One of the paradoxes of creativity is that in order to think originally, we must first familiarize ourselves with the ideas of others. Thomas Edison put it this way: “Make it a habit to keep on the lookout for novel and interesting ideas that others have used successfully. Your idea needs to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you are working on.” Many cultural historians agree with Edison in that a whole host of new objects and ideas are based on objects and ideas already in existence. Adaptation is a common and inescapable practice in creativity. Even the “Star Spangled Banner,” which was written in defiance of England, was essentially the same as a popular tune sung in English pubs.

To become an expert at adaptation, ask:

  • What else is like this?
  • What other idea does this suggest?
  • Does the past offer a parallel?
  • What could I copy?
  • Whom could I emulate?
  • What idea could I incorporate?
  • What other process could be adapted?
  • What else could be adapted?
  • What different contexts can I put my concept in?
  • What ideas outside my field can I incorporate?
  • What ideas inside my field can I incorporate? 

I have a friend who is a chef. One day he and I had a discussion about creative thinking and I brought up the principle of adaptation. A month or so later, I ran into him and he told me that he was getting a patent for his invention of an olive oil dispenser.

It’s easy to overdo the olive oil, both in terms of application and health implications, which is why he said he decided to look around his world for an idea he could adapt to solve his problem. One day he was thinking about his olive oil problem while he played with his ball point pen. He suddenly realized he could adapt an idea from the principle of a ball point pen.

He made an olive oil dispenser from a simple glass vessel topped with a hollow cork stopper that’s sealed with a rolling wooden ball that soaks up the oil and then dispenses it easily and evenly across breads, meats, and other foods. The device makes it easy to spread an even layer of olive oil on meat and bread without any of the mess.


A while back, I wrote an article about a publisher who embedded tree seeds into the cover of a biodegradable storybook for children. The book included instructions of how to plant the book after the child had read it and nurture it as it grew into a tree. The owners of an organic food company adapted this idea of embedding seeds into consumer products. They created the idea of producing a series of floral lollipops with seeds embedded in the sticks-ready to be planted once the lollipop is eaten. The created flavors such as peach and marigold, vanilla and hibiscus, and sage and mushroom. The embedded flower seeds embedded in the sticks corresponding to the plant used in flavoring the lollipop. The sticks are biodegradable, and made from recycled paper. Once done licking, users simply plant the stick in the ground or in a pot, and wait for the seeds to grow.


Consider the incredible opportunity that the U.S. Postal Service and UPS both missed by failing to create an “overnight” delivery service. Their entire focus was on using established systems and theories to create the service.  If, for instance, using the established system you want to connect one hundred markets with one another, and if you do it all with direct point-to-point deliveries, it will take one hundred times ninety-nine — or 9,900 — direct deliveries. They failed to look for alternative ideas and simply concluded that the cost was prohibitive. There was no way they could make it economically feasible.

It took an individual who looked at the problem in a different way to solve the problem. After a tour of duty with the Marines in Vietnam, Fred Smith returned home in 1971 to find that computers were becoming an indispensable part of doing business and delivery systems were not keeping up with the increased demand for speed and reliability when delivering computer parts.

Fred abstracted the problem from delivery services to one of “movement.” How do things move?

He thought about how information is moved, and how banks move money around the world. Both information systems and banks, he discovered, put all points in a network and connect them through a central hub. He decided to create a delivery system — Federal Express, now known as FedEx — that operates essentially the way information and bank clearinghouses do. He realized that a hub-and-spoke network could create an enormous number of connections more efficiently than a point-to-point delivery system. The delivery system he conceived used both airplanes and trucks, which was unheard of at the time. His system was 100 times more efficient than existing systems at the time and was subsequently employed in, of course, all air cargo delivery systems in the airline industry.

GECKO GLOVES. After watching Spider-Man, researchers at the University of Manchester played with the idea of developing adhesives that would help people climb and cling to vertical surfaces. They brainstormed by considering ways that animals, reptiles, insects, and birds attach themselves to plants and trees. They were most intrigued by geckos, which have tiny hairs on the soles of their feet that allow them to climb slick surfaces. The researchers adapted this feature into an adhesive that mimics geckos’ feet, demonstrating the feasibility of self-cleaning, reattachable dry adhesives. These artificial micro-hair adhesives are being developed into gecko gloves, which will enable humans to climb vertical walls as easily as a gecko or Spider-Man.


Dr. Peter Pronovost, a critical care specialist at the Johns Hopkins medical center in Baltimore, thought he knew how to minimize human error. It was, as Dr. Atul Gawande describes it in his provocative new book, “The Checklist Manifesto,” an idea so simple that it seemed downright loopy.

In 2001 Dr. Pronovost borrowed a concept from the aviation industry: a checklist, the kind that pilots use to clear their planes for takeoff. In an experiment Dr. Pronovost used the checklist strategy to attack just one common problem in the I.C.U., infections in patients with central intravenous lines (catheters that deliver medications or fluids directly into a major vein). Central lines can be breeding grounds for pathogens; in the Hopkins I.C.U. at the time, about one line in nine became infected, increasing the likelihood of prolonged illness, further surgery or death.

