Archive for the ‘education’ Category

How to Find What You’re Not Looking for


Frog or horse?

Be prepared for the chance or accidental discovery when brainstorming for ideas.

Whenever we attempt to do something and fail, we end up doing something else. As simplistic as this statement may seem, it is the first principle of creative accident. We may ask ourselves why we have failed to do what we intended, and this is the reasonable, expected thing to do. But the creative accident provokes a different question: What have we done? Answering that question in a novel, unexpected way is the essential creative act. It is not luck but creative insight of the highest order.

Even when people set out to act purposefully and rationally to do something, they wind up doing things they did not intend. John Wesley Hyatt, an Albany printer and mechanic, worked long and hard trying to find a substitute for billiard-ball ivory, then coming into short supply. He invented, instead, celluloid— the first commercially successful plastic.

B.F. Skinner advised people that when you are working on something and find something interesting, drop everything else and study it. In fact, he 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.”

Richard Feynman, a Nobel Laureate physicist, had an interesting practical test that he applied when reaching a judgment about a new idea: for example, did it explain something unrelated to the original problem. E.g., “What can you explain that you didn’t set out to explain?”and, “What did you discover that you didn’t set out to discover?” In 1938, 27 year old 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.”

In principle, the unexpected event that gives rise to a creative invention is not all that different from the unexpected automobile breakdown that forces us to spend a night in a new and interesting town, the book sent to us in error that excites our imagination, or the closed restaurant that forces us to explore a different cuisine. But when looking for ideas or creative solutions, many of us ignore the unexpected and, consequently, loose the opportunity to turn chance into a creative opportunity.

Years back, 3M invented a new adhesive for industry. No industry was interested and management ordered an engineer to burn the samples. The engineer, instead, thought the adhesive had “interesting” aspects and took some samples home. He observed his teenage daughters setting their hair with it and using the adhesive in various other ways around the home. He went to management and convinced them that what they had was a consumer product, not an industrial one. 3M manufactured and marketed it as Scotch Tape.

You have to give yourself the freedom to see what you are not looking for. In 1839, Charles Goodyear was looking for a way to make rubber easier to work and accidentally spilled a mixture that hardened but was still useable. By allowing himself to go in an unanticipated direction, he invented a practical vulcanization process. By focusing on the “interesting” aspects of the idea, he discovered it’s potential.
PMI. To explore a subject with our intellect, we need to “will” ourselves to direct our attention in a different way. A tool to help you achieve this is the PMI. The PMI is an attention-directing tool that was first introduced by Edward de Bono, an international authority on thinking. It is designed to deliberately direct your attention to all the positive, negative and interesting aspects about your subject. Carrying out a PMI is simple. What is not simple is to deliberately concentrate your attention in one direction after another when your emotions and prejudices have already decided how you should feel about your subject.

You need to “will” yourself to look in different directions. Once you have the “will” to do a PMI, then the natural challenge to your intelligence is to find as many positive, negative, and interesting points as you can. Instead of using intelligence to support your emotions and prejudices, you are now using it to explore the subject matter.
The guidelines for doing a PMI are:

  1. Make three columns on a sheet of paper. Title the columns “Plus,” “Minus,” and “Interesting.”
    2. Under the “Plus” column, list all the positive aspects about the subject that you can.
    3. Under the “Minus” column, list all the negative aspects that you can.
    4. Under the “Interesting” column, list all those things that are worth noting but do not fit under either “Plus” or “Minus.” The “Interesting” items helps us to react to the interest in an idea and not just to judgment feelings and emotions about the idea. “I do not like the idea but there are interesting aspects to it….”

With the PMI, you use your intelligence to explore the subject matter. At the end of the exploration, emotions and feelings can be used to make a decision about the matter. The difference is that the emotions are now applied after the exploration instead of being applied before and so preventing exploration. With a PMI, one of three things can happen:
•             You may decide that it is a viable idea.
•             You may  reject the idea as unsound.
•             You may move from the idea to another idea. By exploring the “positive” and “interesting” aspects of an idea, you may be able to recycle it into something else.
When you put down the P, M, and I points, you react to what you put down and your feelings change. Once a point has been thought and put down under any of the headings, that point cannot be “unthought,” and it will influence the final decision.

A while back, a group of designers brainstormed for a new umbrella design. One of the participants suggested a combination umbrella with holster. The holster would be worn on a person’s belt. A trigger mechanism in the umbrella handle would release the spring-loaded umbrella when unholstered.

