Meet a man who can make your mind shine

Interview with Paul Sloane - author and a world-class speaker on innovation, lateral thinking, creative problem solving, and leadership

Taking care of my mind is one of the most important things in my life. I read, think, debate, write, create, negotiate, question, and provoke; I play mind games and solve riddles and lateral thinking puzzles. Being ahead of the game by mastering our minds is not that hard when you can learn from the best in the field.

I was privileged to meet, exchange ideas, and learn from professor Edward de Bono – one of the most remarkable minds of our time and “the father of creative thinking”. A few years ago, I met Rolf Dobelli, the author of a few of my favorite books on creative thinking, such as “The Art of Thinking clearly” and “The Art of the Good life”. Part of my book world dedicated to lateral thinking and brain treats became even more precious a few years after I came up with the name of Mr. Paul Sloane – author and speaker on innovation, lateral thinking, creative problem solving, and leadership. As a proud owner of more than 10 of his books and a diligent attendee of his lectures (all of them), I wished to interview this amazing man for my blog.

Paul was kind to share his ideas on how we can master the mind and make better and more creative decisions in life and business. Enjoy!

DDj: Have you ever met a normal person – normal in the sense of cognitive and physical capabilities who would not be able to improve their thinking skills?

PS: That’s a good question. I hope the answer is no, but maybe some people would not. I think most people can improve their thinking skills, but it’s a question of attitude, and if you’ve got an attitude that is resistant to change and a closed mind, then it’s difficult to do it. You have to change your attitude first. I think if people can change their attitude, then they can change their life.

DDj: When we speak about thinking skills, what would you say would be thinking skills needed for the time we live in, for entrepreneurs, for managers? What would be those thinking skills we all should aspire to?

PS: I think you have to be open-minded and be receptive to contrarian ideas and different ideas. So you’ve got to be prepared to change your mind. Which many, many people aren’t. And if we look, particularly in the USA, the two sides of the political spectrum are very, very hardened in their views and reluctant to admit that they might be wrong. And the Trump supporters firmly believe that he was a great president and that they were cheated, and the Democrats think he was a terrible president and they told a lot of lies, and he deserved to lose. And there was very little common ground between them, and they opposed each other very vigorously in Congress.

And we saw in the UK in the Brexit debate where the two sides became more and more hardened in their views, and there was very little common ground.

One of the great ironies of the modern world is that social media and the internet should give us an opportunity to hear many different views, but in fact, they just reinforce our current views. So people tend to operate in an echo chamber where they listen to people who’ve got similar views, similar opinions, and attitudes. It reinforces their prejudices rather than opening their minds. This is a great shame.

One of the things I would encourage people to do is to consider the opposite deliberately. Deliberately consider contrarian or different views and be open to them. Just say I might be wrong. I might just be wrong. And whenever someone complains or criticizes you, don’t reject the criticism and say: “There might be something in what they say”. That’s what I say whenever someone criticizes me, and I’m like everyone else – I don’t like to be criticized; I don’t like to be told I’m wrong. But when somebody criticizes you or criticizes your ideas or notions, just say, “There might be something in what they say”.

DDj: One of the great pieces of advice you gave us through your books is to change the assumptions we usually have. Not just that we can say or assume that we’re not right, we should even assume that we might be entirely wrong; even more – and what if the opposite were true?

PS: What if the opposite were true is a very, very powerful question to ask. And I recommend that. I am just recording a creativity course at the moment, and one of the questions is What if the opposite were true? And it’s true in so many fields, sometimes the exact opposite of the current course of action is the right. So, don’t just do something different, do the opposite. Maybe the lockdown is the best, but what if we do the opposite? What if we let the people mix? And you’ve got to ask that question and be prepared to consider those outcomes.

DDj: Well, what you’re saying, is actually that we should definitely be more curious. 

PS: Yes, we should. But many people don’t want to look foolish at work. They don’t want to look silly. And women more than men, I think, don’t want to look foolish by asking an outrageous question. Sometimes, someone has to ask an outrageous question. What if the current policy is wrong? Is there a better way to do this? And I think we might be taking the wrong path, and I think we should consider this. That’s a dangerous thing to say because you’re challenging authority, you’re questioning the bosses, and you’re rocking the boat. You are disturbing the current thinking and the current policies. It takes some courage to be curious and to be open-minded to challenge assumptions.

DDj: But I’m sure that if you try it and like it, you will never change that attitude. That’s the case with all the amazing things in life. In one of your books, I think it was “Think Like an Innovator”, you shared many inspiring stories of people who were courageous and curious enough to disrupt their industries and mainstream “rules”.

PS: I’ve done a podcast called Think Like an Innovator, and it’s on Spotify and some Apple podcasts and elsewhere, and it contains a lot of these stories and many others. Since I’ve written the book, I’ve added additional stories, innovators, and lessons from them. I would recommend you search for the Think Like an Innovator podcast on Spotify. It’s free. Here’s a question for you. It’s an easy question. Who’s the most famous Serbian in the world? 

DDj: At the moment, Novak Djokovic.

PS: Novak Djokovic, yes. Why does Novak Djokovic serve double faults? 

