How To Become More Creative With Michael Gelb

Michael Gelb by Michael Mahoney

How can you unlock creative thinking? What would it take to think like Leonardo da Vinci?

One man with answers to those questions is New York Time best-selling author Michael Gelb.

Michael is the author of over a dozen books about creativity, innovation and leadership, including the best-seller How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci.

His latest book is called The Healing Organization: Awakening the Conscience of Business to Help Save the World.

Prior to its release, I caught up with Michael. In this interview, he explains:

  • Why every creative and business owner should give something back
  • How you can think like Leonard da Vinci
  • Where he gets ideas for his books
  • How you can unlock creative thinking
  • How side-pursuits, like Tai-Chi and Qigong inform his creative process

And lots more

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Transcript Below

Bryan Collins: So Michael, it’s great to talk to you today. And as somebody who’s always known for writing books about creativity, I’m wondering what inspired you to write a new book, The Healing Organization: Awakening the Conscience of Business to Help Save the World? Because it sounds like a bit of a departure.

Michael Gelb: Well it’s an evolution, but it’s also the context and the framework in which I’ve actually written all my books and done all of my work. So many, many years ago I moved to Washington, DC because I thought it was the place where creativity and innovation might have the most influence in the world. And unfortunately, I discovered that politicians, people in government weren’t particularly interested in creativity or innovation. And I was also disappointed to discover that educators weren’t all that interested because they were in a system that was just so bureaucratic. It was really impossible for many of them to focus on change, learning, creativity, innovation. They just had to get through the curriculum, which was dictated to them largely by the politicians. So in those days I started offering public seminars in what I called high performance learning. And that included creative thinking, memory development, mind mapping, speed reading.

Michael Gelb: It was a total personal evolution. Know the brain, know the mind, figure out how to improve it seminar and politicians didn’t come. Educators, a few of them came, but businesses loved them and we had waiting lists and I was amazed to discover that businesses were most interested in this phenomenon of developing human potential, creativity, and of course innovation. It made sense because they had some real metric of you know that they kept track of cold profit. So they wanted… They really cared about learning and growth and change. And of course I have to tell you, I met the people who were most focused on a kind of humanistic human potential orientation. Those are the people who hired me. Those are the people who hired me throughout my career. But it was great. I realized that, “Okay, business is going to be the way that we can make a difference in the world.”

Michael Gelb: If we can get businesses to be more creative, more compassionate, more awake than…. That’s greatest point of leverage for helping the world. So years went by and in the ’90s, mid to late ’90s, I got invited to teach at George Mason University business school in Virginia at their executive MBA program. And the director of the Executive MBA program is a gentleman named Raj Sisodia. And Raj was a great guy. He sponsored… [inaudible 00:03:31] seven or eight of my three day seminars. They were always packed out. He I think sat through each one. We became friends, stayed in touch, and then, I don’t know, maybe seven, eight, nine years later, he sent me the draft manuscript of a book he had written called Firms of Endearment. And I just was mesmerized by this book because what Raj had done with some of his colleagues was to create the business school case study as to why companies that treat all their stakeholders with fairness and caring, companies that have a higher purpose, that build conscious cultures, that support conscious leadership, that have this stakeholder welfare orientation, those companies are more profitable.

Michael Gelb: So Raj and his colleagues really presented the data and the business case to support this notion that I always had that I thought was kind of a romantic, almost quixotic notion that businesses that cared for others would do better and would be the key point of leverage to help save the world. So Raj wrote that book and catalyzed the whole movement called Conscious Capitalism, which now has 56 chapters around the world. And in 2009 he invited me to be the master of ceremonies for the conscious capitalism CEO Conference. And I then keynoted a number of the conscious capitalism conferences, and then I was master of ceremonies for another conference. Where I was actually giving the closing keynote and Raj came to introduce me. And in the introduction he said something that I didn’t know about until the moment of that introduction.

