Innovation : A Theory about Genius ( Part One )

Michael is a creativity expert who specializes in providing creative-thinking workshops for organizations. The article is from his book Cracking Creativity ( The Secrets of Creative Genius ).

You can visit his site Creative Thinking. or mail him on

Michael Michalko is a creativity expert who specializes in providing creative-thinking workshops for organizations. He is the author of the highly-acclaimed "Thinkertoys : A Handbook of Business Creativity" and "ThinkPak : A Brainstorming Card Set".

Part I

Academics also tried to measure the links between intelligence and genius. But intelligence is not enough to warrant genius. Marilyn Von Savant, whose IQ of 228 is the highest ever recorded, has not exactly contributed much to science or art. She is, instead, a question-and-answer columnist for Parade magazine. Run-of-the-mill physicists have IQs much higher than Nobel-Prize winner Richard Feynman, whom many acknowledge to be the last great American genius ( his IQ was a merely respectable 122 ).

Genius is not about scoring 1600 on the SATs, mastering fourteen languages at the age of seven, finishing Mensa exercises in record time, having an extraordinarily high IQ, or even about being smart. After considerable debate initiated by Joy P. Guilford, a leading psychologist who called for a scientific focus on creativity in the sixties, psychologists reached the conclusion that creativity is not the same as intelligence. An individual can be far more creative than he or she is intelligent, or far more intelligent than creative.

Most people of average intelligence, given data or some problem, can figure out the expected conventional response. For example, when asked, "What is one-half of 13 ?", most of us immediately answer six and one-half. You probably reached the answer in a few seconds and then turned your attention back to the text.

Typically, we think reproductively, that is, on the basis of similar problems encountered in the past. When confronted with problems, we fixate on something in our past that has worked before. We ask, "What have I been taught in life, education, or work on how to solve the problem ?" Then we analytically select the most promising approach based on past experiences, excluding all other approaches, and work within a clearly defined direction towards the solution of the problem. Because of the soundness of the steps based on past experiences, we become arrogantly certain of the correctness of our conclusion.

In contrast, geniuses think productively, not reproductively. When confronted with a problem, they ask, "How many different ways can I look at it ?", "How can I rethink the way I see it ?", and "How many different ways can I solve it ?", instead of, "What have I been taught by someone else on how to solve this ?" They tend to come up with many different responses, some of which are unconventional and possibly unique. A productive thinker would say that there are many different ways to express "thirteen" and many different ways to halve something. Following are some examples.

g_Thir_teen Genius 1.gif (1640 bytes)

( Note : As you can see, in addition to six and one half, by expressing 13 in different ways and halving it in different ways, one could say one-half of thirteen is 6.5, or 1 and 3, or 4, or 11 and 2,or 8,and so on. )

With productive thinking, one generates as many alternate approaches as one can. One considers the least obvious as well as the most likely approaches. It is the willingness to explore all approaches that is important, even after one has found a promising one. Einstein was once asked what the difference was between him and the average person. He said that if you asked the average person to find a needle in the haystack, the person would stop when he or she found a needle. He, on the other hand, would tear through the entire haystack looking for all the possible needles.

How would you describe the pattern in the following illustration ? Most people see the pattern as a square composed of smaller squares or circles or as alternate rows of squares and circles.

g_geniugrid Genius 1.gif (1531 bytes)

It cannot be easily seen as columns of alternate squares and circles. Once it's pointed out that it can also be viewed as columns of alternate squares and circles, we, of course, see it. This is because we have become habituated to passively organize similar items together in our minds. Geniuses, on the other hand, subvert habituation by actively looking for alternative ways to look at things and alternative ways to think about them.

Whenever Noble-Prize winner Richard Feynman was stuck on a problem, he would invent new thinking strategies. He felt the secret to his genius was his ability to disregard how past thinkers thought about problems and, instead, invent new ways to think. He was so "unstuck" that if something didn't work, he would look at it several different ways until he found a way that moved his imagination. He was wonderfully productive.

Feynman proposed teaching productive thinking in our educational institutions in lieu of reproductive thinking. He believed that the successful user of mathematics is an inventor of new ways of thinking in given situations. He believed that even if the old ways are well known, it is usually better to invent your own way or a new way than it is to look it up and apply what you've looked up.

The problem 29 + 3 is considered a third-grade problem, because it requires the advanced technique of carrying; yet Feynman pointed out that a first grader could handle it by thinking 30, 31, 32. A child could mark numbers on a line and count off the spaces--a method that becomes useful in understanding measurements and fractions. One can write larger numbers in columns and carry sums larger than 10, use fingers, or algebra ( 2 times what plus 3 is 7 ? ). He encouraged the teaching of an attitude where people are taught to figure out how to think about problems many different ways using trial and error.

