Posts Tagged ‘creative habits’

The Lessons I Learned from Nikola Tesla and my Grandfather that Influenced my Life



Consider what Nikola Tesla accomplished with his mind’s eye. He is the man who invented the modern world. He was a physicist first, and electrical engineer and mechanical engineer later. Tesla invented the AC electricity, electric car, radio, the bladeless turbine, wireless communication, fluorescent lighting, the induction motor, a telephone repeater, the rotating magnetic field principle, the poly-phase alternating current system, alternating current power transmission, Tesla Coil transformer, and more than 700 other patents.

At an early age Tesla created an imaginary world where he pretended to reside. In his autobiography “My Inventions,” Tesla described: Every night and sometimes during the day, when alone, I would start out on my journeys, see new places, cities and countries, live there, meet with people, make friendships and acquaintances and, however unbelievably it is a fact that they were just as dear to me as those in actual life and not a bit less intense in their manifestations. He used to practice this kind of mind-journey constantly until he was about seventeen, at which age he began creating inventions for the modern world.

When he became an adult, he would imagine himself in the future and observe what devices and machines they had. Tesla imagined himself to be a time traveler. He would note how they created energy, how they communicated, and lived.  He could picture them all as if they were real in his imaginary mind. He would conduct imaginary experiments and collect data. He described that he needed no models, drawings or experiments in a physical place.

When he attained an idea for a new machine, he would create the machine in his imagination. Instead of building a model or prototype, he would conceive a detailed mental model. Then he would leave it running in his imagination. His mental capacity was so high that after a period of time he would calculate the wear and tear of the different parts of his imaginary machine. Always his results would prove to be incredibly accurate.

Tesla believed he was the greatest genius on earth and acted the part every day. He refused to share the Noble prize with Thomas Edison in 1915 because he considered Edison unworthy of sharing a stage with him. He also vowed he would never accept the prize if they awarded it to Edison before him. Consequently, neither received the prize.

Nicola Tesla taught me the value of being self-confident. A self-confident attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, then failure, then successes, then what other people think or say or do.

Many years ago I met my grandfather Dido by chance as he was walking home from work. He had a rough day. His car conked out and he was not able to repair it. The auto shop picked it up and he was told it was going to be an expensive repair. Earlier in the day his best friend had a massive heart attack and was in serious condition in the hospital. Additionally, he was told his work hours were being cut back because of the lack of orders. He told me all this and then he walked in stony silence the rest of the way.

On arriving, he invited me in. As we walked toward the front door, he paused briefly at a small tree, closed his eyes and touched the tips of the branches with both hands. After opening the door, he underwent an amazing transformation. His tanned face was wreathed in smiles and he hugged my grandmother and gave her a big kiss. Afterward, I asked him why he had stopped at the tree and touched the branches. “Oh,” he laughed, “that’s my trouble tree,” he replied. “I know I can’t help having troubles, but one thing for sure, troubles don’t belong in my house with my wife and family. So I just hang them up on the tree every night when I come home. Then in the morning, I pick them up again.” “Funny thing is,” he smiled, “when I come out in the morning to pick them up, there aren’t nearly as many as I remember hanging up the night before.”

My grandfather taught me that we cannot change the inevitable, but the remarkable thing is that if we have the right attitude we have a choice how we handle it.


(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.




Change Your Words and You Can Change Your Life


Language affects our perception, attitude, behavior, and how we live our lives.

Language profoundly shapes the way we think. Benjamin Lee Whorf, a renowned linguist, used the Hopi Indian language as an example. Whorf believed the Hopi had no grammatical forms, constructions or expressions that refer directly to what we call “time.” Consequently, Hopi speakers think about time in a way that is very different from the way most of the rest of us — with our obsession with past, present, and future — think about it. To the Hopi, said Whorf, all time is “now.” There is no past or future, only “now.”

All this new linguist research shows us that the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express. The structures that exist in our languages profoundly shape how we construct reality, and help make us as smart and sophisticated as we are.

