I’m eccentric, but the idea of studying the great thinkers throughout
civilization sure sounds like a great job. Michael Gelb does more
than just research geniuses, he finds patterns in the way they think
and writes about how their experiences can be applied to current
situations. From his new home in the New York area, where he’s working
on a new book featuring more great minds than his best-selling book
to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, Gelb shared, between
laughter and reflective pauses, how great thinkers make the biggest
difference in society and are potentially the key to gaining the
human capital edge.
What have you learned about how some of the great thinkers worked
that would help anyone be better suited to do their work, be more
valuable to their organizations, or to lead more productive lives?
Well the first thing is that most people don't think—because
they never learned how. Thinking is a skill that we kind of develop
willy-nilly in an almost random fashion and over time, we often
form habits that limit our ability to think. I love to quote George
Bernard Shaw who said, “People hate thinking—they do almost anything
to avoid it. I have created an international reputation for myself
by doing it once or twice a week.”
we talk about thinking, we think that we know what we're talking
about, but there are many different kinds of thinking. When I say
people don't know how to think I mean they haven't been trained
to think in different ways. The simplest distinction is between
critical thinking and creative thinking. The most powerful thinkers
are able to integrate those two modes. That's one distinguishing
characteristic of great minds: they're able to look at issues from
a critical perspective with logical arguments.
How about generating new ideas?
That’s the creative thinking. But, to generate new ideas and
possibilities we often go back to analyze something critical. It's
a simple point, but incredibly powerful. First, you learn to be
a good critical thinker; that's what school is supposed to do for
you—and sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. But no one helps
us learn the skill of creative thinking: how to generate new ideas,
how to be innovative, how to look at problems from different perspectives,
how to get outside of one's habitual ways of considering issues—then
to propose new possibilities. We return to critical thinking to
analyze them, to critique them, to see their weaknesses.
Many people think that they are good thinkers so what should
First, let's look at a few different modes of thinking. One
type just looks for information as objectively as possible, just
to seek facts, to do fact-finding, to try to assemble data as objectively
as possible. That's one kind of thinking. Another kind is to do
what we are doing now which is to think about thinking.
Meta thinking—right. This is very practical for people running
a meeting when someone thinks that they are doing creative thinking,
but they're actually doing critical thinking. At that point, you
need to have somebody who can step back and point that out.
say, “Let's start brainstorming,” but then they start critiquing
each other and they wonder what happens to the atmosphere of open
communication and creative thought. Begin by thinking about facts
as objectively as you can.
you think about thinking, you think about the benefits of an idea—looking
for the strengths and what’s positive about what’s been proposed.
Then there are just generating different ideas (often called brainstorming),
which I call the generative phase of the creative process, seeking
to generate lots of ideas and thoughts.
we can look at the benefits of those ideas and then do critical
thinking, play the devil's advocate, where we look at the weaknesses
of an idea. This is a very important element in thinking and problem
solving, but most people do it prematurely, before they've generated
ideas or before they've laid out all the facts. They habitually
go into looking at why it won't work because of the X factor in
thinking, which is the way emotion affects our way of looking at
can sometimes blind us so we don’t see the mode we're in or how
to be most effective. Sometimes people support an idea, not because
they’ve really thought it through, but because it's within their
self-interest. Other times, people oppose an idea, not because of
logical reasons that they can express, but rather because they just
don't like it. Learning to separate feelings from thinking is a
big, big challenge in becoming more effective in every aspect of
But, can anyone really separate feelings from thinking?
No. There's an illusion in the scientific, academic, and business
world that people can eliminate feeling altogether. That doesn't
work either. The important thing is to recognize feelings, see the
role they play, and see how they may be influencing our thinking
so that we can then think more clearly about whatever issues we’re
working on. A part of learning about thinking is to learn about
these different modes and to learn the skills that go with different
Of those different types of thinking, would you say that imagination
is mostly for creative thinking?
Creative thinking is the product when all of those elements
of thinking are in harmonious balance. Ultimately, imaginative thinking
isn't necessarily creative. In other words, you can have a tremendous
generative session, where you come up with lots of off-the-wall,
very interesting, and entertaining ideas, but never actually create
I know plenty of people who do that all the time.
Me too. And so it's probably better to say that creativity is
the result of the marriage of logic and imagination.
you asked me about the great minds, that is something they all pretty
much were able to do. They were able to get out of the box, so to
speak, and be highly imaginative. They thought of things no one
had really thought of before and then they were able to find a way
to support those ideas logically and communicate them to others.
somebody like Isaac Newton. He was attempting to further validate
the insights of Copernicus and Galileo by solving fundamental problems
about the nature of the universe. But, he reached the point where
he could go no further because the mathematics that existed at the
time just wouldn't let him work on the kind of problems he needed
to work on.
