Creative Careers in the Arts Interviews : 2009 : Michael Michalko Interview
Creative Careers in the Arts Interviews
Thinkertoys & Creativity Author Michael Michalko
By Molly Anderson-Childers
Welcome back, readers. You're in for a treat. This month I'm interviewing one of the most highly-acclaimed creativity experts in the world! Michael Michalko was an officer in the US Army, and worked with NATO and CIA think tanks to promote creative thinking and problem-solving techniques.
He has consulted with clients all over the world, including many Fortune 500 corporations, and is the author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques and Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius. He also created a tool for brainstorming: Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck. These creative thinking tools help you solve problems, generate new ideas, and think like a genius! He's also got a fabulous website at www.creativethinking.net that features techniques, tools, and thought experiments to help your creativity blossom. Michael, it's an honor to interview you for this series. Thanks for joining us today!
Q: While looking over your website, I stumbled across the Koinonia technique; a way of dialoguing with others and sharing ideas. Can you discuss Koinonia, and its practical applications for artists' and writers' groups?
A: While researching the lives of Einstein, Heisenberg, Pauli and Bohr, physicist David Bohm made a remarkable observation. Bohm noticed that their incredible breakthroughs took place through simple, open and honest conversation. He observed, for instance, that Einstein and his colleagues spent years freely meeting and conversing with each other. During these interactions, they exchanged and dialogued about ideas which later became the foundations of modern physics. They exchanged ideas without trying to change the other's mind and without bitter argument. They felt free to propose whatever was on their mind. They always paid attention to each other's views and established an extraordinary professional fellowship. This freedom to discuss without risk led to the breakthroughs that physicists today take for granted.
Other scientists of the time, in contrast, wasted their careers bickering over petty nuances of opinion and promoting their own ideas at the expense of others. They mistrusted their colleagues, covered up weaknesses and were reluctant to openly share their work. Many refused to discuss their honest thoughts about physics because of the fear of being labeled controversial by their colleagues. Others were afraid of being called ignorant. The majority of scientists at the time lived in an atmosphere of fear and politics. They produced nothing of significance.
Einstein and his friends illustrate the staggering potential of collaborative thinking. The notion that open and honest collaboration allows thinking to grow as a collective phenomenon can be traced back to Socrates and other thinkers in ancient Greece. Socrates and his friends so revered the concept of group dialogue that they bound themselves by principles of discussion that they established to maintain a sense of collegiality. These principles were known as "Koinonia," which means "spirit of fellowship." The principles they established were:
Koinonia PrinciplesESTABLISH DIALOGUE. In Greek, the word dialogue means "talking through." The Greeks believed that the key to establishing dialogue is to exchange ideas without trying to change the other person's mind. This is not the same as discussion, which from its Latin root means to "dash to pieces." The basic rules of dialogue for the Greeks were: "Don't argue," "Don't interrupt," and "Listen carefully."
CLARIFY YOUR THINKING. To clarify your thinking, you must suspend all untested assumptions. Being aware of your assumptions and suspending them allows thought to flow freely. Free thought is blocked if we are unaware of our assumptions, or unaware that our thoughts and opinions are based on assumptions. For instance, if you believe that certain people are not creative, you're not likely to give their ideas fair consideration. Check your assumptions about everything and try to maintain an unbiased view.
BE HONEST. Say what you think, even if your thoughts are controversial.
The ancient Greeks believed these principles allowed thinking to grow as a collective phenomenon. Koinonia allowed a group to access a larger pool of common thoughts which cannot be accessed individually. A new kind of mind begins to come into being, based on the development of common thoughts. People are no longer in opposition. They become participants in a pool of common ideas, which are capable of constant development and change.
Jackson Pollock and a group of Surrealist artists collaborated to create conceptual combinations in words that would inspire random creative ideas for art. Artists in a group would take turns, each contributing any word that occurred to them in a "sentence" without seeing what the others had written. The resulting sentence eventually became a combination of concepts that they would study and interpret, hoping to get a novel insight or a glimpse of some deeper meaning. The technique is named "The Exquisite Corpse" after a sentence which happened to contain those words.
Another group of artists who call themselves futurists create collaborative art. They collaborate on a work with each artist working on it separately at different times. When the picture is finished, they cannot tell who painted what. The result is usually a remarkable product that reflects several different points of view, combined into something different over time. Collaboration over time creates a different dimension and different understanding of a subject in art.
Q: Edison's Idea File is an interesting and practical way of tracking inspirations and ideas. Could you talk about ways artists and writers can create an Idea File at home or in the studio, to track ideas that might otherwise get lost?
A: Leonardo da Vinci was Thomas Edison's spiritual mentor. Edison's notebooks illustrate the strength of their spiritual kinship. Following da Vinci's example, Edison relentlessly recorded and illustrated every step of his voyage to discovery in 3,500 notebooks that were discovered after his death in 1931. His strategy of keeping a written record of his work was a significant key to his genius. His notebooks got him into the following habits:
They enabled him to cross-fertilize ideas, techniques and conceptual models by transferring them from one problem to the next. When it became clear that an iron-ore mining venture in which Edison had invested was failing and on the brink of bankruptcy, he spent a weekend poring over his notebooks and came up with a detailed plan to redirect the company's efforts toward the manufacture of Portland cement, which could capitalize on the same model of the iron-ore company.
Whenever he succeeded with a new idea, Edison reviewed his notebooks to rethink ideas and inventions he'd abandoned in the past, in light of what he'd recently learned. If he was stuck on a new idea, he reviewed his notebooks to see if there was some thought or insight that could trigger a new approach. For example, Edison took his unsuccessful work to develop an undersea telegraph cable, and incorporated it into the design of a telephone transmitter that adapted to the changing sound waves of the caller's voice. This technique instantly became the industry standard.
Edison often jotted down his observations of the natural world, failed patents and research papers written by other inventors, and ideas others had come up with in other fields. He routinely combed a wide variety of diverse publications for novel ideas that sparked his interest, and recorded them in his notebooks. He made it a habit to keep a lookout for novel and interesting ideas that others used successfully on other problems in other fields. To Edison, your idea needs to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you're working on.
Edison also studied his notebooks of past inventions and ideas to use as springboards for other inventions and ideas in their own right. Edison's diagrams and notes on the telephone (sounds transmitted) suggested the phonograph (sounds recorded), which, in turn, suggested motion pictures (images recorded). Simple, in retrospect, isn't it? Genius usually is.
Walt Whitman was another creative thinker who collected ideas to stimulate his creative potential. His journals describe an ingenious technique he developed for recording ideas. Anytime an idea struck his imagination, he wrote it down on a small slip of paper. He placed these slips into various envelopes, titled according to the subject area each envelope contained. In order to have a place for each new idea he encountered, Whitman kept ideas in many different envelopes.
Whenever he felt a need to spawn new thoughts or perspectives, Whitman selected the various envelopes pertaining to his current subject or interests. He retrieved ideas from the envelopes sometimes at random, or, on other occasions, only those ideas relevant to his subject. Then he wove these ideas together, as if he were creating an idea tapestry. These idea tapestries often became the foundation for a new poem or essay.