Dr. Pronovost wrote down the five things that doctors needed to do when inserting central lines to avoid subsequent infection: wash hands with soap; clean the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic; cover the patient’s entire body with sterile drapes; wear a mask, hat, sterile gown and gloves; and put a sterile dressing over the insertion site after the line was in. Many of his colleagues thought his idea was a no-brainer. It seemed silly to make a checklist for something so obvious.”

But Dr. Pronovost knew that about one-third of the time doctors were skipping at least one of these critical steps. What would happen if they never skipped any? He gave the five-point checklist to the nurses in the I.C.U. and, with the encouragement of hospital administrators, told them to check off each item when a doctor inserted a central line — and to call out any doctor who was cutting corners. The new rule made it clear: if doctors didn’t follow every step, the nurses would have backup from the administration to intervene.

The nurses were strict, the doctors toed the line, and within one year the central line infection rate in the Hopkins I.C.U. had dropped from 11 percent to zero. Two years after the checklist was introduced, Dr. Pronovost calculated, it had prevented 43 infections, avoided 8 I.C.U. deaths and saved the hospital millions of dollars.

Based on this success, Dr. Pronovost and his colleagues wrote up checklists for other situations in the I.C.U., like mechanical ventilation. (Were antacids prescribed to prevent stomach ulcers? Was the bed propped up 30 degrees to keep the windpipe clear of saliva?) The average length of stay in the I.C.U. dropped by half, and 21 fewer I.C.U. patients died than had died the previous year.


A couple of brothers named Jacuzzi, who sold water pumps for farm use, designed a special whirlpool bath as a treatment for their cousin’s arthritis. They did little with this new product until Roy Jacuzzi put the concept in a different context—the luxury bath market—and bathrooms were never the same again. The Jacuzzi sold like crazy across the country, from California to the White House.


Medical doctors working with geneticists have discovered a way to use fire-flies to fight cancer. The gene that activates a firefly’s bioluminescence is inserted into cancer cells, causing them to glow. A photosensitizing agent is added, making the cells produce toxic substances and causes them to self-destruct. This principle is already used in photodynamic therapy, which uses bursts of light to attack tumors. Inserting the light source directly into the cells makes it possible to attack tumors deep in the body without using an outside light source that could damage healthy tissue on the way.


To help his experiments, Thomas Edison designed a laboratory model of a transatlantic cable, in which cheap powdered carbon was used to simulate the electrical resistance of thousands of miles of wires. Alas, he rumble of traffic outdoors, clattering in the machine shop, or even the scientists’ footsteps shook the equipment enough to change the pressure of the connecting wires on the carbon, thus altering its resistance. Since the accuracy of the model depended upon constant resistance in the carbon, Edison finally abandoned this approach. But later, when confronted with the problem of how to improve the transmission of voices over the telephone, he adapted his failed work on variable resistance with the undersea cable to his work on a telephone transmitter. used a funnel-shaped mouthpiece to focus sound waves on a carbon button. The pressure of those vibrations altered the resistance in the circuit in synchrony with the speaker’s voice. In other words, the material that ruined Edison’s underwater-telegraphy experiments is exactly what made his telephone transmitter such a triumph. Indeed, this innovative transmitter rendered Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone practical–so much so that it became the Phone transmitter such a triumph. Indeed, this innovative transmitter rendered Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone practical–so much so that it became the industry standard.



It can take people a while to grasp the implications of a new communications system. When Thomas Edison invented his improved telephone receiver in 1877, he thought it would become a medium for broadcasting concerts and plays to remote auditoriums. For twenty-five years after the radio was developed at the end of the nineteenth century, people chiefly regarded it as a means of ship-to-shore communication.

“Then there’s the US Postal System. For the first half century after its founding, its main function was to circulate newspapers to a national audience. Not that you couldn’t send letters, too, but the rates were much higher than for periodicals. In 1840, sending a letter from Boston to Richmond cost 25 cents a sheet, at a time when the average laborer made 75 cents a day. Postal inspectors were always on the alert for people who sent each other newspapers at the cheaper rate and added coded personal messages by putting pin pricks in certain letters.

“That all changed in 1845, when Congress enacted the first in a series of laws that sharply reduced the cost of sending letters. The new rates led to a vast surge in personal correspondence and set up a communications revolution that the historian David Henkin has chronicled in a fascinating new book called The Postal Age.

“One dramatic effect of the cheaper postage was to allow Americans to keep in touch with one another in what was becoming the most mobile society on earth. But as Henkin recounts, the post was used for other purposes. Businesses made mass mailings of circulars, and swindlers sent out letters promoting get-rich-quick schemes. People sent each other portraits of themselves made with the recently invented daguerreotype process. They sent seeds and sprigs to distant friends and family eager for the smells of home. And, oh yes, they also sent valentines.

“St. Valentine’s Day was an ancient European holiday. Back in England, people drew lots to divine their future mates and exchanged love poems and intricately folded pieces of paper called ‘puzzle purses,’ the ancestors of the fortune-telling cootie-catchers that children still make today. But before the 1840s, puritan Americans almost completely disregarded the holiday, like the other saints’ days of the Old World.

