Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work

Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work

by Michael Michalko


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Why isn’t everyone creative? Why doesn’t education foster more ingenuity? Why is expertise often the enemy of innovation? Best-selling creativity expert Michael Michalko shows that in every field of endeavor, from business and science to government, the arts, and even day-to-day life — natural creativity is limited by the prejudices of logic and the structures of accepted categories and concepts. Through step-by-step exercises, illustrated strategies, and inspiring real-world examples he shows readers how to liberate their thinking and literally expand their imaginations by learning to synthesize dissimilar subjects, think paradoxically, and enlist the help of the subconscious mind. He also reveals the attitudes and approaches diverse geniuses share — and anyone can emulate. Fascinating and fun, Michalko’s strategies facilitate the kind of light-bulb moment thinking that changes lives — for the better.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781608680245
Publisher: New World Library
Publication date: 09/06/2011
Edition description: Original
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,245,434
Product dimensions: 8.76(w) x 6.14(h) x 0.59(d)

About the Author

Michael Michalko is one of the most acclaimed creativity experts in the world. His bestselling books include Thinkertoys, ThinkPak, and Cracking Creativity. He has given speeches, workshops, and seminars on fostering creative thinking for clients ranging from associations and government agencies to Fortune 500 corporations, such as DuPont, Kellogg’s, General Electric, Kodak, Microsoft, Exxon, General Motors, Ford, AT&T, Wal-Mart, Gillette, and Hallmark. He lives in Rochester, New York.

Read an Excerpt

Creative Thinkering

Putting your Imagination to Work

By Michael Michalko

New World Library

Copyright © 2011 Michael Michalko
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60868-025-2



Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.


We were all born spontaneous and creative. Every one of us. As children we accepted all things equally. We embraced all kinds of outlandish possibilities for all kinds of things. When we were children, we knew a box was much more than a container. A box could be a fort, a car, a tank, a cave, a house, something to draw on, and even a space helmet. Our imaginations were not structured according to some existing concept or category. We did not strive to eliminate possibilities; we strove to expand them. We were all amazingly creative and always filled with the joy of exploring different ways of thinking.

And then something happened to us: we went to school. We were not taught how to think; we were taught to reproduce what past thinkers thought. When confronted with a problem, we were taught to analytically select the most promising approach based on history, excluding all other approaches, and then to work logically in a carefully defined direction toward a solution. Instead of being taught to look for possibilities, we were taught to look for ways to exclude them. It's as if we entered school as a question mark and graduated as a period.

Consider a child building something with a Lego construction set. She can build all kinds of structures, but there are clear, inherent constraints on the design of objects that can be made with the set. They cannot be put together any which way: they will not stay together if unbalanced and gravity pulls them apart. The child quickly learns the ways that Legos go together and the ways they don't go together. She ends up building a wide variety of structures that satisfy the toy's design constraints.

If the only constraint were to "make something out of plastic," and the child had at her disposal every method of melting and molding plastic, the currently possible Lego constructions would be only a tiny fraction of the possible products and would make the Lego constructions look contrived, not the result of motivation, when compared to her other products.

With Legos it is the constraints inherent in the design that limit what can be built. With us, it is the thinking patterns that formal education has firmly wired in our brains that limit our imagination and inventiveness.

Our mental patterns enable us to simplify the assimilation of complex data. These patterns let us rapidly and accurately perform routine tasks such as driving an automobile or doing our jobs. Habitual pattern recognition provides us with instant interpretations and permits us to react quickly to our environment. When someone asks you, "What is six times six?" the sum "thirty-six" automatically appears in your mind. If a man is born in 1952 and dies in 1972, we know immediately that the man was twenty.

Though pattern recognition simplifies the complexities of life, it also makes it hard for us to come up with new ideas and creative solutions to problems, especially when confronted with unusual data. This is why we so often fail when confronted with a new problem that is similar to past experiences only superficially, and that is different from previously encountered problems in its deep structure. Interpreting such a problem through the prism of past experience will, by definition, lead the thinker astray. For example, the man in the above example died at age forty-nine, not twenty. In this case, 1952 is the number of the hospital room where he was born, and 1972 is that of the room where he died.

In the following thought experiment, which taxi is out of order? See if you can solve it before you continue reading.

One of the hallmarks of a creative thinker is the ability to tolerate ambiguity, dissonance, inconsistency, and things out of place. Creative thinkers will look at problems many different ways and will examine all the variables involved, searching for the unexpected. For example, in the taxi problem, the letters A,B, and C are also considered part of the whole and not as separate labels. To solve the problem, move taxi C to the front of the line of letters to spell cab.

