We have not been taught how to think for ourselves, we have been taught what to think based on what past thinkers thought. We are taught to think reproductively, not productively. What most people call thinking is simply reproducing what others have done in the past. We have been trained to seek out the neural path of least resistance, searching out responses that have worked in the past, rather than approach a problem on its own terms.

Educators discourage us from looking for alternatives to prevailing wisdom. When confronted with a problem, we are taught to analytically select the most promising approach based on past history, excluding all other approaches and then to work logically within a carefully defined direction towards a solution. Instead of being taught to look for possibilities, we are taught to look for ways to exclude them. This kind of thinking naturalizes intellectual laziness which promotes an impulse toward doing whatever is easiest or doing nothing at all. It’s as if we entered school as a question mark and graduated as a period.

When we learn something, we are taught to program it into our brain and stop thinking about or looking for alternatives. Over time these programs become stronger and stronger, not only cognitively but physiologically as well. Even when we actively seek information to test our ideas to see if we are right, we usually ignore paths that might lead us to discover alternatives. Following is an interesting experiment, which was originally conducted by the British psychologist Peter Wason that demonstrates this attitude. Wason would present subjects with the following triad of three numbers in sequence.

2       4       6

He would then ask subjects to write other examples of triads that follow the number rule and explain the number rule for the sequence. The subjects could ask as many questions as they wished without penalty.

He found that almost invariably most people will initially say, “4, 6, 8,” or “20, 22, 24,” or some similar sequence. And Watson would say, yes, that is an example of a number rule. Then they will say, “32, 34, 36″ or “50, 52, 54″ and so on– all numbers increasing by two. After a few tries, and getting affirmative answers each time, they are confident that the rule is numbers increasing by two without exploring alternative possibilities.

Actually, the rule Wason was looking for is much simpler– it’s simply numbers increasing. They could be 1, 2, 3 or 10, 20, 40 or 400, 678, 10,944. And testing such an alternative would be easy. All the subjects had to say was 1, 2, 3 to Watson to test it and it would be affirmed. Or, for example, a subject could throw out any series of numbers, for example, 5, 4, and 3 to see if they got a positive or negative answer. And that information would tell them a lot about whether their guess about the rule is true.

The profound discovery Wason made was that most people process the same information over and over until proven wrong, without searching for alternatives, even when there is no penalty for asking questions that give them a negative answer. In his hundreds of experiments, he, incredibly, never had an instance in which someone spontaneously offered an alternative hypothesis to find out if it were true. In short, his subjects didn’t even try to find out if there is a simpler or even, another, rule.

On the other hand, creative thinkers have a vivid awareness of the world around them and when they think, they seek to include rather than exclude alternatives and possibilities. They are productive thinkers that have a “lantern awareness” that brings the whole environment to the forefront of their attention. So, by the way, do children before they are educated. This kind of awareness is how you feel when you visit a foreign country; you focus less on particulars and experience everything more globally because so much is unfamiliar.

A while back I attended a convention for recent graduates seeking employment opportunities. I was there to sign books at my publisher’s booth. During the event, I met several professors and recent graduates. Many of the graduates were just beginning their job searches and attended lectures designed to help them find employment. I met a person with a Ph.D. in education who is a professor at a distinguished university. His lecture for the students was how to prepare impressive resumes and cover letters. I listened to part of his lecture and found it to be the usual stuff about resumes that I’ve read or heard hundreds of times.

Later that day, a student approached and introduced himself to me and told he how much he enjoyed my book Thinkertoys. He said he graduated recently and is going to start hunting for a job in marketing. Curious, I asked him how he was going to handle the job hunting process.

He explained that a person, when he or she is a prospect for a job, becomes a set of qualifications, potentially better but just like the rest. How easy positive bits of information are transferred to the potential employer is one of the essentials of a successful resume, just like a product in a supermarket to a consumer. So he wandered through supermarkets looking for examples of how consumer products are packaged and marketed. He settled on a carton of milk. He studied how the carton, itself, was used to market the company’s product.

Next, he created an actual milk carton with his resume printed on it.  On each side of the milk carton information is formatted to match the theme. The front of the carton features quick tidbits like his name, tag-line, photograph and age. On one side, his education, experience and qualifications are listed and on the opposite, a table made to look like a nutritional information chart shows all his accomplishments and recommendations from teachers and past employers. On the lid are more glance-worthy items like “I have a marketing mindset,” and “My love in life is Marketing.” He even put a recycling logo at the back of the box, just below contact, to symbolize the similarity between job applicants and products.


A few days later, he sent me a package. Inside was an actual milk carton with his resume on it. I was very impressed.  We stayed in touch and he was interviewed by virtually every company that received one. The student was a creative thinker who figured out his own way of catching fish, not simply repeating a specific way of fishing.

Which one would you want on your marketing team? The Ph.D., the reproductive thinker or the student, the productive thinker?


Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work by Michael Michalko … via @amazon






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