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Becoming the Subject of Your Life

Interview with Creativity Expert Michael Michalko
Author: Jair Robles
Photographer: Wikipedia & Philippe Halsman

I’m always fascinated to hear stories about the lives of those men and women that I admire. Somehow hearing these stories and anecdotes makes them more human, which brings a stronger sense of hope and inspiration.

Many of them are people who have contributed to make significant changes in the areas of science, art, politics or business. Their names and deeds can be read in most history books and they are usually regarded as geniuses. But less is known about the way they came up with their ideas. What were they thinking when they came up with such insight? Are there some common traits amongst these men and women that we can learn and emulate?

Four years ago as we were creating our first issue, Redefining Genius, we came across a man who has dedicated his life to answer these questions. His name is Michael Michalko and is recognized as a creativity expert. At that time he wrote an article for us titled: How Geniuses Think.

It was a great surprise to receive and advanced copy of his latest book, Creative Thinkering, which is coming out in September. The book is filled with stories about the lives of some of the most regarded creative thinkers in history, as well as many thought experiments that help us develop our own creativity along the way.

SuperConsciousness caught up with Mr. Michalko to talk about his upcoming book and understand how we can gain greater awareness of the thought patterns that get in the way of our innate creativity and genius — and remind us to become the subjects of our lives.

Michael Michalko is the author of Creative Thinkering, Thinkertoys, Cracking Creativity, and ThinkPak. While being an army officer, he organized a team of NATO intelligence specialists and international academics to find the best inventive thinking method. He has expanded and taught these techniques to numerous Fortune 500 companies and organizations. He lives in Rochester, New York.


SuperConsciousness: What is your definition of genius?

MICHAEL MICHALKO: Geniuses are geniuses because they form more novel combinations than the merely talented. That observation comes from Dean Keith Simonton, who is a researcher in the creative process, teaches at the University of California, and has written many books on creativity and one of them was about genius. As a result of his research, he said: “Ideas can’t be created out of nothing. Ideas are created by you when you take something and combine it with something else.” Logical thinkers will exclude the things that can’t be combined and creative thinkers don’t exclude anything.

If you think about Darwin’s theory of evolution, nature creates many species through trial and error and lets natural selection decide which species survive. And out of the many species it creates, only a few survive. With evolution, if a gene pool lacks variation, over time the gene pool will convert to foolishness and will not survive. It needs variation.

In nature a gene pool gets variation by some random chance or unrelated event that ignores the parental chromosomes. And again, most of these do not survive. But the ones that survive create something new, a different species or different variation of the existing species that we have.

Now genius is tantamount to this theory of evolution, because genius requires an incredible production of many ideas. Of the many ideas only a few will survive. But then you need a way to vary the way you think about these ideas. You need variation of your thinking patterns. Like a genetic mutation, if you take something unrelated, dissimilar, a random subject, and combine it with your challenge, you force the connection between the two. The human mind is such that when we’re forced to look for connections between two dissimilar things, it will see connections.

Da Vinci discovered that and wrote about it in his notebooks as well: That it is impossible for the human to concentrate on two dissimilar subjects without a connection being formed. He talked about how he would get his ideas. He would throw a sponge full of paint against the wall and it would splatter and make all kinds of different images and patterns. He would look at the pattern and say this looks like a horse. Suppose he was trying to come up with a new mode of transportation, and he would say a horse, and the legs look like wheels. Then he might draw something that looks like a bicycle. He would make that kind of connection. It would provoke a different way for him to focus on the information and provide a new way for him to interpret what he’s focusing on.

Da Vinci called it connecting the unconnected. Genius comes from the ability to connect dissimilar things. You have to provoke different thinking patterns, and that’s what connecting the unconnected does.

SC: Based on your experience working with different groups of people, what seems to be the greatest block that prevents creative thinking?

MM: I think it’s a simple belief. Creative people believe they are creative and people who are not creative believe that they are not. And that’s because of what happens when we go to school. People tend to believe the conventional wisdom, which is that creativity is somehow an asset that only a few people have. If you’re not blessed with this ability, you’re expected to become a logical, analytical thinker. When we think we have limitations, that becomes a reality and we begin limiting ourselves.

Thomas Edison said his greatest blessing in life was the lack of a formal education. Because he said, had he gone to school, he would have realized that what he did was not possible to do.

We are taught to be reproductive thinkers. We are not taught how to think; we are taught what to think. When we are confronted with a problem, we fixate on something in our past or how someone else in the past has solved that problem and analytically select one of these past approaches that seems more suitable on a practical problem. Creative thinkers don’t think that way. They will approach every problem in as many different ways as they can and consequently they produce an incredible amount of ideas, many of which are bad, but they also include many ideas that have become breakthrough ideas in our society. So it’s a simple belief — if you believe you are creative, you will be.

