The Myth of Epiphany

book-myths_of_innovation-280wOne of the most provocative chapters of The Myths of Innovation (book summary) is The Myth of Epiphany. This myth, heavily promoted by Hollywood films about science or invention, is the belief that there is something magical about how ideas come to us, and that breakthrough ideas frequently come to people as a result of a flash of insight.

I’ve spent years studying the many well known stories of flashes of insight in history and found most of the them were legends or exaggerations. One of my favorite accountings was Tim Berners-Lee describing how he invented the World Wide Web, one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century:

“Journalists have always asked me what the crucial idea was or what the singular event was that allowed the web to exist one day when it hadn’t before. They are frustrated when I tell them there was no Eurkea moment. It was not like the legendary apple falling on Newton’s head to demonstrate the concept of gravity… it was a process of accretion [growth by gradual addition]”

Even Berners-Lee was a victim of the epiphany myth, as the apple falling on Newton’s head is legend, not fact. Journalists and readers are fond of flashes of insight because we love dramatic stories. The notion of an epiphany ties back to religious and spiritual concepts like the Muse, where there are forces at work in the universe than can grant things to people. Even if we don’t literally believe in these forces we love the notion that creativity works through some system, and that all we need is one brilliant moment, like winning the lottery, that will change everything for us.

There are three important questions to ask about any famous epiphany story:

  • What was the person doing before the epiphany? In most cases they were working in their field trying to solve a problem, or building a project, and the work led them to learn things that increased the odds of making a breakthrough.
  • What did they need to do after the epiphany to bring the idea to the world? In every case there was significant, challenging work after the flash to develop the idea into a prototype, much less a working solution.  A brilliant idea for a movie or a business still demands years of effort to realize the idea. An epiphany is rarely the end of the challenge, but typically the beginning of a new one. While epiphanies are common, people willing to commit years of work to see them to fruition are uncommon.
  • What can we learn about how to have an epiphany ourselves? Most epiphany stories have no substance. They focus on seemingly ordinary facts, like Archimedes in a bathtub or Newton by a tree, where the discovery is presented as a surprise. Epiphany stories rarely teach us anything to do differently in our own lives as there are no useful patterns or habits suggested by the story.

Even the Newton apple story isn’t true in the way it’s commonly told. Newton certainly wasn’t hit on the head, and it’s unlikely that the singular moment of watching an apple fall from a tree, even if it happened, carried particular significance to a man who made daily observations and ran frequent experiments testing his ideas about the things he saw. The lesson about creativity from Newton we should learn is his daily habits: he frequently asked questions and ran experiments, constantly trying new approaches and making prototypes to explore his ideas. But that’s not nearly as exciting a story to tell as the apple tale, so it’s rarely told..

Gordon Gould, a primary inventor of the laser beam, had this to say:

“In the middle of one Saturday night… the whole thing suddenly popped into my head and I saw how to build the laser… but that flash of insight required the 20 years of work I had done in physics and optics to put all of the bricks of that invention in there”

Most legendary stories of flashes of insight are like Gould’s: the inventor rarely obsesses about the epiphany, but everyone else does. Flashes of insight are best understood as our subconscious minds working on our behalf. In professor of psychology Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity he defines epiphany as having three parts: early, insight, and after. The insight feels like a flash because until the moment our subconscious mind surfaces an idea, we’re not fully aware that our minds are still working on the problem for us. We get ideas in the shower because it’s a place where it’s easier for our subconscious minds to speak up.

One way to think about the experience of epiphany is that it’s the moment when all of the pieces fall into place. But this does not require that the last piece has any particular significance (the last piece might be the hardest, but it doesn’t have to be). Whichever piece of the puzzle is sorted out last becomes the epiphany piece and brings the satisfying epiphany experience. However the last piece isn’t necessarily more magical than the others, and has no magic without its connection to the other pieces. It feels magical for psychological reasons, fueling the legend and myths about where the insight happened and why it was at that particular moment and not another.

epiphany

Related:

12 Responses to “The Myth of Epiphany”

  1. Rohan Light

    Hi Scott,

    This was a great post and I love the way you climbed into such an ancient and ominous word.

