“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Like us, Einstein grew up in a world of three dimensions. But fortu- nately he was not limited to just the world he knew. Einstein used his imagination to push beyond his experience into a universe of many dimensions. Although it is difficult to imagine, physicists have found that this is closer to how the universe is really structured. It can only be understood by pushing beyond what is familiar.
ESCAPING RULE RUTS
The next step in Einstein Thinking is to push beyond the rules that constrain our thinking. What we “know” is a greater obstacle than what we don’t know. But clearing our minds of prejudice is as difficult as pushing all the air out of a room. We need hacks to get us out of our ruts.
Rear Admiral Grace Murray, the inventor of the comput- er compiler, kept a clock in her office that ran backwards. It reminded her and her guests that precedent was no reason that the status quo must continue. The clock was an excellent idea. Our biases subtly bend even conscious attempts at breaking rules back toward old thinking. We need help to get out and stay out of our rule ruts.
“When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of imagination has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.” ALBERT EINSTEIN
Just as you can’t lift yourself out of a deep physical rut without something to pull against, you need an outside idea to pull your- self out of a rule rut. We will use the hack of seed ideas to pull us beyond our rules. A seed idea provides a focus that is far away from well-worn rules about solving your problem. Thinking about your challenge in relation to the seed idea gives you a whole new per- spective on possible solutions.
A good seed idea has little relation to the problem you wish to solve. It will seem ridiculous. For example, if you want to end world hunger, then a nail is a good seed idea. Superficially it has nothing to do with hunger. If the relationship between the seed idea and the problem is strong, then the seed idea is inside the rule rut and can’t pull you out. But an idea outside your current rules could trigger a whole series of new perspectives like “How was nail production and distribution increased a hundredfold?” “What alter- natives are there to nails?” or “Could people eat nails?”
If you are thinking about hunger and nails together, it is easier to consider eating bugs or genetically increasing the efficiency of metabolism. But without the seed idea to hold your mind open, your thinking slips right back into its old habits.
Using a seed idea will not seem serious. But you are being irra- tional by design. Your thinking will be sucked back to your old rules if you try to be logical. Einstein was led to his breakthrough on relativity as he imagined what it would be like to ride a beam of light—a very fanciful thought. You need equally fanciful thinking.
Adults have difficulty taking ridiculous ideas seriously. It feels stupid to contemplate nails when trying to eliminate hunger. So you will probably need help selecting a useful seed idea. Otherwise, you will select a seed idea that is relevant and therefore useless. You must select seed ideas at random. It is easier to work with a stupid idea that is forced upon you, so in a later chapter we will explore some seed ideas you can choose with a roll of the dice. Don’t sift through them until you find one that you are comfortable with. You should be uncomfortable. Pattern breaking is counterintuitive. The ridiculous is good. If a seed idea makes sense to you, then it is too close to your old way of thinking.
IDEA SYNTHESIS: PLAYING WITH THE ABSURD
“Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” ALBERT EINSTEIN
A seed idea alone will not give you a solution. It is only a hack that provides a starting place for creating useful ideas. It is a different thought, not a better thought. But as you explore the idea, play with it and find out what is interesting or insightful about it. The seed idea frees your natural brilliance to create a solution. This is idea synthesis.
Idea synthesis is like the questions Einstein asked about riding a beam of light. Would his image disappear if he looked in a mirror while riding a beam of light? It was a stupid question about an absurd idea, but it led to a brilliant solution.
Idea synthesis expands a thought into ideas that may be solutions. Because the seed idea is outside your rut, the concepts that you wring from it will probably be outside your rut too. Idea synthesis twists, expands, and transposes ideas into clues for novel solutions. A well-crafted problem definition is vital to this process because it guides you toward a suitable answer. Once you are out of your rut, your problem statement gives you direction in your search for a solution.
I use six techniques to synthesize a good idea out of a seed idea. They are not the only ways to work with a new concept, but you can select one with the roll of a die. If you have another technique that works, use it.
Idea synthesis techniques make good habits. Habits are rule ruts, but rules have the advantage of becoming easy to use. You can use an idea synthesis habit to expand upon any new idea, helping you to see new possibilities in your ideas. The following are my idea synthesis techniques. You can download the Idea Synthesis Guide from howtothinklikeeinstein.com to help you with each.
“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka’ but ‘That’s funny…’” ISAAC ASIMOV
If you want to get serious about solving a tough problem, use humor. Humor is probably the most consistently effective hack for breaking old patterns of thinking. Any attempt at thinking about a problem in a radically new way demands a good sense of humor.
We’ve discussed our brain’s immune system, the cognitive disso- nance that rejects ideas that are foreign to it. Humor suppresses your mental immune system. If you treat a new idea humorously, you will be able to explore it more thoroughly because you won’t immedi- ately reject it. And your mind will be free to make other absurd con- nections with the seed idea, generating more concepts for solutions.
In pattern breaking, you don’t want profound ideas. You want ideas that are different. Make fun of new ideas to prevent your immune system, and those of other people, from rejecting them before exploring them. Treat a new idea lightly in order to seriously consider it. This seems like a contradiction, but contradictions are key to original thinking.
To get yourself in the proper frame of mind to work with a seed idea, make a joke out of it. Try forming the most ridiculous mental picture possible that associates your problem with the seed. If you can make fun of the pair at least twice, then you are probably out of your rut and ready to explore. Record your ideas as you use idea synthesis to expand on your seed idea.