The group thought this was a terrible idea because everyone would looked armed and dangerous.  They decided to do a PMI on the idea, and one of the interesting aspects they focused on was the idea of using the umbrella for protection. This triggered the idea of incorporating a stun gun in the umbrella. If attacked, one touches the attacker with the tip of the umbrella, pulls a trigger and renders the attacker helpless with a nonlethal shock.

By focusing on the “interesting” aspects of the umbrella idea, they provided themselves with material to look at what they might not have looked for. Just as a carefully designed experiment is an attempt to hurry along the path of logical investigation, so focusing on “interesting” aspects of subjects is an attempt to encourage the chance appearance of phenomena which would not have been sought out.

me.smallCreativity expert and author Michael Michalko




Before you read this article, take a moment and imagine all the things that the figure above might represent.

I have no doubt that you will come up with several fascinating ideas. However, once the figures are given names and meanings, it is almost impossible to look at them and have the same perception which existed before you knew what it was. The names and meanings fixate you along a certain line of thought.

If I had first described the figure as the rear view of a washerwoman on her hands and knees washing a floor, and then asked you to list alternative explanations, your list would be minimal and much less creative.

A great deal of our education may be regarded as the inculcation of mindsets. We were taught how to handle problems and new phenomena with fixed mental attitudes (based on what past thinkers thought) that pre-determine our response to problems or situations. Consequently, we tend to process information the same way over and over again instead of searching for alternative ways. Once we think we know what works or can be done, it becomes hard for us to consider alternative ideas. We tend to develop narrow ideas and stick with them until proven wrong.

Creative thinking requires the generation of alternative perspectives. One can always look at a system from different levels of abstraction to create different perspectives. A very fine-grained description of a beach would include every position of every grain of sand. Viewed from a higher vantage point, the details become smeared together, the grains become a smooth expanse of brown. At this level of description, different qualities emerge: the shape of the coastline, the height of the dunes, and so on.

In the 1950s, experts believed that the ocean-going freighter was dying. Costs were rising, and it took longer and longer to get merchandise delivered. The shipping industry experts built faster ships that required less fuel and downsized the crew. Costs still kept going up, but the industry kept focusing its efforts on reducing specific costs related to ships while at sea and doing work.

A ship is capital equipment and the biggest cost for the capital equipment is the cost of not working, because interest has to be paid without income being generated to pay for it. Finally, a consultant abstracted the essence of the problem to which is to“reduce costs.” This allowed them to consider all aspects of shipping, including loading and stowing. The innovation that saved the industry was to separate loading from stowing, by doing the loading on land, before the ship is in port. It is much quicker to put on and take off preloaded freight. The answer was the roll-on, roll-off ship and the container ship. Port time has been reduced by three quarters, and with it, congestion and theft. Freighter traffic has increased fivefold since this innovation and costs are down by over 60%.

Abstraction is one of the most basic principles used by creative geniuses to restructure problems so they could look at them in different ways. For instance, the standard procedure in physical science is to make observations or to collect systematic data and to derive principles and theories. Einstein despaired of creating new knowledge from already existing knowledge. How, he thought, can the conclusion go beyond the premises? So, he reversed this procedure and worked at a higher level of abstraction. This bold stance enabled him to creatively examine first principles (e.g., the constancy of speed of light independent of relative motion). The abstractions that others were not willing to accept because they could not be demonstrated by experimentation, Einstein took as his starting premise and simply reasoned from them.

Even Galileo used thought experiments to abstract to a possible world in which a vacuum exists. In this way, he could propose the astounding hypothesis that all objects fall through a vacuum with the same acceleration regardless of their weight. There were no laboratory vacuums large enough to demonstrate this spectacular idea until years after Galileo’s death. Today, this demonstration is standard fare in many science museums, where there are two evacuated columns in which a brick and feather released at the same moment fall side by side and hit the floor together.

Consider the incredible opportunity that the U.S. Postal Service and UPS both missed by failing to create an “overnight” delivery service. Their entire focus was on using established systems and theories to create the service. If, for instance, using the established system you want to connect one hundred markets with one another, and if you do it all with direct point-to-point deliveries, it will take one hundred times ninety-nine — or 9,900 — direct deliveries. They failed to look for alternative ideas and simply concluded that the cost was prohibitive. There was no way they could make it economically feasible.

