For a book review, I reviewed Creative Thinkering by Michael Michalko, who also authored Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius, and Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques. Creative Thinkering is divided into two parts: Creative Thinking and Creative Thinker. The first part covers the brain’s tendency to self-organize diverse perceptions into recognizable patterns, creating new ideas by blending concepts; looking at problems from different perspectives; and prompting ideas using different stimuli. The second part covers aspects of creativity that are personal to individuals, including the power of intention; the linkage between speech, belief, and actions; and the importance of taking chances.
Summary of Content
The book starts with a proposition common to most creativity books, that as children we were all creative and that this creativity diminishes over time. The primary source of this decrease in creativity over time is formal education, overly focused on answers deemed “correct” by history, analytical ability, or arbitrary authority figures at the expense of generating and exploring alternatives:
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 selected the most promising approach based on history, excluding all other approaches, and then to work logically in a carefully defined direction towards a solution. (p. 3-4).
The problem with education is that it wires into our brains “thinking patterns [that] limit our imagination and inventiveness.” (p. 4). Michalko explains the brain’s tendency to organize information and perceptions into these thinking patterns:
When information enters the mind, it self-organizes into patterns and ruts much like the hot water on butter. New information automatically flows into the preformed grooves. After a while, the channels become so deep it takes only a bit of information to activate an entire channel. This is the pattern recognition and pattern completion process of the brain. Even if much of the information is out of the channel, the pattern will be activated. The mind automatically corrects and completes the information to select and activate a pattern. (p. 12).
To become more creative, one must find ways to break out of existing mental patterns and structures by adopting certain practices and attributes that facilitate creative thinking. Thus, “[o]ne of the hallmarks of a creative thinker is the ability to tolerate ambiguity, dissonance, inconsistency, and things out of place.” (p. 5). Throughout the book, Michalko describes different practices, techniques, and attributes that if adopted, will help people break out of thinking ruts and create novel ideas.
The main idea of the book involves what Michalko describes as “conceptual blending.” According to Michalko, “[c]reative thinkers form more novel combinations because they routinely conceptually blend objects, concepts, and ideas form two different contexts or categories that logical thinkers conventionally consider separate.” (p. 19). Michalko further states that “[i]t is the conceptual blending of dissimilar concepts that leads to original ideas and insights.” (p. 19). Michalko explains how this process works:
[W]hen two dissimilar subjects are conceptually blended together in the imagination, new complex patterns are formed that create new ideas. The two subjects cross-catalyze each other like two chemicals that both must be present in order for a new concept, product, or idea to form. This strongly resembles the creative process of genetic recombination in nature. Chromosomes exchange genes to create emergent new beings. … The new ideas are not only greater than the sum of their parts, but they are different from the sums of their parts. (p. 20).
This conceptual blending idea is one of the dominate themes of the book with much of the book showcasing specific and different ways to employ this practices. For instance, Michalko describes a process for generating ideas commonly referred to as “forced connections”, stating that you “will find inspiration for marvelous ideas if you look for random subjects to conceptually blend with your challenge.” (p. 55). Michalko describes a number of effective ways to generate forced connections – collecting interesting objects, pictures, or articles for use as an “idea drawer”, going into nature or for a walk and talking notes of anything that sticks out or is particularly interesting, or using your imagination to generate your own forced connections. Another interesting insight was to work on multiple ideas in parallel or simultaneously, allowing ideas regarding one problem to cross-pollinate and impact the other problems.
Michalko has a number of interesting observations about perception. For instance, he states that “scientists and psychologists have proven that perception is demonstrably an active rather than a passive process; it constructs rather than records reality.” (p. 82). Some key insights include that “the perception of the observer depends on the observer’s own assumptions” and “[c]onsciously or unconsciously, we are anchored to our first impressions unless we actively change the way we look at the subject.” (p. 82, 87). Michalko then gives several ways to look at things differently – from the perspective of another or from a specific role or viewpoint; look at things from as many perspectives as possible; use metaphors to shift perspectives; pair opposite or paradoxical ideas to gain new insights.
In the second part of the book, Michalko shifts his focus from creative thinking to how creativity applies at the individual level. Michalko discusses the power of intention, stating that “[y]our brain becomes an extra-ordinary pattern recognition tool when you focus your intention.” (p. 157). When we focus our intention on something specific, “[i]ntention has a way of bringing to our awareness only those things that our brains deem important.” (p. 148). Thus, by focusing your intention on something, the brain filters out the non-important information and then brings the essential information – often the creative spark or ahah moment – the attention of your conscious mind.
The remaining chapters focus on becoming creative by the words we choose and the way we act. To be more creative, we should focus our thoughts on what we want rather than what we don’t want. Similarly, we should speak with the positive language of inclusion – describing things as they are or could be – rather than the negative language of exclusion that describes thing in reference to what they are not or cannot be. (p. 162). Michalko ascribes great power to the mind and imagination, stating that “you can synthesize experience, literally creat[ing] it in your imagination.” (p.186).
Creative Thinkering is an interesting blend of creative thinking techniques, puzzles and illustrations, thought experiments, and practical tips to improve creativity. Similar to Edward De Bono, Michalko applies a practical, anecdotal approach, rather than an academic, research-based approach. Even so, the result is a book that is entertaining, informative, and engaging and provides several actionable creativity tips. However, readers looking for a more systematic or comprehensive theory or approach to creativity will be disappointed.
Similar to Edward De Bono, Michalko’s strength is bringing creative thinking, especially creative thinking techniques and concepts to a popular, non-academic audience in digestible, entertaining fashion. Also similar to Edward De Bono, the weaknesses of his writing is that they tend to lack a unifying framework or theory. This makes placing his work within the taxonomy of other creative thinking theoretical frameworks difficult as well a veritable dearth of verifying and validity research.
The greatest contribution of this book to the field of creativity is in its description of several simple but powerful principles – conceptual blending; perception; intention; linkage between speech, thought, and actions; and the power of the imagination. Although most of these concepts are covered elsewhere in the creativity field, few books are as entertaining, practical, and immensely readable as Creative Thinkering.