A Summary Biography of Edward de Bono
Edward Charles Francis Publius de Bono was born the second of four brothers on 19 May, 1933, in Valletta on the Mediterranean island of Malta. His father, a studious, thoughtful man, was Professor of Medicine at the University of Malta and had a large general practice; his mother, a forceful political campaigner, was credited with two other pioneers in securing votes for women on the island.
Edward found the ability to be provocative and thoughtful at the same time a useful genetic inheritance, but early on his parents were distant. When they didn’t want the boys to hear what they said, they would speak in Latin; meals were taken in the nursery. There were lessons in self-discipline from Nanny, and boarding school at seven. He learned self-reliance and detachment from an early age.
He was a quiet sort of boy, but had a vigorously curious frame of mind. Between 1940 and 1943 there were more than 8,000 German air raids on this strategically important island. Edward remembers a surprise benefit. As there were no new toys (because nothing could be imported), he began looking at his old toys and eventually at everything – on the dinner table, in the street, wherever he found himself – with an eye to alternative ideas for delivering better value. At school his design-thinking led him to map a route through the cellars of what is now the Cathedral Museum in Mdina, under the girls’ convent school and into the town, making keys to open the big iron gates. When the older boys wanted to go for a beer they had to come to him for map and keys.
Edward mastered the intellectual ethos with ease, but recognised the downside of this, namely that the quickest reward or gratification for a bright boy is to use his intelligence to prove someone else wrong. This so disturbed his equilibrium as a teenager that when the family came together around the dinner table and the intellectual arguments inevitably became polarised, he would tilt his chair perilously back on its hind legs and maintain absolute silence.
Edward was a prodigy. He went to University at 15 and qualified as a doctor at 21. A year later he went as a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford and by the time his first book, The Use of Lateral Thinking, was published in 1967, he was Assistant Director of Research in the Department of Investigative Medicine at the University of Cambridge.
His book was in tune with the liberating ethos of the late 1960s. While a generation was demonstrating against apartheid and censorship, Edward was bent on liberating the world from the judgmental and prejudicial thinking which lay at the heart of these, believing that the sort of thinking we employ will determine how we stand in relation to the world, and the kind of world we can bring into being.
Working in Medicine gave him an insight into how self-organising biological systems work. Approaching thinking from the same perspective made it clear to him what provocations to the self-organising system of the brain would make a difference to our thinking. It was this that enabled him to design ‘lateral thinking’. He first used the phrase in an interview with London Life in 1966. Soon afterwards, The Oxford English Dictionary included a definition for the first time, citing the magazine.
By 1972 he had published five more books, among them The Mechanism of Mind (1969), in which he developed the model of the brain on which all his thinking-skills programmes are based, a model further clarified in I Am Right; You Are Wrong (1990) and in Water Logic (1993).
Forty years before psychiatric clinical work on the structure of the brain reached the same conclusion, Edward, using his metaphorical model, characterised the two fundamentally different kinds of thinking our brains can do
He gives us, on the one hand, creative thinking, and on the other, linear processing – analytical-thinking, category-thinking and judgemental-thinking. The latter may be logical, but self-referring, biased at least to the point of being selective of the possibilities it relies on its creative partner to supply, and typically resistant to any input that undermines the status quo, a situation that leads irresistibly to polarised argument and conflict. It was clear to Edward that the creative end of things needed addressing, and how unnatural it had become for most people actually to think ‘outside the box’.
In 1969 Edward founded the Cognitive Research Trust (CoRT), an educational enterprise offering a practical training in creative thinking skills – new software for the brain, useable by anyone, irrespective of IQ or knowledge base. By the time his BBC TV series – de Bono’s Thinking Course – was transmitted in 1981, it was being used in more than 5,000 schools in England, Scotland, Wales, Eire, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Spain, Malta and Nigeria. Through the 1980s it spread to Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Bulgaria, the Middle East, Canada, Mexico, USA, Venezuela, South Africa, Botswana, India, China, Russia, Japan and the Philippines.
In 1982, he finally left his job at Cambridge University and succumbed to the call from big business, launching the first International Conference on Thinking. In 1987 he formed the International Creative Forum, which, with such giants as IBM, Prudential, DuPont, Merck, Nestlé, British Airways and BAA, marshalled his work worldwide.
Meanwhile, Conflicts: A Better Way to Resolve Them developed his concept of parallel thinking, which took him into the political arena. ‘We have to stop bothering about who is right and who is wrong, and ask instead, what will make a difference.’ In 1985, as the Soviet Union took its first step away from conflict politics in Perestroika, his book attracted the Kremlin’s attention (he was called for an audience shortly after publication). In Israel, he met with Menachem Begin, and the Ministers of Science and Education, and travelled to Jordan to meet with the Palestinian education authorities. In 1989, he led the Seoul Symposium of eleven Nobel Laureates in Korea, discussing Third World debt, AIDS, world trade and economic development, education, unemployment, ecology and pollution, human values, world peace and arms spending. In 1998, leading up to the Good Friday Agreement, he met with David Trimble, Mary McAleese, Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley in Northern Ireland and trained a number of people in parallel thinking with funding from the EU.
Education and business picked up this methodology through Six Thinking Hats (also 1985), now his most popular book worldwide. Today, a global network going by the name of ‘de Bono Thinking Systems’ links over 300 certified trainers in 72 countries through 22 affiliate authorised distributors on six continents.
Lateral thinkers are more than a bit like Edward. They have the ability to be thoughtful and provocative at the same time, in the sense that they understand how to provoke the brain into creativity. They might be detached and self-possessed and like making things happen. They are always curious and inventive. They never accept that there is only one way a thing can be. They enjoy especially the punch line in humour and above all the ‘Eureka!’ moment of insight.
But unlike Edward, they are not all born to it.
Nor, thanks to his thinking tools, is there any need to be.
Piers Dudgeon, June 2019
author of Breaking Out of the Box
1994 Dr. Edward de Bono was awarded the Pioneer Prize at the International Conference on Thinking at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston).
1995 the ‘Order of Merit’ was conferred by the President of Malta.
2002 he was named by the Institute for Strategic Change among the top 50 living business gurus.
2003 Business People magazine named him as one of 20 visionaries who have the strongest influence on managers’ thinking.
2005 he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Economics.
2009 he was appointed an ambassador for the European Year of Creativity and Innovation.