It took an individual who looked at the problem in a different way to solve the problem. After a tour of duty with the Marines in Vietnam, Fred Smith returned home in 1971 to find that computers were becoming an indispensable part of doing business and delivery systems were not keeping up with the increased demand for speed and reliability when delivering computer parts. Fred abstracted the problem from delivery services to one of “movement.” How do things move?

He thought about how information is moved, and how banks move money around the world. Both information systems and banks, he discovered, put all points in a network and connect them through a central hub. He decided to create a delivery system — Federal Express, now known as FedEx — that operates essentially the way information and bank clearinghouses do. He realized that a hub-and-spoke network could create an enormous number of connections more efficiently than a point-to-point delivery system. The delivery system he conceived used both airplanes and trucks, which was unheard of at the time. His system was 100 times more efficient than existing systems at the time and was subsequently employed in, of course, all air cargo delivery systems in the airline industry.

Robert Dilts, an expert in Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), wrote about an enlightening experiment which was done by gestalt psychologists with a group of dogs in Anchor Point Magazine. The dogs were trained to approach something when shown a “white” square and avoid it when shown a “gray” square. When the dogs learned this, the experimenters switched to using a gray square and a black square. The dogs immediately shifted to approaching the object in response to the gray square (which had previously triggered avoidance), and avoiding the object when shown the black square (which had not been conditioned to anything). Rather than perceive the gray as an absolute stimulus, the dogs were responding to the deeper essence of “lighter versus darker” as opposed to gray, white or black being properties.

You can train a human to approach something when shown a “white” square and avoid it when shown a “gray” square. When the squares are switched to gray and black, the human will still avoid the “gray” square. Once gray has been defined in our minds, we see the gray as independent and entirely self-contained. This means nothing can interact with it or exert an influence on it. It, in fact, becomes an absolute. We have lost the sensitivity to deeper relationships, functions, and patterns because we are educated to focus on the particulars of experience as opposed to the universals. We see them as independent parts of an objective reality.

All of the experts in the Postal Service and UPS were unable to conceive of alternatives to what existed because they focused on the particulars of existing delivery systems. Fred Smith’s abstraction of the problem from delivery systems to “movement” allowed him to make the relationship between moving money to moving air freight.

Consider the example of George de Mestral, a Swiss inventor who wanted to improve the ordinary zipper. George was a creative thinker who always looked at problems with many different perspectives. When he studied the zipper, he decided the essence of a zipper is to fasten things. He thought how do things fasten in the world? He wondered how do windows fasten together, how does a bird fasten its nest to a branch, how do wasps fasten their hives, how do stamps fasten on letters, how do geckos fasten themselves to walls and so on). One day he took his dog for a nature hike. They both returned covered with burrs, the plant like seed-sacs that cling to animal fur in order to travel to fertile new planting grounds.

He made the “Aha” connection between burrs and zippers when he examined it to discover tiny hooks which enabled the seed-bearing burr to cling so viciously to the tiny loops in the fabric of his pants. The key feature of George de Mistrals’ thinking was his conceptual connection between patterns of a burr and patterns of a zipper.

George bounced back and forth among ideas guessing as to what works and what doesn’t. By “guessing,” what I mean is that he had to take different perspectives as to what aspects of “burr” and “zipper” patterns matter, and what doesn’t. Perhaps shapes count, but not textures–or vice versa. Perhaps orientation count, but not sizes–or vice versa. Perhaps curvature or its lack counts and so on until he got it. He invented a two-sided fastener (two-sided like a zipper), one side with stiff hooks like the burrs and the other side with soft loops like the fabric of his pants. He called his invention “Velcro,” which is itself a combination of the word velour and crochet.

When you are searching for ideas, try the technique of abstraction. Think about your subject and decide the universal principle or essence of the subject. Suppose, for example, you want to invent a new can opener: You might decide that the essence of a can opener is “opening things.” Then spend time thinking about how things open in different domains. In nature, for example, pea pods open by ripening. Ripening weakens the seams and the pea pod opens. This inspires the idea of “opening a can by pulling a weak seam (like a pea pod). Instead of an idea to improve the can opener, we produced an idea for a new can design. A can with a weak seam beneath the cover that the user pulls to remove the cover.

This is why if you want to produce something creative, say a creative design for a new automobile, don’t think of an automobile — at least not at first. There is much suggestive evidence that a process of accessing a more abstract definition of a problem can lead to greater creativity and innovation than the more typical ways.

