Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Review With Michael Hewitt-Gleeson - Founder of the School of Thinking

Avil Beckford


Each week, how much time do you devote to thinking? Michael Hewitt-Gleeson, founder of the School of Thinking has devoted nearly half of his life to teaching people how to think. In this interview, you will learn the secret to Mr. Hewitt-Gleeson's success. The interview is insightful, and readers will come away with at least one tip that they can immediately start to use.

Avil Beckford: Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Michael Hewitt-Gleeson: Apart from the fact that I'm incredibly good looking (A big smile comes through the headset), I'm Australian, born and grew up here but for many years I lived overseas, mostly based in New York and North America. I run the School of Thinking, which is the largest program in the world for teaching thinking as a skill.

Avil Beckford: What's a typical day like for you?

Michael Hewitt-Gleeson: Like most people, while I'm still in my pajamas, I head straight to my computer and start looking at some of my emails that have come in, then I do about an hour's worth of work on the website where I run The School of Thinking. (I'm running it from my iPad as well, which could be a trap because it means I could be taking it into my bedroom). After that, I make a cup of tea and depending on the day, sometimes I have meetings, which means I get ready and go to those. Other times I might be working from my office which is right across from the beach here in St Kilda in Melbourne. The typical day if I'm not with a client or giving a talk somewhere then I'm doing research, writing, and running the School of Thinking on the internet.

Avil Beckford: How do you motivate yourself and stay motivated?

Michael Hewitt-Gleeson: It's a very good question, but I am motivated because I like what I'm doing. There are odd days when you ask yourself if you are wasting your time, but overwhelmingly I like what I'm doing, it's enjoyable, and it involves a variety of things. I get enough feedback from people around the world that makes me think that it's worthwhile. I don't have to do much motivating.

Avil Beckford: If you had to start over from scratch, knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?

Michael Hewitt-Gleeson: I wouldn't waste so much time. Always in retrospect, you can see the amount of time that you've wasted. The posting I just put on the website is about the amount of time every one tells me that they waste in business meetings. You go along to the meeting, the truth is never told, no decisions are ever made, you play along until the meeting ends, and then you rush off to your next meeting. Fortunately since I run my own show, I don't attend a lot of meetings, but I do begrudge the amount of time that gets wasted. I try to look back on things that I've done and do them differently and not waste so much time. Maybe I'd spend more time at the beach, reading and enjoying some other things than just wasting time. But mostly I'm pretty happy with the way my life has progressed.

Avil Beckford: Describe a major business or other challenge you had and how you resolved it. What lessons did you learn in the process?

Michael Hewitt-Gleeson: The challenge was to provide a global school that anyone, anywhere, any time can access the lessons that we teach on how to be a better thinker with as little impediment as possible. This is an ongoing challenge and the way I resolve it is through finding, learning about new technologies, testing, and experimenting with them and as they work I add them to the system that we use. This has been going on since 1995, but in a very deliberate way. We are also always thinking about how we can broaden access, keep it free and keep it interesting and in so doing we have evolved in different ways and we get more and more feedback. Our students tell us every day what they like and don't like. We ask for feedback on a daily basis and we listen - we do a GBD, a good, bad, better, so what's good, what's bad and what we can do better, so this allows us to evolve a lot faster.

Avil Beckford: Describe one of your biggest failures. What lessons did you learn, and how did it contribute to a greater success?

Michael Hewitt-Gleeson: When I started the school, I started it with Edward de Bono, and we worked together for about seven years. We were very successful on a number of projects and ventures. We published the first book on thinking called Learn to Think and co-authored it, then we had a disagreement which was over a program we developed at the School of Thinking called Thinking Hats. Edward published the book Thinking Hats, which was his most successful book but did not give any attribution to the School of Thinking. This led to a disagreement and ultimately we split-up. We went separate ways and at the time that was certainly to me a disappointment, and it caused some distractions. Though we didn't go to court, it was very close.