Edison at the National Portrait Gallery

We are all born spontaneously creative. You give a box to a little child, and that box can be an airplane, could be a fort, a car, a school or a person. They are inclusive. They consider all possibilities. But when the child goes to school, they are taught to exclude possibilities and are taught that a box is a container and nothing else. They are taught to categorize and label things and limit possibilities. So they become exclusive thinkers.

The human mind is such that when we’re forced to look for connections between two dissimilar things, it will see connections.

SC: In your upcoming book you talk about speech and how it connects with our feelings, our thoughts and attitudes. Can you explain a little bit more about this connection?

MM: We have been taught to think in fragments, to isolate things like speech, behavior, attitude, and so on. But all these things are interrelated. And it’s the combination of all of these sorts of attributes that make up the person.

What you think becomes what you speak. Your speech determines how you act and how you act determines your habits. And what your habits are will determine your character. And your character will determine your destiny.

The CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) did a lot of research. They were trying to profile people and they were trying to determine if a person’s facial expressions affects the way they feel and think.  So in one experiment, two experimenters put a pencil in their mouth and kept their smile rigid all day. They’re forcing a smile all day. The next day they came in and one said, “You know, I never felt better in my life than I did yesterday.” The other one said, “I had the same experience.” So then they positioned the pencil in a way to make them frown all day. And then they came back and said, “Man, I was depressed all day yesterday.” They realized that just the simple act of frowning or smiling determined their feeling of well-being or not feeling well. It was an incredible insight to them.

Salvador Dalí, the surrealist artist, was pathologically shy as a young boy. He used to hide in the cellar whenever they had visitors. His uncle, who became concerned about him, one day said: Salvador the way to get out in the world is to pretend you are somebody else. You love art, so pretend you are a great artist. Play the part of an actor, and act the part of a great artist, which he did. And before long, he became a great artist. Just acting the part you become what you pretend to be.

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The Dali Atomicus, photo by Philippe Halsman (1948), shown before its supporting wires were removed

You’ll notice that when you read the biographies of all these creative people, they all speak in a positive language. They are always talking about what is, not what is not. They are always talking about what they can do, not what they can’t do. They are always joyful, happy and positive, and always believe that they can do anything because they are like little children.

Many researchers have come and found childlike qualities in those creative geniuses like Einstein and Freud and so on. They are just playing and having a good time in life and they exhibit this in the way they act and speak and produce.

SC: Tied to what you just mentioned. How does intention relate to speech and attitude? What would be the most probable result if, for example, somebody would say everyday, “I am a genius”?

MM: If you say, “I am genius. I am creative. I can do whatever I wish to do” — suppose I say, I want to create a canoe and know nothing about canoes, but now I have the intention to make a canoe. Now this intention will focus my conscious and subconscious minds on what the criteria for a canoe are. A canoe is made out of wood, so I suddenly start looking at trees, but I’m looking at them now, and going, what criteria should I use? What tree would be a good tree? What kind of wood would be a good wood? And I do some research on that. I cut down the tree and my intention will lead me to get a plan for how to make a canoe. And because I’m fixated — I have this intention to make a canoe — I’ll suddenly start seeing ideas in my environment all around me.

What you think becomes what you speak. Your speech determines how you act and how you act determines your habits. And what your habits are will determine your character. And your character will determine your destiny.

I might see them at home or at work or on my way to work. I look at a refrigerator and get an idea for the canoe. It’s because my mind is now focused. We are bombarded with all kinds of stimuli every day, but you have to have the intention. And by intention I mean you have to have the willingness to act.

Intention will drive you to hold the criteria, which will help you fixate on what you can accomplish. But without the intention you have nothing.

SC: What can we do to overcome self-doubt and how are we to interpret the adversity that comes as we change?

Henry Ford, Thomas Alva Edison, and Harvey
Samuel Firestone - the fathers of modernity

MM: When you look at the life of creative geniuses, they were all the subjects of their life. They were all taught and told they couldn’t do what they did. Henry Ford was told he couldn’t get into the automobile industry because he lacked the capital, and he couldn’t compete with these companies because it cost a lot of money to bring people to do the work.

Well that didn’t bother him at all, because he took that as a challenge. How can I do this in a way that I can afford? How can I cut the cost of manufacturing? He took the assumption, which was, you have to bring people to do the work, and challenged it by reversing it to how can I bring the work to the people? He invented the assembly line, which made automobile manufacturing affordable and transformed the whole culture of America. Suddenly everybody could afford a car.