This is the creative strategy of some of the world’s leading creative designers, including Kenton Wiens, architect Arthur Ericson, and Martin Skalski, director of the transportation design sequence at Pratt Institute. Skalski, for example, doesn’t tell students to design an automobile or study various automobile designs on the market. Instead, he begins the design process by having them draw abstract compositions of things in motion. Then by progressively making the process less abstract, he eventually has them working on the real problem (designing automobiles) tying in the connections between the abstract work and the final model.

Suppose you want to improve the design of the umbrella. If you work with the more abstract definition “protection from the rain,” you are more likely to explore more possibilities including raincoats or even a new type of town design where there are arcades everywhere and umbrellas are no longer required. Or, consider the bookstore owner, for example, who viewed himself as a seller of books, a very specific idea. The trend toward the electronic media put him out of business. On the other hand, if he had viewed himself as a provider of information and entertainment, a more abstract characterization, a switch in the medium would not have been threatening, and it would have opened new opportunities.


(1) Describe an abstract definition of your problem. What is the principle of the problem? What is its essence?
EXAMPLE: Our problem is how to protect rural designer mailboxes from theft and vandalism. The principle is protection.

(2) Brainstorm for ideas on protection generally. Generate a number of different ideas.
EXAMPLE: Think of general ways to protect things.
Place in a bank.
Rustproof it.
Provide good maintenance.
Get an insurance policy.
Hide it.

(3) Restate the problem so that it is slightly less abstract. Again, generate as many solutions as you can.
EXAMPLE: Think of ways to protect things that are outside and vulnerable.
Hire a guard.
Watch it constantly.
Drape it with camouflage.
Put a fence around it.
Keep it well lighted.

(4) Consider the real problem. Use your two abstraction processes’ ideas and solutions as stimuli to generate solutions.
EXAMPLE: The real problem is how to protect rural mailboxes from theft and vandalism. The idea triggered from “get an insurance policy” is to offer an insurance policy to owners of rural mailboxes: $5 a year or $10 for three years to cover the mailbox from theft or destruction.
IMAGINEERED IDEA: By following this approach, progressively stating a problem in less abstract ways, you will eventually be working on a solution to the real problem. The diminishing abstraction of each process guides your focus to the real problem, and its eventual solution.

Learn the creative thinking techniques you need to get the original and novel ideas you need to improve your business and personal lives. Explore the books and publications of Michael Michalko.


Experimental social psychologists have conducted numerous experiments that demonstrate how behavior and performance can be “primed” by showing participants certain objects and pictures. In one study, participants who were primed with pictures associated with business — such as briefcases, pens, pictures of people dressed in business clothes, commuter trains, and so on — became more competitive. The social psychologist Michael Slepian and colleagues at Tufts University noticed during a study on “bright ideas” that participants became more insightful and creative when they were primed with an exposed light bulb. In short, they found that even exposure to an illuminating light bulb primes creativity.

Primes have been reported to influence nearly every facet of social life. Yale University psychologist John Bargh  had college students unscramble sentences that, for one group, contained words related to stereotypes about the elderly, such as wrinkle and Florida. Upon finishing, participants who had read old age–related words took seconds longer to walk down an exit hallway than peers who had perused age-neutral words. In other experiments, cues about money and wealth nudged people to become more self-oriented and less helpful to others. And people holding hot cups of coffee were more apt to judge strangers as having warm personalities. [The Hot and Cold of Priming by Bruce Bower. Science News. May 19th, 2012; Vol.181 #10]

John Bargh likens primes to whistles that only mental butlers can hear. Once roused by primes, these silent inner servants dutifully act on a person’s preexisting tendencies and preferences without making a conscious commotion. Many animals reflexively take appropriate actions in response to fleeting smells and sounds associated with predators or potential mates, suggesting an ancient evolutionary heritage for priming, Bargh says. People can pursue actions on their own initiative, but mental butlers strive to ease the burden on the conscious lord of the manor.


One way to prime yourself for creativity is to generate an awareness of what you want to be or accomplish. You can do this by creating a “Zeitgeist Board.” Zeitgeist means a general awareness of your general psychological, intellectual, emotional and creative spirit. A Zeitgeist Board is a large poster board on which you paste images, sayings, articles, poems, and other items that you’ve collected from magazines and other sources. It’s simple. The idea is to surround yourself with images of your intention (what you want to create or who you want to become) and, in the process, to encourage your awareness and passion to grow. Lay your intention board on a surface where you can work on it, and try out this thought experiment:

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT.  Ask yourself what it is you want to be or to create. Maybe one word will be the answer. Maybe images will appear in your head or, perhaps, a picture best represents your intention. Post the word, image, or picture in the middle of your Zeitgeist Board.