From my point of view I then developed a new syllabus for the School of Thinking. I couldn't use the name Thinking Hats, and at the time the very first personal computers were coming out, and I was doing a lot of work for IBM, in the mid-eighties in Europe. It was a new development so I coined the phrase necktop computer, that's a million times more powerful than a desktop computer, but what we don't have is software. We are accustomed to using the old Greek logic software, that's 2,500 years old. The importance of your desktop computer that you've got is the software, surely we need software for our brain. I wrote my book Software for the Brain, which became a bestseller. And in a sense because Edward and I became what you might say competitors, things worked out good not only for him and myself, but also for the market because competition is a good thing and now people have choices. So this is something that at the time I thought was a failure, it was distracting, negative, disappointing and hurtful, but it evolved into something that was stronger, and I was then able to run the school the way that I wanted to do it, and we do things quite differently. Both programs are quite useful for the people who use them, but they are quite different, and people now have a choice.

Avil Beckford: What are three events that helped to shape your life?

Michael Hewitt-Gleeson: When I was about 20 in 1967, they put some marbles in a barrel in Australia, 366 marbles, one for every day in the year. They pulled the marbles out of the barrel and if you were a 20 year old man who was born on that particular day, May 22nd, then you went into the army. In the US they call it draft of national service. I was drafted for the Viet Nam war so I spent a year in training and a year in Viet Nam, and at the time I was halfway through a degree at Melbourne. In a sense you were plucked from your family and life, and taken off on to a tangent to something that changes your life forever. Like anything in life, there are pluses and minuses. I received lots of training that very valuable - leadership training that has lasted all my life, which a young man at 20 wouldn't normally get. It had a huge effect on my life, and there were negatives as well. I can't honestly imagine what my life would have been like without that experience. That was one of the biggest events that changed my life.

Geographic location: I was going to work with Edward de Bono in Cambridge, England when I left Australia. I visited New York on the way, really for a weekend, but I ended up staying there for 14 years. I went on and did a PhD there, and also started the School of Thinking, but I also experienced the fun and pleasure of living in New York in the seventies and eighties. Living in New York was a huge change for me. Had I not lived there, I would have lived a completely different life. I was lucky to be there and enjoy it.

Technology: If the right tools are available at the right time, the computer, internet and more recently the iPad and the apps we are developing for our stuff that can have a huge impact on your life. Just like the printing press came along for Martin Luther, without it, no one would have heard of him. So different tools that have come along at different times in my life have had a big impact and directed which way I headed.

Avil Beckford: How did mentors influence your life?

Michael Hewitt-Gleeson: There are people who come along, and sometimes they encourage you, or tell you what you do not want to hear. So one category are people who are wiser, often older and in a different circumstance, who are able to give you good advice, direction or point things out if you are willing to listen. Professor George Gallup and Edward de Bono were great mentors for me. Edward de Bono was my tutor for my PhD, he had one student, me. I am the only one in the world who has a PhD in lateral Thinking, and Edward de Bono and George Gallup were my examiners. They were two extraordinary individuals who spent a lot of time with me, and I have built a whole career around that.

Avil Beckford: What's one core message you received from your mentors?

Michael Hewitt-Gleeson: From Edward de Bono, professionally the message was to escape from your point of view, what he calls lateral thinking. It's a methodology that was invented in science by Francis Bacon and others and it's called the scientific method. For the religious method, we have the truth, and much of the intellectual effort is defending the truth, and it doesn't matter which religious truth it is, it is I'm right, you're wrong and we'll defend the truth to the death, my death or your death if necessary. So that's one longstanding historical model that we are all familiar with. The scientific method is that there are no absolute truths, there are just truths that are more likely than other truths, and how do we know? They are based on measurements and observation. Science and technology move so quickly because a younger science will come along with better tools for measurement, and now we say that this truth is more likely than the previous truth so science can move ahead. Mr. Bono taught me that, and to put it succinctly, thinking is escaping from your point of view, finding one that is 10 times better, not defending it. That was a big thing that was given to me.

Avil Beckford: How do you integrate your personal and professional life?

Michael Hewitt-Gleeson: In my case, I have worked from home for a long period of time so it's all rolled up in one. I don't mind that because I like what I do. I'm my own boss so I can spend my days the way that I want to. I still have to do my work and get things done but I've learnt by now how to manage it well so I have a lot of flexibility. If something is happening in my personal life with family or friends, I can probably go along and be there rather than saying, "I cannot go because I have to travel here or there." Because the business is online, and I have the technology that follows you around makes it pretty easy. I have done this for a long time so I have been able to balance my personal and professional life pretty easily but I don't have to do it by doing 9-to-5 for one and 5-to-9 for the other, I do it as I go along.

