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)


Leonardo da Vinci

Looking is giving a direction to one’s sight. A bird is an

an instrument………it opens its wings quickly and

sharply, bending in such a way that the wind…

raises it. And this I have observed in the flight

of a young falcon above the monastery at

Vaprio, on the morning of 14 April 1500.”


We tend to notice things which are directly relevant to our interest and ignore the rest. Blinkered by habit we glance rather than look at things. In effect, the eye sleeps until the mind wakes it with a question. What you see and what you notice are not the same thing. For example, you will, of course, have noticed the deliberate mistake in the preceding thought experiment and it’s not a spelling mistake.

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

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


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

Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques

http://www.amazon.com/dp/1580087736/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_qucvxb0A4HCF1 … via @amazon





Cognitive scientists understand the importance of perception and pattern recognition as a major component of creative thinking.  When you are committed and start to actively work on a problem that you are passionate about, you will start to notice more and more things that relate to what you are working on. With an infinite amount of stimuli constantly hitting our brains, we need the ability to filter that which is most relevant to us. And our mind is that filter. Often these connections can seem like coincidences, but cognitive scientists tell us it is simply that part of our brain that screens out information we are not interested in and focuses on the things that we can use. These connections give you different ways to look at information and different ways to focus on it.

George de Mestral was inspired to improve the zipper. He thought about the essence of zippers which is to fasten two separate pieces of fabric together. His question became “How do things fasten?” He became committed to the idea of inventing a better fastener and spent considerable time pondering how things fasten in other domains including nature.

One day when George was hunting birds with his Irish pointer, he traveled through some burdock thistles. The prickly seed burrs from the plants clung to his clothing and to his dog. While pulling off the burrs he noticed how they were removable yet easily reattached.

The burdock fascinated George and he imagined a fastener that mimicked a burdock. He studied the burrs under a microscope and discovered a hook system used by the burdock plant to migrate its seeds by attachment. The hooks could grab onto loops of thread or fur and migrate with the object it fastened itself to. This gave him the idea of creating a hook and loop fastener.

It was not logic that guided his thinking process but perception and pattern recognition between two totally unrelated subjects: zippers and burdocks. Logic dictates that burdocks are animate plants and zippers are inanimate manmade objects that are totally unrelated and, therefore, any relationship between the two is to be excluded. It was George’s creative perception, not logic, that recognized the common factor between a burdock and a zipper that fastens, not logic.

George envisioned two fabrics that could attach in this manner with one having a surface covered with minuscule hooks and another with hoops. Most of the experts he visited did not believe hooks could be created on the surface of fabric. However, he found a weaver at a textile plant that was willing to work with him. George discovered that a multifilament yarn weaved from velvet or cotton terry cloth created a surface of hooped threads. To create hooks, George would partially cut the hoops so they would become hooks. There was a great deal of experimentation to get the right density, thread sizes and rigidity. He eventually weaved the hook-side yarn from nylon and invented Velcro.

Russian computer scientist, Mikhail Bongard, created a  remarkable set of visual pattern recognition problems to test one’s creative perception. The Bongard problems present two sets of relatively simple diagrams, say A and B. All the diagrams from set A have a common factor or attribute, which is lacking in all the diagrams of set B. The problem is to find, or to formulate, convincingly, the common   factor.

Below is an example of a Bongard problem. Test your perception and pattern recognition skills and try to solve the problem.   You have two classes of figures (A and B).  You are asked to discover some abstract connection that links all the various diagrams in A and that   distinguishes them from all the other diagrams in group B.

.EX.BONGARD (2) (1024x1024)

One has to take chances that certain aspects of a given diagram matter, and others are irrelevant.  Perhaps shapes count, but not sizes — or vice versa.  Perhaps orientations count, but not sizes — or vice versa.  Perhaps curvature or its lack counts, but not location inside the box — or vice versa.  Perhaps numbers of objects but not their types matter — or vice versa.  Which types of features will wind up mattering and which are mere distracters.  As you try to solve the problem, you will find the essence of your mental activity is a complex interweaving of acts of abstraction and comparison, all of which involve guesswork rather than certainty.  By guesswork I mean that one has to take a chance that certain aspects matter and others do not.

