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7 Tenets of Creative Thinking

Michael Michalko

Creative Thinking Expert
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illustration of a light bulb on a blackboard

In school, we learn about geniuses and their ideas, but how did they get those ideas? What are the mental processes, attitudes, work habits, behaviors, and beliefs that enable creative geniuses to view the same things as the rest of us, yet see something different?

The following are seven principles that I've learned during my lifetime of work in the field of creative thinking -- things that I wish I'd been taught as a student.

1. You Are Creative

Artists are not special, but each of us is a special kind of artist who enters the world as a creative and spontaneous thinker. While creative people believe they are creative, those who don't hold that belief are not. After acquiring beliefs about their identity, creative people become interested in expressing themselves, so they learn thinking habits and techniques that creative geniuses have used throughout history.

2. Creative Thinking Is Work

You must show passion and the determination to immerse yourself in the process of developing new and different ideas. The next step is patience and perseverance. All creative geniuses work with intensity and produce an incredible number of ideas -- most of which are bad. In fact, more bad poems were written by major poets than by minor poets. Thomas Edison generated 3,000 different lighting system ideas before he evaluated them for practicality and profitability.

3. You Must Go Through the Motions

When producing ideas, you replenish neurotransmitters linked to genes that are being turned on and off in response to challenges. Going through the motions of generating new ideas increases the number of contacts between neurons, and thereby energizes the brain. Every hour spent activating your mind by generating ideas increases creativity. By painting a picture every day, you would become an artist -- perhaps not Van Gogh, but more of an artist than someone who has never tried.

4. Your Brain Is Not a Computer

Your brain is a dynamic system that evolves patterns of activity, rather than simply processing them like a computer. The brain thrives on creative energy that results from experiences, real or fictional. The brain cannot tell the difference between an "actual" experience and one that is imagined vividly and in detail. Both are energizing. This principle helped Walt Disney bring his fantasies to life and also enabled Albert Einstein to engage in thought experiments that led to revolutionary ideas about space and time. For example, Einstein imagined falling in love and then meeting the woman he fell in love with two weeks later. This led to his theory of acausality.

5. There Is No Right Answer

Aristotle believed that things were either "A" or "not A." To him the sky was blue or not blue -- never both. Such dualistic thinking is limiting. After all, the sky is a billion different shades of blue. We used to think that a beam of light existed only as a wave until physicists discovered that light can be either a wave or a particle, depending on the viewpoint of the observer. The only certainty in life is uncertainty. Therefore when trying to produce new ideas, do not evaluate them as they occur. Nothing kills creativity faster than self-censorship during idea generation. All ideas are possibilities -- generate as many as you can before identifying which ones have more merit. The world is not black or white. It is gray.

6. There Is No Such Thing as Failure

Trying something without succeeding is not failing. It's producing a result. What you do with the result -- that is, what you've learned -- is the important thing. Whenever your efforts have produced something that doesn't work, ask the following:

  • What have I learned about what doesn't work?
  • Can this explain something that I didn't set out to explain?
  • What have I discovered that I didn't set out to discover?

People who "never" make mistakes have never tried anything new. Noting that Thomas Edison had "failed" to successfully create a filament for the light bulb after 10,000 attempts, an assistant asked why the inventor didn't give up. Edison didn't accept what the assistant meant by failure. "I have discovered ten thousand things that don't work," he explained.

7. You Don't See Things as They Are -
You See Them as You Are

All experiences are neutral and without inherent meaning until your interpretations give them meaning. Priests see evidence of God everywhere, while atheists see the absence of God everywhere. Back when nobody in the world owned a personal computer, IBM's market research experts speculated that there were no more than six people on earth who needed a PC. While IBM saw no market potential for PCs, two college dropouts named Bill Gates and Steve Jobs viewed the same data as IBM and perceived massive opportunity. You construct reality by how you choose to interpret your experiences.

How do you help your students become creative geniuses?

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Marshall Barnes's picture
Marshall Barnes
Founder, Director of SuperScience for High School Physics

This article has so much misinformation in it that it would be shocking if it weren't for the fact that this is par for the course now in the creativity and innovation promotion industries. I say this as a recognized master in creativity who has applied advanced creativity techniques in 30 different fields and achieved 40 significant breakthroughs to date.

Especially misleading is #6 There Is No Such Thing As Failure. By over emphasizing the obvious - that you can learn from your mistakes, Michalko, makes the same error that those who promote "smart failing" do, - ignoring the costs of failure. Failure in all levels of life has varying degrees of costs and consequences. How many of you would want to drive a new car whose manufacturer had engineering teams that worked with this ethic? Well, it's happened and we know the consequences - property damage, injury and sometimes loss of life. Failure is to be avoided, learned from when it happens, yes, but not just so the same mistakes are not repeated, but that other types or errors can be avoided as well.