Joseph Campbell wrote that there is a “curious, extremely interesting term in Japanese that refers to a very special manner of polite, aristocratic speech known as “play language,” (asobase kotoba), whereby, instead of saying to a person, for example, “I see that you have come to Tokyo,” one would express the observation by saying, “I see that you are playing at being in Tokyo” — the idea being that the person addressed is in such control of his life and his powers that for him everything is a play, a game. He is able to enter into life as one would enter into a game, freely and with ease.” What a glorious way to approach life. What has to be done is attacked with such a will that in the performance one is literally “in play.” “I am playing at being fired from my job.” “My wife is playing being mad at me for not helping her paint the room.” This attitude that “play” language cultivates is the attitude described by Nietzsche as love of one’s fate.

Ralph Summy, who directs the Matsunaga Institute for Peace, is well aware of the influence of language and encourages students to replace violent emotions by replacing violent expressions with nonviolent language. Instead of describing someone as “shooting a hole in an argument,” he suggests, that this person could be described as “unraveling a ball of yarn.” Summy also recommends that the expression “to kill two birds with one stone” be replaced by “to stroke two birds with one hand.” “Dressed to kill,” he adds, might become “dressed to thrill.” Substituting new language, Summy concludes, “arrests people’s attention and paves the way for discussion on a range of peace topics.” His work with language suggests that by paying attention and substituting nonviolent for violent words can change attitudes and make for a kinder dialogue..

You can also use language to prime how an individual thinks. In a pair of studies about the influence of language, researchers at the University of British Columbia had participants play a “dictator game.” The game is simple: you’re offered ten one one-dollar coins and told to take as many as you want and leave the rest for the player in the other room (who is, unbeknown to you, a research confederate). The fair split, of course, is fifth-fifty, but most anonymous “dictators” play selfishly, leaving little or nothing for the other player.  In the control group the vast majority of participants kept everything or nearly everything.

In the experimental condition, the researchers next prompted thoughts of God by using a well-established “priming” technique: participants, who again included both theists and atheists, first had to unscramble sentences containing words such as God, divine, love, and sacred. That way, going into the dictator game again, players had God on their minds without being consciously aware of it. Sure enough, the “God prime” worked like a charm leading to fairer splits. Without the God prime, only a few of the participants split the money evenly, but when primed with the religious words, 62 percent did.

The language you use can even change your relationship with animals. We typically regard ourselves as superior to other animals, which we see as lower forms of life. We see them as “its.” “Look a bear. It is looking for food.” In contrast to our relationship to animals, the Native American Algonquin and Lakota Sioux regarded the animals as equal to humans, and in many ways superior, as expressed in their language. They addressed all animal life—“thou,” as objects of reverence: the dog, the crow, the buffalo, the snake were all “thou.” The ego that perceives “thou” is not the same ego that perceives “it.” Whenever you see a dog, cat or bird, silently think the word “Thou.” Try it for a day and discover for yourself how a simple word change can make a dramatic change in your perception of all life.

Language patterns affect our perception, attitude, behavior and how we live our lives. Words convey certain qualities of subjective experience that makes them unique and indispensable in understanding the current psychodynamics out of which an individual is operating. These subtle, yet utterly compelling differences are immediately evident when you apply different verbs to the same content. For example, following are some typical statements made by people who desire to become more creative in their personal and business lives.

  • I wish to be creative.
  •  I can be creative.
  • I’m able to be creative.
  • I should be creative.
  • I need to be creative.
  • I will be creative.

Which of the statements has the best chance of becoming a creative thinker? I think you will agree with me that it is the one who said, “I will be creative.”


This One has a Story to Tell

Try another exercise that demonstrates the power of words. Write a long story about something that has happened to you. Do not write “I” or “me,” but instead write “this one” or “this body” to represent you, and “that body” or “that person,” to represent other people in the story. For example, “This one remembers a Christmas with other bodies when this one was young that was the most disappointing Christmas of this one’s life.” “This body received no gifts from the other bodies which made this one sad and depressed.”

The words you use will have let you feel you are writing a story about someone else, even though it’s about you. You will feel strange and start thinking thoughts about yourself that you have never thought before.

Review Michael Michalko’s works and books about creative thinking at


Michelangelo’s Mindset


Our attitudes influence our behavior, and this is true. Michelangelo believed he was the greatest artist in the world and could create masterpieces using any medium. His rivals persuaded Junius II to hire him to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, because they knew Michelangelo had rarely used color and had never painted in fresco. They were sure he would turn down the commission due to his inexperience. They planned to use his refusal as proof of his lack of talent. If he did accept it, they were convinced the result would be clownish and planned to use the result to point out his inadequacies to the art world.

