EDWARD de Bono is undoubtedly the only Nobel nominee - he was shortlisted in 2005 - with clockwork teeth, wooden soldiers and plastic dinosaurs on his mantelpiece.
For more than a quarter of a century, the international authority on creative thinking has maintained William Gladstone's old apartment at Albany in London's Piccadilly, the most prestigious of digs for eccentric British bachelors since the 18th century (previous residents include Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley and Lord Byron). De Bono now resides in his birthplace of Malta for tax reasons, but may spend 90 days in London per year.
At 76, he has certainly aged, but his elegant voice, lucidity and narrow, evaluative gaze are unwavering. The curator of a private airplane-sock collection, de Bono is significantly more affable than his CV would suggest and "value sensitive" to even the most trivial information. He listens intently, dedicated to the task of understanding the world.
"And poor thinking will only continue to create problems - conflicts, wars, persecutions and so on. So we not only need better thinking to deal with climate change itself, but to solve international antagonisms and inequalities."
De Bono, who will deliver a keynote speech at the 2010 Happiness & Its Causes conference in Sydney next month, is dedicated to optimism. His positive-thinking bestsellers include The Happiness Purpose (1990), Handbook for the Positive Revolution (1991) and H+ (Plus): A New Religion? How to Live Your Life Positively Through Happiness, Help, Hope, Health (2007). He has always believed that our culture fails to place an appropriate value on happiness.
"Happiness is regarded as passivity - no action, no achievement. And that's very wrong. Happiness doesn't just happen; you have to work at it." An emphasis on happiness would not only change the nature of the corporate sphere for the better, he continues, but make it more profitable, too. "Happiness makes people get on better with each other and if you get on better with [others], you can ask people to do things without fear that they will get upset and offended and so on. It makes people communicate more easily ... it makes people work more easily with each other; it allows people to ride through difficult periods and situations more easily. Happiness is very effective in terms of productivity."
Rating his own level of happiness as "reasonable; not extreme-ecstatic", he acknowledges that it would be difficult, but not impossible, to introduce happiness as a consideration within the workplace. "I think it's important to emphasise happiness. An idea would be to have posters printed with the words, 'Why aren't you happier today?' Or: 'Be happy!' That sort of thing. Theoretically, the senior person should make it his or her job to introduce the happiness factor by discussing it, asking employees to nominate the happiest person on staff, and so on. You need someone to drive it."
De Bono has long alienated sectors of the academic community with views such as these and claims that philosophy "effectively sterilises" the mind. "Put it this way: We have done virtually nothing about thinking because we believed philosophy was doing it for us. Philosophy is concerned with language, analysis and so on, but not operational thinking - not with how you make a decision or generate ideas, not with how you explore a subject. To paraphrase philosopher William James's famous saying: You can describe something this way or that, but what matters in the end is cash value. By which he meant practical worth."
Practical worth remains de Bono's hallmark. More than a thousand accredited instructors teach his thinking systems to the corporate sphere, governments and other institutions. About 750,000 managers worldwide utilise his work and his methods have been adopted by AT&T, Avon, Compaq, DuPont, Eli Lilly, Estée Lauder, Federal Express, Hallmark, JP Morgan, McDonald's, Merrill Lynch, Microsoft, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, Prudential Insurance, Siemens, the US Army Communications-Electronics Command and the US Marine Corps, The New York Times and scores of other organisations and multinational companies.
Importantly, his methods have been shown to transform performance, innovation and productivity. Ron D. Barbaro, former president of US insurance giant Prudential, noted that it was through de Bono's "brilliant" concepts that the insurance industry was revolutionised by "living needs" policies that allowed people to benefit from life insurance while still alive. The British government also found that teaching the unemployed about thinking for just six hours increased their employability by 500 per cent.
Billionaires regularly thank him for changing their lives. Richard Branson is a long-time fan, as are three Nobel laureates. In 2009, Donald Trump also celebrated de Bono's work, stating that as a businessman, he understood the significance of the lateral approach. "It can move things forward with a co-ordination of focus that can save a lot of time and money for everyone," he noted, calling de Bono's Six Thinking Hats "a terrific guide to precise thinking - thinking without confusion and thinking that provides results".
De Bono has little time for intimate friendships. In many respects, he belongs more to the world than to himself. His peripatetic lifestyle alone would seem to preclude intimacy of any description. He freely admits emotional unfamiliarity with his sons, Caspar and Charlie, a Harrow-educated member of The Financial Times board and an Eton-educated architect respectively. De Bono separated from their mother 20 years before their 2005 divorce (he was forced to sell his four islands to subsidise the split, but still owns a Loire Valley chateau). Other than his ex-wife and despite appearances with a series of cultivated blondes, de Bono has never publicly aligned himself with a woman. "Am I a doting grandfather?" He pauses. "I'm a … something grandfather, yes." The fact that de Bono remains unperturbed by this lack betrays an emotionally austere childhood, and his passions for play, toys and bad jokes speak of the same deprivation.
