Innovation : A Theory about Genius ( Part Two )
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 ).
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".
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.
Following are thumbnail descriptions of strategies that are common to the thinking styles of creative geniuses in science, art, and industry throughout history.
Geniuses look at problems in many different ways
Genius often comes from finding a new perspective that no one else has taken. Leonardo da Vinci believed that to gain knowledge about the form of problems, you begin by learning how to restructure it in many different ways. He felt the first way he looked at a problem was too biased toward his usual way of seeing things. He would restructure his problem by looking at it from one perspective, move to another perspective, and still another. With each move, his understanding would deepen and he would begin to understand the essence of the problem. Einstein's theory of relativity is, in essence, a description of the interaction between different perspectives. Freud's analytical methods were designed to find details that did not fit with traditional perspectives in order to find a completely new point of view.
In order to creatively solve a problem, the thinker must abandon the initial approach that stems from past experience and re-conceptualize the problem. By not settling with one perspective, geniuses do not merely solve existing problems, like inventing an environmentally-friendly fuel, they identify new ones. It does not take a genius to analyze dreams, it required Freud to ask, in the first place, what meaning dreams carry from our psyche.
Geniuses make their thought visible
The explosion of creativity in the Renaissance was intimately tied to the recording and conveying of a vast knowledge in a parallel language: a language of drawings, graphs, and diagrams as, for instance, in the renowned diagrams of Da Vinci and Galileo. Galileo revolutionized science by making his thought visible with diagrams, maps, and drawings while his contemporaries used conventional mathematical and verbal approaches.
Once geniuses obtain a certain minimal verbal facility, they seem to develop skills in visual and spatial abilities which give them the flexibility to display information in different ways. When Einstein had thought through a problem, he always found it necessary to formulate his subject in as many different ways as possible, including diagrammatically. He had a very visual mind. He thought in terms of visual and spatial forms, rather than thinking along purely mathematical or verbal lines of reasoning. In fact, he believed that words and numbers, as they are written or spoken, did not play a significant role in his thinking process.
One of the most complete descriptions of Einstein's philosophy of science, was found in a letter to his friend, Maurice Solovine. In the letter, Einstein explained the difficulty of attempting to use words to explain his philosophy of science because, as he said, he thinks about such things schematically. The letter started with a simple drawing consisting of ( 1 ) a straight line representing E ( experiences ), which are given to us, and ( 2 ) A ( axioms ), which are situated above the line but not directly linked to the line.
( Note: This is an approximation. Einstein's original sketch is in the Albert Einstein Archives, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. )
Einstein explained that psychologically the A rests upon the E. There exists, however, no logical path from E to A, but only an intuitive connection, which is always subject to revocation. From axioms, one can make certain deductions ( S ), which may lay claim to being correct. In essence, Einstein was saying that it is the theory that determines what we observe. Einstein argued that scientific thinking is speculative, and only in its end product does it lead to a system that is characterized as "logical simplicity." Unable to satisfactorily describe his thoughts in words, Einstein made his thought visible by diagraming his philosophy's main features and characteristics.
A distinguishing characteristic of genius is immense productivity. Thomas Edison held 1,093 patents, still the record. He guaranteed productivity by giving himself and his assistants idea quotas. His own personal quota was one minor invention every 10 days and a major invention every six months. Bach wrote a cantata every week, even when he was sick or exhausted. Mozart produced more than six hundred pieces of music. Einstein is best known for his paper on relativity, but he published 248 other papers. T.S. Elliot's numerous drafts of "The Waste Land" constitute a jumble of good and bad passages that eventually was turned into a masterpiece. In a study of 2,036 scientists throughout history, Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California, Davis found that the most respected produced not only great works, but also more "bad" ones. Out of their massive quantity of work came quality. Geniuses produce. Period.
Geniuses make novel combinations
Dean Keith Simonton, in his 1989 book Scientific Genius suggests that geniuses are geniuses because they form more novel combinations than the merely talented. His theory has etymology behind it: cogito-"I think"- originally connoted "shake together," intelligo, the root of "intelligence," means to "select among." This is a clear early intuition about the utility of permitting ideas and thoughts to randomly combine with each other and the utility of selecting from the many the few to retain. Like the highly playful child with a pailful of Legos, geniuses constantly combine and recombine ideas, images, and thoughts into different combinations in their conscious and subconscious minds. Consider Einstein's equation, E=mc2. Einstein did not invent the concepts of energy, mass, or speed of light. Rather, by combining these concepts in a novel way, he was able to look at the same world as everyone else and see something different. The laws of heredity, on which the modern science of genetics is based, are the results of Gregor Mendel who combined mathematics and biology to create a new science.
