Michael Michalko
Michael Michalko : Thinkertoys Preface

Creative Thinking

Thinkertoys Preface: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques

Our own creativity is decided by what we choose to do or what we refuse to do.

By Michael Michalko | Updated 9/8/15 | Thinkertoys

Compare the trees along a wild and windblown lake, with an eroded gully. The pattern of these trees are so made that when the wind blows they all bend in concert, and all of the forces in the system stay in balance. The pattern of the bending trees, plants, and roots make them all self-maintaining and whole.

But think about a piece of land that is very steep, and where erosion is taking place. There aren't enough trees to hold the earth together. Let's say it rains in torrents and carries the earth down streams which form gullies. Here the pattern of the trees and plants is poor. The earth is not bound together because there are not enough roots or plants. Each time the wind blows or it rains, the erosion deepens. The pattern of this system is such that the forces which it gives birth to, which arise in it, in the long run act to destroy the system. The system is self-destroying. It does not have the capacity to contain the forces which arise within it.

Nature doesn't care if patterns are creative or destructive. What matters to nature is the way things self organize, the way they cooperate to form coherent patterns. When you look at nature's patterns, contents aren't contained anywhere but are revealed only by the dynamics. With the trees, form and content are inextricably connected and can't be separated. The healthy pattern of trees bending in concert creates harmony and beauty, whereas, the other pattern is destructive and ugly.

It is the same with people. With the trees, it is the wind, rain, roots and erosion that forms the patterns; with people it is a common body of human behaviors from which patterns blend together to create the person. A positive self image is like the pattern of the trees and wind and is self-maintaining and creative; a poor self image is like the pattern of the gullies and rain and is self-destructive.

I take three blank sheets of paper and put them a few inches apart, side by side. I leave the center one blank. On the right one, I draw a small diamond-shaped dot in the middle of the page. On the left one I draw an irregular squiggle.

3 Blank Sheets of Paper

Which sheet of paper is more like your real self? I am asking which of the three sheets seem like a better picture of all of you, with all your hopes, fears, and weaknesses, as you are at this point of time. Which comes closest to representing the way you feel about yourself?

The majority of people choose either the squiggle or the blank sheet. Almost none chose the diamond-shaped dot. Yet, the sheet with the dot is the most centered and solid and has the most feeling and potential. The blank sheet feels empty and meaningless. The one with the squiggle creates an impression of disturbance and incoherence.

You may wonder if the descriptions are accurate. To convince you, let me propose a thought experiment. Suppose you are with the person you love more than any other person on the face of the earth. And suppose you just made the three pieces of paper we have been looking at. Imagine that you are asked to give the sheet of paper that most represents your love to the person. Which of the three do you give? Most likely, you will give the one on the right because it feels valuable, feels worth giving, and feels the most meaningful of the three.

The majority of us feel an emptiness and incoherence in our lives which is why we think of ourselves as blanks or squiggles instead of diamonds. Yet we know the diamond-shaped dot was what we wanted to select but, in some way, our sense of self made us feel unworthy and so we rationalized why we selected the squiggle or the blank. It is the same way in life.

We are tacitly taught that we exist and just are. We have been taught that all people are true to their own genes, environment and nature. We are conditioned to be objects. We are taught to be "Me," instead of "I." When you think of yourself as "Me," you are limited. The "Me" is always limited. When you believe how others (parents, teachers, peers, colleagues, and others) describe you, you become that. You might want to be an artist, but others might tell you that you have no talent, training, or temperament to be an artist. The "Me" will say, "Who do you think you are? You are just an ordinary person. Get real."

You may not know Richard Cohen. He is the author of "Blindsided: Lifting a Life Above Illness" (HarperCollins). He lives a life defined by illness. He has M.S., is legally blind, has almost no voice, and suffers chronic pain which makes sleeping difficult leaving him constantly exhausted. Two bouts of colon cancer in the past five years have left his intestines in disarray. And though he is currently cancer-free, he still lives with constant discomfort.

Cohen worked as a producer for CBS until he was physically unable. Being precluded from many activities because of his chronic illness and physical disability initially left him feeling worthless. Friends and relatives encouraged him to seek professional help from psychologists, but he refused. He felt psychologists always focus on what's wrong with you; explain why you feel worthless, and why it's not your fault. He saw no value in that kind of treatment.

Cohen realized the inevitable consequences of his illness, but he also realized that he and he alone controlled his destiny. Cohen says, "The one thing that's always in my control is what is going on in my head. The first thing I did was to think about who I am and how I could prevail." By choosing my feelings on a conscious level, I am able to control my mood swings and feel good about myself most of the time. He cultivated a positive attitude toward life by interpreting all of his experiences in a positive way.