Logic dictates that the essence of perception is the activity of dividing a complex scene into its separate constituent objects and attaching separate labels to the now separated parts of pre-established categories, such as ovals, Xs and circles as unrelated exclusive events.  Then we’re taught to think exclusively within a closed system of hard logic.

In the above patterns, if you were able to discern the distinction between the diagrams, your perception is what found the distinction, not logic.  The distinction is the ovals are all pointing to the X in the A group, and the ovals area all pointing at the circles in the B group.

The following thought experiment is an even more difficult problem, because you are no longer dealing with recognizable shapes such as ovals, Xs, circles or other easily recognizable structures for which we have clear representations.  To solve this, you need to perceive subjectively and intuitively, make abstract connections, much like Einstein thought when he thought about the similarities and   differences between the patterns of space and time, and you need to consider the overall context of the problem.



A                                                                B


Again, you have two classes of figures (A and B) in the Bongard problem.  You are asked to discover some abstract connection that links all the various diagrams in A and that distinguishes them from all the other diagrams in group B.





















ANSWER: The rule is the “dots” in A are on the same side of the neck.









Illusory grey spots mysteriously appear at the points of intersection in the following black and white grid. However, the spot does not occur at the specific intersection on which you concentrate your attention.

.Grey dots intersection

Sometimes ideas, like the gray spots, do not appear when you are concentrating your attention and mysteriously appear when you are not. Modern science recognizes this phenomenon of incubation and insight yet cannot account for why it occurs. That this is a commonplace phenomenon was shown in a survey of distinguished scientists conducted over a half-century ago. A majority of the scientists reported that they got their best ideas and insights when not thinking about the problem. Ideas came while walking, recreating, or working on some other unrelated problem. This suggests how the creative act came to be associated with “divine inspiration” for the illumination appears to be involuntary.

The more problems, ideas and thoughts that you think about from time to time, the more complex becomes the network of information in your mind. Think of thoughts as atoms hanging by hooks on the sides of your mind. When you think about a subject, some of these thoughts become loose and put into motion in your subconscious mind. The more work you put into thinking about a problem, the more thoughts and bits of information you put into random motion. Your subconscious mind never rests. When you quit thinking about the subject and decide to forget it, your subconscious mind doesn’t quit working. Your thoughts keep colliding, combining and making associations. This is why you’ve experienced suddenly remembering names, getting solutions to problems you’ve forgotten about, and ideas out of the blue when you are relaxing and not thinking about any particular thing.

There’s a thing in mathematics called “factorial”, which calculates how many ways you can combine things. If you have three objects, then there are one times two times three, which leaves six combinations. The factorial of ten is over three million. Ten bits of information will combine and recombine in three million different ways in your mind. So you can imagine the cloud of thoughts combining and making associations when you incubate problems when you stop working.

There is an important Chinese term, “wuwei,” “not doing,” the meaning of which is not “doing nothing,” but “not forcing.” Things will open up of themselves, according to their nature. And they do.

Cognitive scientists have observed that people that after a period of incubation from a problem people are 39 percent more likely to infer connections among distantly related ideas. Yet this enhancement of creative thinking exists completely beneath the radar screen. In other words, people are more creative after they forget about the problem for a period of time, but they don’t know it. It’s as if a period of incubation resets your mind. You’re taking a walk or taking a shower and realize “Wait a minute, there’s another way to do this.”

The famous philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell was quoted in The Conquest of Happiness as having said: “I have found, for example, that if I have to write upon some rather difficult topic, the best plan is think about it with very great intensity—the greatest intensity with which I am capable—for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak, that the work is to proceed underground. After some months, I return consciously to the topic and find the work has been done. Before I discovered this technique, I used to spend time worrying because I was making no progress; I arrived at the solution none the faster for this worry and the worrying time was wasted.” When author Norman Mailer had writer’s block, he would instruct his subconscious mind to work on the problem and to notify him when it was resolved. Then he would leave the problem until the “insight” arrived in his consciousness.

Incubation usually involves setting a problem aside for a few hours, days, or weeks and moving on to other projects. The creative act owes little to logic or reason. In their accounts of the circumstances under which big ideas occurred to them, scientists have often mentioned that the inspiration had no relation to the work they happened to be doing. Sometimes it came while they were traveling, shaving or thinking about other matters. The creative process cannot be summoned at will or even cajoled by sacrificial offering. Indeed, it seems to occur most readily when the mind is relaxed and the imagination roaming freely.

