Posts Tagged ‘brainstorming’


There is no such thing as failure. Failure is only a word that human beings use to judge a given situation. The artificial judgments of failure only keep you from trying something and erring or making a mistake. Yet those mistakes and errors are the way we learn and the way we grow.

Whenever we attempt to do something and fail, we end up doing something else or producing something else. You have not failed; you have produced some other result. The two most important questions to ask are: “What have I learned?” and “What have I done?”

B.F. Skinner advised people that when you are working on something and find something interesting, drop everything else and study it. In fact, he emphasized this as a first principle of scientific methodology. This is what William Shockley and a multi-discipline Bell labs team did. They were formed to invent the MOS transistor and ended up instead with the junction transistor and the new science of semiconductor physics. These developments eventually led to the MOS transistor and then to the integrated circuit and to new breakthroughs in electronics and computers. William Shockley described it as a process of creative failure methodology.

Richard Feynman, a Nobel Laureate physicist, had an interesting practical test that he applied when reaching a judgment about a failed idea: for example, did it explain something unrelated to the original problem. E.g., What can you explain that you didn’t set out to explain? And, What did you discover that you didn’t set out to discover? In 1938, 27 year old Roy Plunkett set out to invent a new refrigerant. Instead, he created a glob of white waxy material that conducted heat and did not stick to surfaces. Fascinated by this unexpected material, he abandoned his original line of research and experimented with this interesting material, which eventually became known by its household name, Teflon.

Failures, mistakes and errors are the way we learn and the way we grow. Many of the world’s greatest successes have learned how to fail their way to success. Some of the more famous are:

Albert Einstein: Most of us take Einstein’s name as synonymous with genius, but he didn’t always show such promise. Einstein did not speak until he was four and did not read until he was seven, causing his teachers and parents to think he was mentally handicapped, slow and anti-social. Eventually, he was expelled from school and was refused admittance to the Zurich Polytechnic School. He attended a trade school for one year and was finally admitted to the University. He was the only one of his graduating class unable to get a teaching position because no professor would recommend him. One professor labeled him as the laziest dog they ever had in the university. The only job he was able to get was an entry-level position in a government patent office.

Robert Goddard: Goddard today is hailed for his research and experimentation with liquid-fueled rockets, but during his lifetime his ideas were often rejected and mocked by his scientific peers who thought they were outrageous and impossible. The New York Times once reported that Goddard seemed to lack a high school student’s basic understanding of rocketry. Today rockets and space travel don’t seem far-fetched at all, due largely in part to the work of this scientist who worked against the feelings of the time.

Abraham Lincoln: While today he is remembered as one of the greatest leaders of our nation, Lincoln’s life wasn’t so easy. In his youth he went to war a captain and returned a private (if you’re not familiar with military ranks, just know that private is as low as it goes.) Lincoln didn’t stop failing there, however. He started numerous failed businesses, went bankrupt twice and was defeated in 26 campaigns he made for public office.

J. K. Rowling: Rowling may be rolling in a lot of Harry Potter dough today, but before she published the series of novels, she was nearly penniless, severely depressed, divorced, trying to raise a child on her own while attending school and writing a novel. Rowling went from depending on welfare to survive to being one of the richest women in the world in a span of only five years through her hard work and determination.

Walt Disney: Today Disney rakes in billions from merchandise, movies and theme parks around the world, but Walt Disney had many personal failures. He was fired by a newspaper editor because, “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” After that, Disney started a number of businesses that didn’t last too long and ended with bankruptcy and failure. He kept trying and learning, however, and eventually found a recipe for success that worked.

Harland David Sanders: Perhaps better known as Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, Sanders had a hard time selling his chicken at first. In fact, his famous secret chicken recipe was rejected 1,009 times before a restaurant accepted it. He learned not to fear rejection and persevered.

Thomas Edison: In his early years, teachers told Edison he was “too stupid to learn anything.” Work was no better, as he was fired from his first two jobs for not being productive enough. Even as an inventor, Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. One day, an assistant asked him why he didn’t give up. After all, he failed over a thousand times. Edison replied that he had not failed once. He had discovered over 1000 things that don’t work.

Ludwig van Beethoven: In his formative years, young Beethoven was incredibly awkward on the violin and was often so busy working on his own compositions that he neglected to practice. Despite his love of composing, his teachers felt he was hopeless at it and would never succeed with the violin or in composing. In fact, his music teacher told his parents he was too stupid to be a music composer.

Stephen King: The first book by this author, the iconic thriller Carrie, received 30 rejections, finally causing King to give up and throw it in the trash. His wife fished it out and encouraged him to resubmit it, and the rest is history, with King now having hundreds of books published and the distinction of being one of the best-selling authors of all time.

Bill Gates: Gates didn’t seem destined for success after dropping out of Harvard. He started a business with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen called Traf-O-Data. While this early idea for a business failed miserably, Gates did not despair and give up. Instead he learned much from the failure and later created the global empire that is Microsoft.

