Judging from all the stories I’ve heard about people having insights in the shower or during the groggy moments after waking up from a nap, I think offices would be well served to function more like spas than Tayloristic optimization machines. If a business requires innovation and creative breakthroughs, the spaces where work gets done should be designed to ease pressure and promote ease.
Imagination is a kind of force that moves through us. It’s unclear if this is a uniquely human gift. My dog sure does look like he dreams a lot, barking and snarling and shaking his legs with his eyes closed, seemingly asleep but for all the commotion. He also has a kind of ingenuity that implies that there is more to animal intelligence than meets the eye.
The nature of imagination and the creative insights that smuggle within its flow; is a mystery. Ideas seem to pop up out of the ether. Almost always, thoughts are utter nonsense. Sometimes, that needle pops out of the haystack, and an innocent idea has an “oh my God” quality to it.
Lots of noise. Little signal.
The good news is, we only need a tiny bit of signal to create breakthroughs and solve world-class problems, so long as we are paying attention.
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To understand the nature of these hidden gems, these insights, is to understand what might be the most important thing going for us as a species. We face all sorts of problems just waiting for creative solutions. Career problems. Business problems. Energy problems. Money problems. Social problems. Climate problems. Health problems. Oh yeah; political problems too. There are more than enough issues to go around. What we need are more profound insights about how to solve these problems.
Insights can be small. I can sit in my kitchen, staring at the fridge and wondering how I’m going create dinner out of cabbage, tofu and a random assortment of spices. Usually, after staring for a few minutes, I give up, shut the fridge, and an idea pops into my head for an edible meal. Yes, this is a small insight, but an insight nonetheless. I’ll take it!
Insights can be big. My wife and I deliberated for a long time about where to move as we wrapped up our career sabbatical (aka our “gap year”). Then, it hit us like the pleasant scent of fresh-baked cookies (less “bolt of lightning” than “oh, that’s nice”) …wherever we end up moving to, we can always change our minds later.
We had the insight that decisions are rarely (if ever) final. We stopped feeling like the choice was ominous, and the insight flowed right in. Just like that, we decided to move to Colorado. Three years later, we are super happy here.
Insights can be game-changing. Einstein’s theory of relatively coalesced after a thought struck him, seemingly out of the blue.
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Insights tend to show up, in spite of ourselves and our efforts. Sometimes we muster our willpower and force our way to a breakthrough. More often than not, it’s only through relaxation that we foster enough inner space to allow insights to bubble up. It’s why, so often, a solution shows up at the moment of giving up. Giving up, and it’s cousin “letting go,” are like deep breaths for the mind.
I’ve learned to give up a lot.
So the bazillion dollar question is, how can we live in a way that supports our natural and insightful capacity. I don’t have a sure-fire method for becoming an insight-generating machine. I’m not sure that it’s even possible. I do, however, know the qualities of personal environments (mental and physical) where insights seem to flourish. They are the calm environments where internal signals have a fighting chance of being heard through the noise.
Getting to this calm and settled-down state might require massive action (endurance exercise has a profound mind-clearing effect on me). At other times, settling down can as simple as rolling out a yoga mat or sitting in a meditative practice (note: I said simple, not easy, as neither yoga or meditation are what I would refer to as easy!). Spending time in nature seems to help too.
What’s the right method for you? That depends on the state of your body and mind at the moment. The best approach will differ day-to-day and person-to-person, but the goal is the same. Find more calm space within. Then, watch the insights bubble up, as they always do.