Michelangelo accepted the commission. Because he had the attitude of a great artist his behavior followed. Going through the motions and practicing with colors and painting in fresco, endlessly, he became an expert in the technique.  He executed the frescos in great discomfort, having to work with his face looking upwards, which impaired his sight so badly that he could not read save with his head turned backwards for months. By acting upon his belief that he could create anything, he created the masterpiece that established him as the artist of the age.

And it’s also true that our behavior influences our attitudes. Tibetan monks say their prayers by whirling their prayer wheels on which their prayers are inscribed. The whirling wheels spin the prayers into divine space. Sometimes, a monk will keep a dozen or so prayer wheels rotating like some juggling act in which whirling plates are balanced on top of long thin sticks.

Many novice monks are not all that emotionally or spiritually involved at first. It may be that the novice is thinking about his family, his doubts about a religious vocation or something else while he is going through the motions of spinning his prayer wheel. When the novice adopts the pose of a monk and makes it obvious to themselves and others by playing a role, their brain will soon follow the role they are playing. It is not enough for the novice to have the intention of becoming a monk: the novice must act like a monk and rotate the prayer wheels. If one has the intention of becoming a monk and goes through the motions of acting like a monk, one will become a monk.

The great surrealist artist Salvador Dali was described by his fellow students at the Madrid art academy as “morbidly” shy according to his biographer Ian Gibson. He had a great fear of blushing and his shame about being ashamed drove him into solitude. It was his uncle who gave him the sage advice to become an actor in his relations with the people around him. He instructed him to pretend he was an extrovert and to act like an extrovert with everyone including your closest companions. Dali did just that to disguise his mortification. Every day he went through the motions of being an extrovert and, eventually, he became celebrated as the most extroverted, fearless, uninhibited and gregarious personalities of his time. He became what he pretended to be.

The Greek philosopher Diogenes was once noticed begging from a statue. His friends were puzzled and alarmed at this behavior. Asked the reason for this pointless behavior, Diogenes replied, I am practicing the art of being rejected.  By pretending to be rejected continually by the statue, Diogenes was beginning to understand the mind of a beggar. Every time we pretend to have an attitude and go through the motions, we trigger the emotions we create and strengthen the attitude we wish to cultivate.

If you want to become an artist and go through the motions of being an artist by painting a picture every day, you will become an artist. You may not become another Vincent Van Gogh, but you will create the attitude of an artist and you will become more of an artist than someone who has never tried.

The Secret of Mona Lisa’s Smile

Think, for a moment, about social occasions–visits, dates, dinners out with friends, gatherings, birthday parties, weddings, etc. Even when you’re unhappy or depressed, these occasions force us to act as if we were happy. Observing other’s faces, postures, and voices, we unconsciously mimic their reactions. We synchronize our movements, posture, and tone of voice with theirs. Then my mimicking happy people, we become happy. You begin to behave like the people who surround you, and that behavior influences your attitude.

mona lisa smileLeonardo da Vinci also observed that it’s no mystery why it is fun to be around happy people and depressing to be around depressed people. He also observed the melancholy that painters usually give to portraits. He attributed that to the solitariness of the artist and their joyless environment.

According to Giorgio Vasari (1568) that while painting the Mona Lisa Leonardo employed singers, musicians and jesters to chase away his melancholy as he painted. The musicians and jesters forced him laugh and be joyful. This behavior created the attitude of joy and pleasure as he painted. As a result, he painted a smile so pleasing that it seems divine and as alive as the original.

 Even Facial Expressions Can Change Your Emotions 

CIA researchers have long been interested in developing techniques to help them study facial expressions of suspects. Two of the researchers began simulating facial expressions of anger and distress all day, each day for weeks. One of them admitted feeling terrible after a session of making those faces. Then the other realized that he felt poorly, too, so they began to keep track. They began monitoring their body during facial movements. Their findings were remarkable. They discovered that a facial expression alone is sufficient to create marked changes in the nervous system.