Suppose you want to create a donut shop. Post the words “Donut Shop” or a picture in the center of the board. Now look through magazines and other sources and pull out pictures, poems, articles, or headlines that relate to donut shops and post them on the board. Or suppose you want to write a novel. Similarly post the words or a picture that represents writing a novel to you (e.g., a picture of Ernst Hemingway) and post items that relate to writing a novel on the board.

Have fun with it. Make a big pile of images, words, and phrases. Go through the pile and put favorites on the board. If you add new ones, eliminate those that no longer feel right. This is where intuition comes in. As you place the items on the board, you’ll get a sense how they should be laid out. For instance, you might want to assign a theme to each corner of the board, such as “What I have,” “What I will have,” “What I need,” and “How to get what I need.”

Hang the board on a wall and study and work on it every day. You’ll discover that the board will add clarity to your desires, and feeling to your visions, which in turn will generate an awareness of the things in your environment that can help you realize your vision. You will begin to see things that you did not see before, and, just as importantly, will become aware of the blanks and holes in your vision.

You can then become proactive and imagine the many different ways you can fill in the blanks. Imagine a person who is aware of all the colors except one particular shade of blue. Let all the different shades of blue, other than that one, be placed before him, and arranged in order from the deepest to the lightest shade of blue. He most probably will perceive a blank, where that one shade is missing, and will realize that the distance is greater between the contiguous colors than between any others. He will then imagine what this particular shade should look like, though he has never seen it. This would not be possible had he not seen all the different shades of blue.

My brother-in-law desired to be an artist. His Zeitgeist Board was a collage of pictures of paintings and artists, poetry about art, and articles about artists and their work. In the center of the board, he had a picture of Vincent Van Gogh’s self-portrait. Over time, he began to imagine conversing with his various prints of paintings. One print that particularly enthralled him was Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. He would focus on the painting and engage in an imaginary two-way conversation. The more he engaged with the painting, the more alive it seemed to become. He would ask the painting questions, such as: What inspired the artist to paint the picture? What was his knowledge of the world? What were his contemporaries’ views of the painting? How was the artist able to communicate over the centuries? What is the artist communicating? He would ask how the colors worked together, and ask questions about lines, shapes, and styles.

My brother-in-law, once a disgruntled government employee, is now a successful artist who has had several showings of his work. He created a psychological environment with his Zeitgeist Board that primed his subconscious mind which influenced him to change his role in the world and become the artist he wanted to be.


Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.

Learn how you can use the habits and creative thinking techniques that creative geniuses throughout history to change the world. Read:






old lady or young girl

Is this an illustration of a young or old woman?

Leonardo da Vinci always assumed that his first way of looking at a problem was too biased toward his usual way of thinking. He would always look at a problem from at least three different perspectives to get a better understanding. It has been my observation that people who pride themselves on their ability to think logically and analytically ignore his advice and trust their usual way of thinking

Peter Cathcart Wason was a cognitive psychologist at University College, London who pioneered the Psychology of Reasoning. He progressed explanations as to why people make certain consistent mistakes in logical reasoning. The problem described below is a variation on the Wason selection task that was devised by Peter Wason. The Wason selection task was originally developed as a test of logical reasoning, but it has increasingly been used by psychologists to analyze the structure of human reasoning.

Consider the following problem. Four cards are laid out with their faces displaying respectively, an E, a K, a 4 and a 7.

You are told that each card has a letter on one side and a number on the other. You are then given a rule, whose truth you are expected to evaluate. The rule is: “If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other.” You are then allowed to turn over two, but only two, cards in order to determine whether the rule is correct as stated.


Which two cards do you turn over?

If you worked this problem silently, you will almost certainly miss it, as have the large percentage of subjects to whom it has been presented. Most subjects realize that there is no need to select the card bearing the consonant, since it is irrelevant to the rule; they also appreciate that it is essential to turn over the card with the vowel, for an odd number opposite would prove the rule incorrect.

The wording of the problem determines the perspective most people mentally default to almost immediately. Most people assume that the object is to examine the cards to ascertain that if a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other; and if a card has an even number on one side, then it has a vowel on the other side. This assumption leads them to make the fatal error of picking the card with the even number, because the even number is mentioned in the rule. But, in fact, it is irrelevant whether there is a vowel or a consonant on the other side, since the rule does not take a stand on what must be opposite to even numbers.

