Slow Hunch

Letting ideas come to you

By Elisabeth Ginsberg, edited by Filip Lau

Getting a brilliant idea is commonly portrayed as a sudden gift from the sky, conceived in an unexpected moment of clarity in the middle of an otherwise mindless activity. Mozart, arguably one of our civilization’s most iconic geniuses, describes the experience like this:

I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer say, traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.

While many of us recognize the sensation of getting ideas out of the blue, most of us don’t become the Mozart of our field. So what set Mozart apart from most people? Intelligence, artistic sensibility, and a disorderly, ambitious dad explain some, but another explanation is simply his sustained and intense occupation with the field he came to master—music. Darwin is another classic example. He has described how the theory of natural selection occurred to him as a flash on September 28, 1838, while he was reading an essay on population by the economist Thomas Malthus. Yet Darwin’s own notebooks reveal that the theory was forming clearly in his mind more than a year leading up to this. The stories of Mozart, Darwin, and countless other inspired, prolific individuals suggest that good ideas are neither the result of a deliberate ideation nor sheer chance, but rather by-products of sustained, often intense, occupation with a subject.

Author Steven Johnson argues that getting a good idea might be experienced as a flash or epiphany, but that it is more accurately described as a hunch that is slowly roaming in the back of the mind until it is manifested as an idea. James Carnes, Global Creative Director of Adidas, described a similar process of creativity during a recent interview we did with him. To bring out the good ideas, Carnes’s team uses a reiterative approach, “digging deep into the rabbit hole” while continuously working on capturing and refining the ideas that show up alongside the immersion:

“There is this myth that creativity is theatrical: people all around the room, drawing on flipcharts, etc. For me, the creative moment—in my office, with my team—is usually defined by a group of people with their headphones on, using a pencil as a tool to process the information they have. They will be drawing and looking at it, evaluating it, giving it another try, and yet a try, until it’s there.”

Rather than coming out of the blue, we likewise believe that the best ideas are the result of hours, days, and sometimes even years of digging into a subject and pursuing the hunches that slowly emerge as a result. Instead of focusing on the creation of ideas and trying to force them into being, one is better off focusing on understanding the relevant phenomenon in depth. Then it simply becomes a matter of being open to the ideas when they show up—be it in casual conversation, intense data crunching, or, as sometimes in Mozart’s case, on a sleepless night.

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