Michael Gelb: He said that way back in the late ’90s when he attended my seminar, it was in the seminar that he realized that he could be creative, that he could express himself outside of just being a business school professor. And it’s part of what inspired him to write the book, Firms of Endearment, that had inspired this whole movement and had contextualized for me, everything that I had figured out intuitively. So when he said this, I went up to him afterwards, we laughed about it. We said, “You know, we need to write a book together.” So over the years since then, we’ve explored what do we want to say? What’s the message? And it just evolved naturally. The message is that we’re at a time where the way we have operated business, the way capitalism has function is no longer sustainable. Now that doesn’t mean that… The problem is people say, “Okay, well let’s go to socialism.” And we know unfortunately that just doesn’t work.

Michael Gelb: So you have these two extremes of unfettered exploitive capitalism, which we see tragically destroying much of the planet and making many lives miserable. But the upside of even unconscious capitalism is that in the last 200 years, hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. We’ve ameliorated so many global issues and problems through the emergence of capitalism. It’s actually maybe the greatest idea people have ever come up with. It’s just that what got us here is not going to get us through the next 200 years. It’s time for a rebalancing, for a shifting. And that shifting, the good news of that shift is that it’s in the original ideals of capitalism. Adam Smith wrote the famous book that everybody knows about called The Wealth of Nations, and that’s the Bible of many who propose unfettered capitalism, but they forget that Adam Smith also wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments in which he said that capitalism has to be grounded first in concern for human welfare.

Michael Gelb: So since we now know and we have lots of data to back up the idea that if you marry The Theory of Moral Sentiments, if you put human welfare first in the way you run your enterprise, that that enterprise will be more successful. Why would you ever consider doing anything else? So we’re at this inflection point and part of the idea of the book, part of the idea of the title, The Healing Organization, it suggests that the purpose of business… If you ask most people today, what’s the purpose of business? They’ll still say, “Oh, to make money.” But that is not the purpose of business. It’s actually absurd. If I asked you what’s the purpose of your life? You wouldn’t say, “It’s to make red blood cells.” Now you have to make red blood in order to survive, but that’s not the purpose of your life.

Michael Gelb: And you need to make money. You have to make profit to have a business that functions, but it’s absurd to say that making money is the purpose of business. No. We say the purpose of business is to alleviate suffering and elevate joy. Alleviate suffering and elevate joy. And when people awaken their conscience, because a lot of people just aren’t aware that business can have this higher purpose and needs to have this higher purpose. But when they wake up to the notion of, “Yes, well, of course, of course.” And you start telling them stories. You help them read stories, which obviously our book is packed with these stories of companies where usually a senior person, oftentimes the CEO, had an awakening of conscience and changed the whole focus of the organization and story after story. It’s so moving. I can’t wait for people to read these stories because they touch the heart and they inspire a sense of hope and possibility. And even-

Bryan Collins: Michael, I’m wondering if you could give me an example of a company or a leader who is achieving what you’ve set out in the book?

Michael Gelb: Sure. No, I’ve got 25 of them in the book and those are just the ones that made the cut, but I’ll give you an example. The book starts with the story of Jaipur Rugs and the rug and carpet industry in India for many, many years was focused on the exploitation of women from the lowest caste. So these womens really function as nothing more than indentured slaves. They were frequently exploited by the higher caste middlemen who controlled the contracts with the end user customers. They were often not paid or cheated on their contracts and treated terribly. Well along comes a gentleman, Mr. Chaudhary, and he sees this and he says, “We’ve got to change this whole business model.”.

Michael Gelb: So he eliminates the middlemen and he treats the women, even though he is from a higher caste, he says this caste idea as has to be cast aside. He says, “We have to treat these women with dignity and respect and give them opportunity.” So he starts making deals with them and paying them on time and helping… He creates a foundation and gets them educated, gets their families educated.

