Interview with Michael Michalko: What is creativity?

Note: My original question is in bold. Michael’s first answer is plain text. My follow-up is in red, Michael’s response if any is in blue.

Michael, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed at Bobbing Around. I’ve been a subscriber to your wonderful posts on creativity for quite some time, and with your permission have reproduced several in this newsletter. Roughly, how many of these essays on creativity have you written?

ANS: All of them.

🙂 Good answer. Can you estimate the actual number?

Somewhere around 100.

How do you find the creativity to come up with the next topic? 🙂

ANS: . None of my teachers ever explained the thinking processes of creative geniuses, despite the fact that all creative geniuses left voluminous journals, logs, and notebooks explaining, in detail, how they got their ideas. I and my colleagues simply researched how creative geniuses actually thought, their creative thinking techniques, thinking habits and beliefs. I am constantly discovering new insights and observations they have made about their thinking processes.

Following are twelve of the basic things I have learned about creative thinking that I was not taught in school.

1. You are creative. The artist is not a special person, each one of us is a special kind of artist. Every one of us is born a creative, spontaneous thinker. The only difference between people who are creative and people who are not is a simple belief. Creative people believe they are creative. People who believe they are not creative are not. Once you have a particular identity and set of beliefs about yourself, you become interested in seeking out the skills needed to express your identity and beliefs. This is why people who believe they are creative become creative. If you believe you are not creative, then there is no need to learn how to become creative and you don’t. The reality is that believing you are not creative excuses you from trying or attempting anything new. When someone tells you that they are not creative, you are talking to someone who is cognitively lazy and will make no effort to be a creative thinker.

As a psychologist, I also think that the culture bashes creativity out of many people. Do as you’re told. Follow the rules. Don’t make waves. Pass this exam. Be a team player. And people buckle under. Of course, then there are us rebels. How did you escape this conditioning?

I chose to. We are each given a set of experiences in life. The experiences are neutral. They have no meaning. It is how we interpret the experiences that give them meaning. The interpretations of experiences shape your beliefs and theories about the world. Your beliefs and theories, in turn, decide what you observe in the world to confirm your beliefs which, in turn, reinforce your interpretations.

Think for a moment about Abraham Lincoln who is considered by many the greatest president in the history of the U.S. He could not choose his parents, the immediate circumstances of his upbringing, or the historical epoch of his birth. Modern day psychologists would label his parents as dysfunctional and abusive. He was mocked and ridiculed by his school classmates for the way he looked and dressed. At age 22, he failed in business, he ran for the state legislature and was defeated, he tried to start another business and failed again. At age 26, he was rejected by a woman he loved and had a nervous breakdown. At age 33, he married a woman who was found to be mentally unstable, and once more was defeated for Congress. At age 37, he was finally elected to Congress but at age 39 he was once again defeated. He subsequently campaigned for and was defeated for the senate, vice presidency, and again for the senate. At age 51 he was elected president of the U.S.

Lincoln did not choose his experiences of failure and defeat, but he did choose how to respond. He realized that he was not reacting to an event but to how he interpreted the event. His life is testimony to the uniquely human potential to turn defeats into triumphs and to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. For those events that were not up to him, it was his own attitude that determined their influence on him. When he was no longer able to change a situation, he changed himself.

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 what makes us significant or insignificant. We decide to be creative or 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.

Someone once said something like “Each of us has the key that will open the door to either heaven or hell. The same key opens either door. The choice is yours.”

2. Creative thinking is work. You must have passion and the determination to immerse yourself in the process of creating new and different ideas. Then you must have patience to persevere against all adversity. All creative geniuses work passionately hard and produce incredible numbers of ideas, most of which are bad. In fact, more bad poems were written by the major poets than by minor poets. Thomas Edison created 3000 different ideas for lighting systems before he evaluated them for practicality and profitability. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart produced more than six hundred pieces of music, including forty-one symphonies and some forty-odd operas and masses, during his short creative life. Rembrandt produced around 650 paintings and 2,000 drawings and Picasso executed more than 20,000 works. Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets. Some were masterpieces, while others were no better than his contemporaries could have written, and some were simply bad.

