Archive for the ‘conceptual blending’ Category

FAMOUS FAILURES

failure

When people speak of a “fear of failure,” they are really describing a hazy free-floating malaise and feeling of worry or discontent which induces lethargy and explains lack of effort. This malaise protects us from the anxiety that comes with freedom and taking risks. We tranquilize our lives by limiting the amount of anxiety that we experience by not trying anything new or different that might fail.

Whenever we attempt to do something and fail, we end up doing something else or producing something else. You have not failed; you have produced some other result. The two most important questions to ask are: “What have I learned?” and “What have I done?”

Failure is only a word that human beings use to judge a given situation. Instead of fearing failure, we should learn that failures, mistakes and errors are the way we learn and the way we grow. Many of the world’s greatest successes have learned how to fail their way to success. Some of the more famous are:

  • Albert Einstein: Most of us take Einstein’s name as synonymous with genius, but he didn’t always show such promise. Einstein did not speak until he was four and did not read until he was seven, causing his teachers and parents to think he was mentally handicapped, slow and anti-social. Eventually, he was expelled from school and was refused admittance to the Zurich Polytechnic School. He attended a trade school for one year and was finally admitted to the University. He was the only one of his graduating class unable to get a teaching position because no professor would recommend him. One professor labeled him as the laziest dog they ever had in the university. The only job he was able to get was an entry-level position in a government patent office.
  • Robert Goddard: Goddard today is hailed for his research and experimentation with liquid-fueled rockets, but during his lifetime his ideas were often rejected and mocked by his scientific peers who thought they were outrageous and impossible. The New York Times once reported that Goddard seemed to lack a high school student’s basic understanding of rocketry. Today rockets and space travel don’t seem far-fetched at all, due largely in part to the work of this scientist who worked against the feelings of the time.
  • Abraham Lincoln: While today he is remembered as one of the greatest leaders of our nation, Lincoln’s life wasn’t so easy. In his youth he went to war a captain and returned a private (if you’re not familiar with military ranks, just know that private is as low as it goes.) Lincoln didn’t stop failing there, however. He started numerous failed businesses, went bankrupt twice and was defeated in 26 campaigns he made for public office.
  • J. K. Rowling: Rowling may be rolling in a lot of Harry Potter dough today, but before she published the series of novels, she was nearly penniless, severely depressed, divorced, trying to raise a child on her own while attending school and writing a novel. Rowling went from depending on welfare to survive to being one of the richest women in the world in a span of only five years through her hard work and determination.
  • Walt Disney: Today Disney rakes in billions from merchandise, movies and theme parks around the world, but Walt Disney had many personal failures. He was fired by a newspaper editor because, “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” After that, Disney started a number of businesses that didn’t last too long and ended with bankruptcy and failure. He kept trying and learning, however, and eventually found a recipe for success that worked.
  • Harland David Sanders: Perhaps better known as Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, Sanders had a hard time selling his chicken at first. In fact, his famous secret chicken recipe was rejected 1,009 times before a restaurant accepted it. He learned not to fear rejection and persevered.
  • Thomas Edison: In his early years, teachers told Edison he was “too stupid to learn anything.” Work was no better, as he was fired from his first two jobs for not being productive enough. Even as an inventor, Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. One day, an assistant asked him why he didn’t give up. After all, he failed over a thousand times. Edison replied that he had not failed once. He had discovered over 1000 things that don’t work.
  • Ludwig van Beethoven: In his formative years, young Beethoven was incredibly awkward on the violin and was often so busy working on his own compositions that he neglected to practice. Despite his love of composing, his teachers felt he was hopeless at it and would never succeed with the violin or in composing. In fact, his music teacher told his parents he was too stupid to be a music composer.
  • Michael Jordan: Most people wouldn’t believe that a man often lauded as the best basketball player of all time was actually cut from his high school basketball team. Luckily, Jordan didn’t let this setback stop him from playing the game and he has stated, “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
  • Stephen King: The first book by this author, the iconic thriller Carrie, received 30 rejections, finally causing King to give up and throw it in the trash. His wife fished it out and encouraged him to resubmit it, and the rest is history, with King now having hundreds of books published and  the distinction of being one of the best-selling authors of all time.
  • Bill Gates: Gates didn’t seem destined for success after dropping out of Harvard. He started a business with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen called Traf-O-Data. While this early idea for a business failed miserably, Gates did not despair and give up. Instead he learned much from the failure and later created the global empire that is Microsoft.
  • Henry Ford: While Ford is today known for his innovative assembly line and American-made cars, he wasn’t an instant success. In fact, his early businesses failed and left him broke five times. He was advised by countless people not to get into the manufacturing of automobiles because he had neither the capital or know how.
  • F. W. Woolworth: Some may not know this name today, but Woolworth was once one of the biggest names in department stores in the U.S. Before starting his own business, young Woolworth worked at a dry goods store and was not allowed to wait on customers because his boss said he lacked the sense needed to do so. Woolworth also had many ideas of how to market dry goods – all of which were rejected by his boss. His marketing ideas became the foundation of his phenomenal retail success with his own stores.
  • Akio Morita: You may not have heard of Morita but you’ve undoubtedly heard of his company, Sony. Sony’s first product was a rice cooker that unfortunately didn’t cook rice so much as burn it, selling less than 100 units. The rice cooker was the object of scorn and laughter by the business community.  This did not discourage Morita and his partners as they pushed forward to create a multi-billion dollar company.
  • Orville and Wilbur Wright: These brothers 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. After numerous attempts at creating flying machines, several years of hard work, and tons of failed prototypes, the brothers finally created a plane that could get airborne and stay there.
  • Vincent Van Gogh: During his lifetime, Van Gogh sold only one painting, and this was to a friend and only for a very small amount of money. While Van Gogh was never a success during his life, he plugged on with painting, sometimes starving to complete his over 800 known works. Today, they bring in hundreds of millions of dollars each.
  • Fred Astaire: In his first screen test, the testing director of MGM noted that Astaire “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Not handsome. Can dance a little.” Astaire went on to become an incredibly successful actor, singer and dancer and kept that note in his Beverly Hills home to remind him of where he came from.
  • Steven Spielberg: While today Spielberg’s name is synonymous with big budget, he was rejected from the University of Southern California School of Theater, Film and Television three times. He eventually attended school at another location, only to drop out to become a director before finishing. Thirty-five years after starting his degree, Spielberg returned to school in 2002 to finally complete his work and earn his BA.
  • Charles Darwin was chastised by his father for being lazy and too dreamy. Darwin himself once wrote that his father and teachers considered him rather below the common standard of intellect. When Charles Darwin first presented his research on evolution, it was met with little enthusiasm. He continued to work on his theory of evolution when all of his colleagues called him a fool and what he was doing “a fool’s experiment.”

