Q&A: Michael Michalko, creative thinking expert
As a consultant for Fortune 500 companies and government agencies, Michael Michalko knows how to bring out the creativity in even the most uninspired mind. Michalko, the author of Thinkertoys and Creative Thinkering, spoke with me last week about how school teaches us to be less creative, the role of creativity in business and how to use thought experiments to expand our minds. Below are excerpts from our interview.
You wrote in Creative Thinkering, ‘In school you are taught to define, label and segregate what you learn into separate categories. The various categories are kept separate and not allowed to touch each other, much like ice cubes in a tray. Once something is learned and categorized, your thoughts about it become frozen.’ Do we do the same thing in the business world?
I think we do it in the business world because we’re educated to do that. We are all born creative, spontaneous thinkers. Then we go to school. We enter school as a question mark and graduate as a period. In school, we’re taught not how to think. We’re taught what to think. We’re taught to think reproductively. Whenever we’re confronted with a problem, we’re taught to fixate on something in the past, on how someone else had solved that problem. We analytically select the best approach and apply it to the problem.
Creative geniuses throughout history were self-taught. [Albert] Einstein’s parents were told he was mentally disturbed and later on he was expelled from elementary school because he was a bad influence on serious students. We’re not taught in school how badly these creative geniuses did in school. They intuitively knew to think productively. Whenever you have a problem, you generate as many alternatives and possibilities as you can. In school, we’re taught to think with Aristotelian logic. It’s either A or not A. The sky is either blue or not blue. But reality is different. Reality is that the sky is a million different shades of blue.
It’s not a coincidence that people who do great things in the business world, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, were college dropouts. Of all the MBAs we have, not one MBA has created a new industry that I know of. That’s incredible. MBAs are taught to do things in a linear, logical way and, above all, avoid any surprises. When a business is created by an entrepreneur, like Fred Smith of Federal Express, they do it with productive thinking. After they leave, the corporations come in with business-attuned people, people who only think reproductively. They’re thinking in terms of money and profit. The company takes no risk and eventually goes down the tube.
How can we be more creative in business?
When the company 3M started, they manufactured adhesives for industry. The created a tape, but nobody bought it. They told the engineer that it was a failed product. The engineer took the tape home and noticed his daughters playing with it. He came back the next day and said, ‘We have a consumer product, not an industrial product.’ That was Scotch tape. 3M has management that was innovative and creative. They accepted his idea. There’s a great fear of creativity at the corporate level. All corporations say they want creativity and need creativity. They understand why creativity and innovation are necessary for survival. But few of these major corporations are willing to take a risk because we’re taught not to. We’re taught to not do something unless you’re certain. You have to approach problems on their own terms, not in terms of what others have done in the past. You have to come up with as many ideas as you can, knowing many will not work.
There is no such thing as failure. Failure has no meaning. When someone says they failed, they created a result. Did you discover something you didn’t know before? Can you explain something from this result you couldn’t explain before. When he was working on the filament for his lightbulb, Thomas Edison failed 5,000 times before finding the right material. His assistant said, ‘Why don’t you give up?’ Edison said, ‘But I’ve discovered 5,000 things that don’t work.’ It’s trial and error. One of my greatest lessons in life was when I was in the military. I went out on a reconnaissance mission to find the enemy. We came back and I reported to the colonel. I said, ‘We failed. We couldn’t find them.’ He said, ‘You found out where the enemy is not.’ They created this big offensive and it succeeded. Everything I learned about creativity wasn’t in school, but in life, especially the military.
That reminds me of another section of your book, in which you describe how speaking in a more positive way can affect how we think. Talk about that.
In the military, I was in the special forces. It’s very difficult training. When I entered training, I didn’t think I could make it. The captain said, ‘Every day, say to yourself, I’m getting stronger and stronger. You become what you pretend to me.’ I kept saying that and, before long, I believed it. Going through the motions made me believe it. Once I believed it, that was it. I passed all the tests. Your attitude influences your behavior, but just as importantly, your behavior influences your attitude. You can pretend to be something, which is what I was doing, but if you go through the motions of doing it, you become it.