In one exercise they raised their inner eyebrows, raised their cheeks, and lowered the corner of their lips and held this facial expression for a few minutes. They were stunned to discover that this simple facial expression generated feelings of sadness and anguish within them. The researchers then decided to monitor the heart rate and body temperatures of two groups of people. One group was asked to remember and relive the most sorrowful experience in their life. The other group in another room was simply asked to produce a series of facial expressions expressing sadness. Remarkably, the second group, the people who were pretending, showed the same physiological responses as the first.

The CIA researchers in a further experiment had one group of subjects listen to recordings of top comedians and look at a series of cartoons while holding a pen pressed between their lips – an action that makes it impossible to smile. Another group held a pen between their teeth which had the opposite effect and made them smile.

The people with the pen between their teeth rated the comedians and cartoons much funnier than the other group. What’s more, neither group of subjects knew they were making expressions of emotion. Amazingly, an expression you do not even know you have can create an emotion you did not choose to feel. Emotion doesn’t just go from the inside out. It goes from the outside in.

Try the following thought experiment:

Lower your eyebrows.

Raise your upper eyelid.

Narrow the eyelids.

Press your lips together.

Hold this expression and you will generate anger. Your heartbeat will go up ten or twelve beats. Your hands will get hot, and you will feel very unpleasant.

The next time you’re feeling depressed and want to feel happy and positive, try this. Put a pen between your teeth in far enough so that it’s stretching the edges of your mouth back without feeling uncomfortable. This will force a smile. Hold it there for five minutes or so. You’ll find yourself inexplicably in a happy mood. Then try walking with long strides and looking straight ahead. You will amaze yourself at how fast your facial expressions can change your emotions.

Michael Michalko


People with fixed mindsets think intelligence is fixed from birth. People with learning goals have a growth mind-set about intelligence, believing it can be developed. Discover what mindset you have. See:

Combine What Exists Into Something That Has Never Existed Before


In his book Scientific Genius, psychologist Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California at Davis suggests that geniuses are geniuses because they form more novel combinations than the merely talented. He suggests that, in a loose sense, genius and chance are syn­onymous. His theory has etymology behind it: cogito—”I think”—originally connoted “shake together”; intelligo, the root of intelligence, means to “select among.” This is a clear, early intuition about the utility of permitting ideas and thoughts to randomly combine with each other and the utility of selecting from the many the few to retain.

Because geniuses are willing to entertain novel combinations, they are able to discard accepted ideas of what is possible and imagine what is actually possible. In 1448 Johannes Gutenberg combined the mecha­nisms for pressing wine and punching coins to produce movable type, which made printing practical. His method of producing movable type endured almost unchanged for five centuries. The laws of heredity on which the modern science of genetics is based are the result of the work of Gregor Mendel, who combined mathematics and biology to create this new science. Thomas Edison’s invention of a practical system of lighting involved combining wiring in parallel circuits with high-resis­tance filaments in his bulbs, two things that were not considered possi­ble.

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 (e.g., 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 and insert the mirrors 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.

NASA 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 shower-head on an arrangement of adjustable rods. While manipulating the shower-head, 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. Blending the Hubble telescope and the shower-head in the same mental space simultaneously 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.” Crocker solved it by thinking unconventionally by forcing connections between two remotely different subjects.

Look at the following illustration A of the rectangle and circle. Both are separate entities. Now look at the extraordinary effect they have when blended together in illustration B. We now have something mysterious, and it seems to move. You can get this effect only by blending the two dissimilar objects in the same space.


Combining a rectangle with the circle changed our perception of the two figures into something extraordinary. In the same way, combining information in novel ways increases your perceptual possibilities to create something original.

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

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

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

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

Michael Michalko is a highly acclaimed expert on creative thinking and conducts seminars and think tanks worldwide. He has published several books which contain creative thinking techniques and are available at Amazon, Barnes&Noble, and major bookstores worldwide.

How can a beehive inspire an idea on how to de-ice power lines during ice storms


If one particular thinking strategy stands out about creative genius, it is the ability to make juxtapositions that elude mere mortals. Call it a facility to connect the unconnected that enables them to see relationships to which others are blind. They set their imagination in motion by using unrelated stimuli and forcing connections with their subject.

