Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Ankesh Kothari.
Thomas Alva Edison has been one of the most successful scientists the world has ever seen. He invented the phonograph, the motion picture, and the electric light bulb. In all, Edison has 1,093 US patents under his name.
But people observed that as brilliant as Edison was at inventing new gadgets, he was just as miserable as a fisherman. Edison used to spend an hour almost everyday sitting at the end of a dock and fish. He always fished all alone by himself, but he never caught any fish.
People always wondered: why is Edison so obsessed with fishing when he is so bad at it? Late in life, someone actually asked Edison as to the reason behind him being a lousy fisherman.
His answer was, “I really never caught any fish because I have never used any bait.”
Thinking that Edison is crazy, a follow up question is asked of him: “Why in the world would you fish without bait?”
Edison’s answer? “Because when you fish without bait, people don’t bother you and neither do the fish. It provides me my best time to think.”
Its no coincidence that the world’s best scientist was also the world’s worst fisherman. In fact, because Edison was the world’s worst fisherman, he could become the world’s most prolific scientist.
Question to ponder upon: Are you setting some time aside for yourself to reflect and think upon?
Poincare’s Research Into Creativity
It’s 1908. Henri Poincare – another scientist – decides to make it his business to research how others come up with their creative breakthrough ideas. He goes through the histories of a lot of inventions and inventors. And finds some surprising stories.
Archimedes comes up with the solution to evaluate how pure the gold is in any jewelry while he is taking a bath.
Friedrich Kekule discovers the unique ring like structure of the molecule benzene right after he wakes up from a day-dream about snakes chasing their own tails and forming rings.
As Poincare digs into how hundreds of other people got their “Eureka” moments, he finds a common element. Most people stumble upon their breakthrough right after a period of rest.
- Creative periods involve a period of conscious work, followed by a period of unconscious work.
- Conscious work is also necessary after the unconscious work to put the unconscious results on a firm footing.
Why Is Down Time Necessary For Creativity?
“When the brain relaxes, it’s like a sedimentation process in action. The millions of thoughts you have sink to the bottom and the most path-breaking thoughts float to the top like cream.” – Sean D’Souza
Our brains have a powerful built-in pattern sensor. When we’re working on a problem, our brain goes into the information assimilation mode and is quickly overwhelmed because of the flood of information.
Only when we rest to ponder does the pattern recognition mode take over and our brain starts processing this information – starts looking for connections – starts figuring out how the pieces come and fit together. It’s this pattern recognition process that leads to creative ideas.
So to make our brains better at pattern recognition, we need to take pauses and schedule regular down time where our brains can relax.
Some Ideas You Can Use To Schedule Regular Down Times:
- Slowing down and taking long showers or bubble baths is a good idea.
- So is listening to some soothing classical music. Any music without hard hitting lyrics that can interfere with your brains pattern recognition abilities is good.
- Long walks are good too. It keeps you fit physically as well as allows some down time for your brain.
- Taking 15 minute afternoon naps have been proven to improve creativity.
No matter how busy your schedule is and how much you have to do, schedule 15-20 minutes per day where you can do nothing but relax.
[The Edison story came from here and more information about Poincare’s insights can be found here.]
Cath Duncan says
Thanks for the reminder, Ankesh! I often need reminding of this!
Some other activities that help your mind relax enough to receive great ideas:
2) Working out, particularly running outside
3) Free writing, a la Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones”
Ankesh Kothari says
Thanks Travis. Excellent additions.
I find meditation to be hard stuff. But exercising definitely helps. I’ve had some grand ideas while exercising!
Nice post Ankesh. I liked how you started out with a fisherman story on Thomas Edision and transitioned into why, how, and where we can get our greatest thoughts from. I agree with this because after I do a lot of thinking, then take a break for a while, I usually come up with good ideas without even trying to do so.
Vlad Dolezal says
Great story, Ankesh! 🙂
I discovered the same thing (the downtime, not the fishing).
