Archive for the ‘education’ Category



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.

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.

Leonardo da Vinci described how he got his ideas in his notebooks. He wrote that the human brain cannot simultaneously concentrate on two separate objects or ideas, no matter how dissimilar, no matter how remote, without eventually forming a connection between them. This conceptual combining of dissimilar subjects is what provoked him to imagine his many incredible insights, ideas and inventions during his lifetime. Crocker used the same process to solve the Hubble problem.

As another example, Leonardo combined the movement of water with the movement of human hair in open, becoming the first person to illustrate in extraordinary detail the many invisible subtleties of water in motion. His observa­tions led to the discovery of a fact of nature that came to be called the “law of continuity.’ He was the first person in history to appreciate how air and water were blended together. “In all cases of movement,’ he wrote, “water has great conformity with air.”

The same process can help you to get the ideas you need in the business world. James Lavoie and Joseph Marino, cofounders of Rite-Solutions, did just that when they needed an employee-suggestion system that could harvest ideas from everyone in the company, including engineers, accountants, salespeople, marketing people, and all administrative staff. They wanted a process that would get their employees to invest time, energy and brainpower in the company.

The word invest encouraged them to think of the various ways and methods people use to invest. One association was investing in the stock market. Then the idea of using ideas as stocks caught their interest. They decided to combine the architecture of the New York Stock Exchange with an in-house ideas suggestion system. In other words, a stock exchange of ideas.

The company’s internal exchange is called Mutual Fun. In this private exchange, any employee can offer a proposal to create a new product or spin-off, to solve a problem, to acquire new technologies or companies, and so on. These proposals become stocks and are given ticker symbols identifying the proposals.

Fifty-five stocks are listed on the company’s internal stock exchange. Each stock comes with a detailed description — called an expect-us, as opposed to a prospectus — and begins trading at a price of $10. Every employee gets $10,000 in ‘opinion money’ to allocate among the offerings, and employees signal their enthusiasm by investing in a stock or volunteering to work on the project.”

The result has been a resounding success. Among the company’s core technologies are pattern-recognition algorithms used in military applications, as well as for electronic gambling systems at casinos. An administrative employee with no technical expertise was fascinated with one of the company’s existing technologies and spent time think­ing about other ways it could be used. One pathway she explored was education. She proposed that this technology could be used in schools to create an entertaining way for students to learn history or math. She started a stock called Win/Play/Learn (symbol: WPL), which attracted a lot of attention from the company’s engineers. They enthusiasti­cally bought her stock and volunteered to work on the idea to turn it into a viable new product, which they did.

A brilliant idea from an unlikely source was made possible by the new employee-suggestion system. Just as Isaac Newton got his insight by combining images of a falling apple and the moon, this corporation created an innovative employee-suggestion system by blending the concepts of the New York Stock Exchange and employee suggestions.


If you always think the way you’ve always thought, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. The same old ideas. Learn the creative thinking techniques used by creative geniuses throughout history to get the original ideas you need that you can’t get using your usual way of thinking.









wright brothers

 The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, 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.

Samuel Pierpont Langley, was the leading government funded scientist because of his education and engineering experience. Langley and his assistants studied the problem of flight, consulted with experts around the world, researched the field comprehensively and finally produced the blueprint of his airplane. He bought the finest material and hired the best available craftsmen to build his airplane. Finally on December 8, 1903 with much attention and fanfare from the national media and politicians he launched his flying machine on the Potomac.  It plummeted directly into the river. It was a colossal failure.

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? It was because Langley thought reproductively and only considered what great thinkers thought about how to manufacture a manmade machine that would fly. They had hired experts to execute his theoretical concepts without going a series of trial 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 that produced unintended results. They recorded and studied these unintended results 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.

The lesson the Wright brothers taught me was to create by acting, by doing, by going through the motions and discovering what doesn’t work and what does through trial and error. Langley, on the other hand, had been educated to think critically and judgmentally and to avoid failure at all cost. He imagined strong reasons for inaction until, in his mind, it was not possible to fail. Consequently, he spent a fortune on study and months of planning and designing his prototype before he made an attempt.