Henry Ford: While Ford is today known for his innovative assembly line and American-made cars, he wasn’t an instant success. In fact, his early businesses failed and left him broke five times. He was advised by countless people not to get into the manufacturing of automobiles because he had neither the capital or know how.

F. W. Woolworth: Some may not know this name today, but Woolworth was once one of the biggest names in department stores in the U.S. Before starting his own business, young Woolworth worked at a dry goods store and was not allowed to wait on customers because his boss said he lacked the sense needed to do so. Woolworth also had many ideas of how to market dry goods – all of which were rejected by his boss. He quit and marketing ideas became the foundation of his phenomenal retail success with his own stores.

Akio Morita: You may not have heard of Morita but you’ve undoubtedly heard of his company, Sony. Sony’s first product was a rice cooker that unfortunately didn’t cook rice so much as burn it, selling less than 100 units. The rice cooker was the object of scorn and laughter by the business community. This did not discourage Morita and his partners as they pushed forward to create a multi-billion-dollar company.

Orville and Wilbur Wright: These brothers battled depression and family illness before starting the bicycle shop that would lead them to experimenting with flight. They were competing against the best engineering and scientific minds in America at the time, who were all well financed and supported by the government and capital investors to make the first airplane. After numerous attempts at creating flying machines, several years of hard work, and tons of failed prototypes, the brothers finally created a plane that could get airborne and stay there.

Vincent Van Gogh: During his lifetime, Van Gogh sold only one painting, and this was to a friend and only for a very small amount of money. While Van Gogh was never a success during his life, he plugged on with painting, sometimes starving to complete his over 800 known works. Today, they bring in hundreds of millions of dollars each.

Fred Astaire: In his first screen test, the testing director of MGM noted that Astaire “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Not handsome. Can dance a little.” Astaire went on to become an incredibly successful actor, singer and dancer and kept that note in his Beverly Hills home to remind him of where he came from.

Steven Spielberg: While today Spielberg’s name is synonymous with big budget, he was rejected from the University of Southern California School of Theater, Film and Television three times. He eventually attended school at another location, only to drop out to become a director before finishing. Thirty-five years after starting his degree, Spielberg returned to school in 2002 to finally complete his work and earn his BA.

Charles Darwin was chastised by his father for being lazy and too dreamy. Darwin himself once wrote that his father and teachers considered him rather below the common standard of intellect. When Charles Darwin first presented his research on evolution, it was met with little enthusiasm. He continued to work on his theory of evolution when all of his colleagues called him a fool and what he was doing “a fool’s experiment.”

Jack Canfield was rejected 144 times before he found a publisher for his book, Chicken Soup for the Soul. When Jack told the publisher he wanted to sell 1.5 million books in the first 18 months, the publisher laughed and said he’d be lucky to sell 20,000. That first book sold more than 8 million copies in America and 10 million copies around the world. Canfield’s book brand is now a $1 Billion brand.

The artist genius of the ages is Michelangelo. His competitors once tried to set him up for failure or force him to forgo a commission because of the possibility of failure. Michelangelo’s competitors persuaded Junius II to assign to him a relatively obscure and difficult project. It was to fresco the ceiling of a private chapel. The chapel had already been copiously decorated with frescoes by many talented artists. Michelangelo would be commissioned to decorate the tunnel-vaulted ceiling. In this way, his rivals thought they would divert his energies from sculpture, in which they realized he was supreme. This, they argued, would make things hopeless for him, since he had no experience in fresco, he would certainly, they believed, do amateurish work as a painter. Without doubt, they thought, he would be compared unfavorably with Raphael, and even if the work were a success, being forced to do it would make him angry with the Pope, and thus one way or another they would succeed in their purpose of getting rid of him.

Michelangelo, protesting that painting was not his art, still took on the project. In every way it was a challenging task. He had never used color, nor had he painted in fresco. He executed the frescos in great discomfort, having to work with his face looking upwards, which impaired his sight so badly that he could not read or look at drawings save with his head turned backwards, and this lasted for several months. In that awkward curved space, Michelangelo managed to depict the history of the Earth from the Creation to Noah, surrounded by ancestors and prophets of Jesus and finally revealing the liberation of the soul. His enemies had stage managed the masterpiece that quickly established him as the artist genius of the age. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………. . . . . .

Take one of your failed ideas and use the technique described in ThinkPak to elaborate and modify it into something new. Amaze yourself.

Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change

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 is occurring. The illustration below appears to have no meaning.  If you continue looking at it from your initial perspective, you will see nothing.  If, however, you step back from your computer and view the illustration from a distance or from an angle, you will see a message.

bad eyes

When Leonardo daVinci finished a painting, he would always look at it from a far distance to get a different perspective.  By distancing yourself from the pattern, you changed your perception of it, thereby allowing yourself to see something that you could not otherwise see. 

