Great ResignationDiversity and InclusionCompensationCEO DailyCFO DailyModern Board

How To Have Breakthrough Ideas

February 15, 2017, 1:00 PM UTC
Photos by Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive, Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone—Getty Images & Paul Sakuma—AP

You can learn to cultivate great ideas. That’s the bold promise of The Net and the Butterfly: The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking, by Olivia Fox Cabane and Judah Pollack. Cabane is the author of The Charisma Myth and both she and Pollack used to work at Stanford University’s start-up accelerator; the two now consult variously for prominent companies and organizations ranging from Google, Airbnb, and IDEO to Deloitte and even the U.S. Army Special Forces. The Net and the Butterfly is filled not only with anecdotes describing the births of famous ideas, but also with a series of practical exercises aimed at improving your ability to generate them. The edited excerpts that follow examine the states of mind that are most conducive to creativity along with a few examples of how to achieve those states. The final passage explores how idea “creation” often consists as much of idea modification and combination as of the original spark.—Fortune

THE YEAR WAS 1965. The place was Clearwater, Fla. In his motel room—the Rolling Stones weren’t yet famous enough to afford hotels—Keith Richards woke up on a hot, humid morning to find his guitar and a tape recorder on the bed beside him. Groggy and hungover, Richards rewound the tape and pressed play. The hourlong tape contained 59 minutes of his own snoring. But the first 30 seconds held the opening bars and first lyric of what became the Rolling Stones’s most iconic hit, the song “Satisfaction.” He didn’t remember even touching the tape recorder.

Believe it or not, Richards’s breakthrough moment follows the very same pattern as Albert Einstein’s discovery of the special theory of relativity. It’s the pattern we heard again and again when we interviewed some of the world’s greatest innovators for this book. And it’s the same pattern you’ve experienced if you’ve ever had a sudden epiphany in the shower.

Whenever you have a “shower moment,” chances are something was on your mind, like a problem at work or an issue in a relationship. You’d probably been mulling over the problem, trying to work it out in different ways. Then you stepped into the shower. Your mind wandered off as the water poured over you. You were no longer focused. Suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, the answer came to you. What do your shower moments have in common with both Keith Richards’s and Albert Einstein’s discoveries? When you got into the shower, you unknowingly switched brain modes. Previously, you had been consciously focusing on the problem. But in the shower, your mind was probably drifting, idly daydreaming or seemingly “thinking about nothing.” Neuroscientists have recently discovered that the secret to breakthroughs lies in our ability to switch between these two modes, the focused and the meandering.

Keith Richards and Albert Einstein.Photos by AP & Michael Ochs Archives—Getty Images
Photos by AP & Michael Ochs Archives—Getty Images

The focused mode is one you are already familiar with, because it’s the one you have been consciously using all your life. You can think of this mode as the “executive mode”: it’s the one you use to execute, to get things done. Goal oriented and deadline focused, it’s a champion at making lists, following timelines, and coming in under budget. The part of your brain responsible for this mode is called the executive network, or EN.

The EN is a group of brain regions near the front of your skull that help you focus on a task and accomplish a specific goal. You’re very well versed in the use of your EN. You did, after all, spend at least a decade in school specifically training those brain regions. As a matter of fact, you’re using your EN right now to read this sentence. With your EN you are (we hope) a functional, responsible, and productive member of society.

But your EN alone can’t create breakthroughs. It needs help from the more meandering network, the one that creates shower moments. This is our creative network, the default network, or DN. You can think of the DN as a network or council of breakthrough geniuses inside your brain. The geniuses talk and exchange ideas, half-baked theories, and wild speculations.

The DN is the source of all our creativity, all our invention, all our genius—and it hasn’t gotten nearly enough recognition. What has the DN accomplished throughout history? A better question would be what great discoveries hasn’t it played a role in. If the EN gives us the ability to focus and accomplish a task, the DN gives us the ability to look through the complexity of the world to see the patterns underneath.

The DN is a vital component of your brain: Research has made clear that this part of your brain is as essential to your survival as your heart or your kidneys. It’s so important, in fact, that we could have written this entire book all about the DN. We would have said, “Here it is! Here’s how it works, here’s how you can access it, here’s how you can turbocharge it.” But in fact, that’s not enough. The DN, alone, can’t create breakthroughs.

It’s the ability to use both modes, to switch from one mode to another, that enabled Keith Richards to come up with “Satisfaction” and Albert Einstein to discover the special theory of relativity. In fact, it’s what enabled most discoveries in human history

So how can you access your genius mode? One way is to sleep on it. (Yes, really.)