The Wright brothers did not believe that failure was something to be avoided at all costs. They embraced failure as a way to succeed.  Whenever they attempted to do something and failed, they ended up doing something else. They realized that you cannot fail, you can only produce results. What counted was what you did with the results. Rather than judging some result as a failure, ask “Why did it not work as I thought it should?” “What have I learned about what doesn’t work?”, “Can this explain something that I didn’t set out to explain?”, “What can I do with these results?”, and “What have I discovered that I didn’t set out to discover?” Answering these questions about their results is what gave the Wrights the creative insights they needed to succeed. It is the same with everything in life.

Before we are educated, our nature was to act spontaneously and produce results without fear.  As an infant, you learned how to walk by trial and error. The first time you made the effort you fell down and returned to crawling. You ignored your fears about falling and learned from the results you had produced. You stood up again and again and fell again and again. Eventually you stood with a wobble and then another fall. Finally, you walked upright. Suppose as infants we had learned to fear failure and avoid mistakes before attempting to walk. Many of us would still be crawling around on all fours.

Michael Michalko is a highly-acclaimed creativity expert and author of the best-seller Thinkertoys (A Handbook of Business Creativity), ThinkPak (A Brainstorming Card Deck),  Cracking Creativity (The Secrets of Creative Genius), and Creative Thinkering (Putting your Imagination to Work).




Grey dots intersection

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

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.

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.

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 am stonewalled this is one of the most useful techniques I use to tap into my subconscious mind. I write a letter to my subconscious mind.


  • 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 it a more personal experience by giving your subconscious a name. I named mine simply “Brain.”
  • Dear Brain…………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.

Here is an example of this letter 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. He even recorded the fragments of his dreams that he remembered when waking even though they were unrelated to his problem. One of the dreams involved kangaroos carrying their babies in their pouches.

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.


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.


Scratch a Genius and You Surprise a Child

By Michael Michalko


The childlike joy creative geniuses experience in life.

One commonality that Pablo Picasso shares with other creative geniuses, according to biographical accounts, is that they all have a “childlike” way of seeing familiar things as if for the first time. Creative geniuses love what they do, and this love can be described as a childlike delight in painting, or composing, or searching for a grand new theory of nature. You can compare the experience of the kind of joy that geniuses and children have with that of visiting a foreign country. You experience everything globally because so much is unfamiliar and exciting. Even the most mundane details are new and exciting. For a child and creative geniuses, every day is like going to Paris for the first time.

“Each second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that will never be again”….. Pablo Picasso

David Douglas Duncan, world famous photographer, is known for his photographs of Pablo Picasso which he eventually published in seven books. He became a close friend of Picasso and observed him at painting and larking around. Picasso, Duncan observed, was like a child — joyful to be alive. Sometimes he would wear a cowboy hat Gary Cooper gave him and pretend to be a cowboy, or would walk around scaring people wearing a grotesque mask he made. He was always having fun, but it was all for his own amusement. One day, he surprised Pablo in his studio where Picasso was square dancing in front of his painting and then pirouetting like a ballerina with a huge grin.

“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”… Pablo Picasso

Picasso’s creative mindset came from exploring, seeking, discovering, questioning, changing, and the doing. He paid attention to everything. His friends tell of being a guest at his table, reporting his gregarious, outgoing personality, his vivid wit, his animated conversation, but most of all, the attention paid to everyone and everything. As he ate, he would gaze at various objects around him, in effect, devouring them along with dinner. At such times, guests were quickly aware that Picasso was not seeing things about him as they did, but “digesting” them, creating images and relationships within his mind that might later come to rest on canvas, in the form of painted sketches.

Children have the capacity for learning and transforming and changing what they think about their experiences and for imagining other ways that the world could be. A movie, “The Mystery of Picasso,” exhibited Picasso at work. He started at an arbitrary point and painted a flower, transformed it into a fish, then into a chicken, switching back and forth from black and white to color, he then refashioned the composition into a cat surrounded on the side by human beings.