“The drop in postal rates set off what contemporaries described as ‘Valentine mania.’ By the late 1850s, Americans were buying 3 million ready-made valentines every year, paying anything from a penny to several hundred dollars for elaborate affairs adorned with gold rings or precious stones. People sent cards to numerous objects of their affection, often taking advantage of the possibilities for anonymity that the mail provided.

“That was alarming to moralists who complained that the postal system in general promoted promiscuity, illicit assignations, and the distribution of pornography – and actually, they weren’t entirely wrong about any of that. But fully half of the valentine traffic consisted of comic or insulting cards that people sent anonymously to annoying neighbors or unpopular schoolmasters. By the time the craze tapered off a few decades later, people were sending each other cards for Christmas, Easter, and birthdays, as the greeting card became a fixture of American life.”

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.

ABOUT Michael Michalko


We exhibit a phenomenon called structured imagination. Structured imagination refers to the fact that even when we use our imagination to develop new ideas, those ideas are heavily structured in highly predictable ways according to existing concepts, categories and stereotypes.  This is true whether the individuals are inventors, artists, writers, scientists, designers, businesspeople, or everyday people fantasizing about a better life.

Research shows that we call up typical instances of a concept faster than less typical ones. To see this for yourself, quickly name the first five birds you can think of. Your list is likely to be populated with very typical birds, such as robins, blue jays, and sparrows, and less likely to contain unusual birds, such as pelicans, ostriches, and penguins.

Because more typical instances of a concept spring to mind first, we naturally tend to seize on them as starting points in developing new ideas. And because the most typical members of a concept are the ones that have all of its central properties, this can reduce innovation even further.  For instance, robins fly, lay eggs, and build their nests in trees, but penguins do not. If you base a novel alien on the more typical robin, it will resemble a stereotyped bird more than if you base it on a penguin.

We need ways to open and expand our minds to explore the outer limits and dazzling variety of our concepts so we can go beyond the typical and concoct novel ideas that are wonderfully unusual. One approach is a creative-thinking technique used by Walt Disney which allowed his vivid imagination to explore extraordinary ideas and concepts. This approach allowed his imagination to produce fantastical ideas, uncritically and unrestrained. Later, he would engineer these fantasies into feasible ideas and then evaluate them. He would shift his perspective three times by playing three separate and distinct roles:


On the first day, he would play the dreamer and dream up fantasies and wishful visions. He would let his imagination soar  without worrying about how to implement his conceptions. His fantasy analogies permitted him to connect words, concepts, and ideas with apparently irrelevant objects and events. The result was a rich treasure of associations; an imagination avalanche with whole mountains of ideas crashing down.

The next day, he would try to engineer his fantasies back to earth by playing the realist. As a realist, he would look for ways to engineer the fantasies back to earth and work his conceptions into  something workable and practical.

Finally, on the last day, he would play the part of the critic and poke holes into his ideas. Is it feasible? Can you translate the idea’s features into customer benefits, and, if so, can you make money with it?

Play the dreamer using the following guidelines:

1. DREAMER. Imagine you have a magic wand that will grant you any wish you desire. What wishes would you create to solve your problem? List at least three to five, especially things that normally wouldn’t be possible. Try to make each wish more improbable than the last.

EXAMPLE:  A community wants to raise more money by more efficient policing of parking meters. My wishes are:

X             I wish we had an honor code. Everyone keeps track of their parking time and sends the money to the police department once a month.

X             I wish police officers could see cars leave parking spots so others would not be able to pirate unexpired time on the meter.

X             I wish cars vaporized when time expired on the meter.

Select one of the wishes. EXAMPLE: I wish police officers could see cars leave parking spots so others would not be able to pirate unexpired time on the meter.

2. REALIST. Play the realist by working the wish into a practical idea. Ask: What is the principal of the wish?  What principal features about the wish appeal to you? Extract a principle, feature or some aspect of the wish.


X               The principle is “seeing.”

X               Others won’t be able to pirate “unexpired time.”

X               Provides new jobs. We have to hire more parking officers to watch the meters.

X               Would modify behavior. Motorists would no longer spend time looking for unexpired meters.

Extract one and try to engineer it into a practical idea. EXAMPLE:  How can you work seeing into an idea that will lead to the more efficient policing of parking meters?

IMAGINEERED IDEA: Manufacture a parking meter with infrared sensors and lithium-powered computer chips to “see” parking spaces. When a car leaves, the remaining time on the meter is erased.

3. CRITIC. Play the part of the critic by poking holes in the idea.

EXAMPLE: The seeing meter is technologically possible. The major drawback is cost as such a meter will cost at least four times the cost of a normal meter. The cost, however, will be more than offset by the more efficient collection of revenues.

You can now go back and engineer other features of the same wish into workable ideas or go back and work with one of the other wishes. Generate as many workable ideas as you can from the wishes.