Michael Gelb: He’s taken 40,000 women out of extreme poverty, but here’s the best part. I mean for these women have become artisans. They sign their rugs, they’re part of the design of the rugs. People come from all over the world to visit Jaipur Rugs because they want to see this miracle. The rugs are exquisite and they’re signed by the women. So the women have the sense of ownership and connection and pride and empowerment. We talked to one woman who… She has six children. Five of them have either been to college or are in college or getting ready to go to college, which was utterly unthinkable. She has learned to speak English. She has a beautiful bearing, eyes are glowing, big smile. 20 years ago she would have been shrouded and hunched over not knowing a word of English, living in poverty and her kids would definitely not be going to college.

Michael Gelb: And it’s because this one man, Nand Kishore Chaudhary, they call him the Gandhi of the carpet industry, awakened his conscious, changed the business model, and this company is way, way, way more profitable than its competitors who still run the old model because people wanted people, you know, humanity. People are looking for this. People are hungry for this around the world. When the power of capitalism and the power of business can be aligned with the power of goodness and conscience and human dignity. It’s an idea whose time has come and we start the book with the story of Jaipur Rugs because we figure if this can be done in rural India where there’s the caste system and where there was extreme poverty, what might be possible in Ireland or England or the United States or in Australia or Latin America, all over the world.

Michael Gelb: So this is a global movement and Jaipur is our first of many stories in the book that will touch your heart and inspire your sense of what’s possible.

Bryan Collins: How can a leader implements the pivots that you’ve described in the book?

Michael Gelb: Well that’s…. So the book is set up so there’s three parts to it. The first part, we explain the whole evolution of capitalism to where it is today and why it has to change and go really why it has to go back to its true origins and its higher purpose. Then there’s the stories which go right to the heart and get people. I mean it’s hard. I’m the author of this book, co-author of this book. I read the stories and brings tears to my eyes because it’s so moving. And that’s the effect it’s having on our readers thus far.

Michael Gelb: But then yeah, you asked [inaudible 00:14:51] the question, “Okay, how do I begin to do this?” And that’s what part three is about. And we’ve tried to… I mean there are many books on conscious capitalism now. This is a growing movement. So we tried to capture some of what’s really distinctive about these, we call them healing organizations. And what’s the difference between conscious capitalism and healing organization? It’s going from just the idea of making things as they are sustainable. You know, a lot of people talk about sustainability. I don’t know why, but sustainability doesn’t really turn me on. It’s like, “Okay, we get to survive.” You know, it’s not quite good enough. We need regenerative capitalism. And that’s what The Healing Organization is about. So we help, in this chapter, we focus on how do you create a higher purpose for your business?

Michael Gelb: How do you shift your conscience and consciousness and re-orient yourself in this way? And we actually have created the healing oath, which is we’re actually aiming to get, and this is starting to happen. It’s happening by itself. We don’t… I say aiming to get, we don’t have to even do it. People are coming forth everywhere to do this and that is to take this oath and this is really the first step is to really shift your mind, shift your heart, shift your intention, and align with this idea of The Healing Organization. So should I share with you the healing oath?

Bryan Collins: Please do, please do.

Michael Gelb: Okay, so I’ll read you this. This is the last paragraph of the book. We see this book as part of a movement to change the world of business and make it about love and healing instead of fear and survival. If you’d like to be part of this movement, begin by taking The Healing Organization oath. Place your left hand on your heart and raise your right hand and proclaim, “[foreign 00:17:03]”. That’s Latin for first do no harm. I will operate my business in a way that causes no harm to others or to the earth. [Foreign 00:17:16]. Root out evil. I will never enable or collude with abuse or exploitation. I will be an everyday hero who stands up for fairness, truth, beauty, integrity, and basic goodness. [Foreign 00:17:34]. Love conquers all. I will operate from love. I will measure success by the fulfillment, abundance, and joy I generate for others.