Reproductive thinking fosters rigidity of thought. This is why we so often fail when confronted with a new problem that is similar to past experiences only in superficial ways, or on the surface, and is different from previously encountered problems in its deep structure. Interpreting such a problem through the prism of past experience will, by definition, lead the thinker astray. Reproductive thinking leads us to the usual ideas and not to original ones. If you always think the way you've always thought, you'll always get what you've always got--the same old, same old ideas.

In 1968, the Swiss dominated the watch industry. The Swiss themselves invented the electronic watch movement at their research institute in Neuchatel, Switzerland. It was rejected by every Swiss watch manufacturer. Based on their past experiences in the industry, they believed this couldn't possibly be the watch of the future. After all, it was battery powered, did not have bearings or a mainspring, and almost no gears. Seiko took one look at this invention that the Swiss manufacturers rejected at the World Watch Congress that year, and took over the world watch market. When Univac invented the computer, they refused to talk to business people who inquired about it because they said the computer was invented for scientists and had no business applications. Then along came IBM. IBM, itself, once said that according to their past experiences in the computer market, there is virtually no market for the personal computer. In fact, they said they were absolutely certain there were no more than five or six people in the entire world who had need for a personal computer. And along came Apple.

In nature, a gene pool that is totally lacking in variation would be unable to adapt to changing circumstances. In time, the genetically encoded wisdom would convert to foolishness, with consequences that would be fatal to the species' survival. A comparable process operates within us as individuals. We all have a rich repertoire of ideas and concepts based on past experiences that enables us to survive and prosper. But without any provision for the variation of ideas, our usual ideas become stagnate and lose their advantages, and, in the end, we are defeated in our competition with our rivals.

Consider the following :-

  • In 1899 Charles Duell, the Director of the U.S. Patent Office, suggested that the government close the office because everything that can be invented has been invented. In 1923, Robert Millikan, noted physicist and winner of the Noble Prize, said that there is absolutely no likelihood that man can harness the power of the atom.

  • Phillip Reiss, a German, invented a machine that could transmit music in 1861. He was days away from inventing the telephone. Every communication expert in Germany persuaded him there was no market for such a device as the telegraph was good enough. Fifteen years later, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and became a multi-millionaire, with Germany as his first and most enthusiastic customer.

  • Chester Carlson invented xerography in 1938. Virtually every major corporation, including IBM and Kodak, scoffed at his idea and turned him down. They claimed that since carbon paper was cheap and plentiful, who in their right mind would buy an expensive copier.

  • Fred Smith, while a student at Yale, came up with the concept of Federal Express, a national overnight delivery service. The U.S. Postal Service, UPS, his own business professor, and virtually every delivery expert in the U.S., doomed his enterprise to failure. Based on their experiences in the industry, no one, they said, will pay a fancy price for speed and reliability.

When Charles Darwin returned to England after he visited the Galapagos, he distributed his finch specimens to professional zoologists to be properly identified. One of the most distinguished experts was John Gould. What was the most revealing was not what happened to Darwin, but what had not happened to Gould.

Darwin's notes show Gould taking him through all the birds he had named. Gould kept going back and forth about the number of different species of finches. The information was there, but he didn't know what to make of it. He assumed that since God made one set of birds when he created the world, the specimens from different locations would be identical. It never occurred to him to look for differences by location. Gould taught that the birds were so different that they were distinct species.

What is remarkable about the encounter is the completely different impact it had on the two men. Gould thought the way he had been conditioned to think, like an expert taxonomist, and didn't see the textbook case of evolution that unfolded right before him with the finches. Darwin didn't even know they were finches. The person with the intelligence, knowledge, and the expertise didn't see it, and the person with far less knowledge and expertise comes up with an idea that shapes the way we think about the world.

I have always been impressed by Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection and have become fascinated with scholastic attempts to apply Darwinian ideas to creativity and genius. My own outlook about genius has roots in Donald Campbell's blind-variation and selective-retention model of creative thought which he published in l960. Campbell was not the first to see the connection between Darwinian ideas on evolution and creativity. 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. Campbell's work has since been elaborated on by a number of scholars including Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California, Davis and Sarnoff Mednick.

The work of these and many other scholars suggests that genius operates according to Darwin's theory of biological evolution. Nature is extraordinarily productive. 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 rich diversity of alternatives and conjectures. From this variety of alternatives and conjectures, the intellect retains the best ideas for further development and communication. An important aspect of this theory is that you need some means of producing variation in your ideas and that for this variation to be truly effective it must be "blind." Blind variation implies a departure from reproductive ( retained ) knowledge.

How do creative geniuses generate so many alternatives and conjectures ? Why are so many of their ideas so rich and varied ? How do they produce the "blind" variations that lead to the original and novel ? A growing cadre of scholars are offering evidence that one can characterize the way geniuses think. By studying the notebooks, correspondence, conversations, and ideas of the world's greatest thinkers, they have teased out particular common thinking strategies and styles of thought that enabled geniuses to generate a prodigious variety of novel and original ideas.

© 1998 by Michael Michalko

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