The artist genius of the ages is Michelangelo. His competitor’s once tried to set him up for failure or force him to forgo a commission because of the possibility of failure. Michelangelo’s competitors persuaded Junius II to assign to him a relatively obscure and difficult project. It was to fresco the ceiling of a private chapel. The chapel had already been copiously decorated with frescoes by many talented artists. Michelangelo would be commissioned to decorate the tunnel-vaulted ceiling. In this way, his rivals thought they would divert his energies from sculpture, in which they realized he was supreme. This, they argued, would make things hopeless for him, since he had no experience in fresco, he would certainly, they believed, do amateurish work as a painter. Without doubt, they thought, he would be compared unfavorably with Raphael, and even if the work were a success, being forced to do it would make him angry with the Pope, and thus one way or another they would succeed in their purpose of getting rid of him.

Michelangelo, protesting that painting was not his art, still took on the project. In every way it was a challenging task. He had never used color, nor had he painted in fresco. He executed the frescos in great discomfort, having to work with his face looking upwards, which impaired his sight so badly that he could not read or look at drawings save with his head turned backwards, and this lasted for several months. In that awkward curved space, Michelangelo managed to depict the history of the Earth from the Creation to Noah, surrounded by ancestors and prophets of Jesus and finally revealing the liberation of the soul. His enemies had stage managed the masterpiece that quickly established him as the artist genius of the age.
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WHAT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO DO, BUT IF IT WERE POSSIBLE WOULD CHANGE THE NATURE OF YOUR BUSINESS FOREVER

OMG

Einstein once wrote “The gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.” This he believed because he knew that knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.

Think of how Einstein changed our understanding of time and space by imagining people going to the center of time in order to freeze their lovers or their children in century-long embraces. This space he imagined is clearly reminiscent of a black hole, where, theoretically, gravity would stop time. Einstein also imagined a woman’s heart leaping and falling in love two weeks before she has met the man she loves, which led him to the understanding of acausality, a feature of quantum mechanics. And still another time he imagined a blind beetle crawling around a sphere thinking it was crawling in a straight line

Imagination gives us the impertinence to imagine making the impossible possible. 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 a fantasy 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.