Didn’t Winston Churchill say something like “Generating ideas is not the problem. Choosing the best from among a dozen is.”

I’ve always been impressed by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and have always been fascinated with scholastic attempts to apply Darwinian ideas to creativity and genius. As early as 1880, the great American philosopher, William James, in his essay “Great Men, Great Thoughts, and the Environment,” made the connection between Darwinian ideas and genius.

According to Darwin, nature creates many possibilities through blind “trial and error” and then lets the process of natural selection decide which species survive. In nature, 95% of new species fail and die within a short period of time. Genius is analogous to biological evolution in that it requires the unpredictable generation of a large quantity of alternatives and conjectures. From this quantity of alternatives and conjectures, the genius retains the best ideas for further development and communication.

To discover a good idea you have to generate many ideas. Out of quantity comes quality. It took Thomas Edison 50,000 experiments to invent the alkaline storage cell battery and 9,000 to perfect the light bulb. For every brilliant idea he had, there were countless duds. For instance, the horse-drawn contraption that would collect snow and ice in the winter and compress it into blocks that families could use in the summer as a refrigerant. Another dud was his perpetual cigar, which consisted of a hollow metal tube with a spring clip that moved the tobacco forward as it burned.

3. You must go through the motions of being creative. When you are producing ideas, you are replenishing neurotransmitters linked to genes that are being turned on and off in response to what your brain is doing, which in turn is responding to challenges. When you go through the motions of trying to come up with new ideas, you are energizing your brain by increasing the number of contacts between neurons. The more times you try to get ideas, the more active your brain becomes and the more creative you become. If you want to become an artist and 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.

I accept this as an accurate description of how new brain pathways are formed. But, you know, creativity is not done by the brain but by its user. Petrea King said, “Your body is a space suit for surviving on this planet,” and I agree.

4. Your brain is not a computer. Your brain is a dynamic system that evolves its patterns of activity rather than computes them like a computer. It thrives on the creative energy of feedback from experiences real or fictional. You can synthesize experience; literally create it in your own imagination. The human brain cannot tell the difference between an “actual” experience and an experience imagined vividly and in detail. This discovery is what enabled Albert Einstein to create his thought experiments with imaginary scenarios that led to his revolutionary ideas about space and time. One day, for example, he imagined falling in love. Then he imagined meeting the woman he fell in love with two weeks after he fell in love. This led to his theory of acausality. The same process of synthesizing experience allowed Walt Disney to bring his fantasies to life.

Yes. Another example is guided imagery/hypnosis. I can help you to get rid of the effects of a past traumatic experience entirely through using your imagination.

5. There is no one right answer. Reality is ambiguous. Aristotle said it is either A or not-A. It cannot be both. The sky is either blue or not blue. This is black and white thinking as the sky is a billion different shades of blue. A beam of light is either a wave or not a wave (A or not-A). Physicists discovered that light can be either a wave or particle depending on the viewpoint of the observer. The only certainty in life is uncertainty. When trying to get ideas, do not censor or evaluate them as they occur. Nothing kills creativity faster than self-censorship of ideas while generating them. Think of all your ideas as possibilities and generate as many as you can before you decide which ones to select. The world is not black or white. It is grey.

Well, from your description, it’s more like a rainbow! And why limit it to the visible spectrum?