Our perceptual positions determine how we view things.  In the illustration below, if you sit still and focus on the dot in the center, you see two broken line circles.  However, if you change your perspective by moving your head backwards and forward, something strange will happen.

moving circles


Michael Michalko



How is a burdock similar to a zipper?

Gorge de Mestral, a Swiss inventor, wanted to improve the ordinary zipper. He looked for a better and easier way to fasten things. George’s thinking was inclusive as he was always trying to connect all sorts of things with the “essence of fastening” (e.g., how do windows fasten, how does a bird fasten its nest to a branch, how do wasps fasten their hives, how do mountain climbers fasten themselves to the mountain and so on). One day he took his dog for a nature hike. They both returned covered with burrs, the plant like seed-sacs that cling to animal fur in order to travel to fertile new planting grounds.

He made the analogical-metaphorical connection between burrs and zippers when he examined the small hooks that enabled the seed-bearing burr to cling so viciously to the tiny loops in the fabric of his pants. The key feature of George de Mestral’ thinking was his conceptual connection between patterns of a burr and patterns of a zipper. He bounced what I mean is that he had to take chances as to what aspects of a “burr” pattern matter, and what doesn’t. Perhaps shapes count, but not textures–or vice versa. Perhaps orientation count, but not sizes–or vice versa. Perhaps curvature or its lack counts and so on until he got it.

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

De Mestral’s thinking inspired him to invent a two-sided fastener (two-sided like a zipper), one side with stiff hooks like the burrs and the other side with soft loops like the fabric of his pants. He called his invention “Velcro,” which is itself a combination of the word velour and crochet. Velcro is not a burr + a zipper. It is a blend of the two into an original idea.

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

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

Thought Experiment

.EX.BONGARD (2) (1024x1024)

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

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

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

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

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


Scroll down for the answer.












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



What Would You Have Done?

report carda

The above is a copy of a school report for Nobel prize winner, Dr John Gurdon, from his days studying Biology at Eton College. His professor a Mister Gaddum noted that for Gurdon to study science would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part, and on the part of those teachers who have to teach him.

My question is: If you were John’s parent, would you have discouraged his interest in science and directed his attention to another field of study?

Dr. Gurdon said that this was the only item about him that he ever framed. It hangs on a wall behind his desk as a reminder to trust your own instincts. It was at Oxford as a postgraduate student that he published his groundbreaking research on genetics and proved for the first time that every cell in the body contains the same genes. He did so by taking a cell from an adult frog’s intestine, removing its genes and implanting them into an egg cell, which grew into a clone of the adult frog.  The idea was controversial at the time because it contradicted previous studies by much more senior scientists, and it was a decade before the then-graduate student’s work became widely accepted.

But it later led directly to the subsequent discovery by Prof Yamanaka that adult cells can be “reprogrammed” into stem cells for use in medicine. This means that cells from someone’s skin can be made into stem cells which, in turn, can turn into any type of tissue in the body, meaning they can replace diseased or damaged tissue in patients.

Not allowing yourself to get discouraged by others is the most important lesson Dr. Gurdon learned in his life. Trust your own instincts. 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.


(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.



We have not been taught how to think for ourselves, we have been taught what to think based on what past thinkers thought. We are taught to think reproductively, not productively. What most people call thinking is simply reproducing what others have done in the past. We have been trained to seek out the neural path of least resistance, searching out responses that have worked in the past, rather than approach a problem on its own terms.

Educators discourage us from looking for alternatives to prevailing wisdom. When confronted with a problem, we are taught to analytically select the most promising approach based on past history, excluding all other approaches and then to work logically within a carefully defined direction towards a solution. Instead of being taught to look for possibilities, we are taught to look for ways to exclude them. This kind of thinking is dehumanizing and naturalizes intellectual laziness which promotes an impulse toward doing whatever is easiest or doing nothing at all. It’s as if we entered school as a question mark and graduated as a period.

Once when I was a young student, I was asked by my teacher, “What is one-half of thirteen?” I answered six and one half or 6.5. However, I exclaimed there are many different ways to express thirteen and many different to halve something. For example, you can spell thirteen, then halve it (e.g., thir/teen). Now half of thirteen becomes four (four letters in each half). Or, you can express it numerically as 13, and now halving 1/3 gives you 1 and 3. Another way to express a 13 is to express it in Roman numerals as XIII and now halving XI/II gives you XI and II, or eleven and two. Consequently one-half of thirteen is now eleven and two. Or you can even take XIII, divide it horizontally in two (XIII) and half of thirteen becomes VIII or 8.

My teacher scolded me for being silly and wasting the class’s time by playing games. She said there is only one right answer to the question about thirteen. It is six and one-half or 6.5. All others are wrong. I’ll never forget what she said “When I ask you a question, answer it the way you were taught or say you don’t know. If you want to get a passing grade, stop making stuff up.”