I gave a seminar for an advertising agency that was under pressure from a major television network to come up with an innovative marketing campaign to introduce the networks new shows. I compared our subconscious mind to an egg. I said imagine an egg sitting in its nest of straw. It doesn’t do anything and makes no sound. It doesn’t change shape, it doesn’t change color. It doesn’t pulsate. It doesn’t roll around. You could look at it for days and days and you’d come away thinking that it was an inert object and there was nothing going on.

Yet inside the egg a riot of change is taking place inside the egg, a storm of re-organization, feeding and growth, of total activity as a bunch of random cells become an entity, which in turn becomes ever more defined and more complex, more organized in every way, more mature, more fantastic with every heartbeat, every breath that passes.

One day the egg that lay so motionless for so very long and seemed to be nothing but an inert shape will begin to rock, and then it will crack, and the a newly born bird will emerge, spread its wings for the first time and take its first small steps.

We talked a lot about the similarity between the subconscious mind and eggs. Then I asked them to perform a thought experiment which is to write a letter to their subconscious mind. (The guidelines for the thought experiment are at the end of the article.)

Bert, the creative director at the agency, wrote a letter which he addressed to his subconscious mind that he called “Secret Expert.”

“How are you Secret Expert,

I haven’t heard from you in some time, so I thought I would write you a letter. I need your help with a problem. I need to come up with an exciting new marketing program to introduce a new season of television shows. The shows include programs about criminal forensics, contests for prizes, lawyer shows and comedies. I’m interested in coming up with some kind of campaign that will capture the audience’s attention more than one time. The approach of the campaign should be unique and unexpected.

We’ve had several meetings but keep coming up with the same old traditional marketing campaign ideas. What do people need and keep? Is there something they need that we can advertise on? What kind of goods, products, foods and services should we investigate? What producers, distributors and retailers should we study? Can we combine our services with another company? Do we need to share revenue? I need a fresh approach to advertising. Your mission is to give me a new idea on how to advertise television shows. I need the idea in two days. Help!!!

Thanks, Bert”

Bert mailed the letter to himself and two days later received it. When he read what he had written, he got his brainstorm, which was to advertise on “eggs.” Did the connection come from our discussions about eggs and the subconscious? Or did it come from an association between “foods,” “need,” “producers,” and “fresh approach,” as in “fresh eggs?”

He arranged to place laser imprints of the networks logos, as well as some of its shows on eggs—some thirty million. Some of the slogans that will be imprinted on the eggs are “Crack the Case on CSI,” “Scramble to win the great race,” “Hard-boiled drama,” “Leave the Yolks to us,” and “Funny Side UP.”

The consumers look at a single egg at least a few times. When they open the carton at the store, when they transfer them to the refrigerator, and when they crack them open. It’s unlike any other ad medium in the world, because you’re looking at it while you are using it. Egg producers, distributors and retailers all love the concept as they will all share in the ad revenue.

Ideas are free to combine with other ideas in novel patterns and new associations in your subconscious mind. It is also the storehouse of all your experience, including things you can’t easily call into awareness. When I use this technique and don’t receive an answer within the allotted time frame, I’ll say “Oh well, let me know as soon as you think of something.” Without exception, I will get the answer sooner or later.

Here is another example of this technique. The marketing director for a soft drink corporation wanted to come up with a novel way to package soft drinks. He spent time listing all the ways products and liquids can be packaged. He then turned off his self-censor by giving himself an idea quota of 120 ways to package things. This forced him to list every single thought he had no matter how obvious or absurd. The first third were his usual ideas, the next third became more interesting and complex and the last third became fantastical and absurd as he stretched his imagination to meet his quota.

Finally, he wrote the following letter he addressed to MacGuyver (He calls his subconscious mind MacGuyver after the TV character who solves cases by improvisation.)