6. Never stop with your first good idea. Always strive to find a better one and continue until you have one that is still better. In 1862, Phillip Reis demonstrated his invention which could transmit music over the wires. He was days away from improving it into a telephone that could transmit speech. Every communication expert in Germany dissuaded him from making improvements, as they said the telegraph is good enough. No one would buy or use a telephone. Ten years later, Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. Spencer Silver developed a new adhesive for 3M that stuck to objects but could easily be lifted off. It was first marketed as a bulletin board adhesive so the boards could be moved easily from place to place. There was no market for it. Silver didn’t discard it. One day Arthur Fry, another 3M employee, was singing in the church’s choir when his page marker fell out of his hymnal. Fry coated his page markers with Silver’s adhesive and discovered the markers stayed in place, yet lifted off without damaging the page. Hence the Post-it Notes were born. Thomas Edison was always trying to spring board from one idea to another in his work. He spring boarded his work from the telephone (sounds transmitted) to the phonograph (sounds recorded) and, finally, to motion pictures (images recorded).

Emmanuel Lasker, a chess world champion, said, “When you’ve found a good move, don’t do it. Find a better one.”

Great advice.

7. Expect the experts to be negative. The more expert and specialized a person becomes, the more their mindset becomes narrowed and the more fixated they become on confirming what they believe to be absolute. Consequently, when confronted with new and different ideas, their focus will be on conformity. Does it conform with what I know is right? If not, experts will spend all their time showing and explaining why it can’t be done and why it can’t work. They will not look for ways to make it work or get it done because this might demonstrate that what they regarded as absolute is not absolute at all. This is why when Fred Smith created Federal Express, every delivery expert in the U.S. predicted its certain doom. After all, they said, if this delivery concept was doable, the Post Office or UPS would have done it long ago.

I have a long list of such examples at

Great! Thanks, Bob.

8. Trust your instincts. Don’t allow yourself to get discouraged. Albert Einstein was expelled from school because his attitude had a negative effect on serious students; he failed his university entrance exam and had to attend a trade school for one year before finally being admitted; and was the only one in his graduating class who did not get a teaching position because no professor would recommend him. One professor said Einstein was “the laziest dog” the university ever had. Beethoven’s parents were told he was too stupid to be a music composer. Charles Darwin’s colleagues called him a fool and what he was doing “fool’s experiments” when he worked on his theory of biological evolution. Walt Disney was fired from his first job on a newspaper because “he lacked imagination.” Thomas Edison had only two years of formal schooling, was totally deaf in one ear and was hard of hearing in the other, was fired from his first job as a newsboy and later fired from his job as a telegrapher; and still he became the most famous inventor in the history of the U.S.

Edison also said, you don’t fail until you’ve stopped trying.

9. You do not see things as they are; you see them as you are. Interpret your own experiences. All experiences are neutral. They have no meaning. You give them meaning by the way you choose to interpret them. If you are a priest, you see evidence of God everywhere. If you are an atheist, you see the absence of God everywhere. IBM observed that no one in the world had a personal computer. IBM interpreted this to mean there was no market. College dropouts, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, looked at the same absence of personal computers and saw a massive opportunity. Once Thomas Edison was approached by an assistant while working on the filament for the light bulb. The assistant asked Edison why he didn’t give up. “After all,” he said, “you have failed 5000 times.” Edison looked at him and told him that he didn’t understand what the assistant meant by failure, because, Edison said, “I have discovered 5000 things that don’t work.” You construct your own reality by how you choose to interpret your experiences.

10. Always approach a problem on its own terms. Do not trust your first perspective of a problem as it will be too biased toward your usual way of thinking. Always look at your problem from multiple perspectives. Always remember that genius is finding a perspective no one else has taken. Look for different ways to look at the problem. Write the problem statement several times using different words. Take another role, for example, how would someone else see it, how would Jay Leno, Pablo Picasso, George Patton see it? Draw a picture of the problem, make a model, or mold a sculpture. Take a walk and look for things that metaphorically represent the problem and force connections between those things and the problem (How is a broken store window like my communications problem with my students?) Ask your friends and strangers how they see the problem. Ask a child. How would a ten year old solve it? Ask a grandparent. Imagine you are the problem. When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

You know, you’ve just described the standard way many writers generate ideas for a story. Except, I don’t ASK a ten year old; I BECOME the ten year old. That ties in with your point 4.