“Everything you can imagine is real.”… Pablo Picasso

He was constantly “present” in his everyday life and, like a child, saw the hidden beauty of the world by not analyzing, labeling and judging the people and things in his environment. This might sound strange but in the moments when you are “present” the ordinary world becomes more interesting and wonderful. Colors can seem brighter. You see more aliveness in trees, nature and in people. You see the wonder of being alive. Things that most often seem common, routine and boring become fascinating and something you can appreciate.

Picasso would go for aimless color walks through the forest admiring the colors in nature. He would fill his mind and imagination with colors and their various relationships. Once he said he was observing the color green in all its different variations until, as he put it, got green indigestion. When that happened, he had to unload his feelings and visions into his painting. His incredible artistic production is a product of this prodigious capacity for continual refilling and emptying.

“Why do two colors, put one next to the other, sing? Can one really explain this?”…. Pablo Picasso

First get in touch with the child in you. Take a few moments, relax yourself as deeply as you can, and perform the following exercise:

(1) Close your eyes and relax.

(2) What is the youngest age you remember being? Suppose it is seven years old.

(3) Regress yourself back to that age in phases. If you are 30 years of age, go back in time, skipping some years. E. g., 29, 25, 23, 17, 15, 12, 10, 7.

(4) Allow each phase to make its impression on your mind before going further back to your selected age. Allow your memory to deepen as you go back in time. Give yourself time to allow remembrances to come forth. Relax and enjoy your trip back in time.

(5) When you arrive at your age, reconstruct the details of that age as much as possible. Experience again the Christmas, July fourth, birthdays, vacations, friends, teachers, and school terms you experienced when you were 7. Feel as if you are back in time. Deepen the experience as much as you can. Remember “being in school” instead of “remembering being in school.” Remember “playing with your best friend,” instead of “remembering playing with your best friend,” remember being in the woods on a bright day.

Put aside one hour and take a color walk. Do not bring a cell phone, journal, camera, or iPod. Do not plan your walk in advance or combine it with other activities. Avoid talking and interacting with other people during your color walk. You can begin your color walk anywhere. Let color be your guide. Allow your seven-year old self to become sensitized to the color in your surroundings. What are the colors that you become aware of first? What are the colors that reveal themselves more slowly? What colors do you observe that you did not expect? What color relationships do you notice? Do colors appear to change over time? Do the visual details and arrangements mean anything? As you walk, try to imagine what different colors mean, what can we learn from them, how can you play with colors?

Too much time and experience thinking in a certain way is uncongenial to creativity. The mind becomes so set and so organized that we seem to lose the ability to create new ideas or even to recognize ideas developed by others. This is why activities like “color walk” help us become playfully aware of our environment and the miracles of life. All you need do is suspend your ordinary way of interpreting your surroundings and temporarily discover new ways of thinking about what you perceive. It will boost your ability to come up with creative new ideas. This is one way Picasso cultivated his perceptual abilities. For example, as a school boy, he treated numbers as visual patterns rather than substitutes for quantities. For instance, he would refer to the number “2” as folded pigeon wings and an “0” as an owl’s eye.

Scratch a genius and you will surprise a child. Like children, they discover ways to make things still feel fresh. When you become playfully aware, you are observing your world with more clarity and curiousness. Following is an exercise to give a different way to think about words.

WHAT DOES YOUR COMPUTER TASTE LIKE? 2000 people have synaesthesia which is an extraordinary condition in which the five senses intermingle. Some see colors and patterns when they hear music or words. Some perceive words, letters, and numbers as distinct colors. There is even a case of one man who tastes spoken words. The flavors are very specific……orange, mince, apricots, tomato soup, turkey, muddy water and even ear wax. Creativity tastes like grilled cheese to me. Don’t know why or even if why matters….but a definite grilled cheese flavor.

What word would taste like tomato soup?

What word would taste like mashed potatoes?

What would the word government taste like?

What flavor best represents your attitude toward corruption?

What occupation would taste like ear wax?

What does death taste like?