There is a clear relationship between wishful thinking and creativity. You are more likely to have a creative idea when you are wishing than when your thinking is extremely intellectual. Wishes help us deliberately oversimplify. This tactic has a long and distinguished history in science and the arts. Scientists play fast and loose with recalcitrant details. Newtonian physics was overthrown by Einstein, but it is still a good approximation for almost all purposes. No physicist objects when NASA uses Newtonian physics to calculate the forces at liftoff and the orbital trajectory of the space shuttle, but, strictly speaking, this is a deliberate use of a false theory in order to make calculations possible. Following are guidelines for a group brainstorming session using wishes:

1. The group leader writes the topic on a card or Post-It note and posts it on the wall or chalkboard.

2. Ask participants to imagine they have a magic wand. The wand will grant them any wish they desire. What wishes do they have about the subject, especially things that would not normally be possible? Participants silently list wishes for two or three minutes.

3. Participants select one wish and write it on a card or Post-It note.

4. The wish cards are collected and posted around the topic card. The group leader organizes the cards and places related ones together.

5. Select one wish. Select the wish that’s most interesting to the group.

Example. Automobile windshields must be constantly cleared when there is any weather at all (rain, sleet, snow, ice, frost, dirt, etc.). Wipers and washer fluid help some, but grime rarely can be eliminated completely. A group of engineers brainstormed for ways to improve the windshield. The wish they decided to work with was: What if a windshield could clean itself?

6. The group brainstorms for ways to make the wish a reality. How can you approximate the wish by achieving something similar to the desired effect? Ask what specific features or aspects of the wish appeal to the group. Then try to figure out feasible changes or actions that embody these specific features. Ask “could we,” “how about,” and “what if” type questions.

Example: One of the engineers noted that camera lenses seem to be self-cleaning. Lenses are coated with titanium dioxide. When the sun=s rays hit the coating, they set off a chemical reaction that strips the lens of organic matter. The engineers decided to see if they could adopt this process to the automobile windshield.

7. List and elaborate on the ideas.

Example: The engineers discovered that titanium dioxide could not be applied directly to windshields because of sodium in the glass. They solved this by coating glass first with acid to purge the sodium and then applying the titanium dioxide. This process keeps the windshields clean of everything but large bird droppings.

8. Select another wish. Select the wish that’s most unique to the group and go through the same exercise.

9. Continue working the wishes until the group has generated a sufficient number of ideas.

The more interesting and unique the wish, the greater the possibilities are for an original idea or twist. A frozen-fish processor’s line of frozen fish tasted bland and boring. He tried everything including keeping the fish alive until the last moment. Food chemists told him the answer lies in keeping the fish moving. However, the fish remained inactive no matter how, or how much, the water was disturbed.

The owner waved his magic wand and wished he could “pluck” the fish out of the ocean at the last moment and process it immediately. This wish inspired him to think of the natural habitat of fish, which includes predators. This was the crucial connection—predators are the reason fish keep moving around. He thought “Why not put predators in the holding tanks with the fish?” The fish kept moving to escape the predator and retained its vitality and flavor. Of course, some fish failed to escape and were lost, but this was a small price to pay for tasty frozen fish.

Any process will do as long as it can introduce unforeseen variation for later selection and refinement.

ABOUT Michael Michalko


Leonardo Da Vinci believed that to gain knowledge about the form of problems, you began by learning how  to restructure it to see it in many different ways. He felt the first way he looked at a problem was too biased toward his usual way of seeing things. He would restructure his problem by looking at it from one perspective and move to another perspective and still another. With each move, his understanding would deepen and he would begin to understand the essence of the problem.  Leonardo called this thinking strategy saper vedere or “knowing how to see.”

One of the many ways in which our mind attempts to make life easier is to solve the first impression of the problem that it encounters. Like our first impressions of people, our initial perspective on problems and situations are apt to be narrow and superficial. We see no more than we’ve been conditioned to see–and stereotyped notions block clear vision and crowd out imagination. This happens without any alarms sounding, so we never realize it’s occurring.

Once we have settled on a perspective, we close off but one line of thought. Certain kinds of ideas occur to us, but only those kinds and no others. What if the crippled man who invented the motorized cart had defined his problem as: “How to occupy my time while lying in bed?” rather than “How to get out of bed and move around the house?”

Have you ever looked closely at the wheels on a railroad train? They are flanged. That is, they have a lip on the inside to prevent them from sliding off the track. Originally train wheels were not flanged–instead, the railroad tracks were. Because the problem of railroad safety had been expressed as: “How can the tracks be made safer for trains to ride on?” hundreds of thousands of miles of track were manufactured with an unnecessary steel lip. Only when the problem was redefined as: “How can the wheels be made to secure the track more securely?” was the flanged wheel invented.


Trigger your spirit of inquiry by using “color” questioning which is a particular application of the work of Jerry Rhodes, who did extensive research on managers at Phillips. At the core are types of questions that one might ask. The questions are identified with colors as follows:

GREEN—Think of the color green as fertile and creative. Green is the color of imagination and ingenuity. Ask “What if?” or  “Suppose we?”

YELLOW—Think of the color yellow as neutral and objective. Yellow is the color for description of fact. Ask “What is?”

