Einstein became well-known for another thinking technique, and it is one that we use most days in everyday life.
“What if humans were capable of flying?”
“What if the world’s landmasses never broke up into separate continents and instead remained as Pangaea to this day?”cals pose questions about what isn’t, what hasn’t happened, or what isn’t likely to ever happen, they stretch the imagination in new ways and sharpen creative thinking and practical intelligence. Again, this is similar to how SCAMPER forces new possibilities.
For instance, you’ve never considered the implications of human flight because it’s impossible, so there is a world of thoughts that have remained unexplored. How would traffic lights work, what kind of licensing process would be required, would we still have cars and airplanes, and how would safety work? Now, how would those rules and laws apply to normal traffic situations in the present day? Think through the realities of how everything would fit together—it’s no small feat!
Hypothetical situations taken to the extreme are thought experiments, and Albert Einstein in particular was known to use these. He called them Gedankenexperiments, which is German for “thought experiments.”
A thought experiment, in a more general context, is essentially playing out a “what if” scenario to its end. It’s acting as if a theory or hypothesis were true, diving deep into the ramifications and seeing what happens to your “what if” under intense scrutiny. A thought experiment allows you to analyze interesting premises you could never manifest in reality and make new leaps of logic and discovery because you can consider conditions that current knowledge doesn’t yet reach.
Suppose the problem situation is needing to exit a room. The conventional ways to do so are to walk out the door or jump out the window. But what if the door is blocked by a raging fire and the room is on the tenth floor of the building? These conditions have now rendered your conventional solutions fatal. You can only get out of the room either by finding a way to kill that fire or by having the capacity to survive a fall of several hundred feet. Something in this scenario needs to drastically change its usage or definition, or it will break entirely. This is the essence of the thought experiment. Suppose this happens. What happens next? And then? And then?
Thought experiments were one of Einstein’s superpowers. He could imagine a scenario, play it out mentally with shocking accuracy and detail, and then extract the subtle conclusions that lay within.
One of Einstein’s most famous Gedankenexperiments begins with a simple premise: what would happen if you chased and then eventually caught up to and rode a beam of light through space? In theory, once you caught up to the beam of light, it would appear to be frozen next to you because you are moving at the same speed. Just like if you are walking at the same pace as a car driving next to you, there is no acceleration (the relative velocities are the same), so the car would seem to be stuck to your side.
The only problem was that this was an impossible proposition at the turn of the century. If you catch up to the light and the light appears to be frozen right next to you, then it is inherently impossible that it is light, because of the difference in speeds. It ceases to be light at that moment. This means one of the rules of physics was broken or disproved with this elementary thought. ore, o
ne of the assumptions that underlay physics at the time had to change, and Einstein realized that the assumption of time as a constant had to shift. This discovery directly laid the path for the theory of relativity. The closer you get to the speed the light, the more time becomes different for you—relative to an outside observer.
This thought experiment allowed Einstein to challenge what were thought to be set-in-stone rules set forth by Isaac Newton’s three laws of energy and matter. This thought experiment was instrumental in realizing that people should have questioned old models and fundamental “rules” instead of trying to conform their theories to them.
Thinking More “Plainly” thought. We fail to recognize that while the product may look intricate, the process that created it may have first required simplicity in thinking.
Thinking more plainly means zooming out and gaining a looser perspective on things. It’s being able to grasp the gist of the problem rather than getting stuck on its minute details. You think in terms of goals and not in terms of process. It sounds confusing, but a simple example is to replace problem-specific verbs with generic ones when stating the problem. For instance, don’t ask, “How could I drive something over a long distance?” Instead, think, “How could I move something over a long distance?”
Moving covers not just driving but also flying, swimming, sliding, throwing, crawling into a catapult, and more. Using the looser, more generic verb “move” opens up more possibilities because it removes the restrictions of the specific verb “drive.” A study by Clement and colleagues demonstrated how such a technique can dramatically improve performance in tasks requiring analogical thinking. They found that when problems were described in more generic terms, the participants’ performance improved by over 100 percent in some tasks.