DDj: Well, I’m not sure, although he was my client for many years. 

PS: I talk about Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. I ask this question in my workshops with people. I say, “Why does Novak Djokovic serve double faults?” If you watch him in a match with Rafael Nadal. In a tough match, a five-set match, he would probably serve 5 or 6 or 7 double faults in the course of the match. And he doesn’t need to. He could easily get his second serve in if he just pulled it back a little, make it safe, but he pushes; he and all the champions serve double faults. Why do they do it, pushing their second serve as hard as they can? They want to make it difficult for their opponent, and they are prepared to accept certain double faults as a price for pushing the limits

There’s an optimum number of double faults that you should serve in a tennis match, and it’s not zero. And the message for you and your clients is this: There is an optimum number of mistakes you should make every month, and it’s not zero. You should serve more double faults, you should make more mistakes, and because you’re pushing things to the limit, trying new things, you’re trying hard, and that occasionally means things go wrong. And if you’re not making mistakes, if you’re not serving double faults, you’re not trying hard enough. So there’s a lesson from Novak Djokovic.

DDj: Well, That’s a great lesson. I’ll make sure to get his opinion on this :) Within your book, you are asking a question I asked myself many times: Where would we be as a civilization without curious people, people who are testing the waters all the time, brave enough to accept risks, and willing to change their point of view frequently? Where would we be as a civilization, and where we are going since I don’t see enough entrepreneurs and business people ready to jump in and test and provoke everything. What do you think?

PS: Yes, it’s the radicals; it’s the rebels who change the world. And it’s the people who break the rules and are prepared to try new things – they lead us forward. But the time is difficult for them because everyone criticizes them and says You shouldn’t do this. But they are the innovators, and in the book “Think Like an Innovator,” we see many people who’ve been rule breakers, like Don Estridge IBM, who created the IBM PC by breaking all the rules in IBM, every method that was used, he did something different. And Anita Roddick with Body Shop. We say it time again – people who are prepared to challenge convention can change the world. And what we need, what we need desperately, is leaders who can change their minds.

And there are plenty of leaders, who think they are right, and they keep going in their route, and sometimes they’re just wrong.

The two leaders that I admire are F. W. de Klerk in South Africa, who changed his mind on apartheid; he let free Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela has many depraves, and that’s right, but F. W. de Klerk was the leader who enabled that. And Mikhail Gorbachev was the person who saw that the Soviet Union and that method, the authoritarian, could not be sustained. And it took great courage; he’s vilified in loads and disliked in the Soviet Union to this day because of the changes. But those were the necessary changes, I think. 

We need to be prepared to say I was wrong in my approach, and we need to change the course and do something different. It takes a lot of humility and courage to do that. And those are the people who can change the world. And especially in a leader, rather than to stay until you are overthrown, to say I was wrong. It is very difficult because when you say I was wrong, the media will all say, Well, that’s a sign of weakness, it shows a U-turn, it shows that you are dilly-dallying, you’re not strong, and you’re changing your mind. But actually, it shows great strength. Just in the same way that to ask for help shows strength. It’s not a sign of weakness to say I was wrongI need help. It’s a sign of strength.

DDj: It definitely depends on our childhood and the inspirations and ideas we got when we were young. For example, my father was saying that only two types of people would never change their minds – dead people and stupid people. So, unless you are dead or stupid, you will have to change your mind because you’ll grow; because when you accept new knowledge, things will look different; you will be different, and that’s normal. And when I was 10, I accepted that nothing is permanent, that my knowledge is limited, and that each step on my way will change me and change my point of view. That’s why I usually encourage people and entrepreneurs to work with their kids. Kids want to learn. And if you teach them to accept their mistakes, to say “I’m wrong” or “I don’t know”, or “Explain it to me” or “I changed my mind” maybe the society would be better.

When is it, if ever, too late, too complex for a person to change their mindset? Since it’s all about mindset. When is it impossible or too hard for someone to change?

PS: Well, it can be very, very difficult. I would say it’s never impossible. There is this thing called the sunk cost fallacy. The sunk cost fallacy is the more time and effort I’ve spent on this project, the more reluctant I am to change it and cancel it. Because I’ve put so much into it, I’ve spent so many hours, so many years working on it, so much money on this project, I can’t just say It was all wrong, even if it’s clearly it’s wrong. And leaders, The CEO who’s taken a company in a certain direction, it’s very hard for them to admit they were wrong. 

It’s very hard for a political leader to say that the policy we’ve had has been wrong, and we should have changed it earlier. Yet, often, it’s the case. But it’s difficult for them. And very often, they are criticized as they do admit they were wrong, and they’re criticized if they don’t, and they carry on doing the wrong thing. It often needs a change in leadership or a change of the person at the top before the policy can be changed because they invested so much personally in their own decisions and policies. I understand it’s difficult. But sometimes, it’s necessary.

DDj: Obviously, fallacies and biases are all over the place. I work on collecting various logical mistakes trying to put everything on paper. Unless we put things in context, we will not be able to notice them and what’s even worse – to avoid them. 

