Everyone recognizes the importance of creative breakthroughs, but it continues to be a misunderstood phenomenon. Our need for creativity and insight also means a profusion of perpetrators promising easy solutions, and plenty of misconceptions.
How do we increase the likelihood of insights? What can we do, or stop doing, to get better at it? What does research point to?
Understanding insight and breakthroughs
Creativity and insight are key aspects of effective leadership, or any domain for that matter. For example:
- Can you see what others fail to see?
- Do you come up with new angles your team didn’t think of?
- Can you connect the dots in a new way?
To use the cliched phrase, can you think “outside the box”?
Insights and epiphanies are the moment when everything just “clicks” together, and we suddenly see the solution that’s been staring at us all along. Now that we’ve “seen” it, the world looks very different.
The very nature of insight means we cannot go about it formulaically, although that’s what some folks will try to sell you. What helps is to understand overarching patterns.
The process might not be repeatable, but knowing what's entailed increases the likelihood of staying with it, instead of getting frustrated and quitting prematurely. Knowing that hitting a wall is part of the game somehow helps.
To understand the nature of insight, I've used a couple of sources — one dated, while the other is more recent and backed by research. I like the dated source because of its simplicity. Research in the ensuing years has more or less confirmed these ideas.
Elements of breakthroughs and insights
An especially articulate and useful description of the process of insight that I’ve come across is of Bernard Lonergan. He outlined 5 properties of insight that are useful to keep in mind.
What we have to grasp is that insight (1) comes as a release to the tension of inquiry, (2) comes suddenly and unexpectedly, (3) is a function not of outer circumstances but of inner conditions, (4) pivots between the concrete and the abstract, and (5) passes into the habitual texture of one's mind.
As an example, he cites the story of Archimedes shouting "Eureka”, running out of the baths of Syracuse when he had a sudden insight into the principles of displacement and specific gravity.
Archimedes’ story raises several questions:
- Did he just get plain lucky?
- Why did he have the insight at that point in time and not before that?
- Why is that only he had the insight that day, and not others who were doing the same actions?
1. Insight as a release to the tension of inquiry
For if the typical scientist's satisfaction in success is more sedate, his earnestness in inquiry can still exceed that of Archimedes.
Deep within us all, emergent when the noise of other appetites is stilled, there is a drive to know, to understand, to see why, to discover the reason, to find the cause, to explain.
…It can absorb a man. It can keep him for hours, day after day, year after year, in the narrow prison of his study or his laboratory. It can send him on dangerous voyages of exploration. It can withdraw him from other interests, other pursuits, other pleasures, other achievements. It can fill his waking thoughts, hide from him the world of ordinary affairs, invade the very fabric of his dreams. It can demand endless sacrifices that are made without regret though there is only the hope, never a certain promise, of success.
What better symbol could one find for this obscure, exigent, imperious drive, than a man, naked, running, excitedly crying, 'I've got it'?
Because insight usually happens in a relaxed state of mind, the notion gets pushed that you need to be in that state of mind to be more "creative". This idea shows up in “brainstorming" sessions that start by trying to put everyone in a "playful" state of mind. Another example is the use of colorful stickies all over the board.
But this is missing the point. Relaxation here is relative — breakthroughs happen at the point of relaxation simply because of the amount of tension, anxiety, and back and forth, that happened leading up to that point in time.
Without the tension that preceded it, relaxation wouldn’t have yielded the results. Thus, striving and struggling is not necessarily a problem, but rather an integral part of the process. Relaxation, while critical, is only one part of an overall process of tension and release.
The other obvious but forgotten point, is the desire and motivation to solve the problem in the first place. It’s our drive and curiosity that makes us look for answers. Tension is invariable, and not a bug but a feature. It’s the discomfort of not knowing that spurs us into action.
Creative breakthroughs happen during relaxation, but striving and struggling are an equally important aspect of getting there. The striving is what ultimately leads to the relaxed peak performance.
2. Insight comes suddenly and unexpectedly
It did not occur when Archimedes was in the mood and posture that a sculptor would select to portray 'The Thinker.' It came in a flash, on a trivial occasion, in a moment of relaxation.
...it is reached, in the last analysis, not by learning rules, not by following precepts, not by studying any methodology. Discovery is a new beginning. It is the origin of new rules that supplement or even supplant the old.