When we learn something, we are taught to program it into our brain and stop thinking about or looking for alternatives. Over time these programs become stronger and stronger, not only cognitively but physiologically as well. To get a sense of how strong these programs are, try solving the following problem.

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. Following is an interesting experiment, which was originally conducted by the British psychologist Peter Wason that demonstrates this attitude. 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 most people will initially say, “4, 6, 8,” or “20, 22, 24,” or some similar sequence. And Watson would say, yes, that is an example of a number rule. Then they will say, “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 are confident that the rule is numbers increasing by two without exploring alternative possibilities.

Actually, the rule Wason was looking for is much simpler– it’s simply numbers increasing. They 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 had to say was 1, 2, 3 to Watson to test it and it would be affirmed. Or, for example, a subject could throw out any series of numbers, for example, 5, 4, and 3 to see if they got a positive or negative answer. And that information would tell them a lot about whether their guess about the rule is true.

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. In his hundreds of experiments, he, incredibly, 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 is a simpler or even, another, rule.

On the other hand, creative thinkers have a vivid awareness of the world around them and when they think, they seek to include rather than exclude alternatives and possibilities. They have a “lantern awareness” that brings the whole environment to the forefront of their attention. So, by the way, do children before they are educated. This kind of awareness is how you feel when you visit a foreign country; you focus less on particulars and experience everything more globally because so much is unfamiliar.

I am reminded of a story about a student who protested when his answer was marked wrong on a physics degree exam at the University of Copenhagen. The imaginative student was purportedly Niels Bohr who years later was co-winner of the Nobel Prize for physics.

In answer to the question, “How could you measure the height of a skyscraper using a barometer?” he was expected to explain that the barometric pressures at the top and the bottom of the building are different, and by calculating, he could determine the building’s height. Instead, he answered, “You tie a long piece of string to the neck of the barometer, then lower the barometer from the roof of the skyscraper to the ground. The length of the string plus the length of the barometer will equal the height of the building.

This highly original answer so incensed the examiner that the student was failed immediately. The student appealed on the grounds that his answer was indisputably correct, and the university appointed an independent arbiter to decide the case.

The arbiter judged that the answer was indeed correct, but did not display any noticeable knowledge of physics. To resolve the problem it was decided to call the student in and allow him six minutes in which to provide a verbal answer that showed at least a minimal familiarity with the basic principles of physics.

For five minutes the student sat in silence, forehead creased in thought. The arbiter reminded him that time was running out, to which the student replied that he had several extremely relevant answers, but couldn’t make up his mind which to use. On being advised to hurry up the student replied as follows:

“Firstly, you could take the barometer up to the roof of the skyscraper, drop it over the edge, and measure the time it takes to reach the ground. The height of the building can then be worked out from the formula H = 0.5g x t squared. But bad luck on the barometer.”

“Or if the sun is shining you could measure the height of the barometer, then set it on end and measure the length of its shadow. Then you measure the length of the skyscraper’s shadow, and thereafter it is a simple matter of proportional arithmetic to work out the height of the skyscraper.”

“But if you wanted to be highly scientific about it, you could tie a short piece of string to the barometer and swing it like a pendulum, first at ground level and then on the roof of the skyscraper. The height is worked out by the difference in the gravitational restoring force T =2 pi sqr root (I /9).”

“Or if the skyscraper has an outside emergency staircase, it would be easier to walk up it and mark off the height of the skyscraper in barometer lengths, then add them up.”

“If you merely wanted to be boring and orthodox about it, of course, you could use the barometer to measure the air pressure on the roof of the skyscraper and on the ground, and convert the difference in millibars into feet to give the height of the building.”

“But since we are constantly being exhorted to exercise independence of mind and apply scientific methods, undoubtedly the best way would be to knock on the janitor’s door and say to him ‘If you would like a nice new barometer, I will give you this one if you tell me the height of this skyscraper’.”

The obvious moral here is that education should not consist merely of stuffing students’ heads full of information and formulae to be memorized by rote and regurgitated upon demand, but of teaching students how to think and solve problems using whatever tools are available. In the mangled words of a familiar phrase, students should be educated in a way that enables them to figure out their own ways of catching fish, not simply taught a specific method of fishing.



Visit Michael Michalko’s creative thinking website:

Creative Thinking Technique: Combine Ideas from Different Domains

Many breakthroughs are based on combining information from different domains that are usually not thought of as related. Integration, synthesis both across and within domains, is the norm rather than the exception. Ravi Shankar found ways to integrate and harmonize the music of India and Europe; Paul Klee combined the influences of cubism, children’s drawings, and primitive art to fashion his own unique artistic style; Salvador Dali integrated Einstein’s theory of relativity into his masterpiece Nature Morte Vivante, which artistically depicts several different objects simultaneously in motion and rest. And almost all scientists cross and recross the boundaries of physics, chemistry, and biology in the work that turns out to be their most creative.