Leonardo Da Vinci discovered that the human brain cannot deliberately concentrate on two separate objects or ideas, no matter how dissimilar, without eventually forming a connection between them. No two inputs can remain separate in your mind no matter how remote they are from each other.

In tetherball, a ball is fastened to a slender cord suspended from the top of a pole. Players bat the ball around the pole, attempting to wind its cord around the pole above a certain point. Obviously, a tethered ball on a long string is able to move in many different directions, but it cannot get away from the pole. If you whack at it long enough, eventually you will wind the cord around the pole. This is a closed system.

Like the tetherball, if you focus on two subjects for a period of time, you will see relationships and connections that will trigger new ideas and thoughts that you cannot get using your usual way of thinking. Da Vinci’s knack to make remote connections was certainly at the basis of Leonardo’s genius to form analogies between totally different systems. He associated the movement of water with the movement of human hair, thus 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 which came to be called the Law of Continuity.

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

Engineers working for a power company in the northwest were struggling with the problem of how to de-ice power lines during ice storms so they don’t collapse from the weight of the ice. The conventional approaches to the problem were proving to be very expensive and inefficient. It is not possible to think unpredictably by looking harder and longer in the same direction. When your attention is focused on a subject, a few patterns are highly activated in your brain and dominate your thinking. These patterns produce only predictable ideas no matter how hard you try. In fact, the harder you try, the stronger the same patterns become. If, however, you change your focus and think about something that is not related, different, unusual patterns are activated. If one of these newer patterns relates to one of the first patterns, a connection will be made.

This is what the engineers did. Using a technique from my book Thinkertoys on how to force connections between a challenge and a random stimulus, they randomly picked the subject “Beehives.” Then they listed a variety of things that are associated with beehives and listed them.

Included were:

  •  Bees colonize and live in beehives.
  • Beehives are used to store honey and pollen.
  • Honey is a sweet food.
  • Ancient Egyptians used honey to embalm corpses.
  • Beehives are a favorite food of bears.
  • Bears will climb trees to get the hive or vibrate the tree to make it fall.
  • Bees communicate with each other with vibrating wings.
  • Vibrating wings also make it possible for bees to hover.

The associations with beehives and vibrating wings and bears vibrating trees got them all interested in the principle of vibrational motion as the answer. Vibrate the ice off the power lines. But how? How can we use vibration to help solve the problem?

One engineer remarked that seeing bees hover like helicopters that reminded him of the powerful downwash from a helicopter’s blades. The answer is to hover choppers over the lines and the downwash will vibrate the ice off the lines. This proved to be the most efficient and economical solution to the problem.


For more information about forcing connections between dissimilar subjects, review Michael Michalko’s THINKERTOYS

How is a burdock similar to a zipper?

Gorge de Mestral, a Swiss inventor, wanted to improve the ordinary zipper. He looked for a better and easier way to fasten things. George’s thinking was inclusive as he was always trying to connect all sorts of things with the “essence of fastening” (e.g., how do windows fasten, how does a bird fasten its nest to a branch, how do wasps fasten their hives, how do mountain climbers fasten themselves to the mountain 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 analogical-metaphorical connection between burrs and zippers when he examined the small hooks that 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 Mestral’ thinking was his conceptual connection between patterns of a burr and patterns of a zipper. He bounced what I mean is that he had to take chances as to what aspects of a “burr” pattern 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.

Patterns are fitted together like words in a phrase or sentence. A sentence is not the sum of its words but depends on their syntactic arrangement; “A dog bites a man” is not the same as “Dog a man a bites.” Likewise, an original idea is not the sum of combined thoughts but depends on how they are integrated together.

De Mestral’s thinking inspired him to invent 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. Velcro is not a burr + a zipper. It is a blend of the two into an original idea.

Perception and pattern recognition are major components of creative thinking.  Russian scientist Mikhail Bongard created a remarkable set of visual pattern recognition problems where two classes of figures are presented and you are asked to identify the conceptual difference between them.  Try the following patterns and see how you do.

Below is a classic example of a Bongard problem.  You have two classes of figures (A and B).  You are asked to discover some abstract connection that links all the various diagrams in A and that distinguishes them from all the other diagrams in group B.

