'How I Got Here': Edward de Bono

Best known as the "founder of lateral thinking", the Maltese-born millionaire Edward de Bono has held academic appointments at Oxford, Cambridge, London and Harvard universities. Now aged 67, he owns islands in three continents, has written more than 60 books, and has had a planet named after him. Dr De Bono has applied his thinking skills to a variety of subjects from business and economics to foreign policy and education and has set up an international network of 950 accredited instructors to teach his theories to governments, companies and other institutions. His new book, The De Bono Code Book, which was published by Viking on 31 August, tackles the subject of language and how it limits our perceptions and communication.

Best known as the "founder of lateral thinking", the Maltese-born millionaire Edward de Bono has held academic appointments at Oxford, Cambridge, London and Harvard universities. Now aged 67, he owns islands in three continents, has written more than 60 books, and has had a planet named after him. Dr De Bono has applied his thinking skills to a variety of subjects from business and economics to foreign policy and education and has set up an international network of 950 accredited instructors to teach his theories to governments, companies and other institutions. His new book, The De Bono Code Book, which was published by Viking on 31 August, tackles the subject of language and how it limits our perceptions and communication.

Background

My family had a strong medical orientation: my father was professor of medicine and my uncle was professor of surgery. My mother, on the other hand, was a journalist, and had a certain amount of cheek. So in my career these two things came together; the courage to do things and the academic side.

I was educated at St Edward's College in Malta and jumped classes twice so I was always three or four years younger than anyone else in my class; I was treated as a rather special case and my nickname was "Genius". I was the only boy to have his own personal key to the chemistry laboratory. After school I went to the Royal University of Malta, where I qualified as a doctor. Then I came to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar to study psychology, and after that I worked in medicine at Oxford, St Thomas's Hospital, London, Cambridge and Harvard.

The big idea

Three things came together to kick off my work in the area of thinking: In medicine I was dealing with self-organising systems such as the glands, kidneys, respiration and circulation, and I started to ask myself what would happen if the same principles were applied to the brain. From psychology came an interest in thinking, and from computers an interest in the types of perceptual and creative thinking that computers couldn't do. The fusion of these elements led to my key book The Mechanism of Mind in 1969. It seemed to me that hundreds of people were researching blood pressure, yet no one had done any research in thinking for 2,400 years, since the Greek "gang of three".

Originally there was no mention of business in my books, but business leaders came to me because they recognised the importance of what I was talking about. Of all sectors in society, business is the most interested in thinking. Others, such as the political and academic, are only interested in proving themselves right. It upsets people when I say business is more interested in thinking than universities, but it's true.

For a long time my work in the thinking field ran in parallel with my work in medicine, but it grew and grew and eventually I took early retirement from medicine to work exclusively on thinking.

Worst moment

There was no one worst moment for me, because I think if you were to change one part of the jigsaw of your life, you would get a completely different picture. There are a couple of frustrations, perhaps:

When I wrote my first book, my father pointed out that I had a great career in medicine and discouraged me from making a living out of writing. That didn't upset me, but, looking back, perhaps I should have made the decision to concentrate entirely on thinking earlier.

My other frustration is with education, particularly in the UK, which is self-satisfied and change-resistant. Recently, the Holst Group has been teaching my work to unemployed youngsters as part of the Government's New Deal programme, and found that teaching just six hours of thinking increased employability by 500 per cent. If six hours of thinking can do more for these youngsters than 10 years of education, then there's something lacking in education. Other countries have made thinking mandatory in their school curricula, but not the UK.

Most proud of

In terms of how widely it has been adopted, I'm most proud of the concept of parallel thinking known as the "Six Hats"; this system moves people away from the traditional argument and debate style of thinking to a more efficient model. Recently, at a big innovation meeting, someone came up to me who runs all the fisheries and marine biology in Australia. He said, "We used to have terrible meetings, full of arguments and egos, but using the Six Hats we've had the best meetings we've ever had." In the United States, a number of states are now running pilot projects in which juries are trained in the Six Hats, because it allows them to examine evidence more objectively.

In a different sense, I'm pleased that I have helped to take the mystique out of creativity; that is the creativity of ideas, perceptions and concepts rather than artistic creativity. I've shown that it isn't just magic. In South Africa, one of my trainers set up 130 workshops for a steel company. That afternoon, using just one of my lateral-thinking techniques, they generated 21,000 new ideas which took them nine months just to go through.

The secrets of my success

The other day I was talking to a journalist, and he asked why, when my ideas make so much sense, no one has proposed them before. I told him that you have to have the courage. The people whose judgment I respect are in favour of my work, so if other people who don't fully understand what I'm about get upset, that doesn't worry me. Willingness to think of possibilities and move forward is the other key. So much thinking in universities looks backwards, but as I said in one of my books, "You can analyse the past, but you have to design the future."

Need to know

Education wastes two thirds of talent in society. Given the chance youngsters can be brilliant thinkers. My advice would be, "Don't think you're stupid just because the education system tells you you are."

I wish I'd known

It's taken me a while to realise that just because I'm interested in change, ideas and improvement, it's misguided to assume that other people will be too.

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