Geniuses force relationships
If one particular style of thought stands out about creative genius, it is the ability to make juxtapositions between dissimilar subjects. Call it a facility to connect the unconnected that enables them to see things to which others are blind. Leonardo da Vinci forced a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water. This enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves. In 1865, F.A. Kekule intuited the shape of the ring-like benzene molecule by forcing a relationship with a dream of a snake biting its tail. Samuel Morse was stumped trying to figure out how to produce a telegraphic signal strong enough to be received coast to coast. One day, he saw tied horses being exchanged at a relay station and forced a connection between relay stations for horses and strong signals. The solution was to give the traveling signal periodic boosts of power. Nickla Tesla forced a connection between the setting sun and a motor that made the AC motor possible by having the motor's magnetic field rotate inside the motor just as the sun ( from our perspective ) rotates.
Geniuses think in opposites
Physicist and philosopher David Bohm believed geniuses were able to think different thoughts because they could tolerate ambivalence between opposites or two incompatible subjects. Dr. Albert Rothenberg, a noted researcher on the creative process, identified this ability in a wide variety of geniuses, including Einstein, Mozart, Edison, Pasteur, Joseph Conrad, and Picasso in his 1990 book, The Emerging Goddess: The Creative Process in Art, Science and Other Fields. Physicist Niels Bohr believed that if you hold opposites together, then you suspend your thought and your mind moves to a new level. The suspension of thought allows an intelligence beyond thought to act and create a new form. The swirling of opposites creates the conditions for a new point of view to bubble freely from your mind. Bohr's ability to imagine light as both a particle and a wave led to his conception of the principle of complementarity. Thomas Edison's invention of a practical system of lighting involved combining wiring in parallel circuits with high- resistance filaments in his bulbs, two things that were not considered possible by conventional thinkers, in fact, were not considered at all because of an assumed incompatibility. Because Edison could tolerate the ambivalence between two incompatible things, he could see the relationship that led to his breakthrough.
Geniuses think metaphorically
Aristotle considered metaphor a sign of genius, believing that the individual who had the capacity to perceive resemblances between two separate areas of existence and link them together was a person of special gifts. If unlike things are really alike in some ways, perhaps, they are so in others. Alexander Graham Bell observed the analogy between the inner workings of the ear and the movement of a stout piece of membrane to move steel, and conceived the telephone. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, in one day, after developing an analogy between a toy funnel and the motions of a paper man and sound vibrations. Underwater construction was made possible by observing how shipworms tunnel into timber by first constructing tubes. Einstein derived and explained many of his abstract principles by drawing analogies with everyday occurrences such as rowing a boat or standing on a platform while a train passed by.
Geniuses prepare themselves for chance
Whenever we attempt to do something and fail, we end up doing something else. As simplistic as this statement may seem, it is the first principle of creative accident. We may ask ourselves why we have failed to do what we intended, and this is the reasonable, expected thing to do. But the creative accident provokes a different question: What have we done ? Answering that question in a novel, unexpected way is the essential creative act. It is not luck, but creative insight of the highest order. Alexander Fleming was not the first physician to notice the mold formed on an exposed culture while studying deadly bacteria. A less-gifted physician would have trashed this seemingly irrelevant event, but Fleming noted it as "interesting" and wondered if it had potential. This "interesting" observation led to penicillin which has saved millions of lives. Thomas Edison, while pondering how to make a carbon filament, was mindlessly toying with a piece of putty, turning and twisting it in his fingers, when he looked down at his hands, the answer hit him between the eyes: twist the carbon like rope. B.F. Skinner summarized a first principle of scientific methodologists: when you find something interesting, drop everything else and study it. Too many fail to answer opportunity's knock at the door because they have to finish some preconceived plan. Creative geniuses do not wait for the gifts of chance; instead, they actively seek the accidental discovery.
Recognizing the common thinking strategies of creative geniuses and applying them will make you more creative in your work and personal life. Creative geniuses are geniuses because they know "how" to think, instead of "what" to think. Sociologist Harriet Zuckerman published an interesting study of the Nobel-Prize winners who were living in the United States in 1977. She discovered that six of Enrico Fermi's students won the prize. Ernst Lawrence and Niels Bohr each had four. J.J. Thompson and Ernest Rutherford between them trained seventeen Nobel laureates. This was no accident. It is obvious that these Nobel laureates were not only creative in their own right, but were also able to teach others how to think creatively. Zuckerman's subjects testified that their most influential masters taught them different thinking styles and strategies rather than what to think.
© 1998 by Michael Michalko