Thought Experiment

.EX.BONGARD (2) (1024x1024)

One has to think the way de Mestral thought the way he thought when he created Velcro. One must take chances that certain aspects of a given diagram matter, and others are irrelevant.  Perhaps shapes count, but not sizes — or vice versa.  Perhaps orientations count, but not sizes — or vice versa.  Perhaps curvature or its lack counts, but not location inside the box — or vice versa.  Perhaps numbers of objects but not their types matter — or vice versa.  Which types of features will wind up mattering and which are mere distracters.  As you try to solve the problem you will find the essence of your mental activity is a complex interweaving of acts of abstraction and comparison, all of which involve guesswork rather than certainty.  By guesswork I mean that one has to take a chance that certain aspects matter and others do not.

Logic dictates that the essence of perception is the activity of dividing a complex scene into its separate constituent objects and attaching separate labels to the now separated parts members of pre-established categories, such as ovals, Xs and circles as unrelated exclusive events.  Then we’re taught to think exclusively within a closed system of hard logic.

In the above patterns, if you were able to discern the distinction between the diagrams, your perception is what found the distinction, not logic.  The distinction is the ovals are all pointing to the X in the A group, and the ovals area all pointing at the circles in the B group.

The following thought experiment is an even more difficult problem, because you are no longer dealing with recognizable shapes such as ovals, Xs, circles or other easily recognizable structures for which we have clear structures.  To solve this you need to perceive subjectively and intuitively make abstract connections, much like Einstein thought when he thought about the similarities and differences between the patterns of space and time, and you need to consider the overall context of the problem.

Again, you have two classes of figures (A and B) in the Bongard problem.  You are asked to discover some abstract connection that links all the various diagrams in A and that distinguishes them from all the other diagrams in group B.


Scroll down for the answer.












ANSWER: The dots in “A” are on the same side of the neck in the illustration. The dots in “B” are on the opposite sides of the neck. To learn more about how creative geniuses get their ideas, read Michael Michalko’s Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.



Seven Sins that Kill Creativity in America



People do not believe they are creative. We have been taught that we are the product of our genes, our parents, our family history, our personal history, our I.Q., and our education. Consequently, we have been conditioned to have a fixed mindset about creativity and believe only a select few are born creative and the rest not. Because we believe we are not creative, we spend our lives observing only those things in our experiences that confirm this belief. We spend our lives knowing and living within the limitations we believe we have. We listen to our “inner” voice that keeps telling us not to pretend to be something we’re not. Believing we are not creative makes us comfortable to be cognitively lazy.


We believe many of the myths about creativity that have been promulgated over the years. We’re told creativity is rare, mysterious, and magical and comes from a universal unconsciousness, a sudden spark of “Aha!” or the divine. We believe only special people are genetically endowed to be creative and that normal educated people cannot be creative and should not embarrass themselves by trying. Additionally, we also believe creative types are depressed, crazy, freaky, unbalanced, disruptive, different, argumentative, abnormal, flaky, and trouble makers.  We should be thankful we are normal and think the way we were taught to think. 


The most important thing for many people is to never make a mistake or fail. The fixed mind-set regards failure as a personal insult, and when they fail they withdraw, lie and try to avoid future challenges or risks.

At one time in America people believed that all a person was entitled to was a natural birth. Everything else was up to the person, and a person’s pride and passion came from overcoming the adversities in life. Failure was seen as an opportunity rather than insult. Once Thomas Edison’s assistant asked him why he didn’t give up on the light bulb. After all, he failed 5,000 times. Edison’s responded by saying he didn’t know what his assistant meant by the word “failed,” because Edison believed he discovered 5000 things that don’t work. This was the era when creative thinking flourished in America. People like Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse did not know they could not think unconventionally and so they did.

After World War II, psychologists promulgated “Inevitability theories” about how everyone’s life was shaped by genetic or environmental factors that were beyond their control. There began a promiscuity of the teaching of helplessness that has dimmed the human spirit and has created a “culture of helplessness.” It is this culture of helplessness that has cultivated the mindset that fears failure.

This fixed mindset of fear is grounded in the belief that talent is genetic—you’re born an artist, writer, or entrepreneur. Consequently, many of us never try anything we haven’t tried before. We attempt only those things where we have the past experience and knowledge and know we can succeed. This culture of helplessness cultivated by educators encourages us to look for reasons why we cannot succeed.  


