Creativity consists of seeing what no one else is seeing, to think what no one else is thinking, and doing what others had wish they had done. Become creative. Here is what you need:
Creativity consists of seeing what no one else is seeing, to think what no one else is thinking, and doing what others had wish they had done. Become creative. Here is what you need:
We have not been taught how to think for ourselves, we have been taught what to think based on what past thinkers thought. We are taught to think reproductively, not productively. What most people call thinking is simply reproducing what others have done in the past. We have been trained to seek out the neural path of least resistance, searching out responses that have worked in the past, rather than approach a problem on its own terms.
Educators discourage us from looking for alternatives to prevailing wisdom. When confronted with a problem, we are taught to analytically select the most promising approach based on past history, excluding all other approaches and then to work logically within a carefully defined direction towards a solution. Instead of being taught to look for possibilities, we are taught to look for ways to exclude them. This kind of thinking is dehumanizing and naturalizes intellectual laziness which promotes an impulse toward doing whatever is easiest or doing nothing at all. It’s as if we entered school as a question mark and graduated as a period.
Once when I was a young student, I was asked by my teacher, “What is one-half of thirteen?” I answered six and one half or 6.5. However, I exclaimed there are many different ways to express thirteen and many different to halve something. For example, you can spell thirteen, then halve it (e.g., thir/teen). Now half of thirteen becomes four (four letters in each half). Or, you can express it numerically as 13, and now halving 1/3 gives you 1 and 3. Another way to express a 13 is to express it in Roman numerals as XIII and now halving XI/II gives you XI and II, or eleven and two. Consequently one-half of thirteen is now eleven and two. Or you can even take XIII, divide it horizontally in two (XIII) and half of thirteen becomes VIII or 8.
My teacher scolded me for being silly and wasting the class’s time by playing games. She said there is only one right answer to the question about thirteen. It is six and one-half or 6.5. All others are wrong. I’ll never forget what she said “When I ask you a question, answer it the way you were taught or say you don’t know. If you want to get a passing grade, stop making stuff up.”
When we learn something, we are taught to program it into our brain and stop thinking about or looking for alternatives. Over time these programs become stronger and stronger, not only cognitively but physiologically as well. To get a sense of how strong these programs are, try solving the following problem.
Even when we actively seek information to test our ideas to see if we are right, we usually ignore paths that might lead us to discover alternatives. Following is an interesting experiment, which was originally conducted by the British psychologist Peter Wason that demonstrates this attitude. Wason would present subjects with the following triad of three numbers in sequence.
2 4 6
He would then ask subjects to write other examples of triads that follow the number rule and explain the number rule for the sequence. The subjects could ask as many questions as they wished without penalty.
He found that almost invariably most people will initially say, “4, 6, 8,” or “20, 22, 24,” or some similar sequence. And Watson would say, yes, that is an example of a number rule. Then they will say, “32, 34, 36″ or “50, 52, 54″ and so on– all numbers increasing by two. After a few tries, and getting affirmative answers each time, they are confident that the rule is numbers increasing by two without exploring alternative possibilities.
Actually, the rule Wason was looking for is much simpler– it’s simply numbers increasing. They could be 1, 2, 3 or 10, 20, 40 or 400, 678, 10,944. And testing such an alternative would be easy. All the subjects had to say was 1, 2, 3 to Watson to test it and it would be affirmed. Or, for example, a subject could throw out any series of numbers, for example, 5, 4, and 3 to see if they got a positive or negative answer. And that information would tell them a lot about whether their guess about the rule is true.
The profound discovery Wason made was that most people process the same information over and over until proven wrong, without searching for alternatives, even when there is no penalty for asking questions that give them a negative answer. In his hundreds of experiments, he, incredibly, never had an instance in which someone spontaneously offered an alternative hypothesis to find out if it were true. In short, his subjects didn’t even try to find out if there is a simpler or even, another, rule.
On the other hand, creative thinkers have a vivid awareness of the world around them and when they think, they seek to include rather than exclude alternatives and possibilities. They have a “lantern awareness” that brings the whole environment to the forefront of their attention. So, by the way, do children before they are educated. This kind of awareness is how you feel when you visit a foreign country; you focus less on particulars and experience everything more globally because so much is unfamiliar.
I am reminded of a story about a student who protested when his answer was marked wrong on a physics degree exam at the University of Copenhagen. The imaginative student was purportedly Niels Bohr who years later was co-winner of the Nobel Prize for physics.
In answer to the question, “How could you measure the height of a skyscraper using a barometer?” he was expected to explain that the barometric pressures at the top and the bottom of the building are different, and by calculating, he could determine the building’s height. Instead, he answered, “You tie a long piece of string to the neck of the barometer, then lower the barometer from the roof of the skyscraper to the ground. The length of the string plus the length of the barometer will equal the height of the building.