What does an elevator taste like?  In many office buildings, most people entering an elevator hardly make eye contact with one another, so the idea of licking the elevator walls together seems completely far-fetched. A new art installation in London begs to differ. Taking inspiration from Willy Wonka, chef Heston Blumenthal, and artist Damien Hirst created Spot of Jaffa. The project took a team of food technicians and artists four weeks to develop with the hope of encouraging some much needed sweet stress relief.

The elevator wallpaper consists of 1,325 Jaffa Cake-flavored stickers which are removed and replaced once licked. Once a Jaffa Cake flavored spot is licked, the spot is removed by a lift attendant who is in the lift the whole time staff have access. From a brand perspective, Jaffa’s intentions are to bring a bit more fun and joy into the lives of overworked office workers.

“I begin with an idea and then it becomes something else.”…. Pablo Picasso …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………:

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






We automatically interpret all of our experiences without realizing it. Are they good experiences, bad ones, what do they mean and so on? We do this without much thought, if any, to what the interpretations mean. For instance, if someone bumps into you, you wonder why. The event of her bumping into you is neutral in itself. It has no meaning. It’s your interpretation of the bumping that gives it meaning, and this meaning shapes your perception of the experience.

You may interpret the “bump” as rude behavior. You may interpret her as being deliberately aggressive, or you may feel you are of such little consequence that you’re deliberately unnoticed and bumped around by others. Or you may choose to use the experience as an example of feminist aggression, or you may interpret the bump as her way of flirting with you. Your interpretation of the experience determines your perception.

We are each given a set of experiences in life. The experiences are neutral. They have no meaning. It is how we interpret the experiences that give them meaning. The interpretations of experiences shape your beliefs and theories about the world. Your beliefs and theories, in turn, decide what you observe in the world to confirm your beliefs which, in turn, reinforce your interpretations.

You Give Your Experiences Meaning

Think for a moment about Abraham Lincoln who is considered by many the greatest president in the history of the U.S.  He could not choose his parents, the immediate circumstances of his upbringing, or the historical epoch of his birth.

Modern day psychologists would label his parents as dysfunctional and abusive. He was mocked and ridiculed by his school classmates for the way he looked and dressed. At age 22, he failed in business, he ran for the state legislature and was defeated, and he tried to start another business and failed again. At age 26, he was rejected by a woman he loved and had a nervous breakdown. At age 33, he married a woman who was found to be mentally unstable, and once more was defeated for Congress. At age 37, he was finally elected to Congress but at age 39 he was once again defeated. He subsequently campaigned for and was defeated for the senate, vice presidency, and again for the senate. At age 51 he was elected president of the U.S.

Lincoln was not born with a positive “can do” attitude. On the contrary, his life is testimony that a positive attitude toward one’s experiences takes considerable effort and practice. Lincoln learned to expect difficulties, and, so was not traumatized and defeated when faced with problems but viewed them as part of the natural course of events. Lincoln learned the harder one works to sustain a positive interpretation, the more one appreciates life.

Lincoln did not choose his experiences of failure and defeat, but he did choose how to respond. He realized that he was not reacting to an event but to how he interpreted the event. His life is testimony to the uniquely human potential to turn defeats into triumphs and to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. For those events that were not up to him, it was his own attitude that determined their influence on him. When he was no longer able to change a situation, he changed himself.


There is an old parable about a boy who was so discouraged with failing in school he told his grandfather he wanted to quit. His grandfather filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Soon the pots came to a boil. In the first, he placed carrots, in the second he placed eggs and the last he placed ground coffee beans. He let them sit and boil, without saying a word. In about twenty minutes he turned off the burners. He fished the carrots out and placed them in a bowl. He pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. Then he ladled the coffee out into a cup. Turning to the boy, he asked, “Tell me, what do you see?” “Carrots, eggs, and coffee,” the boy replied. Then he asked the boy to feel the carrots, which he did and noted that they were soft and mushy. His grandfather then asked him to take an egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, the boy observed the hard-boiled egg. Finally, he asked the boy to sip the coffee. He smiled as he tasted the coffee with its rich aroma. The boy asked, “I don’t understand. What does this mean, if anything?”