Michael Gelb: And there’s something [inaudible 00:17:47] powerful, you take an oath and we’re not kidding. It’s like really, stand up. Put it on video. We’re going to put it on LinkedIn, we’re going to put it on our Healing Organization’s website and be part of this movement. And then of course you need, yes, you do need, how do I actually implement this? How do I actually apply this? And that’s where Raj’s book on conscious capitalism gives you a lot of the playbook on how to do it.

Michael Gelb: And all my books, this is a question you asked me before. All my books, everything I’ve written, the 15 books I’ve written before this are all part of the leadership development curriculum that we need in order to be a healing leader. So you’re going to need to be creative and think like Leonardo da Vinci. You’re going to need to be innovative and apply the innovative strategies of Thomas Edison. You’re going to need The Art of Connection: the 7 Relationship-Building Skills That Every Leader Needs Now. So this new book is not a departure, it’s the framework. It’s the context for my entire life’s work, which always had this purpose, but now I’m finally articulating it and I’m thrilled to do it with my co-author, Raj Sisodia.

Bryan Collins: It sounds like a great book. Did you find it difficult to write compared to previous books because this sounds like a bigger book so to speak, at least in terms of the big idea or concept?

Michael Gelb: Well, that’s a wonderful question. Thank you for asking it because actually this was the easiest, most fun, most inspiring thing I’ve ever done. And everything I do is inspiring and fun. But this it’s… So I’ll tell you the story. So Raj and I, we developed this over years and years and years and it just naturally came together. And the funny thing is we had a few earlier ideas that were rejected by publishers and we just kept having this dialogue going. And then this idea just, it just emerged. And this is what I teach people about the creative process is learn from things that don’t seem to work and can stay engaged in the process and keep iterating and exploring, and then allow for ideas to emerge. And you’ll recognize when there’s one that has more energy and more life. And this was that idea. So then we developed the idea and we created a mind map of the overall book.

Michael Gelb: We then conducted, I don’t know, I think we conducted 60 or 70 interviews with CEOs and various leaders and authors and thought leaders around the world. And then we read all our own interviews and we looked at which ones would fit most with the theme. And then we’re getting ready, so we found a publisher who was very enthusiastic. We signed a contract and we set a date to hand in the manuscript. And then Raj came to me and said, “I have to do some work on my own inner-healing before I’m part of a book called The Healing Organization.” And it was fascinating because he shared with me how his own lineage in India was… He had ancestors who were part of a kind of patriarchal and sometimes exploitive caste system. And he felt that he had to work through that karma in his own being before he really became a global champion of The Healing Organization.

Michael Gelb: So he said to me, “I’ve… ” He planned a series of retreats, including a journey to the rain forest with shamans and a silent meditation retreat, all this stuff. He said, “So it means putting off the deadline for our book by four months.” And I had set aside the whole summer to work on the book, but I knew it was right. And I said, “Go man, go.” And I just said, “Let me just go to the publisher, see if they’ll give us a four month extension” Which they did.

Michael Gelb: So Raj goes off for four months and comes back. We sit down… So we started meeting every couple weeks. He would just come usually to my house and we’d spend the weekend and we’d just have this dialogue and we would record it and then we’d give it to his graduate student. Thank God he has graduate students who could transcribe all this stuff and then they’d send it back to us and it wrote itself.

Michael Gelb: It just was so natural and easy and I got to tell you I was… The day we sent in the final, final manuscript, I felt sad because I just had so much fun being part of the process of writing. Of course now I’m excited about the process of sharing the gospel, but that’s a little bit about how it emerged and just how joyful the whole thing was.

Bryan Collins: Was that a different process to previous books like the da Vinci book or Edison book that you mentioned?

Michael Gelb: Well, the da Vinci book was a similarly amazing process because Leonardo was my childhood hero and it gave me the opportunity to literally go to the place he was born, the place he died, walk in his footsteps, visit the great museums of the world, read his notebooks over and over again, interview the great da Vinci scholars. So it was a dream project and that book, you know, it’s 21 years later, that book’s still a bestseller.