Dear MacGuyver,

How are you? I haven’t heard from you in a long time, so I thought I would write you a letter. I need some innovative ideas about packaging our soda. A package that would create a new experience for the consumer. Right now, as you now, our soft drinks are packaged in bottles and cans. I’m trying to think of ways to make our packaging innovative and fun in such a way that it will heighten consumer attention. So far, I’ve researched the methodology of packaging, brainstormed for ideas, and have asked everyone I know for their thoughts.

Reviewing my list of ideas I’ve noticed a theme of environmental concerns. Citizens have become aware and sensitive to what happens to discarded bottles and cans. So I think the package should be environmentally friendly. Another theme, I noticed, is “put to other uses.” In other words, how else can the consumer use the package? A cousin of mine told me about the time he was in the peace corps in a very poor section of Guatemala. Soft drinks in bottles were too expensive for the natives. He told me popular domestic sodas are instead poured into sandwich baggies and sold.

I need your help. Please deliver your ideas to me within three days.


The Idea he received from MacGuyver is to create a biodegradable plastic bag in the shape of a soda bottle. This bag will save buyers bottle deposit money and retains the drink’s fizz and experience, while simultaneously being more environmentally friendly. Being new and fun, it actually creates a new brand experience adapted to cultural environmental tendencies that local consumers are sure to appreciate. Additionally, the plastic bags afford greater flexibility in storage options and can also be re-used by the consumer as a storage container for other foods and liquids. Additionally, the product adapts itself to new markets in impoverished countries.


  • Work on a problem until you have mulled over all the relevant pieces of information. Talk with others about the problem, ask questions, and do as much research as you can until you are satisfied that you have pushed your conscious mind to its limit.
  • Write a letter to your subconscious mind about the problem. Make the letter as detailed and specific as possible. Describe the problem definition, the attributes, what steps you have taken, the problems, the gaps, what is needed, what you want, what the obstacles are, and so on. Just writing the letter will help better define a problem, clarify issues, point out where more information is needed, and prepare your unconscious to work on a solution. The letter should read just like a letter you would send to a real person. Imagine that your unconscious is all-knowing and can solve any problem that is properly stated.
  • Instruct your unconscious to find the solution. Write, “Your mission is to find the solution to the problem. I would like the solution in three days.”
  • Seal the letter and put it away. You may even want to mail it to yourself.
  • Let go of the problem. Don’t work on it. Forget it. Do something else. This is the incubation stage when much of what goes on occurs outside your focused awareness, in your unconscious.
  • Open the letter in three days. If the problem still has not been solved, then write on the bottom of the letter, “Let me know the minute you solve this” and put it away again. Sooner or later, when you are most relaxed and removed from the problem, the answer will magically pop into your mind.


(Michael Michalko is the highly-acclaimed 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)






One day a traveler was walking along a road on his journey from one village to another. As he walked he noticed Socrates sitting on a boulder beside the road. Socrates said “Good day” to the traveler, and the traveler nodded. The traveler then turned to Socrates and said “Excuse me, do you mind if I ask you a question?”.

“Not at all,” replied Socrates.

“I am travelling from the village in the mountains to the village in the valley and I was wondering if you knew what it is like in the village in the valley?”

“Tell me,” said Socrates, “What was your experience of the village in the mountains?”

“Dreadful,” replied the traveler, “to be honest I am glad to be away from there. I found the people most unwelcoming. When I first arrived I was greeted coldly. I was never made to feel part of the village no matter how hard I tried. The villagers keep very much to themselves, they don’t take kindly to strangers. So tell me, what can I expect in the village in the valley?”

“I am sorry to tell you,” said Socrates, “but I think your experience will be much the same there”.

The traveler hung his head despondently and walked on.

A while later another traveler was journeying down the same road and he also came upon Socrates.

“I’m going to the village in the valley,” said the second traveler, “Do you know what it is like?”

“I do,” replied Socrates “But first tell me – where have you come from?”

“I’ve come from the village in the mountains.”

“And how was that?”

“It was a wonderful experience. I would have stayed if I could but I am committed to travelling on. I felt as though I was a member of the family in the village. The elders gave me much advice, the children laughed and joked with me and people were generally kind and generous. I am sad to have left there. It will always hold special memories for me. And what of the village in the valley?” he asked again.

“I think you will find it much the same” replied Socrates, “Good day to you”.

“Good day and thank you,” the traveler replied, smiled, and journeyed on.

