Friday, November 22, 2013

The Eureka Feeling

There is no Eureka Moment.  The lore of the prolific inventor is festooned with tales of inventors running down the hall yelling "eureka" -- and maybe some do.  It is also true -- contrary to a lot of the literature -- that prolific inventors often feel that the solution to a problem comes to them in nearly complete form, in a moment (for nearly all of my inventions, the core breakthrough was simply there, in full form, in a flash).  The lore of the Eureka Moment, however, is false and far worse, it is enormously destructive to the idea that we are all born creative, and innovation is in each of us just waiting to be unleashed.

The reason there is no Eureka Moment is that innovation is the result of a lot of thought.  Time Magazine's recent article recognizes that, but incorrectly conflates thought with an enormous amount of work, stating that "While that kind of comet strike makes for nice tale-telling [about the Eureka Moment] ... invention is just as often the result of mere doggedness, even cussedness, grinding away at a problem until it finally yields."  

Time Magazine is confusing the experimental work of reducing an invention to practice with the less understood work of developing the basic inventive concept.  Time's example is revealing:  "Jonas Salk invented the first successful polio vaccine, and you can follow exactly how he did it, step by step, experiment by experiment and year by year, in the 573 file boxes—spanning 316 linear ft. (96 m) and containing tens of thousands of documents—that make up his collection of personal papers at the University of California at San Diego. That ain’t inspiration. That’s sweat."  To be clear:  If Jonas Salk had been in an accident prior to the completion of the polio vaccine, his invention would have nonetheless been completed because the basic concepts underlying it were capable of being carried out by anybody with basic skill in the field.  By contrast, if Salk had never been born, it is unclear when the invention would have been made, because that tiny silver of innovation -- the basic concept of a vaccine against a virus -- was an innovation outside the regular skill set of those trained in the field of disease control.

Inventing a solution is not something that takes a lot of conscious thought.  Testing, proving, and reducing the solution to practice, however, can take decades.

Innovation does not -- indeed cannot -- take a lot of conscious thought because our conscious brains are really bad at crunching huge amounts of data on demand.  As an example, have a friend name twenty objects, and then try to recite them back.  Most people can recite only seven or so.  Try to do a complex math problem without using paper or a computer, and you'll discover more limits of our processing power.

The key to innovation is not the conscious brain at all -- it is our ability to process extraordinarily complex problems in our subconscious, our ability to match patterns, and our ability to feel emotions.

To illustrate the role of the subconscious, sit in a beautiful grassy field and try to imagine how long it would take you to count all of the pieces of grass.  Human visual acuity is quite good, so we should be able to see well enough to count the amount of grass in one area of the field and then count the number of similar areas in the field, thereby arriving at a roughly accurate grass count. That task would take hours, however.  Now imagine that a small bird lands in a distant corner of the field.  You weren't concentrating on looking for birds at all -- you were counting grass.  Nonetheless, something in your brain brain immediately grabs your attention and says "something is moving over there".  You immediately identify it as a bird and can go back to counting grass.

Out of that enormous visual field, your subconscious easily spotted movement in a tiny corner.  Because movement indicates a potential risk or benefit, it sent a signal to your conscious brain, which immediately imaged the bird.  Because we are so good at matching patterns, it took only a tiny bit of conscious thought to put together the subconscious movement data and matching data and determine that there was no threat.

Innovation is analogous to movement spotted in the corner of your vision.  We each identify problems and solutions all of the time.  Problems are rarely seen side by side with their solutions, however, so the crucial step in innovation is to identify potential problems and potential solutions all of the time, and file them away in the subconscious so that when we spot a problem that matches a solution we identified earlier (or a solution that matches an earlier problem), our subconscious matches them up.  We don't have to worry about how they will be matched up, as we evolved brains that are excellent at pattern matching (I'd imagine humans would be extinct if we hadn't been able to easily match what we sense with known foods and threats).

Most of us live busy, distracted lives.  We have lost touch with our feelings.  This is perhaps the biggest problem for innovation, because our subconscious needs a way to signal us that it has matched a problem and a solution.  In my research for my book, I have conducted many interviews with innovators, and the moment that they get their critical breakthrough is associated with a variety of feelings.  I have heard it described as a warm tingle in the heart, as similar to the fight-or-flight response, as a feeling of euphoria, as a feeling that the innovation is a bit displaced from her body, as goosebumps, as hair standing up on the arm, and in many other ways.  In each case, however, the feeling seems consistent across inventions for a given person.  My personal signal is that I abruptly lose my train of thought.

Learn to listen for your signal, because what we have incorrectly identified as a single "Eureka Moment" is actually the subconscious reporting back on tasks it has been working on.  It sends us a Eureka Feeling.  If we train ourselves to stop and think when we get the Eureka Feeling, innovation becomes easy -- something our subconscious just takes care of for us.

Critically, Time Magazine does the world a disservice by stating that "[i]f inventiveness is not a universally shared skill -- and like it or not, it isn't...."  I strongly disagree.  I have worked with many children over the years, and have yet to come across a child who is not more creative than even the most prolific adult inventor.  Inventiveness is a universally shared capability, but too often it becomes buried under years of learned, inaccurate, and stifling rules.  As the great poet Robert Plant once said, "there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there's still time to change the road you're on."  As adults we are all well down the path of rules, limitations and impossibilities -- but the wide open creative horizons of childhood are a quick walk down the road.

Everybody's journey to creativity is a bit different, but there are five easy tips you might consider in light of the emotional and subconscious aspects of innovation:

1. Do not simply accept things that annoy you.  Instead of saying "that sucks", telling yourself "this is a problem I will solve."  This does not mean that you should allow the problem to eat you up on the inside, but it does mean that your attitude needs to be sufficiently empowered to believe that no problem is beyond your reach.  I sometimes call this "embracing your inner Larry David".
2. Observe the world around you and gather information; seek out information about things you are interested in.
3. Pay attention to the connections you notice between things.
4. When you feel you have a breakthrough, pay attention to how it feels.  Learn to listen for that feeling.
5. Adopt an inner narrative of creative solutions:  "I will solve this", "I can fix this", "this is only annoying until I invent something better", etc.

Remember that creativity is in you, and it is easy to set free.

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