This highly original answer so incensed the examiner that the student was failed immediately. The student appealed on the grounds that his answer was indisputably correct, and the university appointed an independent arbiter to decide the case.
The arbiter judged that the answer was indeed correct, but did not display any noticeable knowledge of physics. To resolve the problem it was decided to call the student in and allow him six minutes in which to provide a verbal answer that showed at least a minimal familiarity with the basic principles of physics.
For five minutes the student sat in silence, forehead creased in thought. The arbiter reminded him that time was running out, to which the student replied that he had several extremely relevant answers, but couldn’t make up his mind which to use. On being advised to hurry up the student replied as follows:
“Firstly, you could take the barometer up to the roof of the skyscraper, drop it over the edge, and measure the time it takes to reach the ground. The height of the building can then be worked out from the formula H = 0.5g x t squared. But bad luck on the barometer.”
“Or if the sun is shining you could measure the height of the barometer, then set it on end and measure the length of its shadow. Then you measure the length of the skyscraper’s shadow, and thereafter it is a simple matter of proportional arithmetic to work out the height of the skyscraper.”
“But if you wanted to be highly scientific about it, you could tie a short piece of string to the barometer and swing it like a pendulum, first at ground level and then on the roof of the skyscraper. The height is worked out by the difference in the gravitational restoring force T =2 pi sqr root (I /9).”
“Or if the skyscraper has an outside emergency staircase, it would be easier to walk up it and mark off the height of the skyscraper in barometer lengths, then add them up.”
“If you merely wanted to be boring and orthodox about it, of course, you could use the barometer to measure the air pressure on the roof of the skyscraper and on the ground, and convert the difference in millibars into feet to give the height of the building.”
“But since we are constantly being exhorted to exercise independence of mind and apply scientific methods, undoubtedly the best way would be to knock on the janitor’s door and say to him ‘If you would like a nice new barometer, I will give you this one if you tell me the height of this skyscraper’.”
The obvious moral here is that education should not consist merely of stuffing students’ heads full of information and formulae to be memorized by rote and regurgitated upon demand, but of teaching students how to think and solve problems using whatever tools are available. In the mangled words of a familiar phrase, students should be educated in a way that enables them to figure out their own ways of catching fish, not simply taught a specific method of fishing.
Visit Michael Michalko’s creative thinking website: www.creativethinking.net
Count the “F’s” in the following sentence:
FINISHED FILES ARE THE RE-
SULT OF YEARS OF SCIENTIF-
IC STUDY COMBINED WITH
THE EXPERIENCE OF YEARS.
If you found less than six, you probably ignored the F’s in the word “of.” If so, you are probably thinking, “Of course, it was right before my eyes the whole time.” Ordinarily we do not make the fullest use of our ability to see. We look at a subject and do not see the details. And the details sometime contain the germ of an idea that will lead to a creative breakthrough.
George Westinghouse took the workings of a simple well in his backyard apart and examined the separate parts. Moving from one detail to another led Westinghouse to a multiplication of new perspectives about how substances can be transmitted. He then modified some of the parts and reassembled them into an efficient way to transmit clean, natural gas to homes and industry creating the natural gas industry
Try getting ideas by taking your subject apart by listing the attributes (attributes are characteristics, parts, or dimensions) of your subject. Then focus your attention on each attribute in turn. Think of ways to change or improve each attribute. Suppose you wanted to improve the common screwdriver. You would:
1. List the attributes on a sheet of paper. E.g., some of the attributes of a screwdriver are: (1) round, (2) steel shaft, (3) wooden handle, (4) wedge-shaped tip, (5) manually operated, and (6) operated by a twisting action.
2. For each attribute, ask:
SUBSTITUTE? What can you substitute?
COMBINE? Can you combine this with something?
ADAPT? Can you adapt something from somewhere else?
MAGNIFY? Can you add something?
MODIFY? Change it in some way?
PUT IT TO SOME OTHER USE? Other uses if modified?
ELIMINATE? Take something away?
REARRANGE? Rearrange the components?
REVERSE? Turn it around?
Always ask: “How else can this be accomplished?” and “Why does this have to be this way?”
You might end up with something like a bendable electric screwdriver with a super-flexible shaft which can reach things positioned at odd angles, or you might end up with a screwdriver with a handle with space for both hands to make it easier to power manually.
Listing attributes helps you think beyond your stereotypical notion of things. We usually describe an object by its function which grows out of our experience and observation. But the function of an object is not inherent in the object itself, instead it comes from our association with it. In the same way, listing the attributes of a subject and then focusing on one attribute at a time helps us to break our stereotypical notion of a subject as a continuous whole and to discover relationships that we likely would otherwise miss. For example, suppose we want to improve the revolving door of the kind used in office buildings and department stores. We could list the attributes of a revolving door and then focus on each attribute one at a time. The attributes might be listed as:
has individual compartments
pushing it manually creates the energy to move it
made of glass to see through
one or more people pushing it around at a time
The attribute “pushing it manually creates the energy” inspires one to think of ways to harness all that energy that is being voluntarily created by thousands of people pushing through the door each day. This triggers the idea of modifying the revolving door to make electricity from the force of people pushing it around. Separating the revolving door into attributes broke our stereotypical notion of a revolving door and inspired us to think of energy and of a creative way to use the door to harness it.