His grandfather laughed and explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity–boiling water–but each had reacted differently. “Which are you?” the grandfather asked. “When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a carrot that seems strong, but with pain and adversity, becomes soft and loses strength? Are you the egg that appears not to change but whose heart is hardened? Or are you the coffee bean that changes the hot water, the very circumstance that brings the pain. When the water gets hot, it releases the fragrance and flavor. If you are like the bean, when things are at their worst, your very attitude will change your environment for the better, making it sweet and palatable.”

His lesson was that in life when you can’t change the circumstances, change yourself.


Michael Michalko is a creative thinking expert and author of books about the creative thinking strategies and techniques used  by creative geniuses throughout history.





 As an infant, you learned how to walk by trial and error. The first time you made the effort you fell down and returned to crawling. You ignored your fears about falling and the results you had produced. You stood up again and again and fell again and again. Eventually you stood with a wobble and then another fall. Finally, you walked upright. Suppose as infants we had learned to fear failure. Many of us would still be crawling around on all fours.

It is the same with everything in life. Our nature is to act and produce results without fear. Yet, because, we have been educated to think critically and judgmentally, we imagine strong reasons for inaction and then allow it to become our reality, even before we make an attempt. Our fear is supported by an illusion that it is possible to fail, and that failure means we are worthless.

The reality is that there is no such thing as failure. Whenever we attempt to do something and fail, we end up doing something else. You cannot fail, you can only produce results. Rather than judging some result as a failure, ask “What have I learned about what doesn’t work?”, “Can this explain something that I didn’t set out to explain?”, “What can I do with these results?”, and “What have I discovered that I didn’t set out to discover?”

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? It was because Langley hired experts to execute his theoretical concepts without going a series of trial 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. 

It is a paradox of life that you have to learn to fail in order to succeed. Henry Ford’s first two automobile companies failed. What he learned from his failures led him to be the first to apply assembly line manufacturing to the production of affordable automobiles in the world. He became one of the three most famous and richest men in the world during his time.

When Thomas Edison was seeking to invent the electric light bulb, he had thousands of failures. He would record the results, make adjustments and try again. It took him approximately 10,000 experiments to invent the perfect set-up for the electric light bulb. Once an assistant asked him why he persisted after so many failures. Edison responded by saying he had not failed once. He had learned 10,000 things that didn’t work. There was no such thing as a failure in Edison’s mind.

When you try something and produce a result that is not what you intended but that you find interesting, drop everything else and study it. B. F. Skinner emphasized this as a first principle of scientific methodology. This is what William Shockley and a multi-discipline Bell labs team did. They were formed to invent the MOS transistor and ended up instead with the junction transistor and the new science of semiconductor physics. These developments eventually led to the MOS transistor and then to the integrated circuit and to new breakthroughs in electronics and computers. William Shockley described it as a process of “creative failure methodology.”

Answering the questions about discoveries from failures in a novel, unexpected way is the essential creative act. It is not luck but creative insight of the highest order. A DuPont chemist Roy Plunkett set out to invent a new refrigerant. Instead, he created a glob of white waxy material that conducted heat and did not stick to surfaces. Fascinated by this “unexpected” material, he abandoned his original line of research and experimented with this interesting material, which eventually became known by its household name, “Teflon.”

The discovery of the electromagnetic laws was also a “failed” experiment. The relationship between electricity and magnetism was first observed in 1820 by Oersted in a public lecture at which he was demonstrating the “well known fact” that electricity and magnetism were completely independent phenomena. This time the experiment failed! – an electric current produced a magnetic effect. Oersted was observant enough to notice this effect, honest enough to admit it, and diligent enough to follow up and publish. Maxwell used these experiments to extend Isaac Newton’s methods of modeling and mathematical analysis in the mechanical and visible world to the invisible world of electricity and magnetism and derived Maxwell’s Laws which opened the doors to our modern age of electricity and electronics.

If you just look at a zero you see nothing; but if you pick it up and look through it you will see the world. It is the same with failure. If you look at something as failure, you learn nothing; but look at it as your teacher and you will learn the value of knowing what doesn’t work, learning something new, and the joy of discovering the unexpected.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………Learn more about how to get ideas by reading Michael Michalko’s book Cracking Creativity: Secrets of Creative Genius.