BLUE—Think of the color blue as hopeful and positive. Blue is the color for judgements and opinions of value and need. Ask “What can we do?” or “What should we do?

RED—Think of the color red as negative. Black is the color of limitations and constraints. Ask  “What can’t be done?” or “What’s not possible?”

Many of us have a tendency to favor one or two of these colors, and some of us do so in such disproportion that we are unable to entertain questions outside of our predilections. Sometimes we’ll get so hung up on a particular line of questioning that we’re prevented from moving forward.

“Color” questioning prompts you to think of questions from each of the core categories. Label four separate sheets of paper: green, yellow, blue, and red. Think of as many green, yellow, and blue questions as you can and write them on the appropriate sheets. Whenever you have a negative question, write it on the sheet labeled “red.” At a later stage, review the black questions, and try to look for ways to overcome them. You can post your questions in columns on a large sheet of paper. You can also write them on index cards and tape them to the wall under the appropriately colored card. Or, you can use colored magic markers and flip charts.

After listing as many questions as you can for each color, prioritize the questions and then decide which questions you should address first.

If you’re working with a group, simply have the participants brainstorm as many questions as they can about a specific topic. Afterward, group the questions according to colors and post them on flip charts. Prompt the group to extend each core category by asking questions such as, “What green questions might unlock our imaginations?”, “We need more blue questions?”, and “ Have we exhausted the possible yellow question possibilities?” After the group has listed as many questions as they can for each category, have the group prioritize the questions and then decide which are the most important to address first.

ABOUT Michael Michalko

The Most Important Lesson Nobel Laureate Physicist Richard Feynman Learned about Creativity

If you survey the history of science, it is apparent that most individuals who have created radical innovations did not do so simply because they knew more than others. One of the most important experiences Noble laureate Richard Feynman had in his life was reading a copy of the James Watson’s typescript of what was to become his famous book The Double Helix, about his discovery, together with Francis Crick, of the structure of DNA. Feynman was a highly acclaimed physicist who had become unproductive and began to believe he had run out of ideas. The discovery Feynman made was that Watson had been involved in making such a fundamental advance in science, and yet he had been completely out of touch with what everybody else in his field was doing.

As told in Watson’s classic memoir, “The Double Helix,” it was a tale of boundless ambition, impatience with authority and disdain, if not contempt, for received opinion. “A goodly number of scientists,” Watson explained, “are not only narrow-minded and dull but also just stupid.” Feynman wrote one word, in capitals: DISREGARD on his notepad when he read that. This word became his motto. That, he said, was the whole point. That was what he had forgotten, and why he had been making so little progress. The way for thinkers like himself to make a breakthrough was to be ignorant of what everybody else was doing and make their own interpretations and guesses.

Just trying to keep up with his field had suppressed his own sources of inspiration, which were in his own solitary questions and examinations. This, indeed, is the fate of most research in most disciplines, to make the smallest, least threatening, possible addition to “current knowledge.” Anything more would be presumptuous, anything more might elicit the fatal “Don’t you know what so-and-so is doing” from the established experts and dismissed as some off-the-wall speculation — not serious work.

So Feynman “stopped trying to keep up with what others were doing or compete with other theorists at their own game and went back to his roots, comparing experiment with theory, making guesses that were all his own.” Thus he became creative again, as he had been when he had just been working things out for himself, before becoming a famous physicist. While this is an important lesson for science, it is a supreme lesson for any discipline where “current knowledge” can be dominated by theories that are simply incoherent.

I have always been intrigued by the paradox of expertise. It seems that the more expert one becomes in an area of specialization, the less creative and innovative that person becomes. The paradox is that people who know more, see less; and the people who know less, see more. What is it that freezes the expert’s thought and makes it difficult to consider new things that deviate from their theories? Look at the illustration of 17 figures transforming from a male to female.

When test subjects are shown the entire series of drawings one by one, their perception of this intermediate drawing is biased according to which end of the series they started from. Test subjects who start by viewing a picture that is clearly a man are biased in favor of continuing to see a man long after an “objective observer” (an observer who has seen only a single picture) recognizes that the man is now a woman. Similarly, test subjects who start at the woman end of the series are biased in favor of continuing to see a woman. Once an observer has formed an image–that is, once he or she has developed an expectation concerning the subject being observed–this influences future perceptions of the subject.

Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., believed the marketing experts who thought the idea of a personal computer absurd, as he said, “there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocketry, was ridiculed by every scientist for his revolutionary liquid-fueled rockets. Even the New York Times chimed in with an editorial in 1921 by scientists who claimed that Goddard lacked even the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high school science classes.

If we experience any strain in imagining a possibility, we quickly conclude it’s impossible. This principle also helps explain why evolutionary change often goes unnoticed by the expert. The greater the commitment of the expert to their established view, the more difficult it is for the expert to do anything more than to continue repeating their established view. It also explains the phenomenon of a beginner who comes up with the breakthrough insight or idea that was overlooked by the experts who worked on the same problem for years. Think of all the delivery experts in the post office and UPS who believed affordable “overnight” was not possible and doomed beginner Fred Smith’s enterprise Federal Express to failure.

