Posts Tagged ‘creative thinking techniques’

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.






Problems frequently give a vague sense of disquiet, a sense of things not going in quite the direction you had planned however, you have no clear thoughts of what the ‘right’ direction might be. This exercise that follows was suggested by St Ignatius Loyola (some 500 years ago).

It allows you to explore problems at a ‘deeper’ subconscious level by changing your perspective from the external to the personal. He suggested imaging yourself at different ages while experimenting with new ideas to solve problems. Begin by relaxing in a calm, quiet environment then:

  • Imagine your infancy, in your imagination think back to when you were a small, helpless, dependent, infant born into a particular environment
  • Imagine being5, imagine you are now 5, how did it feel to be 5? Can you picture images and memories from that time?
  • Imagine being 12, 25, 40, 65, after a few minutes, project your imagination to what you were like when you were 12, did you worry? What was important to you? What was your world like? Using the same method of thinking ask yourself the same questions for age 25 and 40 and 65.
  • Imagine being very, very old; imagine looking in the mirror when you are very old. What do you see? How you feel about yourself? Who are you? Take a retrospective look over your whole life – what really mattered? What would you have like to have done differently? Are you ready to die?
  • Imagine your death, what are your thoughts as you imagine yourself dying? Imagine your closest friends and relatives, what would they be thinking about you?
  • Imagine being reborn, after a few, or when you feel ready, imagine you are going to be reborn. You can be reborn, anywhere at any time as anything you desire. What would your choices be?
  • Return, when you feel ready to open your eyes, gradually look around you as if seeing everything for the first time.

All of us can change our perspectives by following St. Ignatius’s exercise. Peggy Dupra a middle school principal had a problem with her female pupils who were experimenting with lipstick. The girls were kissing the mirrors in the bathroom leaving their lip prints on bathroom mirrors. The maintenance department constantly asked her to have the pupils stop this practice. Peggy lectured, pleaded and threatened the girls with detention, but nothing seemed to help.

She and I discussed the situation, and I suggested the St. Ignatius technique which uses your imagination to change your age and circumstances both past and future. This exercise re-creates earlier and future selves. After a few moments, you’ll become aware of random thoughts, associations and images from past and future years. Eventually these thoughts and images will be accompanied by emotions–in some instances, very intense ones. This emotions are stimulated by the brain’s attempt to reconcile and synthesize the disparity the real “you” and the imagined “you.”

While the brain knows the imagined you isn’t really you, it will still respond from moment to moment as if it were real. You won’t just remember events; you will remember how you felt about them.

Peggy tried the exercise. She began remembering all sorts of past friends when you was twelve years old, and how she really felt at the time about the world. She more she remembered the more she felt like a young school girl. She laughed when she thought of her best friend Ellen of years ago and how they always tried to gross each other out in a game they called “Yechhhh!” She remembered one time when they spread the rumor that the cafeteria was using sewage water from a ditch to make pizzas to save water. The students refused to eat the pizza.

Suddenly thinking about how they grossed out students she got an insight on how to solve her bathroom lipstick problem. After conspiring with the janitor, she invited the girls into the bathroom saying she wanted them to witness the extra work they made for the janitor cleaning their lip prints. The janitor came in and stepped into an open toilet stall. He dipped his squeegee into a toilet, shook off the excess toilet water then used the squeegee to clean the mirrors. Changing her perspective from an adult to a young girl introduced a clever solution to her problem that she could not have discovered using her usual way of thinking.


Discover the creative thinking techniques and strategies used by creative geniuses throughout history to get their breakthrough ideas.



The difference between the way creative thinkers think and the way you were educated to think



REARRANGE IT INTO SOMETHING ELSE? Creativity, it could be said, consists largely of rearranging what we know in order to find out what we do not know. Rearrangement usually offers countless alternatives for ideas, goods, and services. A baseball manager, for example, can shuffle his lineup 362,880 times.


What other arrangement might be better?

Interchange components?

Other pattern? Other layout? Other sequence? Change the order?

Transpose cause and effect?

Change pace? Change schedule?


Rearrange the letters in simple words and see what surprises you can create. Following are some examples.


When you rearrange the letters:




When you rearrange the letters:




When you rearrange the letters:




When you rearrange the letters:




When you rearrange the letters:




When you rearrange the letters:




When you rearrange the letters:




When you rearrange the letters:




When you rearrange the letters: 




When you rearrange the letters: 




When you rearrange the letters:




When you rearrange the letters:




When you rearrange the letters:



(Michael Michalko is the 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.


Why Are Some People Creative And Others Not?


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

square and circle

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

Circle Moving

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

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

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

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

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


My purpose in writing this book is to emphasize the importance of conceptual blending in creative thinking in your business and personal lives. Conceptual blending of dissimilar subjects and ideas and concepts is the most important factor in creative thinking. The topics I discuss include the following:

  • We are all born spontaneous and creative thinkers.
  • How the thinking patterns inculcated in us by educators prevent us from using our natural        creativity.
  • Why geniuses are geniuses, and how geniuses use conceptual blending to create their novel      ideas.
  • How to think differently by looking for analogical connections between the essences, functions,      and patterns of dissimilar subjects.
  • How to combine problems with random stimuli to create original ideas.
  • How to change the way things are by changing the way you look at them.
  • How to combine opposites and think paradoxically.
  • How to combine “crazy” and “absurd” ideas with yours to provoke exciting new thinking patterns.
  • The importance of incubating your thinking, and when to do it.

In the final three chapters, I hope to convey the three notable traits that all creative geniuses have in common:

  • The importance of intention and how to use it to develop a creative mind-set.
  • How to change your thinking patterns by changing the way you speak.
  • How you become what you pretend to be.

The book’s conclusion contains stories about human potential and people who have had the courage and will to overcome personal adversity. Interlarded throughout the book are thought experiments I’ve devised — a variety of questions to ponder, creative-thinking techniques, illusions, and puzzles to inspire your thinking.

I titled this book Creative Thinkering. The word thinkering is itself a combination of the words thinker and thinking. Enfolding the two words into the one word thinkering symbolizes how both the creative personality and the creative-thinking process, like form and content in nature, are inextricably connected.


Einstein’s Fantasies


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

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

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

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

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

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

Your brain is a dynamic system that evolves its patterns of activity rather than computes them like a computer. It thrives on the creative energy of feedback from experiences real or fictional. You can synthesize experience; literally create it in your own imagination. The human brain cannot tell the difference between an “actual” experience and a fantasy imagined vividly and in detail. This discovery is what enabled Albert Einstein to create his thought experiments with imaginary scenarios that led to his revolutionary ideas about space and time.

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

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 lighting up orange, and one headlight winks at the courteous driver and wags its antennae. A sad-feeling look is blue with “tears” dripping from the headlights.

Stretching your imagination by trying to make impossible things possible with 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 renowned creativity expert whose books include 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.

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