I find that if I simply take the time to listen to my body, it tells me when it wants to just chill. In the past I used to fill the time with distractions (social media, games) because I felt that I had to be active, but now I realize just lying and thinking is often the most productive thing I can do!
Nice post. I like the 15 mn afternoon nap and @Travis tips are good ones too.
Archan Mehta says
Thanks for this guest post. Great work.
You are dead on target on all points save for one. (And I beg to differ, with due respect.)
Don’t rule out the possibility of heavy metal music. Sure, it is loud and rather crass (according to some people).
However, there are people out there who may get a flash of inspiration while attending a heavy metal concert. Who’s to say otherwise?
Ask the people who created this music..
It is a myth that only soothing music or classical music can lead to creativity. Not true at all. This is one possibility among several possibilities, that’s all we can say.
Also, it is a myth to think people can be creative only when life is good, when you are in a relaxed frame of mind, when you have food on the table, and can pay your bills. And so on. Again, not true at all.
If you research the life of our most creative people–artists, scientists, entrepreneurs–you’ll find their lives not worth writing home about (in many cases).
Some of these creative people obtained breakthrough ideas when they were angry, frustrated, groping in the darkness, drunk and even violent. Look at the lives of Jim Morrison of the Doors and the Beatles too.
Many of these people suffered from “personality dis-orders” such as mood swings, drugs, sex addiction (Tiger Woods?), alcoholism (Dylan Thomas), inter-personal conflicts, the list goes on.
Many creative people are not “nice” people at all. They may be abusive, incompetent in certain areas of life, cunning, wily, kleptomaniacs, egotistical, the list goes on.
You may not like them as human beings, yet you can still admire their works.
Thus, all we can say is: creativity is a process and creativity is rather mysterious.
Who knows when the muse will strike you?
Maybe the beauty is that we really can’t figure it out? And why even try to figure it out? Why not just let it be? And let the fairy visit us with her magic wand only when she feels like it? Why try to control it? Cheers.
Ankesh Kothari says
Most of the time when I’m writing – I put a song on loop. The same song keeps on playing for 30-60 minutes. Until I’m done with the article. I find that this helps me build a steady rhythm while writing.
The music I play while writing is usually never classical music. But rock or pop. And lyrical.
But when I have to sit down and brainstorm ideas for articles, rock music never works for me.
All music have their place.
My point isn’t that only classical music lead to creativity and that heavy metal doesn’t lead to creativity. Its just that when you want your mind to relax for 15 minutes to let your brain find patterns from random information – heavy metal music seldom helps – at least in my experience.
(Also – why *not* try to control and channel creativity?)
Love your stories! My most creative thoughts always come to me in that twilight between wakefulness and sleep. I have to write them down, though, or I forget them.
Sean Murphy says
The Edison section article seems to be a re-write of http://www.slyasafox.com/book/book_18.html what was your source for the Edison story?
I’ll check with Ankesh about this, Sean. I didn’t catch it, but I also didn’t look. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.
Ankesh Kothari says
Got the story initially from a biography book on Edison. (Most likely Scholastic autobiography or Children’s autobiography. Had read a bunch of Edison books together…)
I did get everything in between ” quotes ” online.
Same with Poincare’s conclusions. The 2 points were from his research published online.
Sean Murphy says
Ankesh, you should update and add links to the Edison story reference and to your source for Poincare’s 1908 presentation. I don’t think it diminishes the value of your post to credit others. Since I collect quotes for entrepreneurs at http://www.twitter.com/skmurphy I am always trying to verify the original source for the Edison quotes and I couldn’t substantiate it back to any primary source that would have actually talked to Edison, but I did find the http://www.slyasafox.com/book/book_18.html reference which seemed to mirror your opening paragraph pretty closely.
The post has been amended to include the links to the original sources. Thanks for the suggestion.
You’ll note that the link to the Edison story mirrors the content from the link you gave, but it’s unclear as to which page is scraping the other.
Sean Murphy says
Both pages are by the same author, Mark Fox, a consultant who sells creativity workshops.