    You got me thinking with this: “Journalists and readers are fond of flashes of insight because we love dramatic stories”

    Absolutely right. This is how stuff sells. This is how we draw attention. There’s a promise here, something to be discovered or uncovered that only the person experiencing the epiphany can realise. It’s something deeply enticing.

    One of the related words to epiphany is ‘epiphonema’: “an abrupt exclamation in the course or at the close of a discourse” (Nuttals Concise Standard Dictionary of the English Language – my go to resource for word nerdism). This is the journalist writing the awesome ‘aha!’ in their piece. And we recognise it as a dramatic technique, hence our shrug when journalists venture into drama.

    Then you gave us “One way to think about the experience of epiphany is that it’s the moment when all of the pieces fall into place”. This is great because it encourages us to commit to something over time, to really take part in a topic and own it. To live and breathe something and become part of it so that, one day, that last piece of the jigsaw falls into place while we’re drinking coffee and we put the cup down and drink the moment.

    This is similar to ‘epiphenomenon’: a phenomenon secondary to or a byproduct of another phenomenon (Nuttals). This gives us that sense of one thing leading to another, which relates to your point of during the course of your journey you encounter a variety of experiences and ideas that, at some point in the distant future, coalesce to that moment when you put down the cup of coffee.

    Anyway, I now need to read more of your work. A happy problem.

    Thanks again,

    Rohan

    Reply
    1. Scott

      Thanks for teaching me something today (epiphonema & epiphenomenon). Actually that’s two things :)

      Reply
  2. Drew Kime

    Housekeeping note: All the School House Rock links in that 2007 post are broken. I was all excited to go watch some of them and *poof* … all gone.

    Reply
    1. Scott

      Thanks Drew – I found them all on youtube and updated the links.

      Reply
    1. Scott

      Did you check the “Further Reading” section in WGICF? He mentions The Myths of Innovation :)

      Reply
  3. Nancy

    I just love the creative and kind ways you get across the point (in both of the latest posts) that it’s all about the work. Sometimes I get so frustrated I just mutter, “put your ass in the chair.” I’m working on that.

    Reply
    1. Scott

      It’s funny how we all know it’s really about the work, but yet we all want to pretend there’s some other way :)

      I’m sure books about the truth of these stories are unlikely to be as popular as the far more entertaining myths and legends, but I’m trying :)

      Reply
  4. Mitch Stokely

    Scott I agree with all your points. I would add that passion is the one thing all great innovators possess. If you realize that epiphany is really one of a long line of results passionate people in general ignore because they love what they do on other levels you soon realize that its the act of creating that matters. How can we respect and encourage people are both creative souls and fanatics about what they do? There are way too many mediocre people in businesses now that work for paychecks and not enough weird, nerdy, obsessed fanatics. In my day anyone that did anything well was called obsessive and needed to be medicated. But the world needs more people that love what they do because its those people that truly solve problems and work on into the night at home long after the people that are bragging about break throughs and epiphanies have gone to sleep.

    Reply
  5. Mark

    Thanks for writing this. It has always been a pet peeve of mine the the drama that is put into creative moments. We love the drama and the stories, but often undermines the failure and practice that comes before the “moment”.

    Musicians experience this more than others. Great stories and drama is told about these light bulb moments. And while they may be true and there are the moments when “things click”, you never hear about the hours and toil and practice that are spent behind closed doors. As a musician myself it is a very boring story. Lots of repetition, failure, and physical pain to just get your body, mind, and heart in sync. However all that work leads to these moments. We just don’t like to hear about the work.

    Reply
  6. Ted Spickler

    Recent discoveries and hypotheses in neuroscience suggest that complex neural networks in the brain are working, without our awareness, on problems we are concerned about. The moment when pieces all fall into place is explained as linkages between neural networks suddenly finding they fit together. A resulting avalanche of nerve firings (imagine all the neurons cheering each other) causes the activity to rise into consciousness and we experience an “Aha” moment. That moment, as you correctly point out, is dependent upon a great deal of immersion into the details surrounding all necessary inputs into the problem. Without that immersion the neural networks will not be built and the unconscious final connection cannot take place. I have adapted Michael Polanyi’s tacit theory of knowledge into this scheme thus providing a roadmap for insight as a creative learning process.

    Reply

Pingbacks

Leave a Reply

* Required