Michael Gelb: It’s in 25 languages. So da Vinci’s, you know, this is the 500 year anniversary of the life of Leonardo da Vinci, interest in How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci’s as just so that was a spectacular experience. And the Edison book came because I wrote the da Vinci Book and Thomas Edison’s great-great,-great grand niece called me up and said, “I’m a big fan of your da Vinci book. I’m Edison’s great-great-great grand niece.” She told me she was an MBA from Dartmouth.

Michael Gelb: So I got this idea about writing a book with her, which also happened in a wonderful partnership. Very creative, seamless collaboration with the Sarah Miller called the… Just the most wonderful woman. So yes, that’s how Innovate Like Edison happened. So the good… Why do things tend to work out like this in all the books I’ve written? Because I actually apply what I’m writing about. Thank God, right? Because if I didn’t, first of all, I shouldn’t be writing these books and it wouldn’t be so effortless and joyous and filled with the creativity. But it’s, you know, I really apply what’s in the da Vinci book, what’s in the Edison book, what’s in The Healing Organization, and all my other books. This is how I live. So it all happens kind of naturally.

Bryan Collins: All your other 15 books. Would you describe yourself as a prolific author?

Michael Gelb: Well, that’s for other people to describe me. You know, I describe myself as a curious, passionate, continuous learner. And I find one of the best ways to learn about something is to write about it because until you really write, you know, it’s one thing to speak about it. If you’re a good speaker, if you’re [inaudible 00:25:28]. If you’re charming, if you have a good sense of humor, you can get away with saying a lot of things that don’t really make sense and win people over anyway. But it’s much harder to do with writing because you read it on the page and then you read it. It’s still on the page and we can go back and read it again and we can say, “That doesn’t actually make sense.” So I like to tell… You don’t know what you really think until you write it out. Writing is a test of the clarity of your thinking and that’s why it’s… So on one hand, so challenging, but on the other hand, such a wonderful process. If you’re interested in clarifying your thinking, write.

Bryan Collins: Yeah. That’s a [inaudible 00:26:18] statement. How often do you spend writing? I mean I gather you’re preparing for a book launch at the moment, but how much of your day does writing in form?

Michael Gelb: Well, I’d like to tell you that I have a exact plan for every day, but it’s not really doesn’t work that way. I mean I make a mind map every day. I do make a plan every day and I have a mind map of the year’s goals and the life goals, but I also allow room for spontaneity and flow in the course of the day. Having said that, I am writing a new book, which is due on October 1st, so I’m writing another book while I’m getting ready to launch The Healing Organization. And I’m also working on a script for a video program about how to think like Leonardo da Vinci. So I’m doing a lot of writing at the moment, but it’s a… I love it. I love it. And mind mapping makes a huge difference if… Learning how to mind map, which I teach people in How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci.

Bryan Collins: Do you mind map out with software or a pen and paper?

Michael Gelb: Oh no, no. Pen and paper. Software doesn’t do it for me. It’s good for sharing the mind map, but when you are challenged to draw your own image and do it by hand, my experience is it awakens more flowing and creative and unexpected connections in one’s mind. So I call it artisanal mind mapping, the old fashioned way with colored pens and a big sheet of paper. So I’ve got colored pens everywhere at my desk. I’ve got art paper. I have a whiteboard just to my left here with a big mind map about the marketing and promotion plan for The Healing Organization. So I’m an advocate of artisanal mind mapping.

Bryan Collins: I like that. And I know you described some activities that you pursue every day. Do you have an ideal early morning routine?

Michael Gelb: Well the truth is I mean I get up. I make some artisanal coffee and have breakfast and I go right to work because I’m just raring to go. I don’t need to do anything. I don’t need to meditate, I don’t need to do any practices or anything to get myself geared up. I just can’t wait to get in here and get to work. And then I work. I get in the flow state most days and you know, before I know it, it’s 3:00, 3:30. And that’s when I do… Then I start doing practices.

