Whenever Thomas Edison interviewed a job applicant, he would invite them to lunch and order the applicant a bowl of soup. He would then watch the applicant as he talked. If the applicant seasoned his or her soup before tasting it, he would not hire the applicant. He felt the applicant had so many built-in assumptions about everyday life that it would take too much time to train the applicant to think creatively.
In tackling a problem, it is common to assume a set of limits within which the solution must lie. The boundaries of the problem are defined by assumption and then, within those boundaries, conventional thinking proceeds to find a solution. Very often, however, the boundaries are imaginary and the solution may lie outside them.
It is the assumptions we make based on our past experiences in life and education that prejudices our imagination and determines how we approach problems. Mathematicians, at one time, predicated all mathematical truths on their assumption that the numbers they worked with were in a continuum. It seemed obvious to them that space between 1 and 2 was finite and known.
In 1872, Richard Dedekind was the first to challenge this assumption and revealed that mathematicians were being deceived if they thought they were working in a continuum. He demonstrated that no such thing exists. Within any numeric space, say between 1 and 2, you can increase the population all you like. To natural numbers like 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 you can add infinitely more rationals like 3/4 or 118/119, plus infinitely more irrationals like the square root of 2, and you’ll never begin to populate the space. His work became known as the principle of discontinuity. This principle changed the nature of mathematics.
Dedekind looked at the other side of continuity by reversing the way he thought about it and got the brilliant insight that led to a new mode of thinking, discovery and art. “Discontinuity” quickly became a key theme of modernism and a new mode of thought in the sciences, art and invention. Physicist, Ludwig Boltzmann, soon demonstrated that continuity was also a statistical illusion in physics, since the behavior of atoms in unpredictable. The French painter, Georges Seurat, used this mode of thinking when he invented a new technique called pointillism and created the first modern painting, “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte,” out of thousands of colored dots, each no larger than an eighth of an inch. This great masterpiece contains some 50 human figures; dogs and a monkey, all reducible to little dabs of pigment that somehow form a harmonious whole that radiates an extraordinary calm. Thomas Edison invented the movie camera, which is another triumph of discontinuity: 16 still photos per second which the eye interprets as movement.
Reversals break your existing patterns of thought and provoke new ones. You take things as they are and then turn them around, inside out, upside down, and back to front to see what happens. Henry Ford wanted to be an automobile manufacturer but lacked the capital. He thought about conventional manufacturing a great deal, particularly the assumptions made by manufacturers on how to build autos. One common assumption was that you had to “bring the people to the work.” He challenged this assumption by imagining different ways of “bringing work to the people.” He studied “how things are made” and “how things are taken apart.” The pigs were dissembled on a conveyor belt where workers severed parts from the pigs were as they were conveyed in front of them. He mentally reversed this process from dissembling to assembling and created the assembly line which made the affordable Model T possible and changed the nature of the auto industry.
Following is a thought experiment using assumption reversal to come up with an idea to help pay down the national deficit.
THOUGHT EXPERIMENT ABOUT SOLVING THE NATIONAL DEBT
Problem: The U.S. has a huge national deficit that needs to be paid down.
Assumptions: List all the assumptions you can think of regarding paying down the deficit.
Assumption: One common assumption is that borrowing money creates a deficit.
Assumption Reversal: Borrowing money generates revenue.
Ideas: Think of ways to use the concept of borrowing to pay down the deficit. One way borrowing money generates income are affinity credit cards. Nonprofits have long issued affinity credit cards. At one-half percent payoff for every $100 charged on the card, the nonprofits generate 50 cents in revenue. “The America card.” This inspires the idea of a national credit card. The national government collaborates with major banks to issue a national credit card. Every penny realized (from the one-half percent payoff for every $100 charged) goes toward paying off the national deficit. You could also use the card to pay traffic and parking fines and taxes. Call it the “America” card.
Mathematician-philosopher, Bertrand Russell, once astounded his colleagues by demonstrating that in mathematical argument, every alternative leads to its opposite. It is the same in life. You can provoke new ideas by considering the opposite of any subject or action.
SELLING YOUR IDEAS AS ART
People purchase paintings and sculptures by famous artists. Traditionally, when someone buys art they are usually buying a finished product such as a painting or sculpture. The opposite alternative is buying an object of art that does not physically exist from a famous artist. Why would someone buy a painting that does not exist? Artist Sol LeWitt , whose deceptively simple geometric sculptures and drawings and ecstatically colored and jazzy wall paintings established him as a leading artist, accomplished this seemingly impossibility. His work “Alternate Yellow Ink and Pencil Straight, Parallel Lines, of Random Length, Not Touching the Sides” sold at an auction for ten thousand dollars. The painting does not exist. What the person purchased was merely a short description of how to execute the painting. The person who purchased the work has to provide both the materials and the labor in order to have the work instantiated.
LeWitt argued that what makes something a work of art is not the matter that composes it or the labor that constructed it. Rather, it is the idea or concept behind the art. He transformed the idea and practice of drawing and changed the relationship between an idea and the art it produces. LeWitt’s art is not about the singular hand of the artist; it is the ideas behind the works that surpass each work itself. As such, it does not matter which hands complete the work, it is the mind that conceived it that is the artist.
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.