Waiting For The Spark

Every two weeks I experience an internal “ping” that tells me it’s time to write another blog. Abstract Sparks BackgroundIt’s a stately, conscious experience, one that works well for me.

Essentially, my writing approach is organic, an integral aspect of how I think and absorb information. I am hungry to gain knowledge. I posses an insatiable, constant desire to digest information, ruminate on it and mix it with all the other information and events I have stored over time. This steady, unshakable practice spans the profound and banal, the political and kitschy, the artistic and the dreadful. Each data point is another entry in my internal library.

I do this to cultivate the creative spark, the flush of glee that arrives when our puzzles find solutions and we rush to tell others what we’ve found. Many individuals love to feel this spark. Many companies do as well because of its power to bring results. Lately these companies seem to be constantly chasing the spark, trying to will it on command and paying incredible sums of money to anyone who purports to have cracked its elusive code.

When I was a child, I would visit the county library where my aunt worked. No longer alive, my aunt was gentle and gracious and loving. She held the key to one of the most magical places I encountered in my youth – a building filled with knowledge that I held in greater reverence than any cathedral. She held the key to this cool, quiet wonderland marked by tall shelves aching with information, shelves whose call made me sit down on the pale linoleum floor pouring over randomly chosen books for hours. It never disappointed, this cathedral of mine. It was one of the few places where I felt most like myself. My back against a bookshelf, I would read scores of phrases, facts and prose so beautiful and knowing that the world itself settled at my feet.

It was here that my early sparks for expression came forth. Today, the inclination of my curiosity is not met in such a magnificent, tangible fashion. Rather, it is filled through flashes of image and content on my AirBook. But the spark still comes. This internal research library I have lovingly stocked waits for my attention and I, in turn, wait for the spark it births. Without fail the spark arrives, aided in great part by the tremendous volume resting in my brain.

The spark. Some call it creativity or innovation or the Muse. For people who trade each day in knowledge and process and objectives, the spark makes what we do productive and, hopefully, fun.

We all have moments of insight, otherwise known as the Eureka moment. It’s the seemingly sudden flash of realization that caused Greek geek Archimedes to jump out of a bath and run around naked, shouting “Eureka!” (“I found it”) when the equation for measuring the volume of an irregular object came to him.

Do these moments really come out of the blue? No. They come when we’ve been thinking about something for a while, working on it actively and then giving ourselves a bit of a rest. They arrive when our superior anterior temporal gyrus, a little piece of mental real estate around our right ear, figuratively lights up and makes critical cognitive connections for us. (As an aside, this is the area of the brain that gives us the ability to understand jokes. I guess you can say that comedians are the smartest people in show business.) Within the superior anterior temporal gyrus, our brain discovers the remote association between and among things, an association that is the heart of creativity and innovation.

Oddly enough, institutionalized brainstorming – the act of “making creativity happen” in a controlled setting – doesn’t work so well. As Debra Kaye observed in Fast Company, too much pressure and the influence from others makes our brain shy and shuts down the kind of crazy, remote association that leads to real breakthroughs. It seems that, ultimately, working alone and in a relaxed state is the best environment to allow one’s inner Archimedes to show up. Staring down a deadline might create the pressure to meet it, but it won’t lead to the creative leap that makes one person’s work mundane and another’s inspired.

Most of us professionals could benefit from giving up the fight for institutionalized creativity and instead learn to appreciate the natural rhythm of innovation. We would benefit from requiring of our bosses the time to just think, walk around and turn off our brains for a while. Such luxury is incredibly productive because it allows the brain to incubate all that data and knowledge we’ve got sitting between our ears. Sometimes, the best thing to do is nothing.

I’ve learned the same thing, although in a more personal way. My process works like this: First, I keep doing what I do, feeding my brain and evolving the catalogue within. When I think about what I want to explore I typically land upon a theme, usually the result of a serendipitous conversation or reflection. Then I wait. Not impatiently. No, I wait quietly, hopefully. The spark shows up, every time, on it’s own perfect schedule.

Then, and only then, do I follow it, knowing that it will lead me to a most joyous place. This is how creativity happens. Not on schedule but perfectly on time.


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