Albert Einstein once said that if he had only one hour to solve an enigmatic new problem he’d spend 55 minutes trying to perceive the problem correctly and leave only five minutes to come up with the solution.
Einstein wouldn’t have needed Edward de Bono’s help; he had experience, trained intuition and self-confidence. De Bono’s legacy is what he did for the rest of us.
He showed how creative thinking was a state of presence of mind, like crossing the road, with instructions as simple as: “Look left, look right, and look left again.”
Children can use them. They won’t become Einstein or Mozart but they will think with greater skill.
De Bono thought of the mind as a memory surface in which old patterns of thought constrain what we pay attention to, the new ideas we could have and how we absorb them. Critical thinking won’t in itself generate the ideas that need analysis. De Bono developed ingenious techniques by which the patterns could be disrupted creatively.
Although he is popularly associated with ‘lateral thinking’, a term he coined and which made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, it is only one of his four main achievements.
He devised tools (‘DATT’) to direct attention. They help thinkers scan problems (or opportunities) in a way that combines the laser focus with a fuzzy one, so that marginal ideas are not ignored.
Lateral thinking helps us use absurd ideas as stepping stones to better ones. Rather than let us wait for inspiration, de Bono showed how we could deliberately make ‘silly mistakes’ and then derive inspiration from them. The various techniques pack his book Serious Creativity.
Parallel thinking (the ‘Six Hats’) subverts office politics and paves the way for a cognitive revolution in how groups can think, cutting thinking time and multiplying possible solutions.
The fourth achievement is something de Bono himself underestimated. In many of his books, sometimes buried deep in an appendix, there are various forms of taking notes to help you think (rather than just record your thoughts): how to jump from one idea to another in orderly fashion, how to extract concepts, how to link thinking to action, how to discover thoughts that are influencing you in hidden fashion. No child should leave school without being taught the Flowscape.
He once told me that, in his view, in Malta there was a great waste of high intelligence
Where did de Bono get his ideas from? With me, he half-apologetically denied being influenced by his surroundings, whether it was his upbringing in a family of generations of professors of medicine (like his father, Joseph); his time as a precocious schoolboy, three or four years younger than his classmates at St Edward’s; or, indeed, his time as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and a researcher at Cambridge and Harvard.
The truth was more complicated. His interest in the creative mind was gradual. But his childhood Rabat neighbour, Daniel Micallef (the former speaker), told me how Edward would conduct ‘experiments’ on him, while Peter Serracino Inglott (a contemporary both in Malta and Oxford) also attested that his interest in psychology, rather than medicine, came early. The idea of the mind as memory surface was very much in the air at both Oxford and Cambridge, given the authority of the psychologist Frederic Bartlett.
It is true, however, that he was also rebelling against his environment. He spoke of his identity in terms of a moving river, rather than of roots.
The Malta he grew up in was that of Anglo-Maltese high society, with its tennis, polo and Phoenicia Hotel dinner dances. His mother was of Anglo-Irish and Maltese Egyptian descent, politically active and a 1950s supporter of Dom Mintoff.
He stood aloof from all this. One could argue that his suspicion of ordinary ways of arguing, especially about history and identity, date from this time. He once told me that, in his view, in Malta there was a great waste of high intelligence.
Malta, however, did introduce him to Lord Mountbatten who, from the Oxford days, helped him enter, and form, influential networks. By the 1970s he was organising dinners at his Albany rooms, for leaders in the business, artistic and intellectual worlds.
By the early 1980s, he left his Cambridge research post and became a full-time consultant to business seeking his expertise. In his heyday, he travelled some 200,000 miles a year, earning high fees for his seminars. Today, his methods are licensed in every continent and major country, including India and mainland China.
It was a long way from the Rabat house in which he grew up during the war. Yet, it is to Rabat, a short distance from that house, that he returned in his last years.
Some 20 years ago, I asked him what his lifestyle was like. He replied: “Like a stalk of grass. Just growing upwards, sprouting, going its own way, simple.”
Then I asked what his day was like. “Oh, like a jungle.”
Edward de Bono’s funeral will be held at Mdina Cathedral on Saturday, June 19 at 10.30am. It will be live-streamed with a link posted from the home page of deBono.com and have screens and speakers outside as there are COVID-19 restrictions on the numbers allowed inside.
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