There is a legendary story of Henry Ford, a man who understood that efficiency is important AND so are ideas and innovation. As the story goes, an efficiency expert complained about a man sitting in his office with his feet up on his desk. Ford’s response was, “That man once had an idea that saved me a million dollars. When he got it, his feet were right where they are now.”
Notwithstanding the recent shutdown due to the pandemic, our society as a whole is geared towards doing and action.
Most people and companies are constantly on the move. A hubbub of activity and productivity. This makes sense as it takes a lot to keep a business humming. New products and features to ideate, design, create and launch. Existing products and features to support. New and existing projects to plan, monitor and complete. New customers to sign, on-board and support. Existing customers to support. New marketing/sales materials and initiatives to ideate, design, create and launch. New partnerships to explore, on-board and support. Existing partnerships to support. Supply and demand planning in the case of physical goods. New employees to hire and onboard. Existing employees to support. Whatever black magic goes on in Accounting. And on and on.
Most of these activities inherently require a lot of doing and movement.
Everything that has been built or exists today started with a thought or idea. Execution is vital, but at the end of the day a business is only as good as the ideas it executes on. Do new ideas also require a lot of movement? Where do awe-inspiring, brilliant insights come from? How does one go about generating great ideas? Ideas that can drastically affect the destiny of an individual, group or business.
In most companies I’ve worked at, new ideas were generated through some combination of discussions, meetings, presentations, brainstorming sessions, off-sites, hackathons, etc. There’s merit to these, as just a break from the daily routine spurs creativity and new ideas. There’s also the benefit that comes from putting together more heads than one — all that simultaneous brain activity can enable lively discussions, allowing teams to riff on and refine ideas. And there are usually lots of new ideas that came out as a result. Most companies will conclude things by funneling these ideas into task lists, which will then eventually get absorbed (or not) by the daily activity treadmill.
A couple of interesting observations. This probably sounds obvious, but the best discussions that usually led to some really good ideas were where people were well versed on the topic, as a result of having applied much thought and consideration beforehand. In this case, discussions were rich and sophisticated, penetrating well below surface level ideas or thought. Unfortunately, this tended to be rare, but was so joyful when it occurred. Alternatively, brain storming sessions where people were not as prepared, or where something new was being considered still produced lots of lively discussion and debate, but the eventual quality of ideas was usually unspectacular. It’s the latter where I’d come out feeling unsure of what we really accomplished, besides maybe just advancing some team chemistry. Perhaps the drawback with the latter is that it treats idea generation like yet another activity, replacing one type of movement with another. Relying only on group activities and movement to generate ideas probably continues to ensure that those truly game changing, uniquely brilliant insights remain elusive.
Really good or great ideas are a function of slowing down movement considerably to enter the realm of deep thought. Slowing down to really understand and ponder a problem, researching, probing and analyzing potential ideas from multiple angles, while weighing first-order and second-order effects. Deep thinking demands focus, discipline and the commitment to unplug from all activities like chats, emails and meetings for extended periods of uninterrupted time. This is the concept of deep work. This is best done at an individual level to start — group discussions to flush ideas further or conclude them can then follow after being baked for some time in self study. This contributes to a much richer and fluid exchange of ideas, truly leveraging the power of multiple minds, hopefully enabling the whole to be much greater than the sum of the parts.
The Power of Doing Nothing
What about breakthrough ideas? Those uniquely, brilliant insights I referred to earlier, that hit like a bolt of lightning, and may even leave one feeling a little awe-struck. Is deep work sufficient to tease these out?
These undoubtedly require deep study and thinking as well. But there’s something more. The magic happens when the deep work is coupled with something that’s almost antithetical to our way of work — doing nothing, dreaming, or just relaxing. Slowing down movement even further to bring it to almost a standstill. This means stepping away from your work to let it go, giving it up to the subconscious or a cosmic intelligence. This is where creative insights come from. This is the magical stuff that surprises you in the shower, in the bath, or while sitting under an apple tree.
The challenge here is that there’s no way to really force an insight or a timeline. Creative insights are non-linear, discontinuous leaps in understanding, creating new meaning or ways of seeing the world. Bolt of lightning, remember? They’re not going to fit in a neat timetable like linear thinking or regular movement. The best you can do is prepare by studying a problem deeply, but after that it’s about a peaceful surrender, remaining open and trusting your subconscious or the universe to deliver insights at the right time. You can keep coming back to your work to revise and review, and each time you do, you’ll probably see things with fresher eyes. But it’s about letting go each time. A natural ebb and flow of study and surrender.
“When I am ….. completely myself, entirely alone… or during the night when I cannot sleep, it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how these ideas come I know not nor can I force them.”
— Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
“Creativity requires courage to let go of certainty.”
