How to Think Like a Genius
Leon Alexander, president of Eurisko
What is common to the thinking style that produced the theory of relativity and Mona Lisa?
How do geniuses come up with ideas? What characterizes the thinking strategies of people, such as Einstein, Mozart and Steve Jobs? What can we learn from them?
If we can understand the commonality, we can apply it to become more creative in our work and personal life. Genius is not about scoring high on an IQ test, or mastering ten languages. Creativity is not the same as intelligence. An individual can be far more creative than he is intelligent, or far more intelligent than creative.
The key question isn't "Why are some people more creative then others?" It’s more like “Why isn't everyone creative? Where was our potential list? Why does education cripple creativity?”
We have been educated to process information based on what has happened in the past and to be analytical thinkers. Once we think we know how to get the answer, based on what we have been taught, we stop thinking. We have the ability to make common associations between subjects that are related. We are far better at associating two things, than we are at forcing ourselves to see connections between things that seem to have no association. We form mental walls between association of related concepts and concepts that are not related.
We are all born spontaneous and creative. As children we embraced all kinds of outlandish possibilities. We knew a box was much more than a container. A box could be a fort, a car, a tank, a cave, a house, something to draw on and a space helmet. Our imaginations were not structured according to some existing concept or category. And then something happened to us: we went to school. We were taught how to think; we were taught to reproduce what past thinkers thought. When confronted with a problem, we were taught to select the most promising approach based on history, and then work logically in a carefully defined direction towards the solution.
This is why, when most people use their imaginations to develop new ideas, those ideas are heavily structured in predictable ways by the properties of existing concepts. Creative thinking requires the ability to generate a host of associations and connections between two or more dissimilar subjects, creating new categories and concepts.
Imagine that thought, is water! When you are born, your mind is like a glass of water. Your thinking is inclusive, clear and fluid. All thoughts intermingle and combine with each other. Once something is learned and categorized, your thoughts about it become frozen like ice cubes in a tray. You are taught, when confronted with a problem, to examine the ice cube tray and select the appropriate cube. Then you take the cube and put it in the glass, where your thinking heats and melts it.
Creativity emerges from the basic mental operation of conceptually blending dissimilar subjects. When analyzed, creative ideas are always new combinations of old ideas. A poet does not generally make up new words but instead puts together old words in a new way.
When asked, "what is one-half of thirteen?" Most of us would answer six and one-half.
Typically we think reproductively, on the basis of similar problems encountered in the past. We become arrogantly certain of the correctness of our conclusion.
In contrast geniuses think productively, not reproductively. When confronted with a problem, they ask themselves how many different ways they can look at the problem, how they can rethink it, and how many different ways they can solve it. They tend to come up with many different responses, some of which are unconventional and possibly, unique. A productive thinker would say there are many different ways to express "thirteen" and many different ways to halve something. (6.5. Six and one-half, Thir and teen, 13 = 1, 3)
Once geniuses obtain a certain minimal verbal facility, they seem to develop a skill in visual and spatial abilities that gives 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 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 reasoning. He thought that words and numbers did not play a significant role in his thinking process.
"Thinking Fluently,” presents a set of timeless and solid principles on how to produce a quantity of ideas. A distinguishing characteristic of genius is immense productivity. Thomas Edison held 1093 patents, Bach wrote a cantata every week, and Einstein published 248 papers.
Out of their massive quantity of work came quality. Most do not survive; in fact 95% of a new species fail and die in a short period. Geniuses produce, period.
Making Novel Combinations
Geniuses are geniuses because they form more novel combinations than the mere talented. Consider Einstein’s equation, E=mc2. Einstein did not invent the concepts of energy, mass, or the 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.
Connecting the Unconnected
If one particular style of thought stands out for creative geniuses, it is the ability to make juxtapositions that elude mere mortals. It's a facility to connect the unconnected by forcing relationships that enable 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.
Finding What You Are Not Looking For
Whenever we attempt something and fail, we end up doing something else. As simplistic as that statement may seem, it is the first principle of creative accident. It is not luck, but creative instinct to the highest order. Alexander Fleming was not the first physician to notice mold that formed on an exposed culture while studying deadly bacteria. A less gifted physician would have trashed this seemingly irrelevant event. This observation led to penicillin, which saved millions of lives.
Genius is analogous to biological evolution in that it requires the unpredictable generation of a rich diversity of alternatives and conjectures. We are in a very creative industry; creativity should not be the exclusive domain of the service provider. We have to be creative in all aspects of marketing, design and technology to position our industry at the forefront of consumer aspirations.
The world of the future will demand capacities that, until now have been mere options. We live in a time of vast changes that include accelerating globalization, mounting quantities of information, the growing hegemony of science and technology, and a clash of civilizations. Those changes call for a new way of thinking creatively in schools, businesses and professions.
Each of us has the power and capacity to think more creatively. When you look at a caterpillar, what do you see? A caterpillar! Someday this will be a beautiful butterfly. Look at it carefully and see if you see anything that proves this will be so. There is nothing in you on the outside that shows others what you can become. You cannot see what is going on inside the caterpillar, and others cannot see what is going on inside your heart and mind.
Creative geniuses are geniuses because they know "how" to think instead of "what to think.”