T. A. Rich, a famous inventor at GE, describes how he comes up with his new ideas this way: “I put myself in the middle of a problem; try to think like an electron whose course is being plotted or imagine myself as a light beam whose refraction is being measured.” Einstein imagined he was a beam of light hurtling through space, which led him to the theory of relativity.

A teaching colleague of Nobel laureate Richard Feynman at Cornell University once opened Richard’s office door without knocking. He found Feynman rolling around the room on the floor oblivious to his entrance. After he finally got his attention he asked what in hell was he doing? Was he sick? Crazy? Feynman said he was imagining what it would be like to be an “electron.”

Rich, Einstein and Feynman were identifying with some part of their problem and trying to see the challenge from its perspective. You can easily do this yourself by using a personal analogy with your challenges. The personal analogy demands that you lose yourself in the object of the challenge. Wear the problems’ clothes, talk its language, eat its food, sing its songs, and recite its slogan and mottos. Become a kind of blood-hyphen with the object.

The executives of the Polymer Technologies Division of Bausch & Lomb paired off in teams, with one person playing the eyeball and the other playing a rigid gas-permeable contact lens. The basic questions they asked were: “How would I feel if I were an eyeball about a contact lens. . . ?” or “What would an eyeball say to me if our positions were reversed?” or “What would a contact lens say about the way it is used?” The executives playing the eyeball kept asking for a pillow to cushion the hard and insensitive contact lens. The result was a new research effort by Polymer to bond a special space-age cushioning material directly onto the contact lens.

11. Learn to think unconventionally. Creative geniuses do not think analytically and logically. Conventional, logical, analytical thinkers are exclusive thinkers, which means they exclude all information that is not related to the problem. They look for ways to eliminate possibilities. Creative geniuses are inclusive thinkers, which mean they look for ways to include everything, including things that are dissimilar and totally unrelated. Generating associations and connections between unrelated or dissimilar subjects is how they provoke different thinking patterns in their brain. These new patterns lead to new connections, which give them a different way to focus on the information and different ways to interpret what they are focusing on. This is how original and truly novel ideas are created. Albert Einstein once famously remarked “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

But isn’t there a role for both approaches? First you generate the ideas, then you need to test them?

Yes. Brainstorming should be two different processes. 1. Generate the most ideas possible without judgement of any kind, and then. 2. Evaluate the ideas for practicality.

Another brainstorming strategy is Imagineering which I learned from Walt Disney. The term “Imagineering” combines the words imagination and engineering and basically means engineering your dreams and fantasies back to earth into something realistic and possible. This enabled him to transform the dreams, fantasies and wishes of his imagination into concrete reality.

Disney’s imagineering strategy involved exploring something using three different perceptual positions. Imagineering synthesizes three different strategies: the dreamer, realist, and the critic. A dreamer and realist can create things but find that a critic helps to evaluate and refine the final products.

Following are descriptions of each strategy:

DREAMER. A dreamer spins innumerable fantasies, wishes, outrageous hunches and bold and absurd ideas without limit or judgment. Nothing is censored. Nothing is too absurd or silly. All things are possible for the dreamer. To be the dreamer, ask: If I could wave a magic wand and do anything I want – what would I create? How would it look? What could I do with it? How would it make you feel? What is the most absurd idea I can conceive?

REALIST. The realist imagineers the dreamer’s ideas into something realistic and feasible. He would try to figure out how to make the ideas work and then sort them out in some meaningful order. To be the realist, ask: How can I make this happen? What are the features and aspects of the idea? Can I build ideas from the features or aspects? What is the essence of the idea? Can I extract the principle of the idea? Can I make analogical-metaphorical connections with the principle and something dissimilar to create something tangible? How can I use the essence of the idea to imagineer a more realistic one?

CRITIC. The critic reviews all the ideas and tries to punch holes in them by playing the devil’s advocate. To be the critic, ask: How do I really feel about it? Is this the best I can do? What can make it better? Does this make sense? How does it look to a customer? A client? An expert? A user? Is it worth my time to work on this idea? Can I improve it?