On the other hand, it is essential to pick the card with the odd number on it. If that card has a consonant on it, the result is irrelevant. If, however, the card has a vowel on it, the rule in question has been proved incorrect, for the card must (according to the rule) have an even (and not an odd) number on it.

The content of this specific problem influenced the way we constructed our perception of the problem. This perception created the assumption that leads to error. This should give one pause about mentally defaulting to first impressions.

“If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other.” Here we are working with letters and numbers. Transposing the words to read “If a card has an even number on one side, then……….” Clarifies the problem and gives us a different perspective on even numbered cards. It becomes apparent that what even numbered cards have on the other side has no significance. The rule is only concerned with cards that have vowels on one side.

Sigmund Freud would “reframe” something to transform its meaning by putting it into a different framework or context than it has previously been perceived. For example, by reframing the “unconscious” as a part of him that was “infantile,” Freud began to help his patients change the way they thought and reacted to their own behavior.

The important thing is not to persist with one way of looking at the problem. Consider the following interesting twist, again using four cards. This time, however, we reframe the problem by substituting journeys and modes of transportation for letters and numbers. Each card has a city on one side and a mode of transportation on the other.


This time, the cards have printed on them the legends, respectively, Los Angeles, New York, airplane, and car; and the rule is reframed to read: “Every time I go to Los Angeles, I travel by airplane. While this rule is identical to the number-letter version, it poses little difficulty for individuals. In fact, now 80 percent of subjects immediately realize the need to turn over the card with “car” on it.

Apparently, one realizes that if the card with “car” on it has the name “Los Angeles” on the back, the rule has been proved incorrect; whereas it is immaterial what it says on the back of the airplane since, as far as the rule is concerned, one can go to New York any way one wants.

Why is it that 80 percent of subjects get this problem right, whereas only 10 percent know which cards to turn over in the vowel-number version? By changing the content (cities and modes of transportation substituted for letters and numbers), we restructured the problem, which dramatically changed our reasoning. The structure of a problem colors our perspective and the way we think.

The significant point about this test is that we are incredibly bad at it. And it doesn’t make much difference what the level of education is of the person taking the test. Moreover, even training in formal logic seems to make little difference to a person’s performance. The mistake that we tend to make is fairly standard. People almost always recognize that they have to pick up the card with the vowel, but they fail to see that they also have to pick up the card with the odd number. They think instead that they have to pick up the card with the even number.

One of the most interesting things about this phenomenon is that even when the correct answer is pointed out, people feel resistance to it. It apparently feels “right” that the card with the even number should be picked up. It feels right because your initial perspective is biased toward the usual way of thinking. It is only when you look at it from different perspectives that you get a deeper understanding of the problem.



Learn the creative thinking habits from history’s greatest creative geniuses.  Read



One of the paradoxes of creativity is that in order to think originally, we must first familiarize ourselves with the ideas of others. Thomas Edison put it this way: “Make it a habit to keep on the lookout for novel and interesting ideas that others have used successfully. Your idea needs to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you are working on.” Many cultural historians agree with Edison in that a whole host of new objects and ideas are based on objects and ideas already in existence. Adaptation is a common and inescapable practice in creativity. Even the “Star Spangled Banner,” which was written in defiance of England, was essentially the same as a popular tune sung in English pubs.

To become an expert at adaptation, ask:

  • What else is like this?
  • What other idea does this suggest?
  • Does the past offer a parallel?
  • What could I copy?
  • Whom could I emulate?
  • What idea could I incorporate?
  • What other process could be adapted?
  • What else could be adapted?
  • What different contexts can I put my concept in?
  • What ideas outside my field can I incorporate?
  • What ideas inside my field can I incorporate?

I have a friend who is a chef. One day he and I had a discussion about creative thinking and I brought up the principle of adaptation. A month or so later, I ran into him and he told me that he was getting a patent for his invention of an olive oil dispenser.

It’s easy to overdo the olive oil, both in terms of application and health implications, which is why he said he decided to look around his world for an idea he could adapt to solve his problem. One day he was thinking about his olive oil problem while he played with his ball point pen. He suddenly realized he could adapt an idea from the principle of a ball point pen.

He made an olive oil dispenser from a simple glass vessel topped with a hollow cork stopper that’s sealed with a rolling wooden ball that soaks up the oil and then dispenses it easily and evenly across breads, meats, and other foods. The device makes it easy to spread an even layer of olive oil on meat and bread without any of the mess.