What did Newton do?
He created calculus! He created calculus so he could work on
problems at the level he needed to work on them. He didn't have
the math so he made it up.
Why doesn’t someone tell us that before we take calculus so
that we have some context of where this all came from and why we
might need it? Just the notion that it’s within the human mind to
conceive of something like this would be liberating.
It's a wonderful orientation. When you study Newton more, you
find that he had this incredible imagination. He was a real dreamer
and compared himself to a small child on the beach, fascinated with
the stones, the seashells. He wrote in his notebook, “…the vast
ocean of undiscovered truth lay before me.” He was a dreamer who
wrote more about metaphysics and alchemy than he actually wrote
about physics, but he was also stunningly rigorous, detailed, thorough,
and a pensive focused mind of the highest order. He's just a fabulous
example of the interplay of imagination and logic. You pretty much
find that in most of the great minds of history.
It’s hard to believe so few people focus on thinking, but rather
look only about doing. To truly do good work, you need to nurture
and foster creative thinking. Why then do you think that people
only focus on the doing aspects of human performance.
That seems to be both a particular strength and weakness of
the American national character. We are very pragmatic, action-oriented,
and want to know what we can do. It's not as deeply woven into the
fabric of our nature to reflect and be very thoughtful.
I remember Shoshana Zuboff from Harvard saying something that
really struck me. She said (and I’m paraphrasing) that the most
important part of her job is putting her feet up on her desk to
think and reflect, yet that's often the time when her colleagues
walk by believing that she's not working anymore. However, she went
on to explain, that was when she was doing her real work.
Well she's in good company. When Leonardo da Vinci was painting
The Last Supper, he would work very intensively for days,
but then he would leave and just disappear. The prior of the church
at of Saint Maria Della Grazie didn't understand that Leonardo was
a transcendent genius for all history. As far as the prior was concerned,
Leonardo was a painter. The prior said something to the effect,
“I have a contract here. Where's this Leonardo guy; get him back
up on the scaffolding to finish this by the deadline.” Leonardo
wouldn't hear of it so the prior complained to the Duke of Milan
who had originally arranged the contract.
Duke called Leonardo in to explain himself and Leonardo said something
that Shoshana, I think, would very much approve of. Leonardo said,
“Men of genius sometimes work best when they work least.” He went
on to explain to the Duke that he needed time to integrate his thoughts
and that sometimes the most productive work was when he was not
up on the scaffold, but rather just walking through the streets
That's where you get the richness; that's where you bring together
ideas that haven't been brought together before.
The thing is that most people will intuitively understand that,
yet others so often ignore it. In the last 20 years I’ve been asking
people all over the world, “Where are you when you get your best
ideas, where are you actually physically located,” and people almost
invariably respond, “I was lying in bed, I was going for a walk
in nature, I was driving my car, I was taking a bath.” They almost
never say, “I was in a meeting.”
ideas come through the incubatory power of the mind. One of the
refinements of learning how to think is finding a rhythm between
intense focus and study, learning, and pretty much racking your
brain—then letting it go completely so that the incubation and imagination
can take over. Then you need to learn to listen to that really very
subtle quiet voice that the intuition sometimes speaks in before
your next intensive period of doing what we call, “working hard.”
If you're working hard all the time, you can often override the
subtle messages of the intuition. If you just hope to sit back and
be intuitive or lie around all day, it never works; you won't have
anything to incubate. It's a matter of finding a rhythm between
the intense focus and analysis and then letting it go and shifting
modes to be in that more receptive state.
Respectful as well.
It's respecting that process and listening. All the geniuses
I’ve studied are pretty good at paying attention to the inner muse.
Did they do that in any special way?
They all kept notebooks. You know Leonardo kept a notebook.
Thomas Jefferson wrote endless letters. Newton kept a notebook.
In fact, it's hard to find an example of any of these great minds
who didn't, in some way, reflect and record the workings of their
minds. And that's one of the practical suggestions that I make in
my book, How
to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci—keep a da Vinci style
notebook. It’s a simple and practical way to develop or strengthen
your approach to continuous learning.
I keep a journal and save old letters, but I’d never thought
about the letter writing process as a record of the mind. And now,
I rarely write letters at all. I’m far more apt to write email.
I wonder how that influences our reflection habits or how that would
have changed Thomas Jefferson.
Oh, I think Thomas Jefferson would just love email because his
correspondence took up a huge part of his day. He would have been
able to do even more, more effortlessly, and I think that he would
be an advocate for writing really thoughtful and intelligent emails.