ASK PEOPLE IN DIFFERENT DOMAINS FOR IDEAS. Another way to combine talent is to elicit advice and information about your subject from people who work in different domains. Interestingly, Leonardo da Vinci met and worked with Niccolô Machiavelli, the Italian political theorist, in Florence in 1503. The two men worked on several projects together, including a novel weapon of war: the diversion of a river. Professor Roger Masters of Dartmouth College speculates that Leonardo introduced Machiavelli to the concept of applied science. Years later, Machiavelli combined what he learned from Leonardo with his own insights about politics into a new political and social order that some believe ultimately sparked the development of modern industrial society.

Jonas Salk, developer of the vaccine that eradicated polio, made it a standard practice to interact with men and women from very different domains. He felt this practice helped to bring out ideas that could not arise in his own mind or in the minds of people in his own restricted domain. Look for ways to elicit ideas from people in other fields. Ask three to five people who work in other departments or professions for their ideas about your problem. Ask your dentist, your accountant, your mechanic, etc. Describe the problem and ask how they would solve it.

Listen intently and write down the ideas before you forget them. Then, at a later time, try integrating all or parts of their ideas into your idea. This is what Robert Bunsen, the chemist who invented the familiar Bunsen burner, did with his problem. He used the color of a chemical sample in a gas flame for a rough determination of the elements it contained. He was puzzled by the many shortcomings of the technique that he and his colleagues were unable to overcome, despite their vast knowledge of chemistry. Finally, he casually described the problem to a friend, Kirchhoff, a physicist, who immediately suggested using a prism to display the entire spectrum and thus get detailed information. This suggestion was the breakthrough that led to the science of spectrography and later to the modern science of cosmology.

EXAMPLES. Physicists in a university assembled a huge magnet for a research project. The magnet was highly polished because of the required accuracy of the experiment. Accidentally, the magnet attracted some iron powder that the physicists were unable to remove without damaging the magnet in some way. They asked other teachers in an interdepartmental meeting for their ideas and suggestions. An art instructor came up with the solution immediately, which was to use modeling clay to remove the powder.

The CEO of a software company looked for ways to motivate employees to participate more actively in the creative side of the business. They wanted employee ideas for new processes, new products, improvements, new technologies and so on. He tried many things but nothing seemed to excite and energize employees to become more creative.

One evening at a dinner with some of his friends he mentioned his problem and asked them for ideas. After a brief discussion, a friend who was a stockbroker suggested thinking ways to parallel ideas with stocks. Look for ways for people to buy and sell ideas the same way his customers study, buy and sell stocks on the stock exchange.

The CEO was intrigued with the novelty of the idea and he and his stockbroker friend looked for patterns between the stock exchange and an internal employee program. They blended the architecture of the stock exchange with the internal architecture of their company’s internal market to create the company’s own stock exchange for ideas. Their exchange is called Mutual Fun. Any employee can propose that the company acquire a new technology, enter a new business, make a new product or make an efficiency improvement. These proposals become stocks, complete with ticker symbols, discussion lists and e-mail alerts.

 Fifty-five stocks are listed on the company’s internal stock exchange. Each stock comes with a detailed description — called an expectus, as opposed to a prospectus — and begins trading at a price of $10. Every employee gets $10,000 in “opinion money” to allocate among the offerings, and employees signal their enthusiasm by investing in a stock and, better yet, volunteering to work on the project. Employees buy or sell the stocks, and prices change to reflect the sentiments of the company’s executives, engineers, computer scientists, project managers, marketing, sales, accountants and even the receptionist.

The result has been a resounding success. Among the company’s ‘ core technologies are pattern-recognition algorithms used in military applications, as well as for electronic gambling systems at casinos. A member of the administrative staff, with no technical expertise, thought that this technology might also be used in educational settings, to create an entertaining way for students to learn history or math. She started a stock called Play and Learn (symbol: PL), which attracted a rush of investment from engineers eager to turn her idea into a product. Lots of employees got passionate about the idea and it led to a new line of business.

INVITE OTHER DEPARTMENTS TO JOIN YOUR BRAINSTORMING SESSION. If you’re brainstorming a business problem in a group, try asking another department to join yours. For example, if you are in advertising and want to create a new product advertising campaign, ask people from manufacturing to join your session. Separate the advertising and manufacturing people into two groups. Each group brainstorms for ideas separately. Then combine the groups and integrate the ideas.


cc.3For more ideas on how to combine dissimilar subjects to create new ideas read Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius by Michael Michalko



What the CIA Discovered about Smiling

Mona LisaOur attitudes influence our behavior. But it’s also true that our behavior can influence our attitudes. The Greek philosopher Diogenes was once noticed begging a statue. His friends were puzzled and alarmed at this behavior. Asked the reason for this pointless behavior, Diogenes replied, “I am practicing the art of being rejected.” By pretending to be rejected continually by the statue, Diogenes was learning to understand the mind of a beggar. Every time we pretend to have an attitude and go through the motions, we trigger the emotions we pretend to have and strengthen the attitude we wish to cultivate. 