There is also a tendency to assimilate new data into pre-existing images. In the early 1900s Psychologist Cheves W. Perky demonstrated this principle in several experiments. She would ask a group of subjects to form a mental image of a banana, and to mentally project it on a blank wall. She then surreptitiously projected a very dim slide of a banana. Anyone coming into the room sees the slide immediately, but the subjects did not. Perky claimed that the subjects incorporated the slide into their mental image of a banana. State-of-the-art experiments have borne out what is now called the Perky effect: holding a mental image interferes perception and understanding.

What happened in this experiment is what happens in real life; despite ambiguous stimuli, people form some sort of tentative hypothesis about what they see. The longer they are exposed to this blurred image, the greater confidence they develop in this initial and perhaps erroneous impression, so the greater the impact this initial hypothesis has on subsequent perceptions.

This is why experts always try to assimilate new insights, ideas and concepts into their view. Their mental image of the established view interferes with their perception and understanding of new ideas and concepts. In the case of the Perky experiment with the slide of a banana, the students did not see the slide. In the case of real life, physicists could not see Einstein’s theory of relativity because of their established, accepted view. For years, they tried to incorporate his view into the established view without success. As these physicists died, they were replaced with younger ones who were unprejudiced by the older established views and were able to comprehend and appreciate Einstein’s theory.

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

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, 69 percent did.

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.

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, you ask six people if they believe they can become creative. They each respond differently. Here are the six responses:

•             I want 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 six 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.” Just a simple verb change provides a different psychodynamic for each statement that you can feel as you read the statements.


Michael Michalko

ABOUT Michael Michalko


When we learn something, we are taught to program it into our brain and stop thinking about or looking for alternatives. We have been taught to have “spotlight” awareness and to exclude alternatives and possibilities. Over time, this spotlight mindset becomes stronger and stronger. For example, is the above a picture of a parrot or a woman?

To get a sense of how strong this mindset is, try solving the following problem.

4 O R T Y or 40


Consider the following problem which involves multiples of five. It’s a complex problem which can only be solved thinking inclusively and unconventionally.

05, 10, 15, 20, 30, 35?

Of the five numbers below, which completes the series above?

06, 15, 18, 20, 25

The series is a progression of multiples of five and the expected answer should be 40. But 40 is not listed.

Richard Feynman Nobel prize winner for his work in quantum physics was a great believer in inclusive thinking. He taught always look for different ways to look at and solve problems. He said even when he knew all the old ways to solve a problem, he would invent a new way.

A creative thinker would ask “How else can I look at this problem?” “How can I rethink the way I see the number 40?” “Can it be expressed in a different way?” Well, it can be expressed many different ways; for example, Roman numerals and so on.

But the answer must be listed in the second series of numbers, so the thinker would wonder about different ways of looking at the listed numbers. Can they take some other form?

One different way of looking at the numbers is to transform the numbers into alphabetical letters. F is the #6 letter of the alphabet; 15 = O; 18 = R; 20 = T; and 25 = Y. The numbers when converted to letters spell “Forty.” The answer to the problem is all five numbers are necessary to complete the series. This problem can only be solved by thinking inclusively and considering the least obvious approaches as well as the conventional ones.

For more information about creative thinking, read Michael Michalko’s book, CREATIVE THINKERING.



It might be hard to believe, but the two tables have the exact same dimensions! Measure both table surfaces with a ruler and prove it to yourself. Why, then, does the table on the left look elongated, while the table on the right appears to have a wider width? The illusion of two tables was first discovered by Roger Shepard at Stanford University.

It comes down to how we perceive the scene. Accustomed as we are to photography and Western art, we automatically interpret the scene as three-dimensional. The concept of perspective, first mastered by artists during the Renaissance, is one we encounter in our everyday lives, and our brains automatically assume that the further away an object is from us, the smaller it will be. To compensate, our brain interprets and “lengthens” lines that appear to be pointing away from us into the distance. In this scene, the interpretation made by our brain extends the length of the table on the left by making it appear longer and the shorter side of the right-hand table by making it appear wider. Our brain constructs what we perceive based on our past experiences rather than what is there.

People tend to think of perception as a passive process. We see, hear, smell, taste or feel stimuli that impinge upon our senses. We think that if we are at all objective, we record what is actually there. Yet perception is demonstrably an active rather than a passive process; it constructs rather than records “reality.” Perception implies understanding as well as awareness. It is a process of inference in which people construct their own version of reality on the basis of information provided through the five senses.


Noble laureate physicist, Richard Feynman, wrote about the classic teaser of the mirror. Why, Feynman wondered, does a mirror seem to invert left and right but not top and bottom? That is, why are the letters of a book backward but not upside down, and why would Feynman’s double behind the mirror appear to have a mole on the wrong hand?

Imagine yourself standing before the mirror, he suggested, with one hand pointing east and the other west. Wave the east hand. The mirror image waves its east hand. Its head is up. Its west hand lies to the west. Its feet are down. Everything’s really all right.