Genius is creative. It is genius precisely because it disregards established routines, because it originates the novelties that will be the routines of the future. Were there rules for discovery, then discoveries would be mere conclusions. Were there precepts for genius, then men of genius would be hacks.
This is the one property of insight we are all familiar with, and our language captures it well: "flash" of insight, "hit" by an epiphany, "it came to me", and so on.
The unpredictable and sudden nature creates misconceptions and hucksters:
- That it can happen to anyone. This notion perpetrates the idea that anyone can be an Einstein. Yet, what’s required is the years of dedicated attention to solving singular issues. The timing might be out of the blue, except who it happens to, is certainly NOT out of the blue.
- Because it's unpredictable, we want "hacks" to make it repeatable. This leads to experts promising us processes and steps that supposedly remove the randomness, and the ability to "manufacture" creativity at will.
- That somehow creativity and insight are extraordinary, instead of an emergent process rising out of everyday engagement with the ordinary. This leads to organizations trying to "inject" creativity, instead of something we already are and do.
3. Insight is a function of inner conditions, not external circumstances
The day Archimedes was taking a bath, there were many others doing the exact same actions in the same conditions. But it was only he who got the insight. Lonergan gives the distinction of insight vs. sensation. The same set of people having the same set of sensations doesn’t mean the same insights.
This is an especially critical one in light of what modern organizations do to “increase” creativity in teams. Internal conditions are way more important than externalities imposed from the outside. It's why factors that help with intrinsic motivation are more crucial.
Many frequented the baths of Syracuse without coining to grasp the principles of hydrostatics. But who bathed there without feeling the water, or without finding it hot or cold or tepid? There is, then, a strange difference between insight and sensation.
The occurrence and the content of sensation stand in some immediate correlation with outer circumstance. But with insight internal conditions are paramount. Thus, insight depends upon native endowment, and so with fair accuracy one can say that insight is the act that occurs frequently in the intelligent and rarely in the stupid. Again, insight depends upon a habitual orientation, upon a perpetual alertness ever asking the little question, Why?
Thus, external tools and environments don’t matter as much. Yes, they are a key component, but not as causal as we want to think.
When we hear of an extraordinary achievement, we focus on the external things that enabled it. We ask for the tools that helped — the right software, or the right shoes, and so on. It's because compared to internal conditions, external factors are easier to acquire and replicate.
But that's probably the last five percent of what produced the result. What gets missed, and what's mostly invisible, is the internal conditions that led to the insight.
Lonergan also highlights how problem-setting and problem-finding are crucial to problem-solving:
Finally, insight depends on the accurate presentation of definite problems. Had Hiero not put his problem to Archimedes, had Archimedes not thought earnestly, perhaps desperately, upon it, the baths of Syracuse would have been no more famous than any others.
Most of us focus on problem-solving. What separates the true genius is their ability to find the right problems and how they define it.
4. Insight pivots between the concrete and abstract
Archimedes' problem was concrete. He had to settle whether a particular crown was made of pure gold. Archimedes' solution was concrete. It was to weigh the crown in water.
Yet if we ask what was the point to that procedure, we have to have recourse to the abstract formulations of the principles of displacement and of specific gravity. Without that point, weighing the crown in water would be mere eccentricity. Once the point is grasped, King Hiero and his golden crown become minor historical details of no scientific importance.
Again the story dramatizes a universal aspect of insight. For if insights arise from concrete problems, if they reveal their value in concrete applications, nonetheless they possess a significance greater than their origins and a relevance wider than their original applications.
While the realization and breakthrough we get might be abstract, it often comes from grappling with the concrete.
This also explains why wisdom and insight are not transferable, especially those that are outside scientific formulations. What might be a profound insight for someone, looks simplistic to me because I haven’t gone through the confusion and tension required to get to the point of profound simplicity.
5. Insight becomes habitual and mundane
Genuine learning and insight are not easy, but fortunately they are sticky — just like learning a bike, once you get it, you’ve got it forever. This makes them well worth the trouble.
Once one has understood, one has crossed a divide. What a moment ago was an insoluble problem now becomes incredibly simple and obvious. Moreover, it tends to remain simple and obvious. However laborious the first occurrence of an insight may be, subsequent repetitions occur almost at will.
…the process of learning is marked by an initial period of darkness in which one gropes about insecurely, in which one cannot see where one is going, in which one cannot grasp what all the fuss is about; and only gradually, as one begins to catch on, does the initial darkness yield to a subsequent period of increasing light, confidence, interest, absorption.
