"Thinkertoys, Second Edition," by Michael Michalko

Pros: An incredible range of inspiring exercises with many suggestions and fascinating anecdotes
Cons: Occasional confusions
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Review book courtesy of 10 Speed Press.

Michael Michalko’s “Thinkertoys” is aimed at businesspeople who want to stretch their creative muscles and come up with new and better ideas. Writers who are used to very playful approaches in their creativity books might find some of the business-speak off-putting, but the exercises are as valid and useful for them as they are for businessfolk or anyone else looking for a creative solution to a problem.

What amazes me most about this book is the sheer volume of ideas, exercises, suggestions, and entertaining anecdotes. Certainly it stands as a testament to the validity of Michalko’s work that he can come up with this many pages jam-packed full of idea-generating goodness.

Linear Thinkertoys

Thinkertoys reflect linear and intuitive thinking, both of which are necessary for optimum creativity. The basic difference between the two is that the linear Thinkertoys structure existing information while the intuitive toys generate new information using insight, imagination, and intuition. … Linear Thinkertoys are for the left brain, intuitive Thinkertoys are for the right brain.

Michalko believes we’re best served by blending the linear and intuitive when stimulating creativity, so he provides a great many Thinkertoys in both the linear and intuitive sections of this book and suggests that we go back and forth in our use of them.

Each Thinkertoy comes with a basic explanation of how it works, a blueprint for applying it to a wide variety of issues, and examples showing it in use. Many of these examples are real-world historical items that can give you great insight into how to apply seemingly abstract techniques to very real problems. There are more than 15 linear toys, each one a complete blueprint for brainstorming everything you need to tackle a problem. Lotus Blossom teaches you a diagramming technique; Brutethink uses random stimulation; Ideatoons make use of pattern language; and Think Bubbles introduce you to mind mapping. Some of these you’ll probably have heard of and used before, but I find it unlikely that you’ll be familiar with all or even most of them.

Intuitive Thinkertoys

The intuitive section includes more than ten toys, ranging from relaxation techniques to analogies, hypnogogic imagery to psychosynthesis. These are the ones that might feel a bit funny to the dyed-in-the-wool businessperson, but they’re well-formulated to walk you through the process and familiarize you with letting go. As a writer I was most familiar with these already, but Michalko puts his own spin on them and, again, includes plenty of interesting and handy insights and anecdotes.

The inclusion of both types of Thinkertoys is one of the things that makes this book truly stand out from others I’ve read. Most creativity books aimed at non-artistic types tend largely toward the linear exercises, while those aimed at artistic types tend largely toward the intuitive. It’s very handy to have such a blend of both in one place, with tips on integrating them.

Teamwork and Endings

The book includes four chapters on brainstorming in a team-based approach, which is particularly useful in a business setting. These chapters include not only specific exercises, but also plenty of tips on getting folks to loosen up and produce their best work in these settings.

Finally, the book wraps up with some material to help you evaluate the ideas you’ve come up with.

I highly recommend reading the introductions to all of the major sections of the book, then skipping around to use various Thinkertoys as the mood suits you.

Illusions, Sun Tzu, and Anecdotes

There are a couple of trends in creativity workshops and business that haven’t thrilled me overall. One is optical illusions–I’ve seen writers who seem to think these things make great creativity spurs in and of themselves, which personally I don’t agree with (to each his own, I guess). Michalko uses many optical illusions, but he does so in a way that I can agree with–he uses them to illustrate aspects of how the brain operates. Then he goes on to provide the actual related exercise. This is a use for optical illusions that I can certainly understand, and it makes the book a more interesting read.

The use of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” in the business world has, to my mind, been overdone. Sure, you can apply his brilliant insights to almost anything, including business, but too many businessfolk seem to get a wee bit too much into seeing themselves as warriors on the battlefields of business, and it makes me roll my eyes after a while. Michalko starts off each section with a quote from Sun Tzu, but again, I like how he uses them–he applies them to creative problem-solving in general. And since Sun Tzu’s words have such a broad wisdom to them, this seems like a particularly apt use for them, since creativity can be applied to solve any problem.

The anecdotes that Michalko liberally sprinkles throughout the text serve several purposes. For one, they lend credibility to his theories. It’s easier to believe that a method of brainstorming has merit when you learn that it, or something like it, was used to come up with something that literally changed the world. It’s also easier to understand that we can imitate such wildly successful creative people as Einstein, Edison, and Da Vinci once we better understand how they did what they did. The best part about the anecdotes, however, is that they make the book incredibly fun to read. I found myself relating stories to my husband from chapter after chapter as I read this book.


My only (very minor) quibble with the book was its occasional lack of clarity. Now and then Michalko off-handedly described something in a manner such that I really had no idea what he meant. Luckily this tended to occur in his examples, or in his instructions for viewing an optical illusion, not in the instructions for the actual Thinkertoys.

This is an incredibly handy book. The anecdotes are entertaining, the exercises are inspiring, and the wide variety will keep you busy for a very long time.

Also reviewed: Michalko’s Thinkpak

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