Michael Michalko
Michael Michalko Interview : Page 2

Michael Michalko: Abstraction, Lotus Blossoming Techniques

I use the term "thought experiment" loosely to represent events designed to provoke creative thinking. Following is an example of one of my thought experiments:

Thought Experiment: Mary has been blind from birth. She has dedicated her life to the study of creativity and knows everything there is to know about creativity. That is to say, she knows everything that can be tested, measured, described, and communicated about what creativity is and what the process of creativity is. She has learned every definition of creativity and has studied under every credited expert of creativity in every field. One day a miracle occurs and Mary suddenly regains her sight. The first thing she sees is the "Mona Lisa." What do you think her reaction is?

Another thought experiment to practice getting rid of preconceptions is to create different names for things. For example, "rainbow" might be named "painted rain." Create different names for:

  • mountain
  • cloud
  • ocean
  • world
  • painting

Next make a practice of renaming everyday events. One friend of mine renamed a meeting she attended about office morale to "warm hugs."

Another fun thought experiment to do with a friend is to supply alternative meanings for common words. Some examples are:

  • Coffee (n.), the person upon whom one coughs.
  • Flabbergasted (adj.), appalled over how much weight you have gained.
  • Circumvent (n.), an opening in the front of boxer shorts worn by Jewish men.
  • Abdicate (v.), to give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.
  • Lymph (v.), to walk with a lisp.
  • Esplanade (v.), to attempt an explanation while drunk.

Q: Can you describe DaVinci's Ideabox? How might a writer use this tool when developing the plot for a novel?

A: The idea box is a way of automatically combining the parameters of a challenge into new ideas (parameter here means characteristic, factor, variable, or aspect). You choose the number and nature of parameters; what's important is to generate parameters and list variations for each parameter.

Leonardo's grotesque heads and famous caricatures are an example of the random variations of the human face made up of different combinations of a set number of features. He would first list facial characteristics (heads, eyes, nose, etc.) and then beneath each list variations. Next he would mix and match the different variations to create original and grotesque caricatures.

This technique is commonly used by script writers who have to churn out ideas for stories on a daily basis. Fran Stryker, a writer from Buffalo, New York, was one of the first to use this technique to create the various stories for the "Lone Ranger" television series. Another writer, David Milch, used the technique to create plots, characters, and stories for "NYPD Blue." He created a chart that consisted of all the major parts of the story: good guys, bad guys, other characters, weapons, crime, location, etc. Then, he generated long lists of variations for each category and numbered them. He wrote the numbers on slips of paper and put the slips into a box. When he needed an idea for a story, he randomly picked slips from the box to create a series of random numbers (one per category). He then looked up the items corresponding to the numbers and used these random combinations as stimuli for new stories.

Try doing the same with your story. List all the categories, and write all possible variations you can imagine for each category. Then, randomly combine them, and visualize the stories.

We tend to see the elements of our subject as one continuous "whole," and do not see many of the relationships between the elements, even the obvious ones. They become almost invisible because of the way we perceive things. Yet, these relationships are often the links to new ideas. When you break down a subject into different parts and combine and recombine the parts in various ways, you restructure your perception of the subject. This perceptual restructuring leads to new insights, ideas and new lines of speculation.

This was Pablo Picasso's insight when he painted "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" after he destructed the world into discrete parts and recombined the parts in new and startling ways. The figures in the painting were perceived to be the first figures in Western art to have been painted from all sides at once. This insight led to the creation of cubism as a new art form that shows all life is a twinkling field of relationships.

Q: I found your "Carpe Diem" page to be very inspirational. Can you address "You Cannot Make a Tree" with regards to helping artists change their psychology and move from wishful thinking to intentional thinking?

Let us imagine that you want to make a canoe. You have, at first, some idea of the kind of canoe you wish to make. You can visualize the canoe in your mind. Your intention and conscious desire is to make a canoe. In short, you have a desired outcome. Then, you would go into the woods and look at the trees. Your desired outcome determines your criteria for the tree you need. Your criteria might involve size, seating, usefulness, and design. This criteria both filters your perceptions, and invests a particular situation with meaning, thereby informing your experience and behavior at the time. Out of the many trees available, you'll end up focusing on the few that meet your criteria, until you find the perfect tree.

You cut the tree down; scrape the branches from the trunk; take off the bark; hollow the inside out; carve the outside shape of the hull; form the prow and the stern and then, perhaps, carve decorations on the prow. You have produced the canoe.

The process is so ordinary, so simple, so direct that we fail to see the beauty and simplicity of it. You thought up the idea of a canoe from nothing, visualized an outcome, and gave birth to something whole, a canoe. Your intention gave you direction and also imposed criteria on you consciously and unconsciously. For instance, when looking at trees you considered the "size," "usefulness," and 'beauty" of the tree. This determined which tree to choose, out of a vast range of possible trees.