Once we have settled on a perspective, we close off but one line of thought. Certain kinds of ideas occur to us, but only those kinds and no others. What if the crippled man who invented the motorized cart had defined his problem as: “How to occupy my time while lying in bed?” rather than “How to get out of bed and move around the house?”

Leonardo Da Vinci believed that to gain knowledge about the form of problems, you began by approaching the problem on its own terms. He felt the first way he looked at a problem was too biased toward his usual way of seeing things. He would restructure his problem by looking at it from one perspective and move to another perspective and still another. With each move, his understanding would deepen and he would begin to understand the essence of the problem. Da Vinci discovered that genius often comes from finding a new perspective that no one else has taken.


By now most everyone has been challenged with the nine dot puzzle. If this is the first time you have seen it, spend a few minutes solving it before you read further. The challenge is to draw no more than four straight lines which will cross through all nine dots without lifting your hand from the paper.

nine dot














The first time a person tries to solve this puzzle they are stymied. This is because of our perception of the arrangement of the dots as a box or square. Once perceived as a box, most people will not exceed the imaginary boundaries of the imaginary box and are unable to solve the puzzle.

There is nothing in the challenge statement that defines the arrangement as a box and nothing demands the line must be drawn within the box, but people who make that assumption find the puzzle impossible.  The answer, as I’m sure you all now know by now, involves drawing a line that go beyond the limitations of the imagined box.  This is where the cliché “Think out of the box” comes from. To solve it, you have to start the line outside of the imaginary box.


The nine-dot puzzle was popularized by William North Jayme, a direct-mail copywriter who was hired by Esquire magazine in 1958 which wanted to abandon its unwholesome image for a more sophisticated one. Mr. Jayme came up with the ”puzzle letter”: an envelope with nine dots on it and a challenge to the recipient to connect them using no more than four uninterrupted lines. The enclosed letter showed that to do so, one had to go outside the box. Or, in other words, you had to break normal thinking patterns, something that the new Esquire said it could help modern men do. The letter was a phenomenal success, Esquire’s image was changed overnight and the subscriptions poured in.

Over time the puzzle became synonymous with creative thinking and the phrase “thinking outside the box” has now become a cliché for creativity. A cliché because the puzzle has become commonplace and most people remember the solution from their past experience with it. When the brain recognizes the pattern and we solve the problem it seems like a new insight has been sparked.

However when asked to search for other ways to solve the puzzle, the rationalizations begin. We think “If I can’t see it right away, it either isn’t there or not worth finding.” Apparently, if we think “outside the box” once, we are done and our thinking is done. Surrendering to this rationalization limits our thinking, our creativity, and our ability to apply ideas and skills to novel situations.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE AVERAGE PERSON AND THE CREATIVE GENIUS. Albert Einstein was once asked what the difference was between him and the average person. He said that if you asked the average person to find a needle in the haystack, the person would stop when he or she found a needle. He, on the other hand, would tear through the entire haystack looking for all the possible needles. With creative thinking, one generates as many alternative approaches as one can.

Most of us have been educated to think exclusively which means we think in deficit by focusing our attention on specific information and excluding all else.  In these instances, exclusive thinking leads us to neglect potentially important pieces of the puzzle. Exclusive thinking doesn’t merely inhibit irrelevant facts and perceptions it can also smother the imagination.

Creative thinking is inclusive thinking. You consider the least obvious as well as the most likely approaches, and you look for different ways to look at the problem. It is the willingness to explore all approaches that is important, even after one has found a promising one.

THERE IS NO ONE RIGHT ANSWER. To begin with, the original “Think Outside the Box” solution was just one way to solve the puzzle. 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.

Experimental psychologists like to tell a story about a professor who investigated the ability of chimpanzees to solve problems. A banana was suspended from the center of the ceiling, at a height that the chimp could not reach by jumping. The room was bare of all objects except several packing crates placed around the room at random. The test was to see whether you could teach the chimp to stack the crates and make them into steps to reach the banana.