Salvador Dali, the surrealist artist, was morbidly shy when he was a young boy. He would hide in the basement when people came to the house. He would turn red if someone tried to talk to him on the street. His uncle one day said, ‘Here’s a secret to life. Be an actor. If you want to be an artist, act as if you’re an artist. Be eccentric and wild. You might not believe it, but keep acting the part.’ That’s what Dali did. At first, it was hard to believe. But before he realized it, he became the eccentric artist he wanted to be. You become what you pretend to be because your behavior will influence your attitude.
Does that work with creativity, too? If you want to be more creative, act the part?
Absolutely. Look at Leonardo Da Vinci. He had no university training and read few books, but he was convinced he knew as much as anybody. He realized that it’s impossible for the human mind to think of two dissimilar subjects simultaneously without a connection being formed. He wrote about this as his secret to creativity. In his workshop, whenever he wanted an idea, he’d put a sponge in a pail of paint and throw it at the wall. He’d look at what the blotches represented. One day, he was thinking about transportation. He threw the sponge at the wall and saw a figure that looked like a rider on a horse, but the horse looked like it had wheels. A horse with wheels and a rider inspired him to invent the bicycle.
People all have the ability to do this. They’ll become good at it if they go through the motions and do creative thinking techniques that children do all the time before they go to school.
Your books list dozens of ‘thought experiments’ to exercise the mind. Can you share one now?
Think about your subject and then list all your assumptions about it. Suppose you want to start a restaurant. You list the assumptions: restaurants serve food, they charge money, they have menus, they have tables and so on. Go through the assumptions and reverse them. Reverse the assumption that restaurants have menus to a restaurant with no menus. Make that into a realistic idea that could work. How can I start a restaurant with no menus when people have no idea what I’m serving? You could have a restaurant where the chef comes over to each table and tells diners what he bought at the meat market, fish market, vegetable market and so on. They can pick out the ingredients they like and the chef will create a dish. When they’re finished, the chef gives them a computer printout of the recipe he made up.
You’re provoking different thinking patterns in your mind. You’re getting away from how schools have hardwired you to think. I also use thought experiments to get people thinking about things in a different conceptual way.
What are the downsides to creativity?
Many people see negative consequences in creative people. If I do this and it fails, it’s the end of my career. That’s what some people think. But you have to have a passion to be a natural thinker and do what you think is right. Henry Ford went bankrupt three times. He realized he was just replicating what other people were doing in the manufacture of automobiles. He thought about how things are put together. One day, a friend invited him to a pig slaughterhouse. He saw a conveyor belt and assembly line. He said, ‘That’s the secret to automobile manufacturing.’ It’s how you bring the work to the people. It cost him a fraction of what his other bankrupt companies cost and he became the richest man in the country.
When did you realize your own creative potential and that you could teach other people to be more creative?
In the service, we were all instilled with a can-do attitude. Everything we said was positive. We always looked for ways to make things work and accomplish the mission. I don’t recall an instance when someone said, it can’t be done. The language was extremely important. When I came out to civilian life and the business world, the first thing I noticed was the negativity. Someone would come up with an idea in a brainstorming session and invariably everyone else would come up with reasons why it couldn’t work. That amazed me. No one was trying to do anything. They were trying to avoid making mistakes.
In my first civilian job, I was asked to set up an arm of this publishing house in Canada. My arm of the publishing house was the most profitable ever. The American arm had a terrible year. A year later, I came back to New York. The CEO came running over to me. I thought he was going to ask me what worked. He said, ‘Your bonus is as large as mine and I’m the CEO. That can’t work. I’m changing the bonus plan tomorrow.’ I quit. The mindset troubled me. Another thing that troubled me was that CEOs and top managers seemed to have no passion for what they were in. I started seeing that everywhere in the civilian world. The focus was money, not product and not the company.
Photo: Michael Michalko