preferred to type with his toes instead of his fingers. He kept his shoes on his hands while he worked.
  • Before Ernst Hemingway sat down to write he would go over his writing goals for the day with his six-toed cats. He refused to share such things with other, normal toed cats, which he considered to be poor listeners.
  • The surrealist artist Salvador Dali had the habit of keeping the pens of fans who asked him for autographs, which just goes to show you’re never too rich and famous to not enjoy stealing from people less well off than you.
  • J B S Haldane was one of the best known scientists of the twentieth century, at one time he did not remove his boots for three weeks. General Haig said of him that he was “the bravest and dirtiest soldier in the army.”
  • Dr Paul Erdos was one of the most gifted mathematicians of all time, writing 1500 scientific papers. He lived as a homeless derelict, shunning material possessions because, “property is nuisance.”
  • Rudyard Kipling did not actually do any writing, but instead delegated the task to a team of ghostwriters. Kipling himself spent his days sitting on his front porch smoking clove cigarettes because he felt they made him look artsy.
  • English novelist Mary Shelley kept a domesticated 23-foot-long boa constrictor in her writing studio. She would wrap the snake around her shoulders while she wrote. When the snake grew restless and began to squeeze, she allowed herself to stop writing for the day.
  • Ezra Pound preferred to breathe through his nose. But when writing, he would breathe exclusively through his mouth.
  • William Wadsworth liked to narrate his poems to his dog. If the dog got upset or barked at the sounds of his words, he would start working on the poem again.
  • Franz Kafka really loved pineapple upside down cake. And so anytime he finished a story, he allowed himself to eat a whole pineapple upside down cake all by himself without sharing any with anyone else, not even a bite.
  • Ben Franklin knew the benefits of working long hours, as well as being known among his peers as being a person who worked long hours. This work ethic was essential for growing his printing business. He also had a routine of asking himself questions during the day. Ben Franklin asked himself each morning (at 5 am), “What good shall I do today?” every night before bed (around 10 pm), “What good have I done to-day?”
  • Playwright Henrik Ibsen would work at a desk decorated with a portrait of arch-rival playwright August Strindberg.
  • Mathematician Paul Erdös used the last 25 years of his life to devote 19 hour days to the pursuit of higher math. To stay alert, he amped himself up with 10 to 20 milligrams of Benzedrine or Ritalin (along with strong espresso and caffeine tablets.) “A mathematician,” he said, “is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.”
  • Artist Marcel Duchamp is associated with both surrealism and the dada movement. While he worked in a variety of styles, he’s most famous for his “readymade” art, which was basically a giant middle finger to the art world. Readymades are everyday objects that Duchamp came across and presented to the world as pieces of art. Duchamp made about twenty of these, but by far the most famous example is a work called “Fountain,” which is nothing more than a urinal he purchased. When it came time to display his “creation” at an art show the board in charge of the exhibit had a fierce debate and eventually chose to hide the display from view, presumably in the washroom.
  • Andy Warhol was an American painter who led the pop art movement. Much like Duchamp he challenged notions of just what art was; among his most famous paintings is that of a Campbell’s soup can (which first sold for 1500 dollars). That’s right, somebody paid 1500 dollars for a picture of a soup label (something you can get for free). He mass produced his work, and to help him do so he hired “Warhol Superstars,” which was a group of people who ranged from porno producers to drug addicts. Warhol’s Superstars tended to have drug filed orgies as they mass produced his art while he mostly sat and watched.
  • King Otto, ruler of Bavaria from 1886 to 1913, shot a peasant every morning to start his day. Thankfully, his two advisors were kind-hearted: one gave the king a rifle filled with blanks, and the other dressed as a “peasant,” acting out death throes when he was “shot.”
  • Lord Byron was probably a nympho. He kept lists of his lovers and apparently slept with more than 250 women in one year alone. Lady Caroline Lamb called him “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” He slept with her, of course, and her cousin. And supposedly his own half sister as well. And he commemorated each one in a very, um, special way: he snipped a bit of hair (not scalp hair, people) from each conquest and saved it in a little envelope marked with the appropriate name. Until 1980 or so, these locks of love were still housed at Byron’s publishing house, but they’re unaccounted for these days.
    Leo Tolstoy’s quirk was basically exhibitionism, I suppose. When he married 18-year-old Sofia Behrs, he made her spend their wedding night reading his diaries. Maybe not so bad, you say, but his diaries contained detailed accounts of all of the women he had slept with throughout his lifetime. Sofia was totally not into it – her diary account the day afterward called his writing “filth” and reflected how disgusted she was.



Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. http://creativethinking.net/#sthash.SXV5T2cu.dpbs