To encourage this thinking process of synthesizing fantasy with reality, I will sometime ask clients to “Think of something that is impossible to do, but if it were possible to do, would change the nature of your business forever?” Then try to come up with ideas that take you as close as possible to make that impossibility a reality.

EXAMPLE: A book publisher wanted to publish books that were unconventionally unique and that would educate and inspire young readers about the need for ecologically responsible behavior. They were asked to fantasize for ideas that were not possible to do. The group had much fun discussing their various absurd and crazy ideas.

One idea that excited the group was suppose we could scientifically determine a book’s DNA. Then suppose we could differentiate books by their DNA (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, textbook, reference book, biographies and so on. Then suppose we can create seeds for the different species of books based on their DNA and then plant them on farms. The books would grow like plants and when harvested the could be distributed to schools, libraries and bookstores. The great ecological value would be the number of trees in the world that would be saved. Instead of destroying trees to make books, books are grown and harvested on farms like plants.

Stretching your imagination by trying to make impossible things possible with concrete thoughts and actions is a mirror reversal of dreaming. Whereas a dream represents abstract ideas as concrete actions and images, this creative process works in the opposite direction, using concrete ideas (a seed that becomes a book) to gain insight on a conscious level to reveal disguised thoughts (books becoming plants) as creative imagery.

In this case, the impossibility of growing books as plants revealed the interesting thought of planting books as seeds for trees. Imagine the joy of children as they realize the ecological importance of contributing to the welfare of the planet by planting a book after they have finished reading it and watch it become a tree. They will nurture the tree and watch it grow over the years of their childhood.

IDEA: The project the publisher decided to pursue is to create storybooks that can be planted, and will grow back into trees. Hand stitched copies of children’s storybooks are made from recycled acid-free paper and biodegradable inks and the cover is embedded with native tree seeds. The books are aimed at children aged 6-12 who, after reading, can plant the book and watch and nurture the tree as it grows. Each copy comes with planting instructions. The publisher is also planning to have the book displayed in bookshops, where it can be seen germinating.

Thought is a process of fitting new situations into existing slots and pigeonholes in the mind. Just as you cannot put a physical thing into more than one physical pigeonhole at once, the processes of thought prevent you from putting a mental construct into more than one mental category at once. This is because the mind has a basic intolerance for ambiguity, and its first function is to reduce the complexity of its experiences. This is how we are taught to think and why we automatically exclude everything that is not relevant to our problem. Instead of looking for possibilities, we spend our mental energy judging and excluding possibilities as irrelevant instead of exploring them. This is why we continually come up the same old ideas time after time.

When you come up with crazy or fantastical ideas, you step outside your cone of expectations and intentions and allow yourself to think inclusively. Inclusive thinking is considering every idea no matter how irrelevant as a possibility.

A supervisor at a manufacturer of dinner plates told me a story about a problem they had at work. The problem was a packaging problem. The plates were wrapped in old newspapers and packed in boxes. Every packer would eventually slow down to read the papers and look at the pictures. Most employees would drop to about 30 percent efficiency after a few weeks on the job.

The manufacturer tried using other material for packing, but that proved too expensive; the newspapers had been free. They tried using newspapers in different languages, but these were hard to obtain. They even offered incentives to workers to increase the number of plates wrapped, but without great success. Finally, one day in a meeting an exasperated supervisor said they should tape the packer’s eyes shut when they report for work so they couldn’t read. This absurd comment created a lot of laughter as the others came up with silly ideas. One suggested having a packaging room with no windows or lights of any kind making it pitch black. Another wanted to make the room so bright you had to squint to see making it difficult to read. The CEO of the company joked along with the employees when suddenly he had an “Aha!” moment: he got the idea to hire blind people to do the packing. He contacted the Association of the Blind and worked with them to hire blind people. The company not only greatly increased its packing efficiency but also received huge tax benefits for hiring the disabled.

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ATTENTION!

creATIVES

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 that recognized the common factor between a burdock that fastens and a zipper that fastens, not logic.

Cognitive scientists understand the importance of perception and pattern recognition as a major component of creative  thinking. Russian computer scientist, Mikhail Bongard, created a   remarkable set of visual pattern recognition problems. 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.

OVALS

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.

BONGARD.DOT.NECK

                                                   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.

SCROLL DOWN FOR ANSWER

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

How did you do?