You become what you pretend to be. The surrealist artist Salvador Dalí was pathologically shy as a child. He hid in closets and avoided all human contact, until his uncle counseled him on how to overcome this shyness. He advised Dalí to be an actor and to pretend he played the part of an extrovert. At first Dalí was full of doubts. But when he adopted the pose of an extrovert, his brain soon adapted itself to the role he was playing. Dalí’s pretense changed his psychology. 

Think for a moment about social occasions — visits, dates, dinners out with friends, birthday parties, weddings, and other gatherings. Even when we’re unhappy or depressed, these occasions force us to act as if we are happy. Observing others’ faces, postures, and voices, we unconsciously mimic their reactions. We synchronize our movements, postures, and tones of voice with theirs. Then, by mimicking happy people, we become happy. 

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

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


  • Lower your eyebrows.
  • Raise your upper eyelids.
  • Narrow your eyelids.
  • Press your lips together. 

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

The next time you’re feeling depressed and want to feel happy and positive, try this: put a pen between your teeth, in far enough so that it stretches the edges of your mouth out to the left and right without feeling uncomfortable. Hold it there for five minutes or so. You’ll find yourself inexplicably in a happy mood. You will amaze yourself at fast your facial expressions can change your emotions. 

In a further experiment, the CIA researchers had one group of subjects listen to recordings of top comedians and look at a series of cartoons. At the same time, each person held a pen pressed between his or her lips — an action that makes it impossible to smile. Individ­uals in another group each held a pen between his or her teeth, which had the opposite effect and made them smile. 

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


Psychologist Theodore Velten created a mood induction procedure in 1969 that psychologists have used for over forty years to induce a posi­tive mind-set, especially in psychology experiments. It’s a simple approach that involves reading, reflecting on, and trying to feel the effects of some fifty-eight positive affirmations as they wash over you. The statements start out being fairly neutral and then become progressively more positive. They are specifically designed to produce a euphoric state of mind. 

Velten’s Instructions: Read each of the following statements to yourself. As you look at each one, focus your observation only on that one. You should not spend too much time on any one statement. To experience the mood suggested in the statement, you must be willing to accept and respond to the idea. Allow the emotion in the statement to act upon you. Then try to produce the feeling suggested by each statement. Visualize a scene in which you experienced such a feeling. Imagine reliving the scene. The entire exercise should take about ten minutes. 


  1. Today is neither better nor worse than any other day.
  2. I do feel pretty good today, though.
  3. I feel lighthearted.
  4. This might turn out to have been one of my good days.
  5. If your attitude is good, then things are good, and my attitude is good.
  6. I feel cheerful and lively.
  7. I’ve certainly got energy and self-confidence to share.
  8. On the whole, I have very little difficulty in thinking clearly.
  9. My friends and family are pretty proud of me most of the time.
  10. I’m in a good position to make a success of things.
  11. For the rest of the day, I bet things will go really well.
  12. I’m pleased that most people are so friendly to me.
  13. My judgments about most things are sound.
  14. The more I get into things, the easier they become for me.
  15. I’m full of energy and ambition — I feel like I could go a long time without sleep.
  16. This is one of those days when I can get things done with practically no effort at all.
  17. My judgment is keen and precise today. Just let someone try to put something over on me.
  18. When I want to, I can make friends extremely easily.
  19. If I set my mind to it, I can make things turn out fine.
  20. I feel enthusiastic and confident now.
  21. There should be opportunity for a lot of good times coming along.
  22. My favorite songs keep going through my mind.
  23. Some of my friends are so lively and optimistic.
  24. I feel talkative — I feel like talking to almost anybody.
  25. I’m full of energy, and am really getting to like the things I’m doing.
  26. I feel like bursting with laughter — I wish somebody would tell a joke and give me an excuse.
  27. I feel an exhilarating animation in all I do.
  28. My memory is in rare form today.
  29. I’m able to do things accurately and efficiently.
  30. I know good and well that I can achieve the goals I set.
  31. Now that it occurs to me, most of the things that have depressed me wouldn’t have if I’d just had the right attitude.
  32. I have a sense of power and vigor.
  33. I feel so vivacious and efficient today — sitting on top of the world.
  34. It would really take something to stop me now.
  35. In the long run, it’s obvious that things have gotten better and better during my life.
  36. I know in the future I won’t overemphasize so-called “problems.”
  37. I’m optimistic that I can get along very well with most of the people I meet.
  38. I’m too absorbed in things to have time for worry.
  39. I’m feeling amazingly good today.
  40. I am particularly inventive and resourceful in this mood.
  41. I feel superb! I think I can work to the best of my ability.
  42. Things look good. Things look great!
  43. I feel that many of my friendships will stick with me in the future.
  44. I feel highly perceptive and refreshed.
  45. I can find the good in almost everything.
  46. In a buoyant mood like this one, I can work fast and do it right the first time.
  47. I can concentrate hard on anything I do.
  48. My thinking is clear and rapid.
  49. Life is so much fun; it seems to offer so many sources of fulfillment.
  50. Things will be better and better today.
  51. I can make decisions rapidly and correctly, and I can defend them against criticisms easily.
  52. I feel industrious as heck — I want something to do!
  53. Life is firmly in my control.
  54. I wish somebody would play some good, loud music!
  55. This is great — I really do feel good. I am elated about things!
  56. I’m really feeling sharp now.
  57. This is just one of those days when I’m ready to go!
  58. Wow, I feel great! 

