Getting to eureka

Just last week I completed the first draft of my book on creative leadership, which will be published next year. In it, I show how to think like creative geniuses such as Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, or Richard Branson. Using the creative leadership method introduced in the book will allow you to move to a higher level of creativity.

If you’re lucky, you might even have a eureka moment, a breakthrough idea that shows how to solve a problem, even one that you’ve been working on for a long time. I’m very fortunate that I ‘ve already had two eureka moments. The second of these led to my resignation from a successful career in corporate banking, and to founding an innovation company. Now I’m doing what I was born to do: creating and empowering creative leaders and innovators.

But that was my second eureka moment. Here, I want to talk about my first one.

Do — or die

I was sitting in a darkened room, devastated, desperate. My doctoral advisor had just given me an ultimatum. He said I had one week to fix a problem with my doctoral project, or I would have to give up on my PhD, and on the business career I had planned.

The problem he was talking about wasn’t news to me. When I started my project, I knew that there was a flaw in one of my measurement methods. I had spent two years working on the project, but that flaw remained, and I had found nothing in the literature that offered any help. I was hoping that the solution I had cobbled together would pass muster, but my professor was a man of principle and an academic with high standards, and when he rejected my slapdash method, I knew he was right.

After receiving this justified beating from my doctoral advisor, I had only one week to find the solution that had eluded me. I’d been shown one yellow card — another, and I was out of the game.

My fight for survival

So what did I do? Like any good academic, I turned to the literature and reread the books and journal articles, hoping I’d overlooked something. A day passed, then another, my panic fighting my fatigue. I realized this wasn’t going to work, so I took a step back, and asked myself how I’d gotten my best ideas in the past.

One part of the answer was clear. I was still in good form as a competitive runner, and I decided to run 15-20 km twice a day, knowing this would increase the likelihood of getting a winning idea. I also felt I should stop my reading. After all, I’d already had two years to find the answer there. Instead, I decided to draw on human resources — experts in my domain, as well as laymen — and ask them for suggestions. I made a lot of phone calls and met with many people. I also knew that fatigue and pessimism weren’t helping. So I spent some time each day having fun — listening to music, watching TV, reading things unrelated to my work — anything that would distract me and let my subconscious play.

Rising from the ashes

On the third day, I started my new routine. A long run in the morning, phone calls, meetings with friends and peers, more phone calls, another long run in the late afternoon, and something fun in the evening before going to bed. After one day of this, I felt that I was on the right track, though a solution hadn’t yet emerged. The next day was the same, at least until I went for my afternoon run.

I remember it clearly. It was dusk on a drizzly, chilly November day, and I had been running for an hour, alone in the forest, when an idea exploded in my head. I knew instantly that I had the solution to the measurement problem, and that I had not wasted my time working on my doctorate. I was so excited that I jumped around screaming, and then ran straight home, sat at my desk, and wrote down the solution. After a short dinner break, I stayed up late, fleshing out the idea.

The next morning, I presented the idea to my doctoral advisor who happily agreed that I’d found an elegant solution, and allowed me to start my empirical study the next week. And so I did, exhilarated that I’d managed to get my breakthrough idea in time to save my project and my career. In the end, my solution worked perfectly, allowing me to identify and explain performance variations among finance teams. A year later, I’d finished my doctoral project and was awarded a Ph.D. magna cum laude.

The process of creative breakthrough

How did I succeed? I had unknowingly performed the four steps of von Helmholtz’s and Poincaré’s process model of subconscious creativity.

  • Preparation: After two years of reading and thinking, I was well prepared for this challenge.
  • Incubation: I had faith that the solution would emerge in time, which gave me the courage not to constantly, consciously work, despite the weeklong doomsday clock.
  • Illumination: Chance may favor the prepared mind, but I still feel lucky to have had the insight I did, and to have immediately seen the viability of the solution.
  • Verification: I straightaway verified the solution, working through the night to prepare a presentation that would allow my doctoral advisor to quickly understand it.

That first Eureka moment meant the world to me. My breakthrough didn’t reshape my field, but it certainly reshaped my life and my world dramatically. Things would have been very different for me had I not had the insight in time. And the success of the counterintuitive — my letting go of the challenge at the critical moment — led me to discover how to have more magical eureka moments that lead to creative breakthroughs.

If a common businessperson like me can experience two eureka moments, certainly you can, too, so long as you acquire the habits that lead to them.


© Dr. Detlef Reis 2013
This article was published in parallel in the Bangkok Post under the title “Getting that Eureka moment to happen just when you really need it” on October 24 2013.