At least according to “The Edisons of Fort Myers” by Tom Smoot, Edison used bait and caught fish when he was in Fort Myers. See http://www.amazon.com/Edisons-Fort-Myers-Discoveries-Heart/dp/1561643122 and search for “bait”
Thanks for clearing that up, Ankesh!
Duncan Spencer says
I understand the Edison anecdote was just an introduction, but I think it is relevant not to gloss over Edison’s achievements. He was successful at commercializing products but to extend that to the “world’s best scientist” would be inaccurate. Edison was also self taught and uneducated in many areas, which kind of makes some of his discoveries more impressive actually. Tesla’s AC power was in every way more elegant than Edison’s DC power. When we first learn of Edison we think he must have been quite industrious but his researchers claim he was a slob and wouldn’t have survived health wise if not for getting married.
Willie Hewes says
How does one go about taking 15 mt naps?
No, seriously, I’d like some further thought on this. Getting into bed takes 15 minutes. Do you sleep on the couch? If so, how do you manage to fall asleep in less than 15 minutes? And how do you wake up?
If this has been proven to improve creativity, then the researchers must have had a way to get a number of people to reliably sleep for 15 minutes in the afternoon, and then wake up.
To me, that sounds like an almost impossible feat to do once, let alone reliably. How’d they do it?
Ankesh Kothari says
You don’t have to fall in deep sleep during those 15 minute naps. Light naps are good enough.
So how do you fall asleep reliably for 15 minutes? Some ideas:
* Make it a habit. Try to sleep for 15 minutes everyday. After a week or so – you’ll become better at naps. (This works for kindergarten kids. And it works for some Chinese offices too where everyone has to take a nap for 15 minutes in the middle of the day.)
* Have a heavy lunch. Probably with lots of rice. Anecdotal evidence suggests that that makes you sleepy.
* No tea coffee or soda or anything that affects sleep a couple of hours before nap time.
* Exercise in the mornings so you’re a bit tired and can take a nap in the afternoon.
Archan Mehta says
Thanks for your feedback, Ankesh:
Okay, let’s try to look at this objectively.
For example, heavy metal music does not work for you when you are trying to brainstorm or let the creativity flow for new posts. And that’s fine.
However, heavy metal music can and indeed does work for other people in terms of liberating creativity. (By the way, heavy metal music does not work for me).
We often talk about truth as if it is objective. And some truth can be objective, such as 2+2=4. Who can argue with that?
However, some “truth” is subjective or personal. One of the reasons being: our tastes and preferences differ and we are all unique individuals.
You’d be surprised to know there are countless people out there who tune out by listening to heavy metal or “hard” music.
And, while doing so, they write poems, come up with new ideas, work on a science projects, etc.
The moral of the story: we have to be careful about making assumptions. And sometimes, it is better to be descriptive and analytical rather than prescriptive. Especially about creativity and individuals who are creative. Cheers!
Ankesh Kothari says
Exceptions always exist. After all – Richard Feynman used to go sit down in a strip club to get his best ideas.
But for most people, having fewer stimulations for 15 minutes a day so that the mind can relax leads to better creativity output.
Its about how you bombard your mind during your 15 minutes of down time. The less bombardation = the more patterning that occurs.
But yes – I’m sure heavy metal music will work for lots of people. Its just not something I would recommend to folks when they start scheduling a daily down time.
This is nice; thanks for the reminders!
I like to wear my headphones while walking, but without listening to anything at all! I find most “background music” distracting, but it turns out that just wearing the headphones changes people’s expectations: suddenly, you’re off the hook for saying “hi” or otherwise interacting, and can get as lost in thought as you’d like. (I would never have figured this out on my own; a brilliant friend suggested it to me.)
Adrian Swinscoe says
Great post. Personally, I like to go climbing which is a great workout but is also a great way to focus and relax. After I’ve done that I often find that I am more creative.
Ankesh, this is an excellent post.
I believe that we often see different areas of our lives compromising each other, when, in fact, they support each other, even if they seem to be taking us in different directions.
Taking breaks and relaxing every now and then actually makes us more productive.
A fact you express so beautifully in your post.