PS: Well, we are all subject to thinking biases, and the important thing is to be aware that they exist and ask the question Could I be suffering from a bias? An unconscious bias. And there are many, many of them, and I’ve read quite a few books on them, and Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is very, very good on this. 

I’ve written a couple of blogs, and I’ve done an audible course on Listenable on common thinking, fallacies, and errors, within how to avoid it. So, if you’re going to Listenable, you’ll find one of mine.

DDj: While working on my Ph.D. thesis, I explored various dual-processing theories. I hypothesized that people would evaluate messages if they have the knowledge, and if they don’t know about the topic – they will use a Rule of thumb or some other heuristic. However, that was not the case. Believe it or not,  people who are lacking knowledge were evaluating messages. Although they don’t have the knowledge needed to do so, they elaborate. They didn’t use heuristics. I was so surprised. 

Furthermore, I have noticed that many entrepreneurs, especially start-up founders, are fixated on their idea, invest time and money, and other resources, and cannot switch and change direction. 

PS: If that’s their attitude, they will probably fail. Because in most new businesses, the initial idea is wrong. And it’s only when you test it that you find out how wrong it is and where it’s wrong. Eric Ries wrote a book called The Lean Startup. He talks all about the minimum viable product, and this concept is very common now in innovation.

You take an idea, you’ve got your great idea, and what you should do is test it as quickly as you can with the minimum version that you can take. And you show it to people and say This is what my great idea looks like, and you show them a wireframe or a mockup, or some software screens and you say, This is what it looks like, what you think? And they might say We like this, but we don’t like this, this won’t work.

I had somebody today from the USA who shared this idea for a new chess set, which was very, very crazy and very innovative, and he wanted my opinion. I gave him some views on it, and I said Chess players wouldn’t like it. Arty people will like it, and chess collectors will like it, but chess players won’t like it because it’s so unconventional.

And what you do is you take your idea out, show it to people, get their feedback, and you correct and learn and adapt. And this is the way the minimum viable product works.

DDj: It sounds like a scientific method, actually.

PS: It is a scientific method; it’s repeated trial and error. It’s repeated experimentation, it’s very, very fast learning, and what you want is a rapid feedback loop. Fly, crash, adapt is the method. So it’s you fly, you crash, you learn, you adapt. And it’s the method that Paul MacCready used when he developed the first human-powered aircraft to fly the channel, the English Channel, and win the prize. And what he did was he built something so cheap and so easy to fix that he could just fly, crash it, fly, adapt, and keep on a very fast feedback loop.

I’ve been going back to your earlier question. The message I would say to your clients is this: The main benefit of creativity and innovation and new thinking in your business is not a competitive advantage, though you’ll get that. It is survival. If you’re not prepared to consider new possibilities and innovations and keep trying new things, you won’t survive.

And we see many examples of businesses that were really efficient and good at what they did, but they didn’t adapt fast enough and didn’t change fast enough. And the world we’re in is changing so fast, that, unless you’re prepared to change quickly, you are not going to survive.

DDj: That sounds very good if you ask me because that’s a kick you cannot miss. I love it. Besides puzzles, what exercises can people do regularly to train their minds to think more clearly, and creatively?

PS: Good question leaders should ask themselves, and this is something I’ve read more than once, is If I was fired tomorrow, and somebody new came in who was much, much better in the job and much, much better manager and much, much better leader than I am, what would they do? And if they were starting with a clean sheet and, again, how would they get it differently.

Just imagine this is your first day on a job, and you’re coming in with a completely open mind about the opportunities and the problems, regardless of the decisions you’ve already made. Forget the decisions; forget the policies. What would you do differently if you were coming in tomorrow and you were a really super CEO? You were the best leader in this kind of operation in the world. What questions would you ask, who would you ask, and what different things would you do? And if that’s the case, why don’t you do that?

Imagine you’re a different person, imagine somebody is coming to replace you who’s much better, what would they do? Well, to change this, ask these questions, find out what’s wrong, and fix it… that’s the starting point.  

DDj: Perfect. There is something similar; I think I read it on a blog or something. Questions like Ask yourself how your competitors would crush you without money or/and an incredible amount of money. That was very interesting. I would love for the end of this interview to ask you to share a little more about your work, your lessons online, your master class, where people can find you, and your books, especially the new book.

PS: Well, Destination innovation is my website, and there are many references to my articles. I post a lot of blogs. I do podcasts. I do online courses. I write books. I used to go around the world speaking at conferences and giving workshops all over the place. But that’s all stopped with the Covid, so I’m doing work over Zoom now, which I enjoy doing. And yeah, I’d love to help.

My new book has just come out on Amazon this week. And it’s a fun book, actually. It’s English words. It’s called 1234 Wacky, Witty and Wonderful Words, English words. It’s the English language, really, but it’s fun English language things, things you didn’t know like the word journey. The word journey comes from the French jornee, which was originally the distance you could walk in a single day. So there are lots of things like that. 

DDj: Great! I’ll make sure to get my copy as soon as possible! Thank you for your time and keep up the great work! It’s very important. 

PS: Thanks, Dragana.


Please visit Mr. Paul Sloane’s website to book a lecture, master class, or one on one session and check his Amazon page with all his book titles.


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