Possibility Thinking

A distinguishing characteristic of genius is immense productivity. All geniuses produce. Bach wrote a cantata every week, even when he was sick or exhausted. Mozart produced more than six hundred pieces of music. Einstein is best known for his paper on relativity, but he published 248 other papers. Darwin is known for his theory of evolution, but he wrote 119 other publications in his lifetime. Freud published 330 papers and Maslow 165. Rembrandt produced around 650 paintings and 2,000 drawings and Picasso executed more than 20,000 works. Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets. Some were masterpieces, while others were no better than his contemporaries could have written, and some were simply bad. In fact, more bad poems were composed by the major poets than the minor poets. They composed more bad poems than minor poets simply because they produced more poetry.

The common misconception that somehow phenomenal creative geniuses contribute only a few selective masterworks is plain wrong. Thomas Edison may be best known for his incandescent light bulb and phonograph, but all told, he held 1,093 patents, still the record. Edison looked at creativity as simply good, honest, hard work. Genius, he once said, is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. It took him 9000 experiments to perfect the light bulb and 50,000 to invent the storage cell battery. Once, when an assistant asked why he continued to persist trying to discover a long-lasting filament for the light bulb after thousands of failures, Edison explained he didn’t understand the question. In his mind, he had not failed once, instead, he discovered thousands of things that didn’t work.

DEFER JUDGEMENT. When looking for ideas, either alone or in a group, it is essential not to judge, evaluate, or criticize ideas as they are generated. Nothing kills creativity more quickly or more absolutely than critical, judgmental thinking.

This is difficult for us to do. We have been educated and conditioned to be critical, judgmental creatures and we judge new thoughts and ideas instinctively and immediately. Only humans can try to come up with new ideas while simultaneously coming up with all the reasons why the ideas won=t work. It=s like driving the car of your mind with your foot on the gas, and your foot on the brake at the same time. Consequently, whenever we brainstorm for ideas, we spend most of our time imagining all the reasons why an idea can’t work or can’t be done instead of generating as many ideas as we can.

Increasing your idea production requires conscious effort. Suppose I asked you to think of alternative uses for the common brick. No doubt, you would come up with some, but my hunch is not very many. The average adult comes up with three to six ideas. However, if I asked you to list 40 uses for the brick as fast as you can, you would have quite a few in a short period of time.

IDEA QUOTA. A quota focused your energy in a competitive way that guaranteed fluency of thought. It should be evident that the quota is not only more effective at focusing your energy but also a more productive method of generating alternatives. To meet the quota, you find yourself listing all the usual uses for a brick (build a wall, fireplace, outdoor barbeque, and so on) as well as listing everything that comes to mind (anchor, projectiles in riots, ballast, device to hold down newspaper, a tool for leveling dirt, material for sculptures, doorstop and so on) as we stretch our imagination to meet the quota. By causing us to exert effort, it allows us to generate more imaginative alternatives than we otherwise would.

Give yourself an idea quota when brainstorming for ideas. For example, an idea quota of 40 ideas if you’re looking for ideas alone or a quota of 120 ideas for a group. By forcing yourself to meet a quota, you put your internal critic on hold and write everything down, including the obvious and weak. The first third will be the same-old, same-old ideas you always get. The second third will be more interesting and the last third will show more insight, curiosity and complexity. Thomas Edison guaranteed productivity by giving himself and his assistants idea quotas. His own personal invention quota was one minor invention every 10 days and a major invention every six months.

POSSIBILITY THINKING. The secret to deferring judgment while generating a lot of ideas is to separate your thinking into two stages: possibility thinking and practicality thinking. Possibility thinking is the raw generation of ideas, without judgment or evaluation of any kind. The strategy is to generate as many ideas, obvious and novel, as possible, without criticism of any kind.

Creative thinking involves a Darwinian process of the mind. In nature, 95% of new species fail and die in a short period of time. Nature creates many new possibilities and then lets the process of natural selection decide which species survive. Creative thinking is analogous to biological evolution in that it requires two mechanisms: one for producing many novel ideas and a second for determining which ideas should be retained and evaluated.

After you have created the maximum number of ideas possible, you change your strategy to practicality thinking, which is the evaluation and judgment of ideas, to find the ideas that have the most value to you. Edison once declared that he constructed three thousand different theories in connection with electric lighting, each one of them reasonable, before he decided on the one theory that was the most practical and profitable. Possibility thinking and practicality thinking are two separate mental operations and there is no compromise, in-between position.

FOOL’S EXPERIMENTS. Francis Darwin admired his father Charle’s ability not to judge the many untenable theories that occurred to him and condemn them out of hand the way his colleagues did. His richness of imagination was equaled only by his willingness to consider what others did not consider worthwhile. His colleagues would compare new ideas and theories with their existing patterns of experience. If the ideas didn’t fit, they would reject them out of hand. Conversely, Darwin would consider all ideas and theories to see where they led to. His colleague’s thought was static. Darwin’s was dynamic and fluid. This willingness not to judge what others called “fool’s experiments” led to his theory of evolution.


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.



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