12. There is no such thing as failure. I was an intelligence officer in the military. One day our colonel ordered me to send out a long range reconnaissance patrol with the mission of locating the enemy and the positions they occupied. We returned after twelve days in the bush. I reported to the colonel and apologized. I said, “I’m sorry Sir. We failed. We were not able to locate the enemy.” The colonel replied, “Failed!! Like hell you did. You boys found where the enemy is not.” Using the information we brought back the army was able to plan and execute a highly successful offensive. Whenever you try to do something and do not succeed, you do not fail. You have learned something that does not work. Always ask “What have I learned about what doesn’t work?”, “Can this explain something that I didn’t set out to explain?”, and “What have I discovered that I didn’t set out to discover?” Whenever someone tells you that they have never made a mistake, you are talking to someone who has never tried anything new.

Also, one of my cliches is, “There is no such thing as a failure. There are only learning opportunities.”

Good one.

It is a paradox of life that you have to learn to fail in order to succeed. Henry Ford’s first two automobile companies failed. What he learned from his failures led him to be the first to apply assembly line manufacturing to the production of affordable automobiles in the world. He became one of the three most famous and richest men in the world during his time.

When you try something and produce a result that is not what you intended but that you find interesting , drop everything else and study it. B. F. Skinner emphasized this as a first principle of scientific methodology. This is what William Shockley and a multi-discipline Bell labs team did. They were formed to invent the MOS transistor and ended up instead with the junction transistor and the new science of semiconductor physics. These developments eventually led to the MOS transistor and then to the integrated circuit and to new breakthroughs in electronics and computers. William Shockley described it as a process of “creative failure methodology.” Answering the questions about discoveries from failures in a novel, unexpected way is the essential creative act. It is not luck but creative insight of the highest order.

What got you interested in the topic of creativity in the first place?

ANS: In the military, I observed that even in the highest level staff meetings there was no original thinking. When confronted with a problem, people are taught to analytically select the most promising approach based on past history, excluding all other approaches and then to work logically within a carefully defined direction toward a solution. Instead of being taught to look for possibilities, they were taught to look for ways to exclude them. This kind of thinking is dehumanizing and naturalizes intellectual laziness which promotes an impulse toward doing whatever is easiest or doing nothing at all. It bothered me that even people at the highest levels have been trained to seek out the neural path of least resistance, searching out responses that have worked in the past, rather than approach a problem on its own terms.

I once read that the generals always find a way they could have won the LAST war. 🙂

While I was in government service I had access to historical archives from WW2 that are still classified “top secret.” I discovered that our generals lived in incredible luxury like kings and most were made incredibly incompetent from years of meaningless peacetime duties. Thankfully, our industrialization output and technological innovation could not be overcome by the enemies.

After much lobbying and luck, I was given permission to organize a team of NATO intelligence specialists and international academics in Frankfurt, Germany, to research, collect, and categorize all known inventive-thinking methods. This international team applied those methods to various NATO military, political, and social problems and in doing so it produced a variety of breakthrough ideas and creative solutions to new and old problems. After leaving the military, I was asked by the CIA to facilitate their think tanks using my creative thinking techniques.

The Germans managed to invent Blitzkrieg, leaving the French flat-footed.

You’re right. The French strategy in WW2 was all based on what worked in WW1, namely, fixed defensive positions. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

When not producing your essays, what fills your time? Is there anything in life besides working on them?

ANS: I provide keynote speeches, workshops, and seminars on fostering creative thinking for clients who range from Fortune 500 corporations, such as DuPont, Kellogg’s, General Electric, Kodak, Microsoft, Exxon, General Motors, Ford, USA, AT&T, Wal-Mart, Gillette, and Hallmark, to associations and governmental agencies. In addition to my work in the United States, I work with clients in countries around the world.

For more information visit or email Michael at

What is your reward for this work? The answer could be material and/or psychological.