— Erich Fromm
In his now classic, “The Art of Thought”, researcher Graham Wallas suggested that creative insights have four stages, a view that is widely accepted today:
- Preparation —thinking, exploring a problem deeply and gathering all the facts
- Incubation — the problem percolates in your mind. While this happens, you can rest, play and relax
- Illumination — sudden insight or the eureka moment
- Verification— verify and manifest your insight into reality
Wallas and many other researchers believe that incubation involves unconscious mental processing. Quantum physics gives us an explanation: Unconscious processing is quantum processing — it takes place in the nonlocal realm of many possibilities at once. When Niels Bohr was working on his model of the atom, he saw the solar system in a dream, suggesting unconscious incubation in his psyche. Behaviorally, we can equate incubation with relaxation — “sitting quietly, doing nothing” — as opposed to preparation, which is active work.
— Amit Goswami, Ph.D., Quantum Creativity, 2014
In his book “Quantum Creativity”, Amit Goswami, Ph.D., a retired professor in theoretical physics from the University of Oregon explores creativity in the context of quantum physics. It’s a fascinating study, and unfortunately there’s too much to go in here, but very broadly, he explains that unlike the classical materialistic worldview where everything originates from matter (for which there is no scientific evidence), the new quantum worldview is that consciousness is the foundation of all being. Consciousness is the realm of infinite quantum possibilities or potentialities that precede all matter and thought. Creativity is the act of manifesting new possibilities from these quantum possibilities. Incubation or relaxation is an act of unconscious processing (for which there is substantial experimental proof that he explores further in the book) or quantum processing, that takes place in this quantum field of many simultaneous possibilities outside of space and time to create new manifestations. In short, by doing nothing after a period of intense study, you’re surrendering the problem to a more divine or infinite intelligence that simultaneously processes innumerable possibilities outside the bounds of space and time. No wonder creative insights feel like non-linear leaps that can leave you awe struck.
“How to unlock creativity: slow down, study another field, get into nature, get out of office, music (lots), sketch, cardio before/after, nibble on small ideas, throw stuff away, atomize the work, look for orthogonal inspiration, breathe, learn about circadian rhythm, paint.”
— Brian Norgard
“Creativity is obscured by the conscious mind.”
— Naval Ravikant
“Chance favors the prepared mind.”
— Louis Pasteur
“Creativity gives rise to the limited out of the unlimited, to sanity out of madness, to the valuable out of the priceless, to abundance out of nothingness, to the original out of the familiar, and to hope out of despair.”
— Wallace Huey
“I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking.”
— Albert Einstein
“My brain is only a receiver, in the Universe there is a core from which we obtain knowledge, strength and inspiration. I have not penetrated into the secrets of this core, but I know that it exists.”
— Nikola Tesla
Perhaps Tesla and Einstein intuitively understood or sensed the presence of this quantum consciousness field. In addition to explaining Wallas’s theory through the lens of quantum physics, Goswami shares a Persian folktale for those that remain skeptical of surrendering to this unconscious quantum processing, aka the power of relaxing and doing nothing:
Mullah Nasruddin was looking for something under a streetlight. A passerby began to help him look. But after a while, when he didn’t find anything, he asked Nasruddin, “Mullah, what have you lost? What is it that we are looking for?”
“My key, I lost my key.”
“But where did you lose it?”
“In my house”, the Mullah answered.
“Then why are you looking here?” shouted the helper in disbelief.
“There is more light here”, said the Mullah calmly.
Like the Mullah, people who insist on only thinking their way out of their problems limit themselves by searching for ideas only where the light is, i.e. keeping very close to only what they know and can see. Surrendering and relaxing is an act of faith, trusting to release the problem to a higher consciousness, a very different consciousness than that pondered the problem. This is why creative insights are so powerful.
“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”
— Albert Einstein
So what does this mean for your work and day to day?
Doing is important. Deep work is important. Doing nothing is just as important.
Find a balance between movement and stillness, just like the out breath and in breath. Action and being. Waking and sleeping. We tend to glorify doing and action in work and business. We sometimes act out of a default instinct to just do something. More recently, there has been a recognition of the importance of slowing down and deep work. It’s now time to also recognize the power of doing nothing and incubation to help you produce your best and most impactful work.
As difficult and sad as its been, maybe this is the silver lining that will come with the world social distancing during a pandemic. Whether we like it or not, it has forced us all to slow down our movement and just be at times. With almost everyone working from home, for the first time in modern history, it’s allowing people to intersperse work with periods of doing nothing, relaxing, playing with their kids, etc., rather than being constantly “on”, chained to a desk for eight hours a day. My prediction is that this shut down is going to catalyze a period of creative renaissance and new businesses the world never imagined.
Who knew, all we needed for this to happen was to do nothing.