Look at Albert Einstein, whose professor at the university called him the laziest dog he had ever had. When Einstein was in elementary school, his teacher one day said, “Go to the board and divide thirteen in half.” So he went to the blackboard and he goes, half of thirteen is six point five or, you know, six and a half. But there are many different ways to express something, and there are many different ways to halve things. For example, I could express it as roman numerals, and now half of thirteen and divide it vertically with a line. Now half of thirteen becomes eleven and two. He did this eighty times. He got eighty different ways of expressing that. And the teacher took him home that night and told his parents he was mentally disturbed.

Einstein 1921

In university he never really attended classes all that much because he was bored. He had a Jewish roommate who kept good notes so he would study his roommate’s notes from the class and do well on the exams. But his professors had little regard for him and his chance of getting a teaching position was almost zero. So he becomes a patent clerk.

Imagine yourself as a patent clerk sitting next to Einstein. And Einstein turns to you and says, “I’ve got a theory about the universe that will change the way science thinks about the universe.” You look at him and say, “That guy’s a patent clerk for Christ’s sakes. He must be nuts.”

These people had to overcome all these things. They take great joy in doing it. They’ve learned that one of the ways to really live your life and be the subject of your life is to overcome adversity. And they all had adversity. No one believed them that they could do what they did.

Abraham Lincoln, his mother showed him no affection at all. His father treated him like a farm animal. He was sent to school with clothes that were much too short for him, because they wouldn’t buy clothes that fit. And the schoolmates called him gorilla, monkey boy, and all these nicknames that kids just come up with when somebody looks odd or unusual. He starts a business and goes bankrupt. Falls in love and the girl’s family will have nothing to do with him. Because in their mind he was what at that time we would consider and call “trailer trash.” Then he runs for office, and fails. Runs for office again, and fails. And he runs for office again and fails. Falls in love again, and this time marries a woman who turns out to be emotionally disturbed. Runs for office, and gets elected finally. He runs for office again, and fails and fails and fails like twenty six times. But he eventually becomes president of the United States. Toward the end of his term, shortly before he was assassinated, he was interviewed and asked: “What made you the strong person that you are, this person with character, principle and the inner strength that you have? How did you become this?” He said, “Adversity. When you overcome adversity it strengthens you. I’ve walked on adversity my whole life, because that is what makes a person strong.” And creative thinkers think that way. To them adversity is something to be overcome.

Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the
United States

Unfortunately in our society, people can explain things away by saying, “It’s my parent’s fault; I don’t have the genes or I don’t have the education. I don’t have this, but it’s not my fault.” It’s giving people reasons not to succeed.

SC: I love the title of Chapter 7 in your book: “Change the way you look at things, and the things you look at change”.

MM: It’s like I’m walking down the street and this lady bumps into me. Now I could say, “That’s a rude and aggressive feminist.” Or I could say, “Yeah, you know, the architect who designed these streets didn’t do a good job. He should’ve given it more room, more width.” Or I could say, “I’m getting old; I should watch where I’m walking.” Or I could say, “I think she’s flirting with me.” I give it meaning. The bump is neutral, it has no meaning. I give it the meaning and it’s the same with every thing in life. The experiences that you have are neutral whatever they are you give it the meaning.

Abraham Lincoln recalled his experiences, and interpreted all as good things that made him what he is. The creative thinkers are like that. They will look and interpret things to their benefit. And you can see, in our society, most people will interpret just about everything as the reason for their misfortune. But experiences are neutral. You give it the meaning.

It’s because my mind is now focused. We are bombarded with all kinds of stimuli every day, but you have to have the intention. And by intention I mean you have to have the willingness to act.

SC: There is another concept that some people call ideas from God and you refer to this process as incubation. It’s very common when we’re contemplating solutions to a problem and we go to bed, or we go off to do something else, and suddenly the solution pops in our mind. What is your explanation of events like this?

MM: It goes back to intention and belief. You’re working on a problem very hard, and you can’t get the idea or ideas that you want. But you’ve been working on it. So finally you say, okay, I’m going to walk away from it. Now your subconscious mind never stops working. But now it has all this information that you gave it about this problem. It keeps combining and recombining trillions of different ways in your subconscious mind. Sometimes you’ll get the right combination, which will bubble up to the surface of your consciousness. And you’ll be watching TV or something and suddenly you hit the spot, my god/God, that’s the idea. That’s what I’ve been looking for. That’s where this idea originated, that creativity came from god/God, divine inspiration. But it came from your mind because you had been working on those problems.

Years ago, they did a survey of scientists and the majority said they get their ideas when they have walked away from the problem. They might be taking a shower and suddenly they get the insight.