You’ll find yourself feeling good about yourself and thinking harmonious thoughts. When you are in a good mood, you find your body exhibiting it in your behavior. You’ll smile, and you’ll walk briskly. 


Leonardo da Vinci once observed that it’s no mystery why it is fun to be around happy people and depressing to be around depressed people. He also observed a melancholy atmosphere in many portraits. He attributed that to the solitariness of artists and their environment. According to Giorgio Vasari, Leonardo, while painting the Mona Lisa, employed singers, musicians, and jesters to chase away his melancholy as he painted. As a result, he painted a smile so pleasing that it seems divine and as alive as the original. 


To discover the creative thinking techniques creative geniuses have used throughout history in the arts, sciences and business read CRACKING CREATIVITY by Michael Michalko. CREATIVITY.2





Test Your Flexible Thinking Skills

Associating seemingly disparate elements in new ways by finding a novel connection between them is the backbone of creativity. It is also the backbone of this book. To associate elements in new ways, you must think flexibly. Flexibility of thought is the ability to produce a large number of original ideas.

For a quick test of your mental flexibility, try the Remote Associates Test developed by Martha Mednick. For each set of three words, the goal is to find an associated word that all three have in common. For example, the words “wheel,” “electric,” and “high” can all be paired with “chair.”

  1. piggy               green               lash               __________
  2. surprise           line                   birthday       __________
  3. mark                shelf                 telephone    __________
  4. stick                 maker              tennis           __________
  5. blue                  cottage             cloth             __________
  6. motion            poke                 down            __________
  7. gem                  wall                  stepping       __________
  8. chorus             bee                   side               __________
  9. lunch               car                    gift                __________
  10. foul                  ground            pen                __________

How did you do? If you are like most people, you probably did not make all the associations.

In addition to thinking flexibly, one needs to use a variety of creative thinking techniques to keep your creative fire stoked, you need variety. Variety is the essence of all sensation; our senses are designed to respond to change and contrast. When a stimulus is unchanging or repetitious, sensation disappears.

Hold your hand over one eye and stare at the dot in the middle of the circle. After a few moments, the circle will fade and disappear. It will only reappear if you blink or shift your gaze to the X.

Disappearing dot



What happens is that the receptors in your eye get “tired” and stop responding, and nerve cells higher up in your sensory system switch off. This process is called sensory adaptation. You become blind to what is right before your eyes. The same phenomenon explains what is going on when you can no longer smell a gas leak that you noticed when you first entered the kitchen.

When your method for getting ideas is routine and unchanging, your imagination gets bored and switches off. One might term it “imagination adaptation.” You become blind to the opportunities right before your eyes, but do not realize it until someone else points out your blindness. Then, and only then, can you see what you had been looking at all along. If you can no longer recall your last original idea, you are suffering from this condition.

(The answers to the remote associates are: back, party, book, match, cheese, slow, stone, line, box, and play.)


For a variety of creative thinking techniques read Michael Michalko’s Thinkertoys. COVER.Thinkertoys

Creative Geniuses Are Geniuses Because They Know How To Form Novel Combinations Between Dissimilar Subjects


Creative geniuses do not get their breakthrough ideas because they are more intelligent, better educated, or more experienced, or because creativity is genetically determined. Psychologist Dr. Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California researches a diversity of topics having to do with genius and creativity. One of his major conclusions is that geniuses are geniuses because they form more novel combinations than the merely talented. Creative thinkers form more novel combinations because they routinely conceptually blend objects, concepts, and ideas from two different contexts or categories that logical thinkers conventionally consider separate.

It is the conceptual blending of dissimilar concepts that leads to original ideas and insights.
In nature, a rich mixture of any two forces will produce patterns. For example, pour water on a flat, polished surface. The water will spread out in a unique pattern of drops. The pattern is created by two forces: gravity and surface tension. Gravity spreads the water, and surface tension causes the water molecules to join together in drops. It is the combination of the two different forces that creates the unique, complex pattern of drops.

Similarly, when two dissimilar or two totally unrelated subjects are conceptually blended together in the imagination, new complex patterns are formed that create new ideas. The two subjects cross-catalyze each other like two chemicals that both must be present in order for a new concept, product, or idea to form. This strongly resembles the creative process of genetic recombination in nature. Chromosomes exchange genes to create emergent new beings. Think of elements and patterns of ideas as genes that combine and recombine to create new patterns that lead to new ideas.