Phillip Reiss, a German, invented a machine that could transmit music in 1861. He was days away from inventing the telephone. Every communication expert in Germany persuaded him there was no market for such a device as the telegraph was good enough. Fifteen years later, Alexander Graham Bell adapted Reiss’s work and invented the telephone and became a multi-millionaire with Germany as his first most enthusiastic customer.


Consider the incredible opportunity that the U.S. Postal Service and UPS both missed by failing to create an “overnight” delivery service. Their entire focus was on using established systems and theories to create the service.  If, for instance, using the established system you want to connect one hundred markets with one another, and if you do it all with direct point-to-point deliveries, it will take one hundred times ninety-nine — or 9,900 — direct deliveries. They failed to look for alternative ideas and simply concluded that the cost was prohibitive. There was no way they could make it economically feasible.

It took an individual who looked at the problem in a different way to solve the problem. After a tour of duty with the Marines in Vietnam, Fred Smith returned home in 1971 to find that computers were becoming an indispensable part of doing business and delivery systems were not keeping up with the increased demand for speed and reliability when delivering computer parts.

Fred abstracted the problem from delivery services to one of “movement.” How do things move?

He thought about how information is moved, and how banks move money around the world. Both information systems and banks, he discovered, put all points in a network and connect them through a central hub. He decided to create a delivery system — Federal Express, now known as FedEx — that operates essentially the way information and bank clearinghouses do. He realized that a hub-and-spoke network could create an enormous number of connections more efficiently than a point-to-point delivery system. The delivery system he conceived used both airplanes and trucks, which was unheard of at the time. His system was 100 times more efficient than existing systems at the time and was subsequently employed in, of course, all air cargo delivery systems in the airline industry.

GECKO GLOVES. After watching Spider-Man, researchers at the University of Manchester played with the idea of developing adhesives that would help people climb and cling to vertical surfaces. They brainstormed by considering ways that animals, reptiles, insects, and birds attach themselves to plants and trees. They were most intrigued by geckos, which have tiny hairs on the soles of their feet that allow them to climb slick surfaces. The researchers adapted this feature into an adhesive that mimics geckos’ feet, demonstrating the feasibility of self-cleaning, reattachable dry adhesives. These artificial micro-hair adhesives are being developed into gecko gloves, which will enable humans to climb vertical walls as easily as a gecko or Spider-Man.


Dr. Peter Pronovost, a critical care specialist at the Johns Hopkins medical center in Baltimore, thought he knew how to minimize human error. It was, as Dr. Atul Gawande describes it in his provocative new book, “The Checklist Manifesto,” an idea so simple that it seemed downright loopy.

In 2001 Dr. Pronovost borrowed a concept from the aviation industry: a checklist, the kind that pilots use to clear their planes for takeoff. In an experiment Dr. Pronovost used the checklist strategy to attack just one common problem in the I.C.U., infections in patients with central intravenous lines (catheters that deliver medications or fluids directly into a major vein). Central lines can be breeding grounds for pathogens; in the Hopkins I.C.U. at the time, about one line in nine became infected, increasing the likelihood of prolonged illness, further surgery or death.

Dr. Pronovost wrote down the five things that doctors needed to do when inserting central lines to avoid subsequent infection: wash hands with soap; clean the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic; cover the patient’s entire body with sterile drapes; wear a mask, hat, sterile gown and gloves; and put a sterile dressing over the insertion site after the line was in. Many of his colleagues thought his idea was a no-brainer. It seemed silly to make a checklist for something so obvious.”

But Dr. Pronovost knew that about one-third of the time doctors were skipping at least one of these critical steps. What would happen if they never skipped any? He gave the five-point checklist to the nurses in the I.C.U. and, with the encouragement of hospital administrators, told them to check off each item when a doctor inserted a central line — and to call out any doctor who was cutting corners. The new rule made it clear: if doctors didn’t follow every step, the nurses would have backup from the administration to intervene.

The nurses were strict, the doctors toed the line, and within one year the central line infection rate in the Hopkins I.C.U. had dropped from 11 percent to zero. Two years after the checklist was introduced, Dr. Pronovost calculated, it had prevented 43 infections, avoided 8 I.C.U. deaths and saved the hospital millions of dollars.

Based on this success, Dr. Pronovost and his colleagues wrote up checklists for other situations in the I.C.U., like mechanical ventilation. (Were antacids prescribed to prevent stomach ulcers? Was the bed propped up 30 degrees to keep the windpipe clear of saliva?) The average length of stay in the I.C.U. dropped by half, and 21 fewer I.C.U. patients died than had died the previous year.