Whenever I send email, I always put a meaningful heading on it,
yet I get with the information age and don't waste much time on
punctuation or capitalization, but I do try to make it somewhat
Maybe someday we’ll have the collective emails of Michael Gelb.
Or even the collective emails of Bill Gates.
worked for Bill and even swapped a few emails with him. While I
don’t think any of those were worth publishing, some he sent to
all employees when we were just a small company were amazing. In
a short format, he could convey plenty of information in a very
strong, meaningful way.
That's interesting, but not surprising at all. You know I love
that aspect of email. On one hand, it's very nice to be able to
reflect on a letter and the process of writing it, sending it, waiting
for it to get there, waiting for the person to read it; there's
a certain rhythm to that, a gentility. On the other hand, it's kind
of cool to bang, bang on the keys, sending an instant message. That’s
different than talking because you have to write out your ideas—and
as a writer I like doing that.
Does that writing process give you time to improve the quality
of the message?
It improves quality and increases the volume of writing, too.
It may be possible to do more in less time at a higher quality and
have more fun but it won't—I guarantee this—it won't be possible
if you don't ask questions.
thing we know about the mind is that it responds to the questions
that we set before it. So, if we set limited questions, we'll only
get limited answers. If we step back and broaden the questions we're
asking, if we dare to dream of a workplace that makes a contribution
that brings out the best in human potential that's highly profitable,
then we have a hope of creating it.
Writing this past week, I was reflecting on the questions that
little kids ask. You know, those giant questions like, “Where does
the universe come from?” or “What’s weather?” These are big questions—not
little ones like adults ask like, “Why does this sink leak?” or
even the almost interesting, “Why isn't the grass green?”
and I was wondering why we stop asking those gigantic questions...
That’s at the heart of a critical point in the study of great
geniuses because they tend to be people who ask those child-like
questions throughout their adult lives. Leonardo da Vinci went on
asking questions. Sigmund Freud wrote a book on Leonardo and in
it, he points out that Leonardo continued to play as a child throughout
his adult life, baffling his contemporaries. He went on asking questions
just like the ones you're asking such as, “Why is the sky blue?”
Then he went out and actually figured it out! He just kept that
childlike, open innocence. Einstein said that the childlike, open,
imaginative, playful way of thinking was at the core of his approach.
He asked questions with that original sense of wonder and let his
mind wander, taking imaginary journeys into the universe on a beam
What really becomes a challenge is to be encouraging and not
judging in our replies so people can see that it's all right to
Very much so and the reason people don't ask is that they're
afraid of embarrassment. Nobody wants to ask a stupid or silly question
and have everybody laugh at them. Unfortunately, most of us had
that experience growing up in school. And too often, the dominant
force in the workplace or in the school is not the quest for originality,
creativity, and self-expression, but rather making sure you aren’t
caught making a mistake. And you know that's not conducive to thinking
What do you do in your quest for self-expression and intellectual
I would say the most significant development I do, beside reading
and mental sports, is writing and speaking. I'm often giving talks
and making up different presentations for my clients where I think
I understand something, but until I stand up in front of a group
of a few hundred people and talk about it, I don't really know how
well I understand it. And then, when I try to write it down and
actually think I’m going to publish it and put it out there for
the whole world to see, well then I have to think about what I thought
I knew in a whole new way. So I would say that speaking and writing
in particular are very powerful disciplines of thought.
That’s also a nice compliment to the journal writing, which
may not be so rigorous.
Well, the journal writing is part of the generation phase—the
free flow phase, which helps to get lots of new ideas that you might
not normally connect. And, I use that as part of my writing. I do
the generation phase and weigh out all sorts of things that seem
messy and disconnected and then I step back and look at them and
they seem to come together fairly easily.
Sometimes it’s as if the ideas draw themselves together across
space and time. Maybe it’s that we’re listening to that small, quiet
voice inside each of us pointing things out. Look how this relates
to what you just read and....
Big time. Perception follows our purpose. That's a classic example
of, “Seek and ye shall find.”
Well, we’re all the richer for what you’ve sought and found.
Michael Gelb is an internationally recognized pioneer,
speaker, and organizational consultant in the fields of creative
thinking, accelerated learning, and innovative leadership. A passionate
student of the Renaissance and the nature of genius, Gelb is the
author of many books including How
to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day.
Learn more about him at www.michaelgelb.com.
Marcia Conner is editor in chief of LiNE Zine and CEO of Learnativity. Her work
as a writer, consultant, and executive coach all stem from her fanatical
drive to help people excel in life by learning—and thinking—all
of the time. Tell her what you’re learning at email@example.com.
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