 

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A LEONARDO DA VINCI CREATIVE THINKING TECHNIQUE

davinci

Leonardo DaVinci’s grotesque heads and famous caricatures are an example of the random variations of the human face made up of different combinations of a set number of features.  He would first list facial characteristics (heads, eyes, nose, etc.) and then beneath each list variations.  Next he would mix and match the different variations to create original and grotesque caricatures.  Below is a hypothetical example of a box similar to one that DaVinci might have constructed:

While the number of items in each category is relatively small, there are literally thousands of possible combinations of the listed features. The circled features indicate only one out of thousands of different grouping of features that could be used for an original grotesque head.

grot

From his notebooks, it is clear that DaVinci used this strategy in his production of art and invention.  He advised to be on the watch to take the best parts of many beautiful faces rather than create what you consider to be a beautiful face.  It is intriguing to speculate that the Mona Lisa, probably the most admired portrait in the world, is a result of DaVinci combining the best parts of the most beautiful faces that he observed and systemized.  Perhaps this is why admirers find so many different expressions in the mix of features on the face of the woman in the painting.  It is especially interesting to consider this possibility in the light of the fact that there is so little agreement about the actual identity of the subject.

One can almost see Leonardo composing a matrix of elements (Apostles, types of reactions, conditions, facial expressions, types of situations) and experimenting with their variations and combinations until he found the right configuration to create that once in a lifetime masterpiece — the “Last Supper.”  Many other artists before him hadlast supper made their own versions of Jesus Christ having his last meal with the twelve apostles, but when Leonardo painted the picture, the scene came alive with new meaning that no one else was able to give, or has been able to give since.

DaVinci would analyze the structure of a subject and then separate the major parameters (parameter means characteristic, factor, variable, or aspect).  He would then list variations for each parameter and combine them.  By coming up with different combinations of the variations of the parameters, he created new ideas.

Think of the parameters as card suits (hearts, spades, clubs and diamonds), and the variations as the different cards within each suit.  You choose the number and nature of the parameters of your subject; what’s important is to generate parameters and then list variations for each parameter.  By experimenting with different combinations of the variations, you create new ideas.

The procedures for using DaVinci’s technique are:

1.     Specify the challenge.

2.     Separate the parameters of the challenge.  The parameters are the fundamental framework of the challenge.  You choose the nature and the number of parameters that you wish to use in your box.  A good question to ask yourself when selecting parameters is: “Would the challenge still exist without the parameter I’m considering adding to the box?”

3.     Below each parameter, list as many variations for the parameters that you wish.  The complexity of the box is determined by the number of parameters and the number of variations used.  The more variations and the more different the variations of each parameter, the more likely the box will contain a viable idea.  For instance, a box with ten parameters, each of which has ten variations, produces 10 billion combinations of the parameters and the variations.

4.     When you are finished listing variations, make random runs through the parameters and the variations for the parameters, selecting one or more from each column and assemble the combinations into entirely new forms.  During this step, all of the combinations can be examined with respect to the challenge to be solved.  If you are working with ten or more parameters, you may find it helpful to randomly examine the entire group, and then gradually restrict yourself to portions that appear to be particularly fruitful.

carwash

5.  Let’s look at an example.  A car-wash owner wanted to find an idea for a new market or new market extension.  He analyzed the activity of “product washing” and decided to work with four parameters: Method of washing, products washed, equipment used, and other products sold.

He listed the parameters and listed five variations for each parameter.  He listed four parameters on top.  Under each parameter he listed five variations for each parameter.  He randomly chose one or more items from each parameter, and connected them to form a new business.

NEW BUSINESS: The random combination of (Self + Dogs + Brushes + Dryers + Stalls + Sprayers + Related Products) inspired an idea for a new business.  The new business he created was a self-service dog wash.  The self-service dog wash has ramps leading to waist-high tubs where owners spray them, scrub them with brushes provided by the wash, shampoo them and blow dry them.  In addition to the wash, he also sells his own line of dog products such as shampoos and conditioners.  Pet owners now wash their dogs while their car is being washed in the full-service car wash.

Five alternatives for each parameter generate a possible 3,125 different combinations.  If only 10% prove useful, that would yield 312 new ideas.  In theory, if you list the appropriate parameters and variations, then you should have all of the possible combinations for a specified challenge.  In practice, your parameters may be incomplete and/or a critical variation for a parameter may not have been described.  When you feel this may be the case, you should reconsider the parameters you specified and adjust the parameters or the variations accordingly.

