This past Sunday we celebrated Epiphany in my church. A friend gave the sermon. She spoke about epiphanies of the religious sort, but also about the epiphanies we experience in our lives – moments of sudden insight or understanding.
As I listened, I thought about how much I looked for those moments in my work life. Epiphanies are exciting events. Who doesn’t love that moment in the shower when you suddenly see the solution to a problem that was really bugging you? Or when that next appeal suddenly just writes itself?
I’d always thought these sudden insights couldn’t possibly come out of nowhere. I know when I have one, it’s usually about something I’ve been giving a lot of brain space to already. So I hunted around a bit to see what I could learn about why these sudden insights happen.
I found an article published in The Atlantic in 2012, How to Have an Epiphany. In it, the author, Steve Blank, describes a complete company overhaul inspired by an epiphany. The author’s friend had a sudden insight about his business in the shower one day – and changed the entire business plan. The author explains to his friend what happened in this way:
You just had an epiphany. If you’re lucky you may have a few more in your career. But while epiphanies are extremely rare, they are immensely important and need to be listened to. What you had was no accident. You were collecting enormous amounts of data on one side of your brain, but it was the other side that recognized the pattern.
Now that made sense to me.
The article goes on to suggest how to trigger an epiphany:
- Interact with lots of different people – to give you new ideas and perspectives.
- Tackle the problem you’re working on head-on. Immerse yourself in it.
- Then step away from the problem entirely and do something that doesn’t require you to focus.
It struck me – this is the way I work.
It’s one of the things I like best about fundraising. Our work is such a combination of art and science, people and data, creativity and focused but mechanical work (hello, data entry). It’s those sudden moments of inspiration that feed my creative side and keep it all interesting. It’s the payoff for lots of reading, lots of hands-on work, lots of analysis. Then once you’ve let your brain collect enough different information, you have to give it room so it can shape the information in a way that will suddenly make sense to you. Bingo!
But don’t try to cheat.
The steps outlined above are important. Inspiration isn’t going to strike out of the blue. You’ve got to do the work.
You’ve got to give yourself time to think and interact creatively. And you’ve got to spend time looking at the problem analytically. (My boss says she always pictures me in a lab coat, which is sort of funny, since science was always a struggle for me in school.) Then you’ve got to give yourself time away from it all. Put it on the back burner and let your mind do its own work.
So show the article to your boss when it looks like you’re just staring off into space. You’re not daydreaming, you’re working on inspiration!
Here’s to many epiphanies in 2014!