Our minds are marvelous pattern-recognition machines. We look at the illustration below, and our brains immediately recognize a pattern: we see the word optical. When we see something, we immediately decide what it is and move on without much thought.

Success at discerning patterns of one sort naturally lessens one's propensity to recognize patterns of another. Notice that once we recognize the word optical, we fail to recognize the word illusion. The more accustomed we are to reading a word as a stand-alone word with one meaning, the more difficult it is for us to recognize anything new or different about it. Namely, it is either optical or not optical. We do not pay attention to the background shapes. This is a standard aspect of reading. As a result, experts in "the standard of anything" may be those least qualified when it comes to developing or creating anything new.


This is difficult for many of us, because we are taught to process information the same way over and over again instead of searching for alternative ways. Once we think we know what works or can be done, it becomes hard for us to consider alternative ideas. We're taught to exclude ideas and thoughts that are different from those we have learned.

When confronted with a truly original idea, we experience a kind of conceptual inertia comparable to the physical law of inertia, which states that objects resist change; an object at rest remains so, and an object in motion continues in the same direction unless stopped by some force. Just as physical objects resist change, ideas at rest resist change; and ideas in motion continue in the same direction until stopped. Consequently, when people develop new ideas, these new ideas tend to resemble old ones; new ideas do not move much beyond what exists.

When Univac invented the computer, the company refused to talk to businesspeople who inquired about it, because, they said, the computer was invented for scientists and had absolutely no business applications. Then along came IBM, who captured the market. Next the experts at IBM, including its CEO, said that they believed, based on their expertise in the computer market, there was virtually no market for the personal computer. In fact, their market research indicated that no more than five or six people in the entire world had need of a personal computer.

Interestingly, one of the rules taught to students seeking a master's degree in business administration is that surprise should be minimized in the workplace. Much of what is taught to MBA candidates is aimed at reducing ambiguity and dissonance to promote predictability and order in the corporation. Yet if these rules had always applied to businesses, we would not have disposable razors, fast-food restaurants, copier machines, personal computers, affordable automobiles, FedEx, microwaves, Wal-Mart, or even an Internet.

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. This is because educators discouraged us from looking for alternatives to the prevailing wisdom. Following is an interesting experiment, originally conducted by the British psychologist Peter Wason, that demonstrates our tendency not to seek alternatives. 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 people would initially offer the numbers "4, 6, 8" or "20, 22, 24" or some similar sequence. And Wason would say, yes, that is an example of the number rule. Then they would offer something like "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 would become confident that the rule involved numbers increasing by two, without exploring alternative possibilities.

Actually, the rule Wason was looking for is much simpler — it entails numbers merely increasing. Examples of valid sequences 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 would have had to do was offer Wason a sequence like "1, 2, 3" to test it, and it would have been affirmed. Or subjects could have thrown out any series of numbers — for example, "5, 4, 3" — to see if this elicited a positive or negative answer. And that information would have told them a lot about whether their guess about the rule was correct.

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. Incredibly, in his hundreds of experiments, he 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 was a simpler, or even another, rule.


Before you go to school, your mind is like a cathedral with a long central hall where information enters and intermingles and combines with other information without distinction. Education changes that. Education changes the cathedral of your mind into a long hall with doors on the sides that lead to private rooms segregated from the main assembly.

When information enters the hall, it's recognized, labeled, boxed, and then sent to one of the private rooms and trapped inside. One room is labeled "biology," one room is labeled "electronics," one room is labeled "business," one room is for religion, one is for agriculture, one is for math, and so on. We're taught that, when we need ideas or solutions, we should go to the appropriate room and find the appropriate box and search inside.

We're taught not to mix the contents of the rooms. For example, if you're working on a business problem, go to the business room, and stay out of all the other rooms. If you're working on a medical problem, stay out of the religion room; and if you're an electronics expert, stay out of the agriculture room; and so on. The more education people have, the more private rooms and boxes they have, and the more specialized their expertise becomes — and the more limited their imagination becomes.

I sometimes think this is why the person who knows more, sees less; and the person who knows less, sees more. Maybe this is why it took a child to invent the television. Twelve-year-old Philo Farnsworth was tilling a potato field back and forth with a horse-drawn harrow in Rigby, Idaho, while thinking about what his chemistry teacher had taught him about the electron and electricity. Philo conceptually blended tilling a potato field with the attributes of electronic beams and realized that an electron beam could scan images the same way farmers till a field — row by row — or the same way a person reads a book, line by line. (Interestingly, the first image ever transmitted was a dollar sign.) Amazingly, this was 1921, and a child conceived the idea of television while the mind-sets of thousands of electronic experts prevented them from looking at the same information they had always looked at and seeing something different.