So if you’re tackling a creative task or problem, write it down and highlight or circle the verbs and keywords you used. Then consider if there’s a more general umbrella term those words belong under and opt to use the more general term instead. With your task now phrased in a more generic way, rethink the possibilities considering this new formulation.
Thinking more plainly encourages rapid idea generation because by considering matters in more universal terms, you also widen your view of what’s possible. The wider your playground, the more areas you have for play and discovery. One of the biggest hindrances to idea generation is when you limit your thinking to a small area only, which is exactly what happens when you phrase the task in specific terms instead of general ones. You start to get tunnel vision and fail to see the variables and givens actually present in the situation. Such a perspective severely limits your options and thus also hinders you from generating ideas and creative solutions for your problem.
In the same way, seeing only the specific, common uses of things is another major obstacle to creativity. Known as “functional fixedness,” this creativity-blocker surfaces when you have everything you need to solve the problem, but you can’t do it because you see only the usual or traditional function of the objects you have. You get stuck (i.e., “fixed”) on that sole specific function of the object, so you’re inhibited from thinking of any more creative uses for it to help you in your current situation.
Psychologist Tom McCaffrey demonstrates this concept by setting the two-rings problem, which challenges participants to fasten together two heavy steel rings with only the following: a two-inch steel cube, a long candle, and a match. He adds the condition that melted wax would not be strong enough to secure the rings together.
The solution to the problem requires an escape from functional fixedness. You would first need to get past the view of the candle’s usual function and recognize that its wick is not just for burning, but is also a piece of string you can use to fasten things together. If you allowed yourself to fixate on the common, specific function of a candle, then you would be inhibited from using it to solve your problem.
Thus, the key to generating solutions is to escape the trap of functional fixedness by thinking of objects in more generic terms. To this end, McCaffrey developed the generic parts technique. This technique involves first breaking things down into their component parts with more generic descriptions (e.g., a candle has a wick, which qualifies as a string in general), then asking yourself how you can use that component to solve the problem (e.g., how having a string can help you out). So again, it’s by thinking more plainly in such generic descriptions that you move toward generating effective solutions and creative ideas.
So the next time you want to come up with more creative ideas, think in simpler, more general, and universal terms. For instance, instead of thinking how you would paint your store walls to be more interesting, consider how you would make those walls interesting. The more general term “make” opens up more possibilities for your creativity to run wild, going beyond just brushing paint onto a wall and instead leading you to experiment with other materials, textures, and techniques to make that wall truly one of a kind.
Finally, as many masters of creativity know, creativity is less about making new ideas from scratch and more about forging new connections among already existing ideas, materials, and techniques. This tactic helps you do exactly the latter, in an organized and systematic way, so that you don’t miss any opportunity to spot an interesting connection wherever it may arise. Called the idea box, this method involves constructing a grid that helps you have a clear picture of the possibilities and potential areas of innovation no matter what your creative project may be.
To construct your own idea box, first enumerate the essential parameters of the product or service you want to generate ideas on. This builds on other concepts for idea generation, notably combination and methodical lists. For example, you’re trying to invent a new home item. Some parameters you may include are location, shape, material, and purpose. Write these parameters at the topmost row of your grid, like so:
Merge these four elements in your mind and let your creativity flow. You want something that’s made of glass, irregularly shaped, and used to organize things in the bathroom. Is there a vision forming in your head? What object are you imagining? Maybe you begin to visualize an interesting star-shaped glass cupboard you can affix to the wall, with each of the star’s spikes holding a different type of bath item, toiletries, or other supplies. This is just one possible combination you can create with the four-by-four idea box above—and using such a grid, you have a total of 254 potential ideas at your fingertips.
Idea boxes are typically four-by-four grids, such as the example above, or often have six-by-six dimensions. For your own idea box, you may have more parameters and options as you see fit, with each addition yielding exponentially more ideas and solutions. As you randomly combine the different variations of your parameters, you stimulate your mind to use combinations you’ve never considered before. The idea box is a way to generate loads of ideas in an organized and systematic manner. So challenge yourself to use all the variations in your box, such that you force your thinking beyond the comfortable and the obvious in order to generate truly unique and innovative outcomes. Also remember to avoid evaluating and critiquing your ideas at this stage; just let them flow freely and in all possible directions.