"It was late when I got back," recalls professional thinker Edward de Bono of an evening nearly 30 years ago when he had to scale the walls of his college at Oxford. The college traditionally locked its gates at 20 minutes past midnight. De Bono, a Rhodes scholar, was late coming home from a party in London, so he sneaked through Christ Church Meadows and began his ascent.

"The railings were easy. The first wall was rather more difficult. I got over it and went forward until I came to the second wall, which was about the same height as the first wall. I climbed this second wall, only to find myself outside again. My double effort had involved my climbing in and out across a corner.

"I started again and with more careful direction came up to the proper second wall. There was an iron gate in this second wall, and as the gate was lower than the rest of the wall and also offered better footholds, I climbed the gate. As I was sitting astride the top of the gate it swung open. It had never been closed."

De Bono recounts this tale in "The Mechanism of Mind," one of the 21 books he has written on creative thinking. The moral of his story: Think before you leap.

"The point is that no matter how good we are at wall- climbing, we must first determine if we're climbing the right wall," de Bono says over continental breakfast near Piccadilly Circus.

Inventor, polo player, former Cambridge don, and recognized world authority on the teaching of thinking, Edward de Bono has sworn off frontal assaults on college walls or any other impediments. He has pioneered a concept called "lateral thinking," which means avoiding the obvious head-on solutions and, instead, trying detours, thinking sideways, even backward, until you find the open gate that no one else knew was there.

Getting to de Bono presents at least as many obstacles as breaching a truly locked college at Oxford after midnight. Through A. Michael Gleeson, a former Royal Australian Air Force instructor who runs the Edward de Bono School of Thinking in New York, I arranged an interview with de Bono at "his chambers" at the Albany in London. De Bono, who is married and has two sons, lives in a Georgian country home in Norfolk, England. He works at his think tank CoRT, the Cognitive Research Trust in Cambridge, and in the course of teaching, spends much of his time circling the globe. He logs about 150,000 air miles a year.

De Bono was flying in from Spain on a Wednesday evening and leaving the next afternoon for a month of lecturing in Canada. I was told to meet him Thursday morning at 8 at the Albany, an exclusive 18th-century London residence just down the street from the Royal Academy of Arts.

The Albany was originally built for the first Lord Melbourne in 1770, and, according to a history written on one wall, was sold in 1802 "with the then novel idea of converting the house into residence chambers for gentleman unwilling to be encumbered with large town establishments." Lord Byron bached it there for a year and is said to have kenneled two bears in the basement. De bono's apartments were once occupied by Gladstone, the famous British prime minister. Today, Edward de Bono has among his distinguished neighbors Lord Kenneth Clark, J. B. Priestley, and Baron de Rothschild.

The Albany's head porter meets me at the front door and introduces himself simply as "Andrews." Andrews wears a brown morning coat with cadmium orange lapels, a chestful of brass buttons, and four decks of World War II bar decorations showing his service in Italy, North Africa, and elsewhere.

"Your name, sir?" he asks.

"McBride. I'm here to see Dr. de Bono at 8."

"I'm afraid, sir, you're seven minutes early," Andrews says, disappearing to deliver a pint bottle of milk somewhere down the corridor. The clatter of his heels on the scalloped tile floor ricochets off the high ceiling and finally fades at the end of the long hallway. At precisely 7:59 he returns to escort me to de Bono's apartment. "You're mighty lucky to see somebody this early," one of Andrew's assistants whispers. "Most of these guys don't get up before 10."

Outside de Bono's ground-floor residence is a stone tablet which reads: "William Ewart Gladstone lived here 1833- 1840." Inside the flat I find a man in a hurry to get to the airport. Our interview is all that stands between de Bono and his plane to Toronto. In a daring display of lateral thinking -- and movement -- he darts in front of two oncoming automobiles and one double-decker bus and arrives at the Cafe Torino, which is advertising "Breakfast. Hot Buttered Granary Toast and Danish Pastries." He grabs a Danish and heads for a quiet table.

De Bono is hardly the egghead I was expecting; he looks more corporate than professorial. There is not a hint of iconoclasm in his attire. He wears a smart, tailored navy suit and a white shirt with broad periwinkle-blue stripes. He affects no donnish eccentricities, no painful shyness, not even the studied stammer that is so often a mark of breeding in the British kingdom. Handsome and athletic, de Bono carries with him a patrician air of elegance. He is warm, modest, highly articulate, and witty. Perhaps it is his sense of humor of which this thinker is most proud.

"Humor is probably the most significant characteristics of the human mind," de Bono says, biting into his Danish. "Far more significant than reason. In fact, reason is actually a very cheap commodity. It's always amazed me how little attention philosophers, psychologists, or anyone else actually has paid to humor."