Maybe education's stifling effect on imagination is also why Leonardo da Vinci is considered the greatest genius in all of history. Leonardo, a polymath, was not allowed to attend a university, because he was born out of wedlock. Because of his lack of a formal education, his mind was like a cathedral with a long hall and no separate rooms. He enjoyed fluidity of thought, as his concepts, thoughts, and ideas intermixed and danced with each other. His mind integrated information instead of segregating it. This is why he was polymathic. He created breakthroughs in art, science, engineering, military science, invention, and medicine.

ANSWER KEY: The puzzle is difficult because we are used to looking at information one way. To solve the problem, you have to change the way you look at it by turning it upside down, with the boxes to the left and the 1 to the right. Then take the rightmost pick from the leftmost box and move it over the 1 to form a T. In the middle box, raise the bottom pick to the middle of the box to form an A. You now have "CAT."

Rearrange toothpicks upside down:


Then move two toothpicks to make "CAT"



Why do you keep coming up with the same old ideas over and over?

Read the following:

Amazing, isn't it? These are jumbled letters, not words, yet our minds see them as words. How is this possible? How do our minds do this?

Think of your mind as a bowl of butter with a surface that is perfectly flat. Imagine gently pouring hot water on the butter from a teaspoon and then gently tipping the bowl so that it runs off. After many repetitions of this process, the surface of the butter will self-organize into ruts, indentations, channels, and grooves.

New water will automatically flow into the existing grooves. After a while, it will take only a tiny bit of water to activate an entire channel.


When information enters the mind, it self-organizes into patterns and ruts much like the hot water on butter. New information automatically flows into the preformed grooves. After a while, the channels become so deep it takes only a bit of information to activate an entire channel. This is the pattern recognition and pattern completion process of the brain. Even if much of the information is out of the channel, the pattern will be activated. The mind automatically corrects and completes the information to select and activate a pattern.

This is why you can read the jumbled letters on page 11 as words. The first and last letters of the words are correct. For example, in the word According, I kept the "A" and "g" in place and mixed up the rest into the nonsense word Aoccdrnig. Just this tiny bit of information (the first and last letters) is enough to activate the word pattern in your brain, and you read "According."

This is also why, when we sit down and try to will new ideas, new solutions, we tend to keep coming up with the same old ideas. Information is flowing down the same ruts and grooves making the same old connections, producing the same old ideas over and over again. Even tiny bits of information are enough to activate the same patterns over and over again.

Most people say "milk." It seems so obvious; the word automatically comes to mind. It is, of course, wrong. Cows drink water. Repeating the word silk creates a mini thinking pattern. When the question about what cows drink is posed, the pattern automatically establishes the direction in which to approach the problem.

Patterns like this enable us to simplify and cope with a complex world. They give us precision as we perform repetitive tasks, such as driving an automobile, writing a book, teaching a class, or making a sales presentation. Patterns enable us to perform routine tasks rapidly and accurately. When we see something that we have seen before, we understand what it means immediately. We don't have to spend time studying and analyzing it. For example, we automatically know that the logo below represents the Coca-Cola company.

Habits, thinking patterns, and routines with which we approach life gradually accumulate until they significantly reduce our awareness of other possibilities. It's as if a cataract develops over our imagination over time, and its effects only slowly become obvious. The accumulation goes almost unnoticed until the cataract reduces our awareness significantly. Have you noticed, for example, that the logo is not a logo for Coca-Cola? It reads Coca-Coca.


You cannot will yourself to change your thinking patterns any more than you can stop your foot from changing direction, no matter how inspired you are to do so. You need some means of producing variation in your ideas.

How, then, can we change our thinking patterns? Think again about the dish of butter with all the preformed channels. Creativity occurs when we tilt the bowl of butter in a different direction and force the water (information) to create new channels and make new connections with other channels. These new connections give you different ways to focus your attention and different ways to interpret whatever you are focusing on.

Nature creates variation by means of genetic mutations. Creative thinkers get variation by conceptually combining dissimilar subjects, which changes their thinking patterns and provides them with a variety of alternatives and conjectures.


Excerpted from Creative Thinkering by Michael Michalko. Copyright © 2011 Michael Michalko. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Once We Were Creative,
2. The Same Old Ideas,
3. How to Think Like a Genius,
4. The First Idea,
5. Why Didn't I Think of That?,
6. Leonardo da Vinci's Secret,
7. Change the Way You Look at Things, and the Things You Look at Change,
8. Ticktock or Tocktick,
9. Thinking the Unthinkable,
10. Ideas from God,
11. Intention Is the Seed of Creative Thinking,
12. Change the Way You Speak, and You Change the Way You Think,
13. You Become What You Pretend to Be,
Conclusion: Dancing in the Rain,
Appendix: Random Words,
About the Author,

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