Socrates knew we do not see things as they are; we see them as we are. Perception is demonstrably an active rather than a passive process; it constructs rather than records “reality.” Perception implies understanding as well as awareness. It is a process of inference in which people construct their own version of reality on the basis of information provided them.


Take a look at these two tables. Which one of them do you think is longer, and which one is wider?

tables largesst 001                                                A                                                                             B

It might be hard to believe, but the two tables have the exact same dimensions! Measure both table surfaces with a ruler and prove it to yourself. Why, then, does the table on the left look elongated, while the table on the right appears to have a wider width? The illusion of two tables was first discovered by Roger Shepard at Stanford University.

It comes down to how we perceive the scene. Accustomed as we are to photography and Western art, we automatically interpret the scene as three-dimensional. The concept of perspective, first mastered by artists during the Renaissance, is one we encounter in our everyday lives, and our brains automatically assume that the further away an object is from us, the smaller it will be. To compensate, our brain interprets and “lengthens” lines that appear to be pointing away from us into the distance. In this scene, the interpretation made by our brain extends the length of the table on the left by making it appear longer and the shorter side of the right-hand table by making it appear wider. Our brain constructs what we perceive based on our past experiences rather than what is there.

I once read a research report written by scientists who had studied a primitive New Guinea tribe. The tribe that believed their world ended at the nearby river. After several months one of the scientists had to cross the river to leave. When the scientist was safely across he waved, but the tribesmen did not respond. They said they didn’t see him as nothing existed beyond the end of the world. Their entrenched patterns of belief about where the world ended distorted their perception of reality.

You construct your own reality by how you interpret your experiences.


Michael Michalko www.creativethinking.net




Sometimes your biggest weakness can become your biggest strength. Take, for example, the story of one 10-year-old boy who decided to study judo despite the fact that he had lost his left arm in a devastating car accident.

The boy began lessons with an old Japanese judo master. The boy was doing well, so he couldn’t understand why, after three months of training the master had taught him only one move.

“Sensei,” the boy finally said, “Shouldn’t I be learning more moves?”

“This is the only move you know, but this is the only move you’ll ever need to know,” the sensei replied.

Not quite understanding, but believing in his teacher, the boy kept training.

Several months later, the sensei took the boy to his first tournament. Surprising himself, the boy easily won his first two matches. The third match proved to be more difficult, but after some time, his opponent became impatient and charged; the boy deftly used his one move to win the match. Still amazed by his success, the boy was now in the finals.

This time, his opponent was bigger, stronger, and more experienced. For a while, the boy appeared to be overmatched. Concerned that the boy might get hurt, the referee called a time-out. He was about to stop the match when the sensei intervened.

“No,” the sensei insisted, “Let him continue.”

Soon after the match resumed, his opponent made a critical mistake: he dropped his guard. Instantly, the boy used his move to pin him. The boy had won the match and the tournament. He was the champion.

On the way home, the boy and sensei reviewed every move in each and every match. Then the boy summoned the courage to ask what was really on his mind.

“Sensei, how did I win the tournament with only one move?”

“You won for two reasons,” the sensei answered. “First, you’ve almost mastered one of the most difficult throws in all of judo. And second, the only known defense for that move is for your opponent to grab your left arm.”

The boy’s biggest weakness had become his biggest strength.

Michael Michalko   http://www.creativethinking.net




At one time, ancient astronomers believed that the heavens were eternal and made of ether. This theory made it impossible for them to observe meteors as burning stones from outer space. Although the ancients witnessed meteor showers and found some on the ground, they couldn’t recognize them as meteors from outer space. They sought out and observed only those things that confirmed their theory about the heavens. Albert Einstein intuitively knew that thinking is speculative and how personal beliefs and theories distort what we observe.  We are like the ancient astronomers and actively seek out only that information that confirms our beliefs and theories about ourselves and the world.

A description of Einstein’s thinking process was found in a letter to his friend, Maurice Solovine. The letter started with a simple drawing consisting of one straight line which Einstein said represented experiences, which are given to us, and beliefs and axioms which are situated above the line but are not directly linked to experiences.