He also makes the critical error, that to me proves that he has nothing more than the most shallow and pedestrian understanding of creativity, and that is to cite the over-cited Edison quote about not failing, just learning how many thousand of ways something didn't work. What people don't don't hear much about is how much Edison hated Nicola Tesla, the true genius that gave us many other inventions among them, AC power (which Edison fought against tooth and nail and even killed elephants as a scare tactic against AC). Tesla would have flashes of inspiration, work out the details and then build his ideas which would work immediately. That's one reason why Edison hated him. Compare Tesla's method to Edison's and it's easy to see which is preferred. Edison's method wastes time, resources, and money as you go through trial and error over and over and over again. Edison had good ideas but he was not a creative genius because creative geniuses apply their creativity to all aspects of the problem solving process, a fact lost on Mr. Michalko. So failure is minimized and becomes less of a factor. It takes many Edisons to equal one Tesla, so many Teslas are worth far more than any number of Edisons. That's a lesson that companies concerned with innovation are learning now.

So how do you get more Teslas? By teaching people how creativity really works, where it really comes from and how to really use it. Something that it would appear is far above Mr. Michalko's pay grade and abilities...

If you want to learn more about how misinformation is running rampant in the innovation promotion industry (and obviously elsewhere), read my new blog - Paranovation at .

Ed's picture
Cross-age tutoring program director with an interest in elevating youth

I think the discussion on Michael Michalko's point #6 "There is no such thing as failure" is a bit more nuanced than either Michalko or Marshall Barnes present.
Yes, there is such a thing as failure. It is when an idea does not work and you have learned nothing from the failure. In the lab, I designed all my experiments with components that ensured that no matter how the test came out, I would learn something that would inform an improved experiment next time. Even then, I would still have failures when, unknown to me, a formerly reliable reagent had gone bad or a machine was malfunctioning.

Has Edison been more of scientist, instead of a dogged technician, he would have analyzed his failures, drawn and tested conclusions, and arrived at successes with fewer trails.

I agree mostly with Mr. Barnes about Tesla with regard to his superior creativity. Tesla had the ability to hold and manipulate a large volume of detail in his head. By the time he resorted to experiments in the physical world, his success rate was very high because he had already conducted multiple experiments in his head, and eliminated the false leads. On one transatlantic cruse, he designed a dynamotor (if I recall correctly) in his head, complete with detailed dimensions. He passed on his design to his technicians when he landed, and the fabricated machine worked on first try. As a simple way to convey the concept of holding and manipulating multiple details in your head, try converting the fraction 13/37 into its decimal equivalent to fifteen places, while on a hike, all in your head.

The rivalry between Edison and Tesla displays a point not mentioned by either Michalko or Barnes. Emotions play a large role in hampering a person's creativity. This reduced Edison's ability to look at AC current objectively. I have seen a number of scientists get stuck on a pet idea and spend large parts of their careers passionately work to prove they are right, even when they clearly were not. Human emotion and reaction, displayed as an inability to change one's mind blocks creativity. Stated more positively, cheerful attitude, combined with passion and purpose supports a deeper mental nimbleness and creativity. This works for scientist and all creative endeavors.

Emelina Minero's picture
Emelina Minero
Assistant Editor

Your quote about how Thomas Edison viewed failure reminds me of a quote form Michael Jordan, "I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

I love your blog post and completely agree that "You construct reality by how you choose to interpret your experiences."

The first tenet, "You Are Creative," reminds me of the thought, feeling, action loop. You said that if people don't believe they are creative, they won't act creative, and they won't be creative. Their thoughts impact their feelings, which in turn impact their actions.

It amazes me how cultivating self-awareness impacts our ability to become conscious of our thought patterns, ones that impact us both negatively and positively, and how we can use that awareness to look at how those thought patterns/beliefs came to be, and either replicate them, or challenge and change them.

Suzanne's picture

Creative thinking can be encouraged through question stems and prompts. The revised Bloom's taxonomy model for higher order thinking develops an approach to thinking. It deepens understanding of a topic from recall, to analysis and application. I liked the second tenet how it takes work. Each idea begins a process for learning and how to learn leading you to the right answer.

anil kk's picture
anil kk
PhD Candidate in Science Education

Very important points to ignite and sustain creative spirit in the learner. Great presentation.

Sarah Z's picture
Sarah Z
Reading Instructor, Tutor and Blogger focused on improving education for struggling students

Thank you so much. What a beautiful article.
I began to read this thinking I would find ideas for me as a teacher; I ended up finding inspiration and encouragement for me personally instead.

Will Minton's picture
Will Minton
Traveling the world to learn about education

I think building students capacity to be creative is the great unanswered challenge in education today and I've struggled with how best to do it over the course of a year. It's not what you know anymore, it's what you can do with what you know. Also, should we seek to measure growth in creativity or does that undermine the effort by manufacturing a 'right answer'?

jessica.grabato's picture

Wonderful article, something that is worth sharing. I learn a lot , its nice to know how we can improved our creativity. But I disagree with #6 because i know there is a thing such as failure, we all know that we learn from all our mistakes but it doesn't change the fact that we did still fail.

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