We tend to see the elements of our subject as one continuous “whole,” and do not see many of the relationships between the elements, even the obvious ones.  They become almost invisible because of the way we perceive things.  Yet, these relationships are often the links to new ideas.  When you break down a subject into different parts and combine and recombine the parts in various ways, you restructure your perception of the subject.  This perceptual restructuring leads to new insights, ideas, and new lines of speculation.

The Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Kohler demonstrated perceptual restructuring with animals.  He would present an ape with a problem in which bananas were displayed out of reach and could only be obtained by using techniques new in the ape’s experience.  For example, he would give an ape boxes to play with for a few days.  Then Kohler would hang bananas from the ceiling out of the ape’s reach.  When he placed the boxes behind the ape, the ape would try all the familiar ways of reaching the fruit and fail.  When he placed the boxes in front of the ape so that they were visible, the ape would sit and think and suddenly have insight and use the boxes to stand on to reach the bananas.  What happened was that the visibility of the information restructured the ape’s perception.  It suddenly saw the boxes not as playthings but as supports with which to build a structure. It saw the relationship between the boxes and bananas.

In the same way, when you combine and recombine information in different ways, you perceptually restructure the way you see the information.  In addition, the greater the number of combinations you are able to generate, the more likely it is that some combination will serve as an associative link to ideas you could not come up with using your usual way of thinking (i.e., A, B, and D may become associated because each in some way is associated with C).  For example, the three words “surprise,” “line,” and “birthday” in combination serve as an associative link to the word “party.”  I.e., “surprise party,” “party line,” and “birthday party.”

In the car wash example, an associative link was made from the information that was listed to the idea of a bird wash.  The bird wash is a miniature clamp-like device that holds the bird securely in an upright stance so it can be gently washed and hosed (much like a car wash).  It’s designed to help workers cleanse birds who are damaged from tanker oil spills at sea.  It’s expected to save thousands of birds that now expire from the rough handling during clean-up operations.

Michael Michalko me.small Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work by Michael Michalko

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HOW EINSTEIN EXPLAINED HIS CREATIVE GENIUS

einstein.intuition

Think of how Albert Einstein changed our understanding of time and space by fantasizing about people going to the center of time in order to freeze their lovers or their children in century-long embraces. This space he imagined is clearly reminiscent of a black hole, where, theoretically, gravity would stop time. Einstein also fantasized about a woman’s heart leaping and falling in love two weeks before she has met the man she loves, which lead him to the understanding of acausality, a feature of quantum mechanics. A caricature of special relativity (the relativistic idea that people in motion appear to age more slowly) is based on his fantasy of a world in which all the houses and offices are on wheels, constantly zooming around the streets (with advance collision-avoidance systems).

Einstein summarized the value of using your imagination to fantasize best when he said “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: Try to solve the following thought experiment before you read the paragraph that follows it. The thought experiment is attributed to the German Gestalt psychologist Karl Dunker.

One morning, exactly at sunrise, a Buddhist monk began to climb a tall mountain. The narrow path, no more than a foot or two wide, spiraled around the mountain to a glittering temple at the summit. The monk ascended the path at a varying rate of speed, stopping many times along the way to rest and to eat the dried fruit he carried with him. He reached the temple shortly before sunset. After several days of fasting and meditation, he began his journey back along the same path, starting at sunrise and again walking at a varying speed with many stops along the way. His average speed descending was, of course, greater than his average climbing speed. Is there a spot along the path that the monk will occupy on both trips at precisely the same time of day?

If you try to logically reason this out or use a mathematical approach, you will conclude that it is unlikely for the monk to find himself on the same spot at the same time of day on two different occasions. Instead, visualize the monk walking up the hill, and at the same time imagine the same monk walking down the hill. The two figures must meet at some point in time regardless of their walking speed or how often they stop. Whether the monk descends in two days or three days makes no difference; it all comes out to the same thing.

Now it is, of course, impossible for the monk to duplicate himself and walk up the mountain and down the mountain at the same time. But in the visual image he does; and it is precisely this indifference to logic, this superimposition of one image over the other, that leads to the solution. The imaginative conception of the monk meeting himself blends the journeys up and down the mountain and superimposes one monk on the other at the meeting place.

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 a fantasy 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.

Imagination gives us the impertinence to imagine making the impossible possible. Einstein, for example, was able to imagine alternatives to the sacred Newtonian notion of absolute time, and discovered that time is relative to your state of motion. Think of the thousands of scientists who must have come close to Einstein’s insight but lacked the imagination to see it because of the accepted dogma that time is absolute, and who must have considered it impossible to contemplate any theory.  