The problem is on the axis running through the mirror. Your nose and the back of your head are reversed: if your nose points north, your double’s nose points south. The problem now is psychological. We think of our image as another person. We cannot imagine ourselves “squashed” back to front, so our brains imagine ourselves turned left and right, as if we had walked around a pane of glass to face the other way.

It is in this psychological turnabout the brain makes that make us believe that left and right are switched.

This is another example that shows the extraordinary extent to which the information obtained by an observer depends upon the observer’s own assumptions and preconceptions. We cannot imagine our image squashed so we construct a reality that assumes an image of ourselves as if we walked around the pane of glass.

This is not a parrot. If you study it closely with an open mind, you will discover it is actually a woman. Johannes Stötter, a fine art body painter, used breathable paint to painstakingly turn a woman into the image of a parrot brushstroke by brushstroke. The model’s arm forms the parrot’s head and beak, and her legs form the wing and tail feathers. Study it carefully and you will see the woman. Once you see her the bird will disappear.

We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.


MICHAEL MICHALKO is the author of Thinkertoys (A Handbook of Business Creativity), which the Wall Street Journal reported “will change the way you think.” He is also the author of Cracking Creativity (The Secrets of Creative Geniuses) which describes the common thinking strategies creative geniuses have used in the  sciences, art, and industry throughout history and shows how we can apply them to become more creative in our business and personal lives. In addition, he created Thinkpak (A Brainstorming Card Set), which is a novel creative-thinking tool that is designed to facilitate brainstorming sessions. Michael’s most recent book Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work focuses on how creative geniuses combine and conceptually blend dissimilar subjects create original thoughts and ideas. 

Twelve Things You Were Not Taught in School About Creative Thinking


Aspects of creative thinking that are not usually taught.

1. You are creative. The artist is not a special person, each one of us is a special kind of artist. Every one of us is born a creative, spontaneous thinker. 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. 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.

2. Creative thinking is work. You must have passion and the determination to immerse yourself in the process of creating new and different ideas. Then you must have patience to persevere against all adversity. All creative geniuses work passionately hard and produce incredible numbers of ideas, most of which are bad. In fact, more bad poems were written by the major poets than by minor poets. Thomas Edison created 3000 different ideas for lighting systems before he evaluated them for practicality and profitability. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart produced more than six hundred pieces of music, including forty-one symphonies and some forty-odd operas and masses, during his short creative life. 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.

3. You must go through the motions of being creative. When you are producing ideas, you are replenishing neurotransmitters linked to genes that are being turned on and off in response to what your brain is doing, which in turn is responding to challenges. When you go through the motions of trying to come up with new ideas, you are energizing your brain by increasing the number of contacts between neurons. The more times you try to get ideas, the more active your brain becomes and the more creative you become. If you want to become an artist and all you did was paint a picture every day, you will become an artist. You may not become another Vincent Van Gogh, but you will become more of an artist than someone who has never tried.

4. Your brain is not a computer. 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 an experience 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. One day, for example, he imagined falling in love. Then he imagined meeting the woman he fell in love with two weeks after he fell in love. This led to his theory of acausality. The same process of synthesizing experience allowed Walt Disney to bring his fantasies to life.

5. There is no one right answer. Reality is ambiguous. Aristotle said it is either A or not-A. It cannot be both. The sky is either blue or not blue. This is black and white thinking as the sky is a billion different shades of blue. A beam of light is either a wave or not a wave (A or not-A). Physicists discovered that light can be either a wave or particle depending on the viewpoint of the observer. The only certainty in life is uncertainty. When trying to get ideas, do not censor or evaluate them as they occur. Nothing kills creativity faster than self-censorship of ideas while generating them. Think of all your ideas as possibilities and generate as many as you can before you decide which ones to select. The world is not black or white. It is grey.

6. Never stop with your first good idea. Always strive to find a better one and continue until you have one that is still better. In 1862, Phillip Reis demonstrated his invention which could transmit music over the wires. He was days away from improving it into a telephone that could transmit speech. Every communication expert in Germany dissuaded him from making improvements, as they said the telegraph is good enough. No one would buy or use a telephone. Ten years later, Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. Spencer Silver developed a new adhesive for 3M that stuck to objects but could easily be lifted off. It was first marketed as a bulletin board adhesive so the boards could be moved easily from place to place. There was no market for it. Silver didn’t discard it. One day Arthur Fry, another 3M employee, was singing in the church’s choir when his page marker fell out of his hymnal. Fry coated his page markers with Silver’s adhesive and discovered the markers stayed in place, yet lifted off without damaging the page. Hence the Post-it Notes were born. Thomas Edison was always trying to spring board from one idea to another in his work. He spring boarded his work from the telephone (sounds transmitted) to the phonograph (sounds recorded) and, finally, to motion pictures (images recorded).

7. Expect the experts to be negative. The more expert and specialized a person becomes, the more their mindset becomes narrowed and the more fixated they become on confirming what they believe to be absolute. Consequently, when confronted with new and different ideas, their focus will be on conformity. Does it conform with what I know is right? If not, experts will spend all their time showing and explaining why it can’t be done and why it can’t work. They will not look for ways to make it work or get it done because this might demonstrate that what they regarded as absolute is not absolute at all. This is why when Fred Smith created Federal Express, every delivery expert in the U.S. predicted its certain doom. After all, they said, if this delivery concept was doable, the Post Office or UPS would have done it long ago.