Charles Darwin, with the theory of evolution, could point to the rock on the road that his carriage hit, when he suddenly got his insight for the theory of biological evolution. Suddenly it was all there.

Einstein said one night he was working on the theory of relativity and was all confused. He said, “it’s like I have a thunderstorm in my head and I had to go to sleep. I couldn’t think anymore. When I woke up in the morning, suddenly everything was there.” He called it knowing the mind of god/God, that the idea came from the mind of god/God, but what he was talking about was that it came from incubating this problem.

The whole process is called incubation. It comes as a result of you working hard on a problem. You have to feed your subconscious mind with the information.

SC: Is there a process to intentionally create this space of detachment? Like meditation or some way that would allow you to access the subconscious mind?

MM: The technique that I use is the one that Norman Mailer used, to write a letter to your subconscious mind. You give your subconscious mind a name, “you, expert” or whatever you want to call it. Then write out the problem, and say, “I’d like the answer as soon as you get it, or I’d like it in three days time. You can either mail the letter or put it in a box.” But incredibly, it’s amazing how many times in workshops people come out with the answer to a problem.

I remember once I was at Xerox walking down the hall and the executive said, “What we need to do is find a Thomas Edison.” And I said, “If Edison worked for you, he wouldn’t last one day. He’d be fired.” He said, “Why?” I replied, “Edison, whenever he got tired of working on a problem, he’d lay down on the floor and take a nap.” Invariably he’d wake up refreshed with new ideas. But that was his way of incubating a problem.

They’ve learned that one of the ways to really live your life and be the subject of your life is to overcome adversity. And they all had adversity. No one believed them that they could do what they did.

I told the executive, if we walked by an office, and you saw your employee sleeping on the floor, he’d be fired. In fact, companies should actually program a way for employees to incubate the information when they are looking for ideas, they should give them a naptime. I know some companies are beginning to do this, give them nap times in the afternoon and create a place where they can get away from what they’re thinking about.

Scientists know that it works, but they can’t explain how.

SC: You have published several books and spent a lot of time with groups of people teaching them to be creative. What kind of change would you like to see as a result of all of your work?

MM: I would like to see a change in education. I would like to see education reformed. Richard Feynman, a Noble Prize winning physicist, took over a first grade class in California once and gave them a third grade problem, which was to add eight and twenty three together.

It’s a third grade problem because it involves a process of carrying. He said to the kids, you discover how to solve this. You come up with a way to solve it. And some kids would count their fingers others would use a ruler. They all had different little ways of solving the problems. One child even solved the problem algebraically. The point was they came up with an answer on their own. They discovered how to come up with the answer once they were challenged to do so. And he said, this is what education should do. It should be teaching people how to think, not what to think.

Einstein for example. You go to school and they’d say, we had this great genius, Einstein, incredible man. He had all kinds of incredible ideas that changed the way we look at the world. But at school you don’t hear about how Einstein came up with his ideas. How he didn’t think in terms of using words or numbers. Instead he thought in terms of images, and visions, and fantasies. These images would combine in his mind. He would think of things like falling in love without knowing the person you’re in love with.

You’re walking down the street, after you’ve fallen in love, and then you meet the woman you fall in love with two weeks later. From that came his theory of acausality. This is how he came up with his ideas. But the average child in school, they think he came up with it mathematically using equations and using the standard things that his assistant scientists used to come up with their ideas.

Richard Feynman again he was an incredible mind. He was going to a seminar with a PhD student, and they were on a train. He had a manuscript of Watson and Crick’s book, the double helix and DNA. He was reading this manuscript and couldn’t stop reading it. He read it all night long on the train. In the morning he woke up his traveling companion, the PhD student, and said, “Read this. Read it now.”

While he was reading it, Feynman was pacing around the railroad car. And when he finally finished it, Feynman asked, “What do you think? What did you think of that?” The student said, “This book has disregarded what everybody has done in the field. They weren’t even qualified to come up with this idea, and yet they did.” Feynman said, “Exactly this is what I had forgotten in life. Disregard what other people do.” And he wrote it out on a piece of paper. He said, “This is how I lost my creativity. I started to do what I thought I was supposed to be doing” — which was little minor incremental work and publishing peered reviewed papers and so on — “and that’s why I’ve become bored with my profession. I forgot the primary lesson, which is disregard what people have done in the past.” He placed it in his wallet and never forgot it again.

“This is how I lost my creativity. I started to do what I thought I was supposed to be doing”....“and that’s why I’ve become bored with my profession. I forgot the primary lesson, which is disregard what people have done in the past.”

To learn more about the author visit him online at http://www.CreativeThinking.net

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