Einstein explained that psychologically his beliefs and axioms rest upon his experiences. There exists, however, no logical path from experience to an axiom, but only an intuitive connection based on his interpretation of the experience, which is always subject to revocation. These speculative interpretations shape our beliefs and perceptions which determine our theories about the world. Finally, our theories determine what we observe and, paradoxically, we only observe what confirms our theories which further hardens our beliefs and axioms.

The following story illustrates how a person’s theory determines what is observed and how what is observed is interpreted according to the person’s theory.

The university professor challenged his students with this question. Did God create everything that exists? A student bravely replied, “Yes, he did!”

“God created everything? The professor asked. “Yes sir”, the student replied.

The professor answered, “If God created everything, then God created evil since evil exists, and according to the principal that our works define who we are then God is evil”. The student became quiet before such an answer.

Another student raised his hand and said, “Can I ask you a question professor?”

“Of course”, replied the professor.

The student stood up and asked, “Professor does cold exist?”

“What kind of question is this? Of course it exists. Have you never been cold?”

The young man replied, “In fact sir, cold does not exist. According to the laws of physics, what we consider cold is in reality the absence of heat. Every body or object is susceptible to study when it has or transmits energy, and heat is what makes a body or matter have or transmit energy. Absolute zero (-460 degrees F) is the total absence of heat; all matter becomes inert and incapable of reaction at that temperature. Cold does not exist. We have created this word to describe how we feel if we have no heat.”

The student continued, “Professor, does darkness exist?” The professor responded, “Of course it does.” The student replied, “Once again you are wrong sir, darkness does not exist either. Darkness is in reality the absence of light. Light we can study, but not darkness. In fact we can use Newton’s prism to break white light into many colors and study the various wavelengths of each color. You cannot measure darkness. A simple ray of light can break into a world of darkness and illuminate it. How can you know how dark a certain space is? You measure the amount of light present. Isn’t this correct? Darkness is a term used by man to describe what happens when there is no light present.”

Finally the young man asked the professor, “Sir, does evil exist?” Now uncertain, the professor responded, “Of course as I have already said. We see it every day. It is in the daily example of man’s inhumanity to man. It is in the multitude of crime and violence everywhere in the world. These manifestations are nothing else but evil.” To this the student replied, “Evil does not exist sir, or at least it does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of God. It is just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of God. God did not create evil. Evil is not like faith, or love that exist just as does light and heat. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God’s love present in his heart. It’s like the cold that comes when there is no heat or the darkness that comes when there is no light.”

The young student’s name purportedly was— Albert Einstein. Einstein, himself, neither confirmed nor denied he was the student.

(Michael Michalko is the highly-acclaimed 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)









Suppose you tagged a “rose” as a red, pink, or white flower one gives to a beautiful woman, a pleasant hostess, or to a deceased friend. The tagging of a complex flower with the single label (rose) and one description would detour your curiosity more than cultivate it. However, if you asked a series of questions about roses, you would have a better understanding. You could better describe the rose, how it is grown, its thorns, its blossoms, its fragrance, how others have used the rose, as well as how to best package and use it.

In the same way, tagging any subject with a single label and description detours curiosity and limits imagination. Consider the steel industry. The executives tagged a complex process with the single label (big steel) and one description (the integrated process) and suffered for years with an uneconomical industry. Finally, a group of young men asked a series of questions that changed the industry.

The steelmaking process had been uneconomical since it was invented in the 1870s. The integrated steel process uses ore and creates very high temperatures four times, only to be quenched and then it lifts masses of metal and transports them over great distances. The only time the industry performed well was in times of war. The industry was a lump in America’s gravy.

A group of young men assiduously framed and asked questions and sought solutions. They asked aggressive questions about every step of the steel-making process. Despite the opposition of management, through questioning, they discovered that the integrated process tried to defy the laws of physics and this means the laws of economics as well.

What they discovered was that since the early 1970s, the demand for steel was going up. However, the minimum incremental unit needed to satisfy that demand in an integrated mill is a substantial investment. Any expansion is thus likely to operate at a low utilization rate, until demand, which always rises in small steps, reaches the capacity. And not to expand when demand creeps up means to lose market share permanently. Faced with losing market share, companies expanded. Companies therefore were profitable for only those times between when everybody begins to build new capacity and the time when the new capacity comes on stream. This discovery led to the solution.