8. Trust your instincts. Don’t allow yourself to get discouraged. Albert Einstein was expelled from school because his attitude had a negative effect on serious students; he failed his university entrance exam and had to attend a trade school for one year before finally being admitted; and was the only one in his graduating class who did not get a teaching position because no professor would recommend him. One professor said Einstein was “the laziest dog” the university ever had. Beethoven’s parents were told he was too stupid to be a music composer. Charles Darwin’s colleagues called him a fool and what he was doing “fool’s experiments” when he worked on his theory of biological evolution. Walt Disney was fired from his first job on a newspaper because “he lacked imagination.” Thomas Edison had only two years of formal schooling, was totally deaf in one ear and was hard of hearing in the other, was fired from his first job as a newsboy and later fired from his job as a telegrapher; and still he became the most famous inventor in the history of the U.S.

9. There is no such thing as failure. Whenever you try to do something and do not succeed, you do not fail. You have learned something that does not work. Always ask “What have I learned about what doesn’t work?”, “Can this explain something that I didn’t set out to explain?”, and “What have I discovered that I didn’t set out to discover?” Whenever someone tells you that they have never made a mistake, you are talking to someone who has never tried anything new.

10. You do not see things as they are; you see them as you are. Interpret your own experiences. All experiences are neutral. They have no meaning. You give them meaning by the way you choose to interpret them. If you are a priest, you see evidence of God everywhere. If you are an atheist, you see the absence of God everywhere. IBM observed that no one in the world had a personal computer. IBM interpreted this to mean there was no market. College dropouts, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, looked at the same absence of personal computers and saw a massive opportunity. Once Thomas Edison was approached by an assistant while working on the filament for the light bulb. The assistant asked Edison why he didn’t give up. “After all,” he said, “you have failed 5000 times.” Edison looked at him and told him that he didn’t understand what the assistant meant by failure, because, Edison said, “I have discovered 5000 things that don’t work.” You construct your own reality by how you choose to interpret your experiences.

11. Always approach a problem on its own terms. Do not trust your first perspective of a problem as it will be too biased toward your usual way of thinking. Always look at your problem from multiple perspectives. Always remember that genius is finding a perspective no one else has taken. Look for different ways to look at the problem. Write the problem statement several times using different words. Take another role, for example, how would someone else see it, how would Jay Leno, Pablo Picasso, George Patton see it? Draw a picture of the problem, make a model, or mold a sculpture. Take a walk and look for things that metaphorically represent the problem and force connections between those things and the problem (How is a broken store window like my communications problem with my students?) Ask your friends and strangers how they see the problem. Ask a child. How would a ten year old solve it? Ask a grandparent. Imagine you are the problem. When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

12. Learn to think unconventionally. Creative geniuses do not think analytically and logically. Conventional, logical, analytical thinkers are exclusive thinkers which means they exclude all information that is not related to the problem. They look for ways to eliminate possibilities. Creative geniuses are inclusive thinkers which mean they look for ways to include everything, including things that are dissimilar and totally unrelated. Generating associations and connections between unrelated or dissimilar subjects is how they provoke different thinking patterns in their brain. These new patterns lead to new connections which give them a different way to focus on the information and different ways to interpret what they are focusing on. This is how original and truly novel ideas are created. Albert Einstein once famously remarked “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

Michael Michalko

ABOUT Michael Michalko


One day not too long ago the employees of a large company returned from their lunch break and were greeted with a sign on the front door. The sign said: “Yesterday the person who has been hindering your growth in this company passed away. We invite you to join the funeral service in the Presentation room that has been prepared for the funeral.”

At first everyone was sad to hear that one of their colleagues had died, but after a while they started getting curious about who this person might be. The excitement grew as the employees arrived at the Presentation room to pay their last respects. Everyone wondered: “Who is this person who was hindering my progress? No wonder, I haven’t been promoted after all my years. I’ve always suspected some executive disliked something about me. Someone in a high position had a strong prejudice against me. Thank God, this company finally had the guts to admit how unfairly employees have been evaluated.” 

One by one the employees got closer to the coffin and when they looked inside it they suddenly became speechless. They stood over the coffin, shocked and in silence, as if someone had touched the deepest part of their soul.

There was a large mirror inside the coffin: everyone who looked inside it could see himself. There was also a sign next to the mirror that said: “There is only one person who is capable to set limits to your growth: it is YOU. You are the only person who can revolutionize your life. You are the only person who can influence your happiness, your realization and your success. You are the only person who can help yourself. Your life does not change when your boss changes, when your friends change, when your parents change, when your partner changes, when your company changes. Your life changes when YOU change, when you go beyond your limiting beliefs, when you realize that you are the only one responsible for your life.


To discover how you can change your life by becoming a more creative thinker read Michael Michalko’s book CREATIVE THINKERING: PUTTING YOUR IMAGINATION TO WORK