Intention has a way of bringing to our awareness only those things which our brain deems important. Without any conscious effort, your brain will keep out anything irrelevant, and will bring to your awareness only those aspects of the world that it deems important. You'll begin to see ideas for your canoe in your environment. You'll see them in tables, magazines, on television, in other structures, walking down the street.

Many people love to think of and talk about things they would like to create or discover. They read books about it, go to lectures and seminars, discuss it with friends, admire people who actually do it, and may even write about it. It is the thinking and talking that fascinates them, not the actual doing. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer expressed this thought best in a parable which I paraphrase here.

A flock of geese lived together in a barnyard with high walls around it. Because the corn was good and the barnyard was secure, these geese would never take a risk. One day a philosopher goose came among them. He was a very good philosopher and every week they listened quietly and attentively to his learned discourses. 'My fellow travelers on the way of life,' he would say, 'can you seriously imagine that this barnyard, with great high walls around it, is all there is to existence? I tell you, there is another and a greater world outside, a world of which we are only dimly aware. Our forefathers knew of this outside world. Did they not stretch their wings and fly across the trackless wastes of desert and ocean, of green valley and wooded hill? But alas, here we remain in this barnyard, our wings folded and tucked into our sides, as we are content to puddle in the mud, never lifting our eyes to the heavens which should be our home.'

The geese thought this was very fine lecturing. 'How poetical,' they thought. 'How profoundly existential. What a flawless summary of the mystery of existence.' Often the philosopher spoke of the advantages of flight, calling on the geese to be what they were. After all, they had wings, he pointed out. What were wings for, but to fly with? Often he reflected on the beauty and the wonder of life outside the barnyard, and the freedom of the skies.

And every week the geese were uplifted, inspired, moved by the philosopher's message. They hung on his every word. They devoted hours, weeks, months to a thoroughgoing analysis and critical evaluation of his doctrines. They produced learned treatises on the ethical and spiritual implications of flight. All this they did. But one thing they never did. They did not fly! For the corn was good, and the barnyard was secure.

Q: What inspires you?

A: My Godfather John Haffich was a kind, sensitive gentleman from the Ukraine who always engaged me in conversations about life when I was a young boy. He would pick a wildflower and then tell me that if I looked at it in the right way, I could see heaven in the flower; or he would pick up a grain of sand and tell me that there was no difference between a grain of sand and the whole world.

He was a poet who tried to encourage me to write poetry, which I did for a while. Some of it was published but I never felt my poems were good enough for me to seriously consider myself a poet. When he was in a nursing home and dying, I visited him and told him my thoughts about my inadequacies as a poet. He could barely whisper at the time and asked for a pencil and paper. He wrote the following poem and gave it to me with a smile.

Use what talents you have.
The woods would be silent
if no bird sang
except those that sang best.

I carry that poem in my wallet to this day as one of my most treasured possessions. It was one of those little things that changed the direction of my life.

Q: What wakes you up at three in the morning in a cold sweat?

A: The brevity and randomness of life; the knowledge that life is no more than a brief flash of light between the eternity before our birth and the eternity that awaits us upon our death.

Q: What is your favorite way to get "un-stuck" and battle creative blocks?

A: When I am stonewalled, I just start typing "O peaceful gloom shrouding the earth" over and over and over. Eventually, typing this phrase over and over unlocks something in my brain and the ideas start flowing. It's going through the motions of writing that un-sticks my mind.

Most people presume that our attitudes affect our behavior, and this is true. But it's also true that our behavior determines our attitudes. Tibetan monks say their prayers by whirling prayer wheels on which their prayers are inscribed. The whirling wheels spin the prayers into divine space. Sometimes, a monk will keep a dozen or so prayer wheels rotating like a juggling act in which whirling plates are balanced on top of long thin sticks.

Many novice monks are not very emotionally or spiritually involved at first. It may be that the novice is thinking about his family, his doubts about a religious vocation or something else while he is going through the motions of spinning his prayer wheel. When the novice adopts the pose of a monk, and makes it obvious to himself and to others by playing a role, the brain will soon follow the role they are playing. It is not enough for the novice to have the intention of becoming a monk: the novice must act like a monk and rotate the prayer wheels. If one has the intention of becoming a monk and goes through the motions of acting like a monk, one will become a monk.

If you want to be an artist, and if all you did was paint a picture every day, you will become an artist. You may not become another Vincent van Gogh, but you will become more of an artist than someone who has never tried.

Q: What was the inspiration for creating your brainstorming card deck, Thinkpak?

A: At one of my seminars, I noticed one participant had a set of index cards that he was constantly flipping through. I discovered he had copied the SCAMPER questions from my book onto index cards, which he flipped through while looking for ideas. I adopted his idea and created Thinkpak.

Q: What was your biggest challenge in creating Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques?

A: My biggest challenge was time. I had a lot going on, and never seemed to have the time to write. On the verge of giving up, I remembered the advice my grandfather had given me years ago. When I was in college, I went to my grandfather and told him I was going to quit. I was tired of struggling to make high grades to keep an academic scholarship. It was hard work, as I also had a full-time job to pay living expenses. I was only getting three to four hours of sleep a night. I no longer desired to go on. My grandfather told me to sit down and wait a few moments. He said he wanted to show me something his uncle showed him years back in the Ukraine. My grandfather was just drafted by the Russian army and he told his uncle he was running away. This is what he showed me.

He filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Soon the pots came to a boil. In the first, he placed potatoes, in the second he placed eggs and the last he placed ground coffee beans. He let them sit and boil, without saying a word. In about twenty minutes he turned off the burners. He fished the potatoes out and placed them in a bowl. He pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. Then he ladled the coffee out into a cup. Turning to me, he asked, "Tell me, what do you see?" "Potatoes, eggs, and coffee," I replied. Then he asked me to feel the potatoes, which I did and noted that they were soft and mushy. My grandfather then asked me to take an egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, I observed the hard-boiled egg. Finally, he asked me to sip the coffee. I smiled as I tasted the coffee with its rich aroma. I asked, "I don't understand. What does this mean, if anything?"

My grandfather laughed and explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity — boiling water — but each had reacted differently. "Which are you?" my grandfather asked. "When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a potato that seems strong, but with pain and adversity, becomes soft and loses strength? Are you the egg that appears not to change but whose heart is hardened? Or are you the coffee bean that changes the hot water, the very circumstance that brings the pain. When the water gets hot, it releases the fragrance and flavor. If you are like the bean, when things are at their worst, your very attitude will change your environment for the better, making it sweet and palatable."

His lesson was that, in life, when you can't change the circumstances, change yourself. This is what I did. I changed my attitude from "I don't have the time to write" to "how can I budget my time so I have the time I need to write."

Q: What did you learn that surprised and delighted you the most, while working on Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius?

A: While I was writing the book I concentrated on the question: "What fosters creativity?" Then I realized that isn't the question at all, the question is: "Why in God's name isn't everyone creative?" Where was the human potential lost? How was it crippled? A good question might be not: "Why do people create?" But: "Why do people not create or innovate?" We have got to abandon that sense of amazement in the face of creativity, as if it is a miracle if anybody creates anything.

We were all born spontaneous and creative. Every one of us. As children we accepted all things equally. We embraced all kinds of outlandish possibilities for all kinds of things. When we were children we knew a box was much more than a container. A box could be a fort, a car, a tank, a cave, a house, something to draw on, and even a space ship. Our imaginations were not structured according to some existing concept or category. We did not strive to eliminate possibilities, we strove to expand them. We were all amazingly creative and always filled with the joy of exploring different ways of thinking.

And then something happened to us. We went to school. In school, we were taught how past thinkers interpreted the world. We were not taught how to think, we were taught to reproduce what past thinkers thought. When confronted with a problem, we were taught to analytically select the most promising approach based on past history, excluding all other approaches, and to work logically within a carefully defined direction towards a solution. Instead of looking for possibilities, we are taught to look for ways to exclude them. It's as if we entered school as a question mark and graduated as a period.

Q: You've had an amazing career so far. What's next on your agenda? Do you have another book in the works?

A: Yes. I am just now finishing a book that has two parts. The first part describes the common habits and behaviors of creative geniuses throughout history, and the second part describes how to get ideas by conceptually blending together two or more dissimilar concepts or subjects.

Q: Any final words of advice and inspiration for us?

A: I once found a cocoon of an emperor moth. I took it home so I could watch the moth come out of the cocoon. On the day a small opening appeared, I sat and watched the moth for several hours as it struggled to force its body through that little hole. Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gone as far as it could, and could go no farther. It seemed to be stuck. In my kindness, I decided to help the moth, so I took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon. The moth then emerged easily. But it had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings. I continued to watch the moth because I expected that, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would contract in time.

Neither happened! In fact, the little moth spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly. The restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the moth to get through the tiny opening forces fluid from the body of the moth into its wings so that it's ready for flight once it achieves freedom from the cocoon. Freedom and flight would only come after the struggle. By depriving the moth of a struggle, I deprived the moth of health.

Sometimes struggles are exactly what we need in our life in order to be truly alive. Instead of avoiding adversity, welcome challenges cheerfully and strive to overcome them. It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult. •

Connect with Michael Michalko

Michael Michalko is one of the most highly-acclaimed creativity experts in the world. Learn more at www.creativethinking.net.

©2009 Molly Anderson-Childers. All rights reserved.

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