Einstein described his favorite creative thinking technique as “combinatory play” in a 1945 letter to his friend Jacque Hadamard as the essential feature in the way he thought. Our brains are conditioned to associate similar subjects but have great difficulty are forcing connections between two dissimilar and unrelated subjects or images that seem to have no associations. Our educated and practiced ability to associate similar concepts limits our ability to be creative (apples and oranges are fruit). We form ‘associative walls’ that makes us very efficient at finding common associations  but it discourages us from looking for connections between dissimilar subjects.

Overcoming these associative habits is probably one of the most important skills when it comes to creative and innovative thought. It is no coincidence that the most creative and innovative people through history are experts at forcing new connections between dissimilar subjects through combinatory play. I’ve traced the technique back to Leonardo da Vinci who wrote in his notebooks “It is not possible to think simultaneously of two subjects, no matter how dissimilar, without connections being formed.

EXAMPLE: CAN YOU GROW A BOOK? 

Following is an example of how I used the technique with a publisher who was looking for more innovative ways to publish books. The question I asked him to think about was “What is impossible to do in your industry, but if it were possible would change the nature of your business forever?”

The publisher kept a dream diary. He told me that when he had an interesting problem, he would write “key” words in a notebook by his bed before he went to sleep. When he awoke, the first thing he would do was to try to recall his dreams and record everything he could remember. Then he told me about a dream he had in the past that fascinated him.

He dreamed he was planting seeds in a large field. He nurtured the plants as they grew.  Each plant grew into a large cabbagelike head. When the plant ripened, the leaves unfolded revealing a book. Each plant produced a book. Excitedly, he raced from row to row opening each book. They were all different. Some were fiction, others were nonfiction, children’s books, coffee table books, dictionaries, biographies. He flipped through the books laughing and laughing. That was the answer to my question he said. It is impossible to grow books.

He and I discussed the meaning of the dream about growing books. We realized the impossibility of growing books but listed all the connections we could think of between growing plants and publishing books. One connection was that trees are planted and harvested for the manufacture of paper and paper is used to publish books.

Why not publish books that become trees? This would be a way to educate and inspire young readers about the need for ecologically responsible behavior. The idea the publisher decided to pursue is to publish storybooks for children about trees. The book can then be planted (planting instructions are included) and will grow back into a tree. The books will be handstitched, made from recycled acid-free paper and biodegradable inks and the cover is embedded with poplar tree seeds. Each copy comes with planting instructions. Readers are encouraged to plant and name their tree and to care for it as it grows. The marketing department plans to have the book displayed in bookshops, where it can be seen germinating by customers.

HAVE YOU EVER SEEN A CAR CRY?

In another example, Toyota engineers believed that the manufacture of an automobile that is a live, breathing creature is impossible. The attributes of living creatures are, for example, breathing, growing older, reproducing, feeling emotions, and so on. They brainstormed for possible connections between attributes of living creatures and autos.

The Japanese engineers for Toyota decided to develop a car that they say can express moods ranging from angry to happy to sad. The car can raise or lower its body height and ‘‘wag’’ its antenna, and it comes equipped with illuminated hood designs, capable of changing colors, that are meant to look like eyebrows, eyes, and even tears. The car will try to approximate the feelings of its driver by drawing on data stored in an onboard computer. So, for example, if another car swerves into an expressive car’s lane, the right combination of deceleration, brake pressure, and defensive steering, when matched with previous input from the driver, will trigger an ‘‘angry’’ look.

The angry look is created as the front end lights up with glowering red U-shaped lights, the headlights become hooded at a forty-five-degree angle, and downward-sloping “eyebrow” lights glow crimson. A good-feeling look is lighting up orange, and one headlight winks at the courteous driver and wags its antennae. A sad-feeling look is blue with “tears” dripping from the headlights.

Stretching  your  imagination by trying to make impossible things possible with combinatory play between unrelated subjects makes it possible to create ideas you cannot get using your usual way of thinking.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………Michael Michalko is a renowned creativity expert whose books describe creative thinking techniques used by creative geniuses throughout history to get their breakthrough ideas. 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

 

COMBINING THE UNRELATED INTO NEW IDEAS

combine ideas

 

Look at the figure below.combo1

When the lines at the left are combined to form the figure on the right, we can no longer perceive the original two patterns without great effort. Instead, we see a continuous wavy line running through a series of bars. Combining the lines creates a new pattern with new properties. The illustration verifies the seemingly obvious point that from a combination can emerge new properties that were not evident in either of the original lines.

