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Where Do Ideas Come From?

A photograph of a dictionary page defining the term 'idea'

Image Credit: Microsoft Clip Art

This post is inspired by the first chapter of Scott Berkun’s book The Myths of Innovation. Why not get yourself a copy and join in the discussion?

We all love stories of how ideas started – about that great moment when the solution to a problem just popped into existence as if a lightbulb had turned on above someone’s head.

But, as Scott Berkun brings out in his first chapter, entitled ‘The Myth of Epiphany’, stories of innovation are often either:

  • Over-simplifications of events (such as in the case of Archimedes and his ‘eureka’ moment) or
  • Fabrications created to sensationalize the event (as happened with Newton and the apple).

Yet we crave the romanticized stories of how these epiphanies came about, believing that ideas are all about being in the right place at the right time.

Well, prepare to have your bubble burst.

The Reality of Epiphanies

Epiphanies don’t just happen to a random passerby who knows little or nothing about the subject in question. Epiphanies come to people who have an in-depth knowledge of their subject. Often they’ve studied their subject for years before they happen upon their great ‘ah ha’ moment.

Why?

Berkun uses the illustration of a jigsaw puzzle and the elation of putting in the last piece.

The last piece of the puzzle is no more special than any other piece of the puzzle. You don’t know which one it will be until the very end. It’s special because of all the pieces that have gone before it.

As Berkun says:

Epiphany works the same way: it’s not the apple or the magic moment that matters much, it’s the work before and after.

There are two causes for the elation felt at the moment of epiphany:

  • The hours of work that went before, and
  • The surprise of ‘reaching the summit’.

When working on a jigsaw, we can see our progress. We know how many pieces are left before we finish – and we know for sure when we only have one more piece to go. However, when dealing with epiphanies, we usually don’t know when we’re holding the metaphorical last piece until the moment it clicks into place. It’s like we’ve been scaling a mountain and the clouds suddenly pull back to reveal the summit.

But you cannot reach the summit if you haven’t been scaling the mountain in the first place.

The Difference Between Epiphanies and Ideas

Before we go on further to learn where ideas come from, I would like to diverge on a personal tangent for a minute to define some terms.

When we refer to an epiphany, we think of the ultimate, life changing ‘ah ha’ moment which neatly provides the all encompassing solution to our problem (as happens at the end of every detective television show, right?). It’s followed by a snap of the fingers, a squeal of excitement and/or a dash down the streets of the city in your birthday suit screaming ‘I have found it!’

Ideas, on the other hand, come in many shapes and forms. While you could describe all epiphanies as ideas, not all ideas are epiphanies. Many of them are simple, small and may only fix part of a problem. However, you’re guaranteed to have far more small ideas than epiphanies in your lifetime.

Berkun makes a good point under the heading ‘Ideas never stand alone’ when he says:

Any seemingly grand idea can be divided into an infinite series of smaller, previously known ideas.

Where do these ideas come from? And how does an epiphany come about?

So, Where Do Ideas Come From?

Drawing from my own experience, and from consideration of Berkun’s first chapter, here is my summary of how ideas (and occasional epiphanies) actually come about.

Step 1: Understand Your Subject (also known as Hard Work)

First of all you need to immerse yourself in your subject. Learn everything you can about it. See what other people have tried (their successes and failures). Learn about their ‘previously known’ ideas.

To truly provide a useful ‘innovation’ (defined by Berkun as ‘significant positive change’) you have to first understand what needs to be changed.

Step 2: Get Creative With Your Subject

Conduct experiments to learn more, specifically in areas other people may not have branched into before.

Look for connections, especially the unusual ones. See how what you are now learning links with what you already know. Find similarities between what you’re working on and other unrelated subjects – art, farming, biology, metal smelting etc.

These are all your puzzle pieces. The more you fit together, the closer you get to your last piece.

Step 3: Walk Away From Your Workspace

At some point you need to take a break. Walk away from your workbench, or notebook, or computer. Take a shower. Make a cup of coffee. Go for a walk. Switch off for the weekend. Leave on a holiday. Relax and think about something completely different.

Often the last piece of the puzzle will fall into place once you’ve stopped forcing it – thus the eureka moment in an unexpected place.

What happens next may not be what you call an ‘epiphany’. Maybe it’s a realisation of a connection or a possibility that will send you off in a new direction or drive you forward with new enthusiasm – a humble idea. These moments are just as good as, if not better than, an ‘epiphany’.

Why?

Epiphanies Are Not Essential

As Berkun points out:

Nearly every major innovation of the 20th century took place without claims of epiphany.

Everyone wants a ‘eureka’ moment, but those aren’t what actually matter in the long run. After all, an idea alone is seldom useful. It needs application, further hard work, before it can have it’s true impact on the world.

Berkun says:

To focus on the magic moments is to miss the point. The goal isn’t the magic moment: it’s the end result of a useful innovation.

Epiphany is not essential. Most things are created without them.

For example, Peter Drucker, in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, says:

Successful entrepreneurs do not wait until “the Muse kisses them” and gives them a “bright idea”: they go to work.

The moral here is, don’t wait for an epiphany to find you. You cannot control when, how or even if an epiphany will strike.

Instead, start working. Find a subject you have a passion for. Learn it well. Experiment. Look for those moments when you find connections and are filled with new enthusiasm. Value those humble ideas and continue fitting them into your bigger jigsaw.

The world is not divided into those who have epiphanies and those who don’t. It’s divided into those who do the hard work and those who don’t. If you’re doing the work, you’re a success – with or without the epiphany.

Have you read the first chapter of The Myths of Innovation? Share your thoughts in the comments below. If you haven’t read it yet, let us know your thoughts on this post.

P.S. This post barely even scratches the surface of the insightful information in Berkun’s first chapter. I highly recommend you get your own copy and start reading.