Because we fear failure we not act. We avoid taking action. If we don’t act, we can’t fail. If we are forced to take action, we do not do anything until we have a perfect plan which will take into account any and everything that can happen. We make sure the plan details all the human and material resources you need. We will seek the guidance and direction of every expert and authority we are able to approach. If any authority figure or expert expresses even the slightest doubt, we will not take the risk of failure and abandon the plan.

All art is a reaction the first line drawn. If no line is drawn there will be no art. Similarly, if you don’t take action when you need new ideas in your personal and business lives and do nothing, nothing bad can happen and nothing is the result. In our culture of helplessness, nothing is better than even the slightest chance of failure, because failure means we are worthless.


We are taught to be critical, judgmental, negative and reproductive thinkers. In our “culture of helplessness,” we take pride in dissecting ideas and thoughts of others and demonstrating their flaws. The more negative we can be, the more intelligent we appear to others. In meetings, the person who is master of destroying ideas becomes the most dominant one. The first thought we have when confronted with a new idea is “Okay, now what’s wrong with it?”

When forced to come up with ideas, we come up with only a few. These are the ideas we always come up with because these are the same old safe ideas that are closest to our consciousness. Our judgmental mind will censor anything that is new, ambiguous or novel. We respond to new ideas the way our immune system responds to a deadly virus. Our inner voice will advise us to “Not look stupid,” “Give up. You don’t have the background or expertise,” “It’s not relevant,” “If it was any good, it would already have been done before” “This will never be approved,” “where’s the proof? “This is not logical,” “Don’t be silly,” “You’ll look stupid,” and so on. Anything that is not verifiable by our past experiences and beliefs is not possible.

Instead of looking for ways to make things work and get things done, we spend our time looking for reasons why things can’t work or get done.


square and circles

Most people see the pattern in the illustration above as a square composed of smaller squares or circles or as alternate rows of squares and circles

It cannot be easily seen as columns of alternate squares and circles. Once it’s pointed out that it can also be viewed as columns of alternate squares and circles, we, of course, see it. This is because we have become habituated to passively organize similar items together in our minds. Geniuses, on the other hand, subvert habituation by actively looking for alternative ways to look at things and alternative ways to think about them.

One of the many ways in which people attempt to make thinking easier is to solve the first impression of the problem that they encounter. This enables them to approach the problem with predetermined concepts and they end up seeing what they expect to see based on their past experiences. Once you accept the initial perspective, you close off all other lines of thought. Certain kinds of ideas will occur to you, but only those kind and no others. Settling with the first perspective keeps things simple and helps you avoid ambiguity.

With creative thinking, one generates as many alternative approaches as one can. You consider the least obvious as well as the most likely approaches. It is the willingness to explore all approaches that is important, even after one has found a promising one. 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.

We are taught to follow a certain thinking process and must never entertain alternative ways of looking at the problem or different ways of thinking about it. Keep doing what you are doing. The more times you think the same way, the better you become at producing orderly and predictable ideas. Always think the way you’ve always thought to always get what you’ve always got.


It is not our fault we are not creative. It’s the teachers who are responsible and our parents, the churches, our genetics, the government, lack of time, lack of resources, lack of an inspiring environment, lack of suitable technology, lack of encouragement, too much sugar, lack of financial rewards, the organization, the bosses, lack of entitlements, lack of any guarantee of success, and, after all, most of us are born left-brained not right-brained. You can’t expect people to be something they’re not. In our “culture of helplessness,” we have learned that we cannot change our attitude, behavior, beliefs or the way we think.

SUMMARY. The only difference between people who are creative and people who are not is a simple belief. Creative people believe they are creative. People who believe they are not creative, are not. Once you have a particular identity and set of beliefs about yourself, you become interested in seeking out the skills needed to express your identity and beliefs.

This is why people who believe they are creative become creative. They work hard at learning how to think creatively and produce great quantities of ideas. If you believe you are not creative, then there is no need to learn how to become creative and you don’t. The reality is that believing you are not creative excuses you from trying or attempting anything new. When someone tells you that they are not creative, you are talking to someone who has no interest and will make no effort to be a creative thinker.


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.