The idea: The solution the young questioners proposed was a shift from the giant, ever-expanding “integrated” plant to a “mini-mill.” The end uses are the same as the integrated mill only the costs are substantially lower. A mini-mill can be built for one-tenth the cost of an integrated plant, uses heat only once and does not quench it, starts with steel scrap instead of ore, and ends up with one final product (e.g., beams, rods, etc.). The costs are less than one-half of the integrated process. The mini-mills offer modern technology, low labor costs, and target markets.

An executive stated that if these young men had not asked the right questions, we would still go on making steel the only way we knew. Anything but “big steel” was alien and strange. The executives couldn’t have been more stupefied, when they heard the solution, had archaeologists dug up a dinosaur wearing a flea collar.

A question checklist also helps you increase your observation and association abilities.

Car alarms didn’t stop thieves from shattering the window of one entrepreneur’s Porsche and stealing his radio. Using the question checklist, he drew a diagram of a car radio and decided that the real challenge was disguising the radio and not finding a fail-proof alarm system.

The solution was to somehow disguise and hide the radio. The question: “Suppose you find a problem related to yours and solved before, can you use its methods?” led him to think of the way the military camouflages items they want to disguise and hide. This association inspired his idea.

The idea: A fake front showing splayed wires and a gashed frame. Attached with velcro over the real radio, it creates the illusion that the real radio has already been ripped off.


Phoenix is a checklist of questions developed by the Central Intelligence Agency. It was designed to encourage agents to look at a challenge from many different angles. It’s like holding your challenge in your hand. You can turn it, look at it from underneath, see it from one view, hold it up to another position, imagine solutions, and really be in control of it.

Use the Phoenix checklist as a base to build your own personal checklist of questions. Collect good questions when you hear them from others and keep adding them to your own checklist. With the right questions, you can solve a challenge the way Sherlock Holmes would solve a crime; i.e., ask a number of questions, then suddenly turn, touch a finger to the head and ask a question that turns everything around. When that happens, you might say you “Sherlocked the challenge.”


The procedures are:

(1) Write your challenge. Isolate the challenge you want to think about. Write it to somebody else and commit yourself to an answer, if not the answer, by a certain date.

(2) Use the Phoenix checklist to dissect the challenge into as many different ways as you can by asking questions.

(3) Record your answers, information requests, solutions, and ideas for evaluation and analysis.



– Why is it necessary to solve the problem?

– What benefits will you receive by solving the problem?

– What is the unknown?

– What is it you don’t yet understand?

– What is the information you have?

– What isn’t the problem?

– Is the information sufficient? Or is it insufficient? Or redundant? Or contradictory?

– Should you draw a diagram of the problem? A figure? Make a model?

– Where are the boundaries of the problem?

– Separate the various parts of the problem? Can you write them down? What are the relationships of the parts of the problem?

– What are the constants (things that can’t be changed) of the problem?

– Have you seen this problem before?

– Have you seen this problem in a slightly different form?

– Do you know a related problem?

– Try to think of a familiar problem having the same or a similar unknown? Suppose you find a problem related to yours and solved before, can you use it? Can you use its method?

– Can you restate your problem? How many different ways can you restate it? More general? More specific? Can the rules be changed?

– What are the best, worst, and most probable cases you can imagine?


– Can you solve the whole problem? Part of the problem?

– What would you like the resolution to be? Can you picture it?

– How much of the unknown can you determine?

– Can you derive something useful from the information you have?

– Have you used all the information?

– Have you taken into account all essential notions in the problem?

– Can you separate the steps in the problem-solving process? Can you determine the correctness of each step?

– What creative thinking techniques can you use to generate ideas? How many different techniques?

– Can you see the result? How many different kinds of results can you see?

– How many different ways have you tried to solve the problem?

-How many alternative ideas can you generate?

– What have others done?

– Can you intuit the solution? Can you check the result?

– What should be done? How should it be done?

– Where should it be done?

– When should it be done?

– Who should do it?

– What do you need to do at this time?

– Who will be responsible for what?

– Can you use this problem to solve some other problem?

– What is the unique set of qualities that makes this problem what it is and none other?

– What milestones can best mark your progress?

– How will you know when you are successful?



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



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