BORN to a Maltese professor of medicine and sixth-generation physician, Joseph de Bono, and his "cheeky" British journalist wife Josephine (nee O'Byrne) on May 19 in 1933, Edward Francis Charles Publius de Bono was the second of four sons. Enrolled in boarding school at the age of seven, he was not close to either parent; the only affection he remembers was shown by his sturdy, uncomplaining English nanny.
As de Bono twice jumped years, he was always three years younger than his St Edward's College schoolmates. The only boy to have his own chemistry laboratory key, de Bono was soon given the nickname "Genius" and left at the age of 15 to study medicine. From the University of Malta (which now hosts de Bono's Institute for the Design and Development of Thinking), he won a place at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, was made junior lecturer in medicine at the age of 27, became assistant director of research at Cambridge University's Department of Investigative Medicine, and then graduated to increasingly senior posts until, at the age of 33, he made the faculty at Harvard. As a result, de Bono now has a constellation of degrees: BSc, MD, MA, D Phil, Ph D, DDes, LLD.
His interest in thinking was triggered by his research into self-organising systems such as the glands, heart, respiration and circulation. "I was investigating complex interactive systems," he explains, "and from that, developed ideas on self-organising systems, and a way of looking at them, and I applied that to neural networks in the brain, and I thought: Well, if the brain works like that, what's it good at? It's good at forming patterns. Patterns are asymmetric, and that led to the idea of lateral thinking."
The term - now listed in the Oxford English Dictionary - encompassed revolution at a time when revolution was celebrated, and de Bono became a superstar.
Now part of the intellectual firmament (literally: planet DE73 was named for him by the International Astronomical Union in recognition of his contribution to humanity), de Bono wants thinking to be taught as a formal subject. "It has been shown that the teaching of thinking increases performance in every subject by 30 to 100 per cent. This cannot be ignored. People need to write to education ministers and ask - or demand - that thinking be taught in schools."
Millions of students and thousands of schools around the world are now taught his methods. De Bono's first book, The Mechanism of Mind (1969) - described by Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann as a decade ahead of mathematicians in its grasp of chaos theory, non-linear and self-organising systems - triggered this educational coup d'etat. De Bono's CoRT (Cognitive Research Trust) program is part of the curriculum in every Venezuelan school, and his thinking systems are selectively taught in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, India and Canada. China recently consulted him on education and is trialling his methods. If that succeeds, thinking will be on the curriculum in four million Chinese schools. There is also increasing acceptance of his work in Britain, Ireland, Italy, Malta and the US.
Possibility, de Bono holds, is essential for perceptual thinking. "Possibility is also essential for creative thinking, design thinking and," he adds, "exploratory thinking."
De Bono believes education holds the greatest potential for global peace. "If people were better thinkers, the world would be a better place. For example, when very young children are given computers, they develop the habit of searching for the answer they need. They no longer have to think - they just search for the answer." He cocks his head slightly. "Now, while the ability to search is important, the ability to think is also important. The excellence of our computers lets corporations feed all the necessary data into a computer. The computer analyses the data and this analysis forms the basis for all decisions and strategy. This is very, very dangerous. Because unless you make the effort to look at the data in different ways, you stagnate. This happens to many major corporations. There is a mathematical need for provocation in any self-organising system, otherwise the system gets stuck in a local equilibrium."
Inspired by Descartes, de Bono has come up with his own slogan: Ago, ergo erigo ("I act, therefore I construct"). The CoRT program, Six Value Medals, Six Action Shoes and Six Thinking Hats all stand as evidence of de Bono's core investment in the principle, one that has changed the global landscape. In the same spirit, he tried to set up a New Thinking Group at the United Nations but found it was like "dancing in treacle". In its place, he established the World Academy of New Thinking™ (WANT), an organisation involving several Nobel laureates. He says its concerns are thinking in relation to "conflict resolution, problem solving, economic development, education, health and so on". In Australia, the philanthropic Andrews Foundation bankrolled Melbourne's expansive $8.5 million De Bono Institute.
"Somewhere, somehow" de Bono is going to abandon Albany for a "magnificent Palace of Thinking". Unsure as to whether he will subsidise its construction or whether "a particular country or individual will make it happen", he is determined to finally anchor his dreams. Palace functions would include generating, collecting and publishing ideas, teaching methods of deliberate creative thinking and, critically, symbolising the significance of creative thinking.
"But there is no point in having a back office on the eleventh floor of a skyscraper," he smiles. "The world needs to have an iconic and beautiful building to give thinking the importance and dignity it merits."
Edward de Bono will speak at the May 5-6 Happiness & Its Causes conference at the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre.