by Michael Michalko
New World Library, 2011
Review by Chris Vaughan on Jan 10th 2012
Why do some people manage to soar to the heights of creativity whilst the majority of us seem to stumble around in the foothills? According to Michael Michalko it's because of our educational system. Our minds seem condemned to follow the patterns etched into them by the repetition of traditional ideas. 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 and all within an over-compartmentalized system that hinders the cross-fertilization of ideas.
Having had our natural creativity stifled by our schooling is it little wonder, then, that we regard the individuals who have shuffled off this educational legacy or avoided it altogether, and triumphed in the arena of creative ideas -- Leonardo, Einstein, Edison -- as almost godlike, a species apart, separated from us by the label "genius"?
Michalko maintains that if we took the trouble to study what sets them apart rather than falling back in stunned amazement, we would understand the secret of their prolific inventiveness. They had mastered the art of conceptual blending, a process available to us all, which once learned can increase our problem-solving immeasurably and improve our quality of life. "My purpose in writing this book," says, Michalko, "is to emphasize the importance of conceptual blending in creative thinking in your business and personal lives. Conceptual blending of dissimilar subjects and ideas and concepts is the most important factor in creative thinking."
Michael Michalko is a veteran of this explicit type of possibility thinking. He started his career in the U.S. Army where he organized an elite team of NATO intelligence specialists and academics to research, collect and categorize all known inventive-thinking methods and apply them in military, intelligence and political situations. Since then he has made a successful career as a consultant, steeped as he is in the literature of creativity and approaches that have borne fruit in the arts and the sciences and in the corporate world.
This is his third book and although there has been a gap of ten years between this and his previous work there is a lot of overlap between what he says in the early part of Creative Thinkering and the last book, Cracking Creativity, principally because he has to devote space to demonstrating that creativity is available to us all and anything Leonardo or Einstein achieved was, at bottom, built on simple metaphors, on combining two or more ideas in a novel and unfamiliar pairing.
After his strictures on traditional education, Michalko introduces us to a smorgasbord of techniques for getting those creative juices working, backed up with real world examples where these techniques have paid off.
As we progress in the book and explore the ways we can generate lots of ideas ready for the blending and become more innovative in what we do, Michalko begins to acknowledge that new concepts cannot just be bidden to order. Sure Edison's 99: 1 perspiration to inspiration rule still holds but having put in the hard work there is something more needed that doesn't seem to come from ourselves, a mysterious spark that is still a source of wonder among psychologists. For some the breakthrough can be dramatic and memorable, Saul on the road to Damascus, Archimedes in his bath or for some it is a slow awakening. William James refers to ideas sauntering carelessly into the mind and James Clerk Maxwell's dying words were, "What is done by what is called myself is, I feel, done by something greater than myself in me!" Chapter 10 is entitled "Ideas from God" where Michalko counsels us to take advantage of this with the need for patience and allowing our ideas time to incubate. But we have to be looking for new solutions in the first place and be able to recognize them when they arrive So, too, we have chapters on intention and the right attitude of mind.
In a recent interview, the author lists all the qualities a successful ideas person needs -- all within universal reach -- but vital if you want to be up there with the giants. .." Creativity is a phenomena(sic) that results from a certain combination of relationships. This combination includes the principle of intention, belief, attitude, behaviour, language, knowing how to change the way you look at things, knowing how to think in different ways and learning how to think inclusively without the prejudice of language." He does indeed treat each of these as a separate topic in the book but he goes on to say, "We've been schooled to think of them all as separate and distinct entities so they can be described and explained." He then adds, "they are all a seamless extension of each other and ultimately blend into each other."
This is a practical book with myriad ways of priming the pump of our creativity and lots of useful exercises both to boost our confidence and show us that although the final source of new ideas is ultimately mysterious it is not esoteric and is available to all as part of our human legacy. It just needs nourishing and activating. Being ex-military, Michalko is direct and to the point with a tendency to oversimplification. For instance, education should be a process of acknowledging and building on the achievements of our forebears and not a constant reinventing of the wheel, a point he acknowledges but does not emphasize. Society, if it is to survive, needs the right mix of innovation and tradition. Too much traditional thinking leads to calcification, too much innovation leads to instability.
But his overall point is valid. We could all use our imaginations more in our lives, be more active in challenging received ideas, stop being passive onlookers and victims of circumstance. For Michalko, creativity is not a now and again thing, it is a lifelong conviction that we are all born with the ability change things for the better with the imagination like a muscle -- always needing regular exercise to function well.
Creative Thinkering, although not exhaustive, is a good state of the art summary in plain language of tried and tested techniques for bringing about change; a worthy introduction to the field and excellent tool to reach for when our thoughts becomes flat, stale and unprofitable.
© 2012 Chris Vaughan
Chris Vaughan writes about himself: I live in Birmingham, England. I am now retired after a career in the pharma industry and am very much involved in community activities. I am a board member of the Birmingham Environmental Partnership and chair a local patient network. I have written a book on the British Health Service and I currently write for a health website. I am very interested in the mind-body.