For de Bono, creative thinking can be literally a joke, because it involves suddenly seeing something from a different point of view.

"You know the old Bob Hope story where he is complaining that he had a very bad Christmas? He was only given three golf clubs, and what's worse, only two of them had swimming pools!" De Bono flashes a broad grin across the Carrara marble table.

"Or the one about the guy who goes to the president of the Philippines and says, 'How shall we deal with this problem of peace and order?' The president responds: 'That's no problem, I'll take a piece of that and a piece of that and that's an order!'"

"They are simple puns, but they indicate pattern-switching systems," he says, taking out a green felt-tipped pen and diagramming the joke on his napkin. "You're going along the main track and suddenly, with the punch line, you skip onto the sidetrack."

"Now the other type of humor looks like this," he continues, penning another schematic joke. "You get taken down along this channel and then in hindsight look back and see how narrow your thinking was. Like the story of the man sitting in a train compartment in England and ticket collector comes along to inspect the tickets.The guy sitting down starts looking everywhere for his ticket, in his pants pockets, his coat pocket, his coat on the rack. He is looking in a flurry and much to everyone's amusement, because they can see that he's got it in his mouth this whole time," de Bono says, creeping up on the punch line."So the inspector takes it out of his mouth, punches it, and gives it back. When the inspector has left the compartment his companion says: 'Didn't you feel awfully stupid sitting there looking everywhere for your ticket when it was right in your mouth?' 'STupid?' replies the man, 'I was chewing the date off it!'"

Swapping jokes over the breakfast table with the man recognized as one of the great teachers of creative thinking is a rather unexpected start to the interview, but the method of this madness begins to sink in: Our thinking tends to become rutted, stuck in the same old patterns and solemn perceptions. Humor is a challenge to expected patterns; and sometimes risking the ridiculous liberates these imprisoned concepts.

Once, when de Bono was called in to work on problems of New York City with former Mayor John Lindsay, he shunned traditional urban planning solutions and came up with unorthodox but imaginative approaches: To combat crime don't hire more cops, pay bonuses to street gangs when crime in their neighborhoods declines. To avoid long delays in court, have the criminals try each other. To fight the rat problem, feed them a substance that makes them afraid of the dark and let free-running terriers catch them by day. To eliminate urban housing shortages, tax people on their place of work, not their place of residence, and allow city dwellers to pay off their rent by helping to maintain their buildings.

Most of the de Bono's recommendations for New York City were never tried, and de Bono is the first to admit that lateral solutions are not always scientifically possible or politically feasible, but they often jolt thought out of old patterns. Unlike logical, "vertical thinking," lateral or zigzag thinking is not sequential. "Instead of constructing a pathway by inching forward, one jumps to different points and then allows the fragments to coalesce ," he says. Also, you don't have to deal only with relevant information or be correct in each stage of thinking. In lateral thinking one step may seem ridiculous, irrelevant, or "wrong," but by temporarily suspending judgment you can help to jog thought to the correct path, de Bono says. He likens lateral thinking to siphoning water from a container: "One sucks the water upward in an unnatural direction," he says, "and that lets it flow."

The Sunday Times of London has labeled lateral thinking "the biggest craze since Scrabble." And while self-improvement courses in England come and go with the fleeting fashionableness of store window styles on King's Road, the deBono thinking "craze" appears to be on strong footing.

The term "lateral thinking," which de Bono originated, is already defined ("seeking to solve problems by unorthodox or apparently illogical methods") and enshrined in that exclusive arbiter of the language, the Oxford English Dictionary.

An ability to make lateral thinking shifts, which de Bono calls "universe changes," happens to be what makes inventors to open to fresh thoughts. "Noninventors will stay within the band of reason, while an inventor is able to move out to a totally unusable idea and then move back with a fresh solution," de Bono explains. He himself has invented everything from special glasses for night driving to a toy that can climb a wall, go across the ceiling, and come back down again.

"Once I asked some kids to invent a machine for going over rough ground and one kid came up with the following machine . . ." De Bono runs out of doodling room on his napkin and excuses himself as he tears a page from my note pad. "Out of this nozzle here came something called 'smoothstuff' and it was sucked up the back. Now a normal engineer would say that's daft, but an inventor would say that's an interesting concept and wonder, 'How can I make smoothstuff?' The key ability of inventors is to sit with an unformed, ambiguous, amorphous idea and move with it, not retreat from it." De Bono once asked children from ages 4 to 14 to invent a dog- exercising machine, and he published the hilarious but imaginative results -- ranging from using decoy cats and lightning to holding the dog in a stationary position and attaching strings to each leg -- in a book simply titled "The Dog-Exercising Machine."

"I do a great deal of work with young children, and if you give a child a problem, he may come up with a highly original solution, because he doesn't have the established route to it. But if you go and say to that child, that's very interesting, what about another approach, he would say, 'No, no, that's the only one.' So he's original but also rigid.