Once when I was a young student, I was asked by my teacher, “What is one-half of thirteen?” I answered six and one half or 6.5. However, I exclaimed there are many different ways to express thirteen and many different to halve something. For example, you can spell thirteen, then halve it (e.g., thir teen). Now half of thirteen becomes four (four letters in each half). Or, you can express it numerically as 13, and now halving 13 gives you 1 and 3. Another way to express a 13 is to express it in Roman numerals as XIII and now halving XIII gives you XI and II, or eleven and two. Or you can even take XIII, divide it horizontally in two ( XIII ) and half of thirteen becomes VIII or 8.

My teacher scolded me for being silly and wasting the class’s time by playing games. She said there is only one right answer to the question about thirteen. It is six and one-half or 6.5. All others are wrong. I’ll never forget what she said “When I ask you a question, answer it the way you were taught or say you don’t know. If you want to get a passing grade, stop making stuff up.”

Well, she failed and you passed. You still look for the unexpected answer.

When we learn something, we are taught to program it into our brain and stop thinking about or looking for alternatives. Over time these programs become stronger and stronger, not only cognitively but physiologically as well. Even when we actively seek information to test our ideas to see if we are right, we usually ignore paths that might lead us to discover alternatives.

My reward is to awaken people’s awareness of how they have been programmed to think reproductively and not productively. Einstein was once asked what the difference was between the way he thought and the way the average person thought. His response was “If you asked the average person to find a needle in the haystack, he or she will stop when they find a needle. Me, on the other hand, will go through the entire haystack looking for all the possible needles.” That’s the difference between reproductive and productive thinking.

I’d look for a powerful magnet.

Good one!

Do you put your knowledge of creativity to use, for your own benefit or for anyone else?

thinkertoysANS: For the use of anyone who is seeking creative ideas to improve their business or personal lives. My creative-thinking techniques that were refined by my government and corporate practice were published in my best-seller Thinkertoys (A Handbook of Business Creativity), which the Wall Street Journal reported “will change the way you think.” CEO-READ listed Thinkertoys as one of the 100 Best Business Books of all Time. Women In Business lauded it as “one of the most important business titles of the decade.” USA said “believe it or not, this wonderful book will have you challenging the seemingly impossible every day.” Executive Book Summaries praised it by saying, “What we need is a compendium of ways to solve problems. And that’s exactly what you get in Thinkertoys.” and Entrepreneur acclaimed it as “required reading for anyone in business.” Success magazine awarded Thinkertoys with a Gold Medal for being “one of the best of the best business books.” The medal is awarded to books that have that made a major impact on readers who say they’ve experienced a change — an improvement in their lives and businesses.

thinkpakI am also the author of ThinkPak (A Brainstorming Card Deck), a novel creative-thinking tool that is designed to facilitate brainstorming sessions.



crackingcreativityAnd Cracking Creativity (The Secrets Of Creative Genius), which describes the common thinking strategies creative geniuses have used in the sciences, art, and industry throughout history and shows how we can apply them to become more creative in our business and personal lives.



thinkeringMy newest book is Creative Thinkering (Putting your Imagination to Work), which demonstrates how to combine and synthesize totally dissimilar subjects into new and exciting original ideas.

Thank you Michael for your generosity in providing a free, public teaching guide to creativity.

About Dr Bob Rich

I am a professional grandfather. My main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which my grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. This means reversing environmental idiocy that's now threatening us with extinction, and replacing culture of greed and conflict with one of compassion and cooperation.
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2 Responses to Interview with Michael Michalko: What is creativity?

  1. What a fascinating article, with much interesting historical information. I have Edward de Bono’s ‘How to have Creative Ideas’, which is helpful to me as a writer. I must admit that I hadn’t heard of Michael Michalko, so I’ll have to check out his website. His books and ThinkPak tool certainly look worth having. An excellent interview, Bob – thanks.


    • bobrich18 says:

      Thank you Kate. Michael has amused and instructed me with his email service for years. If you are interested in creativity, it’s well worth subscribing to. He keeps coming up with new aspects.


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