The chimp sat quietly in a corner, watching the psychologist arrange the crates into steps and then distributed them randomly again. The chimp understood and performed the task. The professor invited his associates to watch the chimp conceptualize and build the steps to the banana. The chimp waited patiently until the professor crossed the middle of the room. When he was directly below the fruit, the chimp suddenly jumped on his shoulder, then leaped into the air and grabbed the banana.

Though the chimp had learned how to build steps out of boxes, when another more direct easier alternative presented itself the chimp did not hesitate. The chimp learned how to solve the problem but instinctively kept an open mind to other more effective solutions. In other words, building steps was just one of many ways to reach the banana. Humans, on the other hand, once we learn something or are taught to do something a particular way by someone in authority (teacher, boss, etc.), seem to keep repeating the one method we know — excluding all else from our thought.


APPROACH THE PROBLEM ON ITS OWN TERMS. Approaching the puzzle and framing it with this wording “In what ways might I connect all nine dots with a continuous line without lifting my hand from the paper?” The phrase (“In what ways might I ….?”) is commonly used as an invitational stem by creative thinkers to shape their conscious and subconscious minds to actively search for alternatives.

Looking at the puzzle from this perspective gets you thinking about the number of lines, the lengths of the lines, the width of the lines, the box of dots, the size of the box and positions of the dots.

For instance, there is no requirement that you must use four consecutive straight lines. The puzzle states no more than four straight lines. Why not three, two or even one line? When linking things such as dots we are used to linking the centers and our first attempts are to draw lines through the centers of the dots. This is another false assumption based on past experiences. After a period of trials and errors we discover we can link the dots by having the line just touch the dots as illustrated.


GET RID OF THE BOX. Now, let’s look at from the perspective of the way the dots are arranged. There is nothing that prohibits us from rearranging the dots, so another solution is to cut out the dots and tape them into one straight row and draw one line straight through.


WHAT IS THE ESSENCE?  Over time we have cultivated an attitude which puts the major emphasis on separating human experience into different domains and universes. We’ve been tacitly taught that perception is the activity of dividing a complex scene into its separate parts followed by the activity of attaching standard labels to the parts. For example, in our nine-dot puzzle we tend to think of pre-established categories such as “dots must be in a box, the line must go through the center of the dots, there must be four lines, the line must be made with a pencil or pen, the size of the dots cannot be changed, the paper cannot be changed in any way, and so on.” This kind of thinking is exclusive. Its goal is to separate and exclude elements from thought based upon what exists now. The goal of exclusive thinking is to limit possibilities to the obvious. It discourages creative thought.

Creative thinkers are inclusive thinkers which means they think in terms of essences and principles. They then look in other domains for examples of these essences and then try to make metaphorical-analogical connections between their subject and something dissimilar. The essence of this problem is “connecting.” This motivates creative thinkers to look in other domains to see how things are connected. How does an artist connect different shapes? How does a painter connect unpainted boards? How wide can you make a connection? How long? What instruments can be used to connect things? What substances can be used lines?

Most people assume you must use a pencil or pen and draw a normal-sized line because of their past experiences. But there is nothing in the challenge statement that prohibits the person from using an alternative instrument and substance.  In the domain of house painting the painting connects unpainted boards with paint. One solution is to use a wide paint brush, dip it in paint and connect all nine dots with one straight continuous wide swipe of paint. You have now connected all nine dots with one line.

PAINT BRUSH SOLUTION                                                  

IMAGINATION.  Creative thinkers consider imagination to be more important than knowledge. One way a creative thinker would approach the problem is to ask “What is impossible to do with a line, but if it were possible would change the nature of the problem forever?”

There is no limit on how long you can draw a straight line. So, another solution is to imagine drawing the line around the world three times intersecting and linking up all nine dots.


This, of course, is impossible to do.  But it is not impossible to imagine. 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. In the nine dot puzzle we take the impossible solution of going around the world three times and imaginer this idea into a solution that is realistic and practical as illustrated.