"Let's take a painter. A painter may be looking at the world in a way which is very different from everyone else. If he's a craftsman, he can get other people to see the world through his eyes and so he enlarges our vision, perception, and there's great value in that. But that painter may in fact be totally rigid in his perception because he is unable to see the world any other way."

Three years ago de Bono wrote: "Perception involves the way we look at the world, the way we separate it into parts, the way we prepare what we are going to feed into the computer. Without the ability to change perceptions we would forever remain locked into the old perceptions until the weight of experience forced us to change them. This would take a very long time, because we would only acquire that experience through looking at the world in the old way -- and hence tending to leave out the evidence we did not like."

By de Bono's own estimate, 30 percent of the high schools in Britain now use his thinking courses in their curricula, as do some 6,000 other schools in Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel. He has just completed a 13-part BBC television series, "The Greatest Thinkers," financed by IBM and Encyclopaedia Britannica, scheduled to air this fall. It will be followed by a 10-part series entitled "Dr. de Bono's Course on Thinking."

His books have been translated into 18 languages and have appeared on best-seller lists through out the world.One book, "New Think," sold 400,000 hard-cover copies in Japan alone. That is more copies per capita than "Love Story's" sales in the United States.

Were one to concoct de Bono's counterpart in North America, it would probably be a hybrid of Marshall McLuhan, Vance Packard, and McDonald's kingpin Ray Kroc. De Bono is never timid when it comes to marketing his books and courses, which has led some to criticize the operation of this prophet-entrepreneur as the "McDonald's of thinking."

Yet, he offers impressive credentials to back up his sales pitch. De Bono, born in Malta and educated in England, earned doctorates from Cambridge and Oxford. He has held faculty appointments at both of these universities, as well as at Harvard and the University of London. He is the founder and director of CoRT, and runs the Center for the Study of Thinking Skills, an organization that claims to have the largest program in the world for the direct teaching of thinking.

Unfortunately, very little effective thinking goes on in the world, due to a few mistaken notions, he says. "Thinking has a bad image. To many people, thinking is just sitting in the corner and is the opposite of action. Remember what Hamlet said: 'Sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought.' He was talking of the guy who thinks rather than acts.

"Most people believe that thinking is like breathing and it's so natural that it can't be learned. But to me thinking is a skill, a tool, like reading and writing. You should get the same enjoyment from thinking as from skiing or anything else. Just the exercise of it. It isn't simply a matter of reaching a destination, of getting the answer.And teaching thinking is not brainwashing. It's a neutral tool, like putting on spectacles that make your vision clearer and broader.

"Education is obsessed with information that is easy to teach and test. The idea that education doesn't teach thinking is too horrifying for most people to consider."

Frequently, de Bono says, cleverness is often confused with wisdom. Most people dangerously assume that a high IQ automatically translates into creative thinking. Not so, he says. De Bono relates IQ and thinking skill to the horsepower of a car and the car's driver. "It is certainly possible to drive a powerful car badly. Indeed, it takes more skill to handle a more powerful car. You may also have a rather humble car with a driver who knows how to get the best out of it."

Research at the Center for the Study of Thinking has shown that highly intelligent individuals frequently derail into a ditch because of their own cleverness. De Bono calls it the "intelligence trap." It grows out of the cultural premium placed on "being right." The tendency is to make instant judgments and then use our thinking skills to rationalize that evaluation. "Status and personal esteem is built up around 'cleverness,'" de Bono claims, "so they [people with high IQs] use this cleverness to protect themselves rather than to think objectively about a situation. They cannot bear to be wrong. A clever person is able to take up a position on a subject and then skillfully to defend that position. The more able his defense the less will he ever see a need to alter that position."

De Bono traces the rigidity in Western thinking and orthodox education back to the Middle Ages, when the church was the seat of learning. The church's intellectual needs were to defend its established theology against heretics. "For four centuries," de Bono says, washing down the last of his sweet roll, "the educational system, the schools, seminaries, and universities were controlled by the church and thinking was designed to preserve a particular theology, by destroying any attempt to alter it. It's really nonsensical, but it has dominated our thinking ever since." Like a closed mathematical system that may be internally consistent but based on the false assumption that 2 plus 2 equals 5, it is impossible to reason one's way to the truth without questioning the basic error at the system's foundation.

"There is a heavy emphasis on criticism," says de Bono of Western thinking as an outgrowth of the disputations of medieval monks. "If you prove the other fellow wrong, this somehow means that you are right. As a result, it is better to be safe than to be constructive, because you expose yourself less. Politicians spend their time attacking each other in preference to government. The best brains are entrapped with this idiom of criticism and may never escape it to become constructive. . . .