Michael Gelb: I do Tai Chi and Qigong every day. I go for a walk. We live right next to a beautiful woodland. So I go for a walk for an hour in the woods, which kind of a walking meditation. And then I also go to boxing class because I like to get some really serious exercise. Then I come back, do a little more Tai Chi or Qigong to settle everything down. Then I cook some fabulous dinner and drink one of the great wines of the world with my wife. And then I usually watch comedy or the stories of great geniuses or spiritual masters or interesting intellectual topics on some channel somewhere or comedy. I love comedy. Then meditate, go to sleep, get up. Do the… You know that’s, if there’s a routine, that’s it.
Bryan Collins: Yeah. That sounds like a good day. I noticed you are a black belt in Aikido as well. Do you still practice that sport?

Michael Gelb: Yes, I’m a fifth degree black belt in Aikido and I teach from time to time, but about 12 years ago I decided that I’d… I mean I love Aikido, but I was at a level where I was doing more teaching than learning and since I teach and speak for a living, I wanted my practice to be… I like the idea of beginner’s mind. I like the idea of the feeling of vast horizons of learning before me. And even though Aikido is something that you can go on learning and improving your whole life, it was hard to find the people. There are people on a much higher level than I am, but I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was used to studying with senior masters in the New York area and in New Mexico I was at the same level as the other teachers and I just wanted the feeling of something fresher and new.

Michael Gelb: So I met a phenomenal Tai Chi master and began studying with him. Took private lessons, took all his seminars and became a Tai-chi teacher. And I found that Tai Chi is more portable. Don’t have to go to a dojo, don’t have to have a uniform. I can practice it anywhere I go around the world, the airport gate, in my hotel room. So I’ve also created a synthesis of a Tai Chi and Aikido where I go to Aikido dojos and I teach Tai Chi principles to deepen your Akiko practice. And then I help Tai Chi players refine some of their practice with some Aikido methodology. So because that’s my mind tends to work by creating new connections. The da Vinci principle of [foreign 00:32:19] comes very naturally to me.

Bryan Collins: Yeah. What I thought was interesting and the reason I asked about Aikido is I’ve noticed it informs some of your books. So I like the way you bring in outside interests that aren’t necessarily to do with business or the creative process, then work them into your arguments.

Michael Gelb: Well, that’s the most… See the biggest creative thing that I’ve ever done is figure how to get paid for juggling, how to get paid for doing Aikido and Tai-chi, and Qigong, how to get paid for drinking wine, how to get paid for talking about my childhood hero, Leonardo da Vinci. You get the idea?

Bryan Collins: Yeah.

Michael Gelb: So yeah. That’s the real creativity is figure out how to take these things that I would be doing anyway, share them with other people, and then they give me a big check and that’s worked out for the last 40 years. So-

Bryan Collins: Yeah, it’s important for creative people to get paid too. So Michael, where can people find more information about The Art of Connection or about you?

Michael Gelb: Thank you. Well, the best place is to come to my website, MichaelGelb.com. That’s G-E-L-B, MichaelGelb.com. We have a free newsletter and we’ll send out all kinds of fun stuff. There’s also on that website lots of free articles. There’s some really cool videos. I just gave a keynote to 9,000 people up in Massachusetts on How to Think Like Leonardo and that’s going up on our website really soon. I also taught them all how to juggle and that will be on the website really soon. So lots of fun stuff.

Michael Gelb: There’s also, if you hunt around on the website, you can find some videos of me teaching Qigong. You can learn some really cool Qigong practices to raise your baseline level of life, energy, and creative energy. So MichaelGelb.com. And of course that’s where you can click and get the books and all that good stuff.

Bryan Collins: Okay. And The Healing Organization I think there’s a sales page up on Amazon at the moment. It was great to talk to you today, Michael.
Michael Gelb: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

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