Michael Michalko is one of the most highly acclaimed creativity experts in the world and author of numerous bestselling books. As an officer in the United States Army, Michael Michalko organized a team of NATO intelligence specialists and international academics in Frankfurt, Germany, to research, collect, and categorize all known inventive-thinking methods. Michael Michalko later applied these creative-thinking techniques to problems in the corporate world with outstanding successes. Michael has provided 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. Some of Michael’s creative-thinking techniques that were refined by his government and corporate practice were published in his best-seller Thinkertoys. He is also the author of ThinkPak, a novel creative-thinking tool that is designed to facilitate brainstorming sessions; Cracking Creativity which describes the common thinking strategies creative geniuses have used. Michael Michalko’s newest book is Creative Thinkering which demonstrates how to combine and synthesize totally dissimilar subjects into new and exciting original ideas. Please enjoy my interview with Michael Michalko.
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I am a creativity consultant who provides seminars, workshops and keynote speeches about creative thinking for clients around the world. I am the author of Thinkertoys, Cracking Creativity, Creative Thinkering and ThinkPak. All my books provide the creative thinking techniques used by creative geniuses throughout history to get their ideas.
What are you reading at the moment?
What’s your earliest memory of reading?
Reading The Adventures of Huck Finn by Mark Twain which I received as a Christmas gift when I was a small child.
If you could encourage young people to read one book in particular, what would it be and why?
The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. This classic style manual was written over one hundred years ago and has gone through many editions. In fact, it remains the briefest and practical guide to English writing that’s ever appeared. By far. When I wrote my first book, I remember being overwhelmed with rules of English grammar, buzzwords and jargon. This is when I discovered this little book that taught me how to write with style. Every working writer I know refers to this little book often.
What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
There is no such thing as a ‘worst’ job. All experiences are neutral. You give the experience meaning by how you choose to interpret them. Einstein graduated next to last in his university. He was the only graduate who was not recommended for a teaching position. The only job he could get was an entry-level, low-paying clerk’s job in a government patent office. Years later when he was the famous scientist he was asked how could he have taken such a mundane low-paying position. His answer was “The job was a blessing. It enabled me to meet all kinds of people with different levels of expertise and education. Consequently, I was able to improve my communication skills with the average person which enabled me to write my theories and thoughts in such a way that the average person could understand them.” We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.
Do you read as much as you’d like to?
No. I tend to spend much of my time taking what I call thought walks. Once I was working with some engineers who were contracted to find ways to safely and efficiently remove ice from power lines during ice storms. We brainstormed for a short period. I then asked the engineers to take a 20-minute walk around the neighborhood. I asked them to look for interesting things. When they returned, I asked one engineer about his experience. He said he visited a store that had several different varieties of honey for sale in a variety of different containers. The store advertised the honey with a cutout of a large bear holding a jar of honey. He bought a jar and had it on his desk.
I then challenged the group to make forced connections between honey and removing ice from power lines. One engineer, while simultaneously thinking of honey and his power line problem together, he came up with a humorous absurd solution to his problem. The solution was to put a honey pot on top of each power pole. This would attract bears and the bears would climb the poles to get the honey. Their climbing would cause the poles to sway and the ice would vibrate off the wires. This silly idea got the whole group to think about the principle of “vibration,” which inspired the solution. The solution the power company implemented was to bring in helicopters to hover over the iced power lines. Their hovering vibrated the ice off the power lines.
What books do you feel are important reading for people on your career path and why?
I recommend that people who are interested in creativity read the biographies, journals and correspondence of creative geniuses in every field. You will discover their habits, strategies and the techniques they used to focus on information in different ways and how they could look at the same things as everyone else and see something different. Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks are full of specific things he did to get his breakthrough ideas. For example, he discovered that it is impossible for the human brain to think of two subjects, no matter how dissimilar without connections being form. These connections lead to breakthrough ideas you cannot get thinking the way we are educated to think. Thomas Edison left behind 3500 notebooks. In one, he wrote, that his greatest blessing in life was his lack of a formal education. Had he been educated, he said, he would have learned that what he accomplished in his life was not possible to do. Einstein said that when he examined his methods of thought, he concluded that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than his talent for absorbing positive knowledge.
