THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: Mary spends her first 20 years locked up in a large room. All her reading materials are about chocolate. She watches video lectures about chocolate every day. She learns about the importance of cacao, and its uses throughout history. Chemists teach her about the ingredients of chocolate and how different processes can vary its chemistry. She watches videos of the world’s leading nutritionists lecture on the makeup and value of chocolate. Mary memorizes the benefits of eating chocolate versus the drawbacks. Videos of historians teach her how ancient people discovered cacao and about the many uses they found for it throughout history, e.g., how chocolate was even used for currency. Mary learns how soldiers depended on chocolate for energy during combat and how they used it to befriend children of different cultures. She learns how “chocolate” symbolized American abundance to poverty stricken peoples of other countries. Sociologists exclaim how chocolate is used for gifts and rewards. They give examples of it being gifted in various forms on major holidays and anniversaries. At the end of her studies, she writes her dissertation on chocolate and is awarded a Ph.D. with honors. There is only one thing she has never done. She has never made, touched, smelled or tasted chocolate.
After she receives her degree, a little girl asked her if she likes chocolate. How does Mary answer?
What kind of understanding of chocolate can Mary have if she never actually made, touched, smelled or tasted chocolate? What good is what we know about chocolate if we’ve never made or tasted it? To know what chocolate is, you have to make it and taste it. You have to act. What we think, or what we know, or what we believe is, in the end, of no consequence. The only consequence is what we do.
All art is a reaction to the first line drawn. Unless the artist sits in front of the canvas and paints, there can be no art. Unless the writer sits down and starts to type, there can be no book. Unless the musician plays their instrument, there can be no music. Unless the sculptor begins to chip away at the marble, there can be no sculpture. Unless the explorer begins the journey, there can be no discovery.
It is the same with everything in life, even civilizations; unless one acts, nothing is created or discovered. In the classical world of Greece and Rome and in all 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.
Sometime during the so-called dark ages, some unknown person 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 person had acted and invented hay, civilization would not have prospered.
Once I met a person with a Ph.D. in creativity at an educational conference. He spent a long time describing with great pride what he had learned in his studies and research about the creative thinking process. He expounded on the different theories of creativity, their founders, history, acceptance and the differences and similarities between them. He talked about the lives of the creative geniuses throughout history, who they were, how they lived, what they believed, what they created. He believed he was one of the most foremost experts on creative thinking in the world.
I handed him a large red paperclip and said, “Suppose this is your only possession in the world. Can you think of ways to add value to the paperclip to make it into something significant?” He said he would give it some thought and then get back to me the next day. The next day he said he was still thinking. Six months later, I met him at another conference and asked him again. He said he had forgotten all about it, but would, again, give it some thought and then call me with his ideas. He never called.
I got the idea of using the paperclip from a story I read about Kyle MacDonald. Kyle, who got an idea and acted immediately. Needing an income, Mr. MacDonald faced an obvious choice. He could get serious and send off résumés in quest of a real job or he could create one. He looked at the large red paper clip binding his résumés together. He thought why not trade it on the Internet for something “bigger and better,” with the idea of eventually bartering up to something significant.
As soon as the clip was advertised on Craigslist, two women offered a fish-shaped pen in exchange. Before long, in return for the pen, Annie from Seattle gave Mr. MacDonald a ceramic doorknob sculpted to look like E.T. And on it went, from a neon Budweiser sign to a recording contract put up by a man with access to a studio, which an aspiring recording artist snagged by offering Mr. MacDonald a rent-free year in a house in Phoenix.
But Kyle was looking to own, not rent, and so he kept going. It turned out that rock star Alice Cooper has a restaurant in Phoenix. An employee at Alice’s restaurant, looking to live rent free, offered an afternoon hanging out with her boss. Mr. MacDonald promptly traded quality time with Mr. Cooper for a snow globe branded with the logo of the rock band KISS. Enter the actor Corbin Bernsen, who starred in the TV show “L.A. Law” years ago who owns more than 6,000 snow globes. He offered a speaking part in his new movie in return for the snow globe.
Then the town of Kipling, Saskatchewan, gave Kyle a renovated 1920s house on Main Street in return for the film role, which it then raffled off in a local “American Idol”-style audition won by a town resident. Mr. MacDonald and his girlfriend, Dom, moved to Kipling, having achieved their goal of turning a paper clip into a house.
It’s unusual to encounter a market in which the participants have neither a strong desire for the items they bargain for nor any wish to convert them into cash. Yet to a large degree, this is what Mr. MacDonald has created. No one was in the market for a red paper clip; Annie was not on the prowl for a fish pen. Most of the people in the red-paper-clip chain could not have easily sold their items for cash; in any case, they didn’t want to.
MacDonald had created a novel market where the traders themselves were the goods; their goal was to become known. Kyle created this aspect of his endeavor using the internet, radio, and television to market his scheme. “Good Morning America,” for example, gave air time to his exploits.
MacDonald created a market where individuals become interchangeable and their past experience irrelevant. Content is content, and anyone can fill the bill for a recording contract or film role or other roles in the bartering sequence.
My question to you is “Who understands the process of creative thinking more, the PhD who spent a lifetime researching and studying or MacDonald who simply acted and created something new.
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.