A couple of brothers named Jacuzzi, who sold water pumps for farm use, designed a special whirlpool bath as a treatment for their cousin’s arthritis. They did little with this new product until Roy Jacuzzi put the concept in a different context—the luxury bath market—and bathrooms were never the same again. The Jacuzzi sold like crazy across the country, from California to the White House.


Medical doctors working with geneticists have discovered a way to use fire-flies to fight cancer. The gene that activates a firefly’s bioluminescence is inserted into cancer cells, causing them to glow. A photosensitizing agent is added, making the cells produce toxic substances and causes them to self-destruct. This principle is already used in photodynamic therapy, which uses bursts of light to attack tumors. Inserting the light source directly into the cells makes it possible to attack tumors deep in the body without using an outside light source that could damage healthy tissue on the way.


To help his experiments, Thomas Edison designed a laboratory model of a transatlantic cable, in which cheap powdered carbon was used to simulate the electrical resistance of thousands of miles of wires. Alas, the rumble of traffic outdoors, clattering in the machine shop, or even the scientists’ footsteps shook the equipment enough to change the pressure of the connecting wires on the carbon, thus altering its resistance. Since the accuracy of the model depended upon constant resistance in the carbon, Edison finally abandoned this approach. But later, when confronted with the problem of how to improve the transmission of voices over the telephone, he adapted his failed work on variable resistance with the undersea cable to his work on a telephone transmitter. used a funnel-shaped mouthpiece to focus sound waves on a carbon button. The pressure of those vibrations altered the resistance in the circuit in synchrony with the speaker’s voice. In other words, the material that ruined Edison’s underwater-telegraphy experiments is exactly what made his telephone transmitter such a triumph. Indeed, this innovative transmitter rendered Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone practical–so much so that it became the industry standard.







Einstein often said that imagination is more important than knowledge. Here is how he explained time as the fourth dimension in his unified theory: “Imagine a scene in two-dimensional space, for instance, the painting of a man reclining upon a bench. A tree stands behind the bench. Then imagine the man walks from the bench to a rock on the other side of the tree. He cannot reach the rock except by walking in back of the tree. This is impossible to do in two-dimensional space. He can reach the rock only by an excursion into the third dimension. Now imagine another man sitting on the bench. How did the other man get there? Since the two bodies cannot occupy the same place at the same time, he can only have reached there only before or after the first man moved. In other words, he must have moved in time. Time is the fourth dimension.

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 lead 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.

Try to solve the following thought experiment before you read the paragraph that follows it.

Thought Experiment. 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. Imagination gives us the impertinence to imagine making the impossible possible.

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. The ancient Greeks called this kind of thinking homoios which means “same.” They sensed that this was really a kind of mirror image of the dream process, and it led to art and scientific revelations.


Since ancient Greece, cognitive scientists have discovered that the brain is a dynamical system—an organ that evolves its patterns of activity rather than computes them like a computer. It thrives on the creative energy of feedback from experiences either real or fictional. An important point to remember is that you can synthesize experience, literally create it in your imagination. The human brain cannot tell the difference between an “actual” experience and an experience imagined vividly and in detail.

The real key to turning imagination into reality is acting as if the imagined scene were real. Instead of pretending it is a scene from the future, Einstein imagined it as though he was truly experiencing it in the present. He imagined it as a real event in the now. The great masters of antiquity have told us through the ages that whatever you believe you become. If you believe and imagine in the now that you are whatever you wish to be then reality must conform.

Thought Experiment. Think of something in your business that is impossible to do, but that would, if it were possible to do, change the nature of your business forever.

Think of an impossibility, then try to come up with ideas that take you as close as possible to that impossibility. For example, imagine an automobile that is a live, breathing creature, List attributes of living creatures. They are, for example, breathing, growing older, reproducing, feeling emotions, and so on. Then use as many of those attributes as you can while designing your automobile. For instance, can you work emotions into something that a car displays?

Japanese engineers for Toyota are working on 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 expressed by the front-end lights glowing 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 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 car that is alive) to gain insight on a conscious level to reveal disguised thoughts (about cars showing emotion) as creative imagery.


Michael Michalko is a highly-acclaimed creativity expert and author of THINKERTOYS, CRACKING CREATIVITY, CREATIVE THINKERING, AND THINKPAK (A brainstorming card deck).