The Art of War by Sun Tzu. This is an ancient Chinese military treatise attributed to the ancient Chinese military master Sun Tzu (Master Sun). Each chapter is devoted to a distinct aspect of warfare and how that applies to military strategy and tactics. For almost 1,500 years it has had a profound influence on both Eastern and Western military thinking, business tactics and strategies, legal strategies and beyond. Many business books have applied the lessons taken from the book to office politics and corporate business strategy. Many Japanese companies make the book required reading for their key executives. The book is also popular among Western business circles citing its utilitarian value regarding management practices. Many entrepreneurs and corporate executives have turned to it for inspiration and advice on how to succeed in competitive business situations. The book has also been applied to the field of education.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. This is a book based on the writings from a diary written by Anne Frank, a 13-year-old girl, while she was in hiding for two years with her family in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. This is the real diary of a teenage girl that begins on Anne’s 13th birthday when she gets a diary. It tells the story of her family who lives in Frankfurt, Germany and suddenly have to go into hiding as a result of Hitler and the Nazi Party’s treatment of Jews in Europe during the second world war. They escape to Amsterdam where they go into hiding with other Jews.
There are many important messages in this book, but the most important message is that all people have the right to live in freedom. Anne’s story shows us that just because people may be a different religion or race, doesn’t mean that they should be treated differently. Precocious in style and insight, it traces her emotional growth amid adversity. Toward the end, she wrote, ‘In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.’ I think of that sentence whenever I read some of the many hate-filled messages on facebook people send to people who have different perspectives and beliefs.
What’s your favourite genre of book?
What do you think a world without books would be like?
People walking around talking or texting into cell phones. There is no person to person communication. Their eyes are downcast and see nothing but the ground as they walk on autopilot. Cities will create phone lanes so humans walking and talking to phones will not bump into any objects. These phone lanes will have “Selfie” areas. This is where you can leave the phone lane and take a selfie of yourself. Traffic signals and signs will be embedded in the sidewalks so humans won’t have to look up. Humans will have lost their capacity to remember and no longer have any sense of direction. When you ask them questions they will google for answers. If you ask them where North is, they will plug in their GPS. If anyone is curious about a book they will ask Alexa to read it for them and then provide them with a brief synopsis. They no longer interpret their own experiences. They depend on CNN, MSNBC, FOX, CBS, NBC, ABC to interpret the world for them and to provide them with beliefs and theories about the world. Then humans only observe what confirms the theories that their favorite TV and radio talk shows provide and ignore all else.
Is there an author whose writing you’re such a fan of, that you’ll read everything they release?
Do you think digital books will ever completely replace real books?
Yes and then that will be superseded by some future technology.
1984 by George Orwell. It is not impressive as a novel about particular human beings, but as a warning it is superb. The book features a dystopian future society where free thought is illegal and punishable. Since the government controls all thought and all information, they can change it as they please, and can, therefore, change reality as they please. Most of the story is based around this idea that anything perceived as reality, is reality. The book was first published right after WWII. Readers then perceived it mostly as science fiction and as a warning. I suspect readers today will recognize our own country as the subject.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life?
Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton. The Seven Storey Mountain has become one of the most influential religious works of the past century. Merton’s life will touch a chord with readers from any background, maybe because his story seems so unlikely, but more so because of how his experiences are those shared by everyone. This book details the conversion of a soul from discontent to peace, from questioning to assurance, from boredom to joy. The lesson I learned from Merton was to change the way things are, you change the way you look at things.
During his life, Merton changed from a playboy to a communist to an English professor to a Trappist Monk. Every time we pretend to have an attitude and go through the motions, we trigger the emotions we create and strengthen the attitude we wish to cultivate. Think, for a moment, about social occasions–visits, dates, dinners out with friends, gatherings, birthday parties, weddings, etc. Even when you’re unhappy or depressed, these occasions force us to act as if we were happy. Observing other’s faces, postures, and voices, we unconsciously mimic their reactions. We synchronize our movements, posture, and tone of voice with theirs. Then by mimicking happy people, we become happy.
Once Merton had a particular identity and set of beliefs about himself, he became interested in seeking out the skills needed to express this new identity and beliefs. One day he began to feel spiritual. The great masters of antiquity have told us through the ages that whatever you believe you become. If you believe and imagine in the now that you are whatever you wish to be then reality must conform. Merton began going through the motions of being a religious person. When you go through the motions of believing you are something, you energize your brain by increasing the number of contacts between neurons. The more active his brain became, the more religious he became. 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. Merton became a Trappist monk.
The problem most of us have is that when we look at our lives we see only what we don’t have and who we are not and dwell on that. We are imagining and actively making these negative thoughts about who we are into the future by dwelling on it as real in the now. Most people are totally unaware of how easy it is to change your life. Merton taught me how you can construct your own reality by pretending to be the person you want to be.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
I plan to read a lot about quantum physics. I suspect that there are many similarities between how our subconscious minds process information and the processes in quantum physics.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
ME by Michael Michalko.