Opportunity is missed by most people because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work.Thomas EdisonMy middle name is Alva. I’m named after my mother’s father, who was named after the archetypal lone genius, Thomas Alva Edison. He was pretty popular guy in culture in 1909—people named their kids after him!
Legend has it that he tried 6000 different light bulb experiences until he had the “Eureka moment” that got it right. We picture him doing the work by himself, but in actuality he had a lab called the Invention Factory that started with a few people (in the photo, above) and grew to a staff of 200 at its peak. These 200 people are how Edison did 6000 experiments.
Eureka moments don’t happen to the madcap lone genius in his studio, but usually within the context of a daily grind.
The Relationship of Gift and Grind
You can’t kill your talent, but you can starve it into a coma through ignorance.Robert McKee
For these great moments to happen, and they do, your unconscious mind needs material to work with. Your mind cannot sift and recombine ideas—a process known as “Incubation”—if you don’t first put in the hard work. The Eureka moment is actually the last step in a long, involved process. As McKee states, “the sudden impression that the story is writing itself simply marks the moment when a writer’s knowledge of the subject has reached the saturation point.”
Maximize Connections, Not Eurekas
We don’t actually make things from nothing. It is false to believe that creativity comes from nowhere, although it sometimes seems this way. The Creator with a capital C, God, is the only entity that creates ex nihilo – from nothing. We mortals draw from multiple sources – ex materia. What we make is a new combination of old thoughts and ideas, often gleaned from other people and writings and projects.
Creativity, then, isn’t necessarily making new things, it is mixing disparate things together into new forms. It is the ability to connect the dots. Innovation comes from mixing disciplines and conventions in new ways, and creating lots of opportunities for that mixing to occur. It’s not about eurekas, it’s about connections.
Action Step: Input
The myth of the blinding flash isn’t helpful because it persuades us to not do the daily work.
The way to overcome this myth is through Input. Make daily exposure to new ideas part of your routine. I have set up a set of RSS feeds in an app called Feedly by category. This is a prime source for my Twitter feed, @Len_Wilson. To do this, you need time.
As a leader, consider: What if you built a half day into people’s job description to explore new ideas? You may think people will take advantage, but consider where its gotten One highly innovative and successful computer company:
Since around 2000, we let engineers spend 20% of their time working on whatever they want, and we trust that they’ll build interesting things. After September 11, one of our researchers, Krishna Bharat, would go to 10 or 15 news sites each day looking for information about the case. And he thought, Why don’t I write a program to do this? So Krishna used a Web crawler to cluster articles. He later emailed it around the company. My office mate and I got it, and we were like, ‘This isn’t just a cool little tool for Krishna. We could add more sources and build this into a great product.’ That’s how Google News came about.