It is the same with concepts and ideas. Gregory Murphy of the University of Illinois had people rate how true certain properties were of individual concepts and their combinations. One set of concepts consisted of the individual words “empty” and “store” and their combination “empty store.” Consider the property “losing money.” Like subjects in Murphy’s study, you probably recognize that losing money is typical of “empty stores,” but not of “stores” in general or of things that are “empty.”  Meaning changes when we combine concepts, and the more novel the combination, the more novel the new meaning. This is why genius is often marked by an interest in combining previously unrelated ideas, goods and services, making novel combinations more likely. Following is one technique of many that demonstrates how easy it is get ideas using combinations.

RANDOM OBJECTS. Select 20 objects at random. You can select any objects, objects at home, objects at work, or objects you might find walking down the street. Or you can imagine you are in a technologically-oriented science museum, walking through the Smithsonian Institute, or browsing in an electronic store and make a list of 20 objects that you would likely see. Make two lists of 10 objects each on the left and right sides of the paper (See example below). Pick one from the left and combine it with one on the right. When you find a promising new combination, refine and elaborate it into a new invention.combo2

In the example, the illustrated combinations yielded the following ideas:

∙         Combining bagel with slicer yields a bagel slicer with plastic sides designed to hold the bagel and prevent rotation when slicing.

∙         Bathtub and hammock combines into a baby tub with a simple hammock in the  tub with a headrest to hold the baby’s head securely, leaving the parent’s hands free to do the washing.

∙         Sunglasses and windows combine to form the idea of tinted house windows,  like tinted sunglasses,  designed to change colors with ultraviolet light to help keep the house cool.

∙         Suntan lotion and insect repellent combines to form a new product— one lotion that protects against both the sun and insects.

You can also try the inverse heuristic to generate ideas, which states that if an object performs one function, a new artifact might be realized by combining it with an object that performs the opposite function. The claw hammer is a good example. So is a pencil with an eraser. Can you create new objects from the list of random objects by combining the object with something that performs the opposite function. How about a small cap for tightly sealing a soda can that could be attached to the lever of the pop-top device?

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Why are some people creative and others not?

why.2

The key question isn’t “Why are some people creative and others not?” It is why in God’s name isn’t everyone creative? Where and how was our potential lost? How was it crippled? Why does education inhibit creativity? Why can’t educators foster more creativity instead of less? Why is it that the more expert people become in their fields, the less creative and innovative they become? Why is it that people who know more create less, and people who know less create more? Why are people amazed when someone creates something new, as if it were a miracle?

We’ve been educated to process information based on what has happened in the past, what past thinkers thought, and what exists now. Once we think we know how to get the answer, based on what we have been taught, we stop thinking. The Spanish word for an “answer” is respuesta, and it has the same etymological root as response (responsory), the song people sing to the dead. It’s about what has no life anymore. In other words, when you think you know the answers, based on what has happened in the past, your thinking dies.

This is why, when most people use their imaginations to develop new ideas, those ideas are heavily structured in predictable ways by the properties of existing categories and concepts. Creative thinking requires the ability to generate a host of associations and connections between two or more dissimilar subjects, creating new categories and concepts. We have not been taught to process information this way.

CONCEPTUAL BLENDING

The key to creatively generating associations and connections between dissimilar subjects is conceptual blending. This is a creative-thinking process that involves blending two or more concepts in the same mental space to form new ideas.

Imagine, for a moment, that thought is water. When you are born, your mind is like a glass of water. Your thinking is inclusive, clear, and fluid. All thoughts intermingle and combine with each other and make all kinds of connections and associations. This is why children are spontaneously creative.

In school you are taught to define, label, and segregate what you learn into separate categories. The various categories are kept separate and not allowed to touch each other, much like ice cubes in a tray. Once something is learned and categorized, your thoughts about it become frozen. For example, once you learn what a can opener is, whenever someone mentions “can opener” you know exactly what it is.

You are taught, when confronted with a problem, to examine the ice cube tray and select the appropriate cube. Then you take the cube and put it in a glass, where your thinking heats and melts it. For example, if the problem is to “improve the can opener,” the glass will contain all you have learned about can openers, and nothing more. You are thinking exclusively, which is to say you are thinking only about what you have learned about the can opener. No matter how many times the water is stirred, you end up creating, at best, a marginal improvement.

ice cubes

Now if you take another cube (for example, vegetables) and put it in the same glass with the can-opener cube, your thinking will heat and melt both together into one fluid. Now when you stir the water, more associations and connections are made and the creative possibilities become immensely greater. The vegetable cube, once blended with the can-opener cube, might inspire you to think of how vegetables open in nature. For example, when pea pods ripen, a seam weakens and opens, freeing the peas. This might inspire you to come up with novel ideas. You could, for example, manufacture cans with a weak seam that can be pulled to open the can. You cannot get this kind of novel idea using your conventional way of thinking.