“I rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterwards.” ALBERT EINSTEIN
We regularly receive reports of presidents and prime ministers making on-site inspections of the latest disaster. They don’t actu- ally do anything except distract busy people. Still, it isn’t a bad idea, and not just because of the publicity value. The mind does a much better job of grappling with something it can see in its complete and proper context. Most of our brains are devoted to visual processing, so by using the hack of visualization, we use more of our brains.
Mental pictures played a vital role in Einstein’s thinking. He imagined problems in graphic, personal ways. Pictures allowed him to explore the implications of ideas too big or too small to actually be seen.
Make a picture of the problem you are trying to solve or, even better, three pictures. Problems are best viewed from multiple angles. These pictures can be in your head, on paper, or built with blocks. But they must be vivid images.
First, visualize the problem from its own perspective. Imagine what it looks like. How does it feel and taste? What would it like to happen? If your problem was a dispute with another division about who would have responsibility for new technology, then imagine the dispute from the point of view of the technology. You want to be developed into a solution. Who could do that best? How would you compensate the loser?
Next, think about the problem from the point of view of your seed idea. Even if the seed is a rock or a verb, imagine the point of view. This will give you a really unique perspective. Imagine your seed idea was Joan of Arc in the dispute over which division would develop the new technology. She would know that the job must be done. She would make it happen. Even if tradition dictated that it was not her responsibility, she would make certain that her team triumphed. You could do the same.
Finally, consider the seed and your problem from the view- point of a child. Children have brilliant human minds but lack the complex prejudice of adult experience. Think about relationships between the seed idea and your problem that a child would notice. How would a child describe them? How would a child draw them? It may help to ask a child.
In our problem of deciding who developed a technology, a child may point out that sharing is always good. Even Joan of Arc would share. Perhaps a new interdivisional team would ensure that the technology benefited all aspects of the business.
After creating each picture, look for the new solutions. They may actually be a part of your mental picture. What could you add to your picture to solve the problem? What would this solution look like? Where would it come from?
“It is the theory that decides what can be observed.”
Every seed idea has characteristics that can lead you to scores of new ideas. This hack generates additional ideas from characteristics of your seed idea. If your seed idea was a nail, then use the characteristics of a nail to solve your problem.
Break your seed idea down into its components. What are the parts of a nail? What are the attributes of each? How do the pieces tie together? Are the functions of the different parts unique or similar? For example, what are the characteristics of a nail? How do those characteristics relate to your target problem?
Candido Jacuzzi noticed that the pumps used for his son’s hydrotherapy treatments were similar to the smaller pumps his company sold for industrial uses. With a few modifications, Jacuzzi constructed a pump that could provide hydrotherapy in the comfort of one’s home. Soon he realized that the soothing jets could do more than just provide therapy, and the spa industry was born.
“The only way to escape the corruptible effect of praise is to go on working.” ALBERT EINSTEIN
Another simple thinking hack is to use the seed idea as the solution. It doesn’t matter how different or unconnected the problem and the seed may seem. Force the seed to be part of the answer.
This hack is useful when options are limited. Among the nomadic tribes that roamed the American plains, the solution was the buffalo. There were few other natural resources available. Regardless of the problem, the answer was the buffalo. How do we carry water? Make bags of buffalo stomachs. What do we eat? Eat buffalo. What do we wear? Wear buffalo skins. What do we use for cooking fuel? Burn buffalo dung. Buffaloes were used in thousands of ingenious ways because there was no choice.
By limiting your options, you force yourself to be creative out- side your normal ruts. Your seed idea is not a solution you would have suggested yourself. So you are able to explore your problem in unique, new ways. This gives you new ideas and perspectives that can evolve into a solution. You may even discover that the seed is a solution that actually works.
William Coleman stumbled across his solution seed in a rural town while working as a salesman to raise funds to complete law school. The seed was a lamp that burned brighter and better than anything on the market. Coleman made the lamp his solution. He went to work selling the lamp and made enough money to buy the rights to manufacture it. He soon had a prosperous business.
When rural electrification killed the market for lamps, Coleman continued to grow his business by shifting his lamp technology to heaters. During World War II, his GI pocket stove won high praise. Ernie Pyle, a prominent American journalist at that time, ranked it just behind the jeep in useful- ness. After the war, prosperity and central heating threatened Coleman’s business again. But his heirs stuck with that single brilliant solution and grew the business even larger by focusing on camping equipment.
Ask yourself the following questions to spur ideas on how to use the seed idea as a solution:
Under what circumstances could it solve my problem?
How must the problem change for the seed to be a solution? How could the seed idea be modified to be an effective solution?
“Words or language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. ALBERT EINSTEIN
We use metaphors and similes to link different things and ideas in language. They lead us to another concept by connecting it to something that we already understand. Because they connect ideas, metaphors are a great hack for teasing out more ideas from a seed idea. Metaphors link concepts that otherwise are dissimilar. We can use these linkages to create new patterns of thinking by linking one idea to another and yet another until a new concept is formed. For example, smartphones are like boxes that hold a life.
To use your seed idea as a metaphor, link it to your problem. What could tie your seed idea to your problem? It may require several intermediate links, but you can link your problem to anything. If your problem was finding a way to devote yourself full-time to composing and your seed idea was Joan of Arc, what metaphors could you create? Perhaps like Joan, you will need to put yourself in unusual and unaccustomed circumstances. Or you may need single- minded determination, like Joan. You may even go to the most important musical authority in the land and declare yourself to be the solution.
Create more ideas from a seed by linking it to a third idea. What is the seed idea like? A paper clip is like a metal pretzel, a staple for the indecisive, or a fundamental element of bureaucracy. Use metaphors to expand the circle of ideas you are considering by linking your seed to something else. After all, one thing leads to another and yet another.