Educators could better help students understand the nature of creative thinking by offering examples of how creative thinkers actually created their ideas. Take, for example, Jake Ritty’s invention of the simple cash register we all take for granted. Jake Ritty’s invention is an example of combining two elements from two totally unrelated fields into an insightful solution. In 1879, Jake, a restaurant owner, was traveling by ship to Europe. During the voyage, the passengers took a tour of the ship. In the engine room, Jake was captivated by the machine that recorded the number of times the ship’s propeller rotated. What he saw in this machine was the idea of “a machine that counts.”

Ritty was thinking inclusively. His goal was to make his work as a restaurant owner easier and more profitable. Looking at his world, he examined it for patterns and for analogies to what he already knew. When he saw in the engine room the machine that counted the number of times a ship’s propeller rotated, he asked, “How would the process of mechanically counting something make my restaurant more profitable?” A mental spark jumped from his thinking about the ship to his thinking about his restaurant business when he conceptually combined a machine that counts propeller rotations with counting money.

He was so excited by his insight that he caught the next ship home to work on his invention. Back in Ohio, using the same principles that went into the design of the ship’s machine, he made a machine that could add items and record the amounts. This hand-operated machine, which he started using in his restaurant, was the first cash register. Understanding how Jake got his idea is understanding the process of creative thinking.

To say that the lawn mower was invented in the cloth-making industry may sound absurd, but that is precisely where it was invented. Edwin Budding worked in a cloth factory in England in the early part of the nineteenth century. During those days, the surface of the cloth produced by the factory was fuzzy and had to be trimmed smooth. This was done by a machine with revolving blades fixed between rollers.

Budding loved the outdoors and maintained a lawn on his property. What he found tiresome was trimming the grass, which had to be done with a long, heavy handheld tool called a scythe. Making a analogical connection between trimming the cloth and trimming the lawn, he built a machine with long blades and two wheels. He also attached a shaft to this machine so that one could push it without bending down. And so, in 1831, the first lawn mower was built.

Mixing ideas from unrelated domains energizes your imagination and lets you think of possibilities you would otherwise ignore. How are industrial management techniques related to heart by-pass surgery? Heart surgeons in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont reduced the death rate among their heart bypass patients by one-fourth by incorporating the business management techniques of W. Edwards Deming, a leading industrial consultant. His techniques emphasized teamwork and cooperation over competition. Doctors usually function as individual craftspeople without sharing information. Following Deming’s industrial model, they began to operate as teams, visiting and observing each other and sharing information about how they practiced.

Combining the patterns of two dissimilar concepts in your imagination transcends logical thinking and makes the creation of novel combinations possible. This is creative thinking.

Read Michael Michalko’s Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work to learn more about how creative geniuses get their ideas.

Are You Following the Calf’s Trail Imbedded in Your Mind?

Newborn Hereford Calf

One day thru the primeval wood
A calf walked home, as good calves should;
But made a trail, all bent askew,
A crooked trail, as all calves do.
Since then 300 years have fled,
And I infer the calf is dead.
But still, he left behind his trail
And thereby hangs my mortal tale.

The trail was taken up next day
By a lone dog that passed that way.
And then, a wise bellwether sheep
Pursued the trail, o’er vale and steep,
And drew the flocks behind him too
As good bellwethers always do.
And from that day, o’er hill and glade
Thru those old woods, a path was made.

And many men would in and out
And dodged, and turned, and bent about,
And uttered words of righteous wrath
Because ‘twas such a crooked path
But still they followed; do not laugh
The first migrations of the calf.
And thru the winding woods they stalked
Because he wobbled when he walked.

This forest path became a lane
That bent, and turned, and turned again.
This crooked lane became a road
Where many a poor horse with his load
Toiled beneath the burning sun
And traveled some three miles in one.
And thus a century and a half
They trod the footsteps of that calf.

The years passed on in swiftness fleet,
The road became a village street.
And thus, before men were aware,
A city’s crowded thoroughfare.
And soon the central street was this
Of a renown metropolis.
And men, two centuries and a half
Trod the footsteps of that calf.

Each day a 100 thousand route
Followed the zigzag calf about.
And o’er his crooked journey went
The traffic of a continent.
A 100 thousand men were led
By one calf, near three centuries dead.
They followed still his crooked way
And lost 100 years per day.
For thus such reverence is lent
To well established precedent.

A moral lesson this might teach
Were I ordained, and called to preach.
For men are proud to go it blind
Along the calf paths of the mind,
And work away from sun to sun
To do what other men have done.
They follow in the beaten track,
And out, and in, and forth, and back,
And still their devious course pursue
To keep the paths that others do.

They keep the paths a sacred groove
Along which all their lives they move.
But now the wise old wood gods laugh
Who saw that first primeval calf.
Ah, many things this tale might teach,
But I am not ordained to preach.