He said his life is like standing on a rolling ship. You're going to slip. You're going to grab onto things. You're going to fall. And it's a constant challenge to get up and push and push yourself to keep going. But in the end, he said, the most exhilarating feeling in the world is getting up and moving forward with a smile.

Richard Cohen is the subject of his life and controls his own destiny. People who live as subjects are wonderfully alive and creative. Once, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, in a café in Old Montreal I saw a woman rise from her table and for no reason started to sing opera. She had a certain smile and I knew she was perfectly at home with herself. She was wearing a great wide hat, her arms were flung out in an expansive gesture, singing, and utterly oblivious to everything but what was in her and around her at that second. Even as you read this, you are thinking of people you know who are alive and people who are lifeless.

This woman was wonderfully alive and self-creating. When you meet people like Richard Cohen or the woman in Montreal you get this vague feeling inside you that you "ought to be" something more. You already know this feeling. We get this feeling when we recognize the thing in others that we long to be. This feeling seems so trivial, so fundamental that we ought to be like that, that we dare not admit it to others. We long to become more alive and creative in our personal and business lives. The feeling for it is the most primitive feeling which a person can have. The feeling for it is as primitive as the feeling for your own well being.

It is not easy to put this feeling into words. The person who believes he is a "subject" is frank, open-minded, sincerely going ahead, facing the situation freely, looking for ways to make things work and get things done. The person who believes she is an "object" is inhibited, pushed, or driven, acting by command or intimidation, one-track minded, always looking for reasons why things can't be done or why things can't work. They cannot deal with life as free and happy people; they are narrowed and enslaved by their attitude.

When you look at the behaviors of creative geniuses such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Pablo Picasso and so on throughout the history of the world, you will find that, like the patterns of the trees, the form and contents of their behaviors are inextricably connected and can't be separated. Creators are joyful and positive. Creators look at "what is" and "what can be" instead of "what is not." Creators, instead of excluding possibilities include all possibilities, both real and imagined. Creators choose to interpret their own world and do not rely upon the interpretations of others. And most importantly, creators are creative because they believe they are creative.

Can you imagine a Vincent Van Gogh bemoaning his failure to sell his paintings as evidence of his lack of talent, a Thomas Edison giving up on his idea for a light bulb when he failed 5,000 times, a Leonardo Da Vinci who is too embarrassed to attempt much of anything because of his lack of learning, an Albert Einstein who is fearful of looking stupid for presenting theories about the universe as a patent clerk, a Michelangelo refusing to paint the ceiling of the Sistine chapel because he had never painted fresco, a weeping and wailing Mozart blaming an unfair world for his poverty, a Walt Disney giving up his fantasies after being fired from his first job as a newspaper editor because he lacked imagination, a Henry Ford giving up his dreams after the experts explained that he didn't have the capital to compete in the automobile industry, or a depressed Pablo Picasso shuffling down the street with his head down looking at the ground hoping no one notices him?

It's impossible to be creative if you are negative. Most people presume that our attitudes affect our behavior, and this is true. But it's also true that our behavior determines our attitudes. You can pretend or act your way into a new attitude. We choose to be positive or to be negative.

Every time we pretend to have an attitude and go through the motions, we trigger the emotions we create and strengthen the attitude we wish to cultivate. Think, for a moment, about social occasions — visits, dates, dinners out with friends, gatherings, birthday parties, weddings, etc. Even when you're unhappy or depressed, these occasions force us to act as if we were happy. Observing other's faces, postures, and voices, we unconsciously mimic their reactions. We synchronize our movements, posture, and tone of voice with theirs. Then my mimicking happy people, we become happy.

We do not choose to be born. We do not choose our parents. We do not choose our historical epoch, or the country of our birth, or the immediate circumstances of our upbringing. We do not, most of us, choose to die; nor do we choose the time or conditions of our death. But within all this realm of choicelessness, we do choose how we shall live: with purpose or adrift, with joy or with joylessness, with hope or with despair, with humor or with sadness, with a positive outlook or a negative outlook, with pride or with shame, with inspiration or with defeat and with honor or with dishonor. We decide that what makes us significant or insignificant. We decide to be creative or to be indifferent. No matter how indifferent the universe may be to our choices and decisions, these choices and decisions are ours to make. We decide. We choose. In the end, our own creativity is decided by what we choose to do or what we refuse to do. And as we decide and choose, so are our destinies formed •

©2008 Michael Michalko. All rights reserved.

Michael MichalkoMichael Michalko is one of the most highly-acclaimed creativity experts in the world and author of the best-seller Thinkertoys. More »
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