What happens when you think simultaneously, in the same mental space, about a showerhead and a telescope orbiting the earth? When the Hubble telescope was first launched into space, scientists were unable to focus it. It could be salvaged only by refocusing it using small, coin-shaped mirrors. The problem was how to deliver the mirrors and insert them precisely into the right location. The right location was in a light bundle behind the main mirror. The NASA experts who worked on the problem were not able to solve it, and the multi¬million dollar Hubble seemed doomed.

Electrical engineer James Crocker was attending a seminar in Germany when he found out about the problem. He worked on it all day. Tired, he stepped into the shower in his hotel room. The European-style shower included a showerhead on an arrangement of adjustable rods. While manipulating the showerhead, Crocker suddenly realized that similar articulated arms bearing coin-shaped mirrors could be extended into the light bundle from within a replacement axial instrument by remote control. Mentally blending the Hubble telescope and the showerhead created this remarkable solution.

Crocker was startled by his sudden realization of the solution that was immensely comprehensive and at the same time immensely detailed. As Crocker later said, “I could see the Hubble’s mirrors on the shower head.” The NASA experts could not solve the problem using their conventional linear way of thinking. Crocker solved it by thinking unconventionally — by forcing connections between two remotely different subjects.

Look at the following illustration of the square and circle. Both are separate entities.

2crcles. book

Now look at the extraordinary effect they have when blended together. We now have something mysterious, and it seems to move. You can get this effect only by blending the two dissimilar objects in the same space. The power of the effect is not contained in the circle or in the square, but in the combination of the two.

1circle.book

Creativity in all domains, including science, technology, medicine, the arts, and day-to-day living, emerges from the basic mental operation of conceptually blending dissimilar subjects. When analyzed, creative ideas are always new combinations of old ideas. A poet does not generally make up new words but instead puts together old words in a new way. The French poet Paul Valéry is quoted by mathematician Jacques Hadamard in Jacques Hadamard, A Universal Mathematician, by T. O. Shaposhnikova, as saying, “It takes two to invent anything. The one makes up combinations; the other one chooses, recognizes what he wishes and what is important to him in the mass of the things which the former has imparted to him.” Valéry related that when he wrote poetry he used two thinking strategies to invent something new. With one strategy, he would make up combinations; and with the other, he would choose what was important.

Consider Einstein’s theory of relativity. He did not invent the concepts of energy, mass, or speed of light. Rather, he combined these ideas in a new and useful way.

Think for a moment about a pinecone. What relationship does a pinecone have to the processes of reading and writing? In France in 1818, a nine-year-old boy accidentally blinded himself with a hole puncher while helping his father make horse harnesses. A few years later the boy was sitting in the yard thinking about his inability to read and write when a friend handed him a pinecone. He ran his fingers over the cone and noted the tiny differences between the scales. He conceptually blended the feel of different pinecone scales with reading and writing and realized he could create an alphabet of raised dots on paper so the blind could feel and read what was written with it. In this way Louis Braille opened up a whole new world for the blind.

Braille made a creative connection between a pinecone and reading. When you make a connection between two unrelated subjects, your imagination will leap to fill the gaps and form a whole in order to make sense of it. Suppose you are watching a mime impersonating a man taking his dog out for a walk. The mime’s arm is outstretched as though holding the dog’s leash. As the mime’s arm is jerked back and forth, you “see” the dog straining at the leash to sniff this or that. The dog and the leash become the most real part of the scene, even though there is no dog or leash. In the same way, when you make connections between your subject and something that is totally unrelated, your imagination fills in the gaps to create new ideas. It is this willingness to use your imagination to fill in the gaps that produces the unpredictable idea. This is why Einstein claimed that imagination is more important than knowledge.

Just as conceptual blending allows information to intermingle in the mind of the individual, when people swap thoughts with others from different fields this creates new, exciting thinking patterns for both. As Brian Arthur argues in his book The Nature of Technology, nearly all technologies result from combinations of other technologies, and new ideas often come from people from different fields combining their thoughts and things. One example is the camera pill, invented after a conversation between a gastroenterologist and a guided-missile designer.

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