…Imperceptibly we shift from the helpless infancy of the beginner to the modest self-confidence of the advanced student. Eventually we become capable of taking over the teacher's role and complaining of the remarkable obtuseness of pupils that fail to see what, of course, is perfectly simple and obvious to those that understand.
There is also an obvious point here — real learning, by definition, is supposed to be hard, and difficult at first. If there is no struggle, we are not learning.
How to get better at insight
Lonergan's formulation dates back to 1957. In the ensuing years, the fields of creativity and innovation have been extensively researched and studied. His observations have withstood the test of time.
Below are findings from a research paper co-authored by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — one of the founders of Positive Psychology, and who was also one of the foremost researchers on creativity.
Csikszentmihalyi and Sawyer characterize insight as:
Insight is part of an extended mental process. It is based on a previous period of conscious preparation, requires a period of incubation during which information is processed in parallel at a subconscious level, and is followed by a period of conscious evaluation and elaboration.
The length of this process depends on whether the insight is embedded in a presented problem-solving process or in a discovered problem-finding process. Problem solving may cycle in a period as short as a few hours, whereas problem finding may take a year or more.
At every stage, the process that comes before and after the insight is heavily dependent on social interaction. This takes the form, of face-to-face encounters and of immersion in the symbolic system of one or more domains.
Problem-finding insights are characterized by the synthesis of information derived from more than one symbolic domain.
It's worth noting that they emphasize stages, it's an extended process, problem-finding takes longer, social interaction is critical, and that it involves multiple domains.
Prerequisites for insight
Based on their research, the authors identify a list of prerequisites that must be met for insight to happen. It busts many of the myths that we identified earlier.
(1) thorough knowledge of one or more symbolic domains;
(2) thorough immersion in a field that practices the domain;
(3) focus of attention on a problematic area of the domain;
(4) ability to internalize information relevant to the problematic area;
(5) ability to let the relevant information interact with information from other domains at a subconscious level where parallel processing takes place;
(6) ability to recognize a new configuration emerging from this interaction that helps resolve the problematic situation; and
(7) evaluation and elaboration of the insight in ways that arc understandable and valuable to the field.
What prevents insight
Just as important as prerequisites, is to identify and avoid what prevents insight. Insight is unlikely to occur in the following situations:
The absence of a strong interest, curiosity, or intrinsic motivation that drives the person to commit attention to a problematic area in a domain. A person who is not intrinsically motivated has no incentive to push beyond generally accepted boundaries of knowledge.
The absence of a thorough grounding in at least one symbolic domain, presumably as apprentice to an expert, and not having experienced the colleagueship of other expert apprentices. Creative insights typically involve the integration of perspectives from more than one domain.
The absence of interaction with other individuals who are experts in the domain or in potentially relevant other domains. At every stage of the process, the stimulation and feedback of peers is necessary to select and evaluate potential insights.
A schedule in which a person is always busy, goal-directed, involved in conscious, rational problem-solving. Incubation is facilitated by periods of idling, leisure, and involvement in activities such as walking, gardening, driving (i.e., activities that require some attention but are automated enough to permit sub- conscious processes to work just below the threshold of awareness).
A person’s lack of the opportunity or inclination to test the insight and to develop its implications. A person must be particularly in touch with the field at the stage of evaluation and elaboration; otherwise, the insight is likely to have no effect beyond the individual.
Questions to consider
Given what we know now, here are some questions worth asking regularly:
- Do you have enough social interactions on the problems you face?
- How much time do you spend on problem-setting, instead of problem-solving?
- Do you have structured time for reflection in your daily routine, or do you see it as a waste of time?
- How can you increase depth in your domain?
- Do you have designed practices for reflection that you regularly engage in?
- What are some hidden mental models that might be preventing you from being more creative?
- Do you see creativity as innate? Or is it of creativity as an active decision you exercise?
- What are some other domains you can draw on?
- Do you have a dozen favorite problems like Richard Feynman did?
- Lonergan, B.J. 1992. Insight: An essay in human understanding. The collected works of Bernard Lonergan, Vol. 3, ed. F. Crowe and R. Doran.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Sawyer, K. (1995). Creative insight: The social dimension of a solitary moment. In R. J. Sternberg & J. E. Davidson (Eds.), The nature of insight (pp. 329–363).