Imagineering  means you take an impossible or fantastical idea and engineer it into something realistic and feasible. How can I make this happen? What are the features and aspects of the idea? Can I build ideas from the features or aspects? What is the essence of the idea? Can I extract the principle of the idea? Can I make analogical-metaphorical connections with the principle and something dissimilar to create something tangible?

In this case, we take the principle of going around the world and create a mini-world by rolling the paper up into a cylinder and then rotating a pencil around it connecting all nine dots.


An alternative solution is to place the paper with the dots on the center of a turntable and replace the needle at the tip of the recording arm with a tiny pen. Turn on the turntable and the pen will draw a line through all nine dots.


TAKE IT APART. The average person has been inculcated with a functional fixedness mindset, which is a movement in psychology that emphasizes holistic processing where the whole is seen as being separate from the sum of its parts. Functional fixedness can be defined as mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem. This block then limits that ability of an individual to use the components given to them to make a specific item, as they cannot move past the original intention of the object.

When creative thinkers embrace a subject, they see the whole but would move from one detail to another and examine each separately. By mentally taking the subject apart they are able to break out of his stereotypical notion of a subject as a continuous whole and to discover new relationships and ways to use the items that are available to them at the givens.

The dots and the paper that dots are drawn on are two of the major components of the puzzle. Paper can be rearranged into new forms by folding. Taking the puzzle apart by folding the paper as shown below enables you to discover new relationships between the dots and ways to fold the paper until the dots are arranged in a row. Now simply draw a straight line through the dots.


Once observed and accepted, thoughts become loose and move freely around in your mind. The more work you put into thinking about a problem, the more thoughts and bits of information you set in random motion combining and recombining into different combinations and associations. These thoughts breed intuitive guesses and hunches. Previous solutions of rearranging the dots into one straight line sparks the idea of cutting out the dots, arranging them in a stack and then punching a pencil through the center of the dots linking all nine dots.


The more ideas you generate, the more connections you make. These connections and their associated ideas often spark new ideas and new questions. The creative mind synthesizes all that is created and goes beyond them to create more creative products. For example, the above idea of stabbing a pencil through the cut our dots triggers another idea. That is to rumple up the puzzle into a small wad of paper and punch a pencil through the wad. You may have to do this several times, but probability being what it is sooner or later, you will punch the pencil through the dots linking them together.


In genius, there is a patience for the odd and the unusual avenues of thought. This intellectual tolerance for the unpredictable allows geniuses to bring side by side what others had never sought to connect. 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).

Even the “Many worlds” interpretation which is espoused by some physicists, including Stephen Hawkins is based on Einstein’s fantasy of a world where time has three dimensions, instead of one, where every moment branches into three futures. Einstein summarized value of using your imagination to fantasize best when he said “The gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”

In genius, there is a patience for the odd and the unusual avenues of thought. This intellectual tolerance for the unpredictable allows geniuses to bring side by side what others had never sought to connect. An unusual and imaginative solution is to widen the dots with a pencil so that each dot touches the adjacent dots?  Now the nine dots are linked together with no lines.


The playful openness of creative geniuses is what allows them to explore unthinkable ideas. Once Wolfgang Pauli, the discoverer of electron spin, was presenting a new theory of elementary particles before a professional audience. An extended discussion followed. Niels Bohr summarized it for Pauli’s benefit by saying that everyone had agreed his theory was crazy. The question that divided them, he claimed, was whether it was crazy enough to have a chance of being correct. Bohr said his own feeling was that it wasn’t crazy enough.

Logic hides in Bohr’s illogic. In genius, there is a tolerance for unpredictable avenues of thought. The result of unpredictable thinking may be just what is needed to shift the context and lead to a new perspective.

Another unusual solution is to light a match and burn the paper with the puzzle into a pile of ashes. Then carefully form the ashes into one straight line.

MATCH Within a short time, we came up with a quantity of solutions because we approached the problem on its own terms, looked at the problem from several different perspectives, did not settle for the first good idea, did not censor ideas because they looked silly or stupid and consequently created several ideas, thought unconventionally, changed the way we looked at the puzzle, worked with the essence of the problem, thought discontinuously and used our imagination.


Creative thinking expert and author, Michael Michalko