Avil Beckford: What process do you use to generate great ideas?

Michael Hewitt-Gleeson: The main thing is to generate a lot of ideas because you cannot know if an idea is great until after the fact. You cannot generate a great idea, you can only see after the idea has been generated, whether or not it turns out to be great. You know when you buy a CD that's a compilation of all the bestsellers from last year, you can only pick the best songs from last year after you have all the songs from last year to choose from. You have to generate a lot of ideas then choose the best. I learned that, that's a very deliberate thing and I do it very deliberately. I generate lots of ideas and write them in books, and every once in a while I take a look and may see things repeating themselves. Sometimes circumstances change and I go back and try something and experiment with it, and in retrospect sometimes it turns out to be a great idea. Sometimes it occurs quickly and other times it takes quite a while. One of the things that I teach people is to multiple things by 10, and get into the habit of doing so. I used to do a lot of work with the Actors Institute in New York, and some of the actors would go for an audition and there may be 50 people there for that part and clearly only one person out of 50 is going to get the part. If she didn't get it, she would be depressed and go back to the apartment and smoke dope, fall into a heap and do nothing for two months and then go and do another audition. I would say to multiply the number of auditions you do by 10, because all you can do is go to auditions. You are not the director, or the producer, so you can't decide who gets the past, but you can decide how many auditions you go for. It's developing the attitude of multiplying by 10 that can give you an edge. If you want to have a great idea, have 10, then look back and see which ones are the better ones. That's what I would do.

Avil Beckford: How do you define success?

Michael Hewitt-Gleeson: Happiness! Having a $1 billion and being in jail or having your family turn against you, or devastating the planet to me isn't my idea of success. Possibly having no money in the bank and having a partner who cares about you, or kids who love you, or being able to sit and have a nice long lunch with a group of friends, that's what success is because you only get one life. There is no reason why you cannot earn a good income and still be happy. Finding the balance is difficult but it's worth striving for.

Avil Beckford: What are the steps you took to succeed in your field?

Michael Hewitt-Gleeson: I make sure that I do something that I enjoy doing. And I do them every day. In other words, from the point of view of virtuosity, it takes a long while, you cannot just pick up a book or video on something and become an expert. Some people think you can, but you can't. It may take 10 years, and you can do 10 years if you love what you are doing so it's a combination of loving what you are doing, and doing it every day. Enjoy success as you go and do the 10,000 hours it requires to achieve virtuosity, and then enjoy that kind of success as well.

Avil Beckford: What advice do you have for someone just starting out in your field?

Michael Hewitt-Gleeson: My advice to people starting out in the field of cognitive science is to ensure you get at least two things:

  1. A good teacher - someone who is in a position to ensure you are learning the most verifiable information in your field, and
  2. A good mentor - someone with a great deal of recognized experience and preeminence in the field. Otherwise, you may waste your time learning information that is just not true and without a mentor you will only have your own experience to go on which is limited and slow.

Avil Beckford: If trusted friends could introduce you to five people that you've always wanted to meet, who would you choose? And what would you say to them?
Michael Hewitt-Gleeson:

  • Marcus Aurelius
  • Pope John XXIV
  • Professor Elizabeth Blackburn
  • Sir Tim Berners-Lee
  • Charles Darwin

I would ask them for their answers to the same questions in this interview.

Avil Beckford: Which one book had a profound impact on your life?

Michael Hewitt-Gleeson: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

If you had a personal genie and she gave you one wish, what would you wish for? Or, if I gave you a magic wand, what would you use it for?

Michael Hewitt-Gleeson: I would wish for another 10 years.

Complete the following, I am happy when.....

Michael Hewitt-Gleeson: I am happy when I laugh. I am happy when I wake up in the morning. I am happy when I see a smile on my partner's face.

Avil Beckford is a writer, researcher and the published author of Tales of People Who Get It and its companion workbook Journey to Getting It. She resides in Toronto and blogs at http://theinvisiblementor.com.

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