To discover more creative thinking techniques read THINKERTOYS: HANDBOOK OF CREATIVE THINKING TECHNIQUES by Michael Michalko
Here is an easy exercise that must be done in your head only. Do not use paper and pencil or a calculator. Try to add up the following numbers as quickly as you can. Take 1000 and add 40 to it. Now add another 1000. Now add 30. Add another 1000. Now add 20. Now add another 1000. Now add 10. What is the total?
Our confidence in our ability to add according to the way we were taught in base ten encourages us to process the information this way and jump to a conclusion. If your total is 5,000, then you are wrong. 96% of people who add these simple numbers get the wrong answer. The numbers are arranged in such a way to set people up to get the wrong answer when adding using base ten. The correct answer is 4,100.
Human nature is such that when we assume we know how to do something, we perform the act without much thought about the assumptions we make. History is replete with thousands of examples of what happens when people become cognitively lazy and don’t challenge assumptions.
In 1968, the Swiss dominated the watch industry. Enterprising Swiss inventors invented the electronic watch movement at their research institute in Neuchatel, Switzerland. It was rejected by every Swiss watch manufacturer. Based on their past experiences in the industry, they assumed this couldn’t possibly be a watch, because it had no gears or springs. Seiko took one look at this invention and took over the world watch market.
When Univac invented the computer, they refused to talk to business people who inquired about it, because the computer was invented for scientists they assumed it had no business applications. Then along came IBM and dominated the market. IBM, itself, once said that according to their past experiences in the computer market, they assumed that there was virtually no market for the personal computer. In fact, they said they were absolutely certain there were no more than five or six people in the entire world who had need for a personal computer. And along came Apple.
When Fred Smith started Federal Express, virtually every delivery expert in the U.S., doomed his enterprise to failure. Based on their experiences in the industry, no one, they assumed, would pay a fancy price for speed and reliability.
Chester Carlson invented xerography in 1938. Virtually every major corporation, including IBM and Kodak, scoffed at his idea and turned him down. They assumed that since carbon paper was cheap and plentiful, who in their right mind would buy an expensive copier. A group of people created a small company funded by open-minded investors that eventually became Xerox. The investors all became multi-millionaires. When was the last time you saw carbon paper?
Once we think we know how something should be done, we keep doing it, then we teach others to do it the same way, and they in turn teach others until eventually you reach a point where no one remembers why something is done a certain way but we keep doing it anyway.
This human behavior of not challenging assumptions reminds me of an experiment with monkeys that I heard about some years back. Purportedly, it was from a book “Progress in Primatology” by D. Starek, R. Schneider, and H. Kuhn which is about research on the cultural acquisition of specific learned responses among rhesus monkeys.
A Tale of Five Monkeys
They started with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, they hung a banana on a string with a set of stairs placed under it. Before long, a monkey went to the stairs and started to climb towards the banana. As soon as he started up the stairs, the psychologists sprayed all of the other monkeys with ice cold water. After a while, another monkey made an attempt to obtain the banana. As soon as his foot touched the stairs, all of the other monkeys were sprayed with ice cold water. It’s wasn’t long before all of the other monkeys would physically prevent any monkey from climbing the stairs.
Now, the psychologists shut off the cold water, removed one monkey from the cage and replaced it with a new one. The new monkey saw the banana and started to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attacked him. After another attempt and attack, he discovered that if he tried to climb the stairs, he would be assaulted.
Next they removed another of the original five monkeys and replaced it with a new one. The newcomer went to the stairs and was attacked. The previous newcomer took part in the punishment with enthusiasm! Likewise, they replaced a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey tried to climb the stairs, he was attacked.
The monkeys had no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they were beating any monkey that tried. After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys had ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approached the stairs to try for the banana. Why not? Because as far as they know that’s the way it’s always been around here.
We automatically accept what we are taught and exclude all other lines of thought. The same thing happens when we see something odd or unusual in our experiences. We tend to accept whatever explanation someone with experience tells us. This kind of thinking reminds me of herring gulls. Herring gulls have a drive to remove all red objects from their nest. They also have a drive to retrieve any egg that rolls away from the nest. If you place a red egg in the nest, when the gull returns she will push it out, then roll it back in, then push it out again, only to retrieve it once more.
Discover how to change your thinking patterns and provoke creative ways of focusing on the information in different ways and different ways of interpreting what you’re focusing on by reading Michael’s new book Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. http://www.creativethinking.net