"The Western habit of truth serves certain assurances and dogmaticism but makes it very difficult to change. On the other hand, the Eastern concept of truth is that nothing is true, all is illusion, all is temporary. That is too weak because I can't work with it. . . .

"I mention in my latest book, 'Future Positive,' that institutions provide right-answer systems which have a certain utility but inevitably evolve to the state where they fossilize and draw in all the talent around and sterilize it. You see it in universities, in foundations, everywhere. This is the logic of organization. It's not malice. So many religions have a utility period but eventually fossilize, which is why religions have to be practical, not just contemplative states of mind."

Who are the great thinkers in his new television series whose ideas have not fossilized over the ages?

"The first I've chosen is Moses, for the ideas of laws and regulations," he says. "Then Aristotle, and then Jesus, who said if we define a particular type of universe, which is the kingdom of God, then the value system of that universe is different from the value systems of other universes. In Machiavelli, I look at pragmatism, realism, and politics; then Columbus, for enterprise, adventure, moving ahead of information; then Descartes, analysis; and Rousseau for small is beautiful. Then Nietzsche, create your own destiny, man and superman; then Marx and economics, Pavlov and behaviorism, Freud and the subconscious, and last Norbert Wiener and cybernetics. Oh yes, I forgot Clausewitz, the German philosopher of war, operational thinking and management systems."

De Bono has studied the thought processes of three-year- olds and Nobel laureates. He has taught thinking to children in the jungles of Central America and to senior government employees in Papua. He was called in by Australia's Liberal Party to advise it on a ticklish leadership issue and once he aided a major Swedish steel company with its long-term planning. Sir Terence Beckett, now director general of the Confederation of British Industry, testifies that when he was chairman of Ford (U.K.), de Bono's "CoRT thinking" was used in the development of the Ford Cortina, the best-selling and most profitable car in Britain.

De Bono recently made headlines when one of his overseas disciples, Luis Alberto Machado, a Venezuelan philosopher, was appointed as Venezuela's first minister of state for the development of human intelligence. Machado believes there is no reason a country can't train for and win Nobel prizes the way nations win Olympic gold medals. As part of his crusade to revamp VEnezuela's backward educational system and to upgrade intelligence by teaching creative thinking, Machado ordered his office to translate de Bono's thinking courses into Spanish. He then invited de Bono and his staff to Caracas to initiate a training program for the armed forces, various government departments, and the nation's 42,000 schoolteachers. Machado now boasts that "Venezuala will someday to be known for its intelligence instead of its oil."

Brazil, Chile, China, Peru, and Bulgaria have been monitoring the Venezuelan experiment, says de Bono, who believes the third world is at least a decade ahead of the industrialized nations in tapping the "ultimate resource," thinking. He believes that what countries like the US need is a crash program on thinking on the order of America's man- on-the-moon program. He recently established the Edward de Bono School of Thinking in New York, and has trained instructors in Boston; Denver; Atlanta; Washington; Los Angeles; and Santa Barbara, Calif. De Bono firmly believes that "the quality of our future depends on the quality of our thinking." He is an optimist who shirks off conspiracy theories and doomsday forecasts. The only limitations we face are what he calls "logic-bubbles." Our troubles come from trying to exercise our high degree of intelligence within bubbles of our own limited perception, he says.

How can the world collectively prick these time-honored logic-bubbles? De Bono's newest proposal is the establishment of a World Center for the Study of Thinking, a politically neutral "intellectual Red Cross." It would train teachers from around the world, conduct research (at the moment de Bono is inventing a "high-order language"), and organize symposiums to explore thinking on world problems such as economics, trade, and pollution. He estimates it would cost about $10 million to found such a center, "about half the cost of a single F-18 fighter."

Venezuela's Machado has been trying for years to get the US to sponsor a World Alliance for Intelligence among third- world Countries. The Carter administration turned him down and now he is pitching the idea to President Reagan.

Apparently prodded by the Venezuela experiment, the US Department of Education organized a meeting last October at the University of Pittsburgh and invited de Bono to speak to 70 leaders in the field of cognitive education. "It was very disappointing," de Bono says, "because they were all cognitive psychologists who all wanted to fiddle around with puzzles in their laboratories , a practice which is outdated and about as far as you can get from the real world of teaching thinking in the classroom."

The edge which the third world has on the US, according to de Bono, is a "willingness to make mistakes and a hunger for change." He recounts the myth of a magic tree in one of Venezuela's jungle areas: Venezuelans believe that anyone who finds this tree and eats its fruit will have all life's needs supplied. "At the end of one of our seminars in that part of the jungle," de Bono recalls, "teachers came up with tears streaming down their faces and said, 'You have given us hold on our destiny. Thism is the magic fruit.'"

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.