Adam Cheyer is the co-creator of Siri, Apple’s artificial intelligence iPhone voice assistant. Building Siri was a Herculean design and programming task. The sheer number of variables—the ability to understand varying speech patterns, the ability to search based on the random ways people would request information, the ability to return answers in a useful way—were each a massive challenge. Thankfully, Cheyer had a secret weapon: ready access to his genius mode.

Although designing and building Siri was a highly structured task, Cheyer knew better than to try to logically grind out every answer. Instead, he told us, “I sleep on the issues I’m wrestling with.” Cheyer, like Thomas Edison, has discovered the incredible breakthrough power of the hypnagogic and hypnopompic states, the half-asleep periods just before falling asleep and just before waking. These are times when our genius council runs on hyperdrive.

“I go to bed around 11, noodling on a problem as I fall asleep,” he explained. By “noodling” on the problem, Cheyer uses his EN to deliberately and consciously focus his genius council on a question. He relies on his genius council to make new associations and deliver breakthroughs while asleep. In the morning he goes to his desk and uses his EN to process the night’s harvest of ideas.

Morning after morning while first designing Siri, he would wake up with new insights from his DN. He’d use his EN to integrate them into the prototype he was building. Eventually, he felt that he had something concrete enough to show the rest of the world.

Adam Cheyer and Thomas Edison.Photos by Keystone & Araya Diaz/Getty Images for TechCrunch
Photos by Keystone & Araya Diaz/Getty Images for TechCrunch

The hypnagogic and hypnopompic states are so fruitful for creativity because our inhibiting frontal lobes—where our EN’s front office is located—are quiet, and our DN is running strong.

Putting it into practice: How to enter the hypnagogic state

  • Clear the room of clutter and distractions.
  • Have pen and paper, voice recorder, your phone on airplane mode and set to take notes, or . . .
  • Dim the lights (or wear an eye mask).
  • Ensure you’re in a quiet place, or that only white noise is audible.
  • Don’t get too comfortable—no wearing pajamas or getting in bed.
  • Try to find time at midday, or right after you’ve eaten, when you’re just the right amount of tired.
  • Set your alarm for ten to fifteen minutes.
  • Take a moment to focus your brain on the problem, and then let it go. Relax and drift off.

As anyone who zones out all the time can testify, simply taking a break will not lead to inspiration: To stoke creativity, you need to perform tasks that allow your mind to wander.

After an “unusual uses” creativity test (“How many things can you do with a hanger?”) students were given a 12-minute break. One group simply rested; one did an easy, mindless task; one did a demanding memory game; and one group took no break.

When the participants reconvened and retook the creativity test, the “mindless task” group performed an average of 41% better. By contrast, participants in the other three groups showed no improvement.

Interestingly, this was only the case for problems that were already being mentally chewed on; doing a mindless task didn’t seem to lead to a general increase in creative problem-solving ability. This makes sense: Our executive has to have set a clear goal for our geniuses in order for them to be productive.

“So what’s the single best mindless activity I can do?” our clients often ask us. If we had to choose one single mindless activity, it would be walking.

In a recent study, participants walking indoors on a treadmill facing a blank wall or walking outdoors in the fresh air produced twice as many creative responses compared to those who were sitting down.

“I thought walking outside would blow everything out of the water,” said the lead researcher, “but walking on a treadmill in a small, boring room still had strong results.” The study also found that creative juices continued to flow even when a person sat back down shortly after a walk. “We know walking meetings promote creativity, but walking before a meeting may be nearly as useful.”

From a cognitive angle, walking demands just the right amount of focus from our executive, without asking too much. Walking is a very complex task: We are taking in constant input from our feet, legs, hips, arms, and, of course, our inner ears, the heart of our balance gyroscope. But our brains are experts at this task. Through long familiarity, the executive can do all this with very little energy.

From a physical angle, walking stimulates your brain. Increased blood flow causes a cascade of wonderful changes in the brain, including the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and other growth factors. BDNF promotes the birth of new neurons and the formation of new synapses, and it also strengthens existing synapses.

Open offices have strong detractors as well as proponents, but with their few inner walls and rolling tables, they’re at least walker friendly. In fact, according to research out of Stanford, the most important thing these open spaces offer to creativity is the ability to walk. Doing so increased a person’s creative output by 60%, the study found.

Charles Darwin famously had a quarter-mile-long walking path called the Sandwalk that was his place to go and think when working on a problem. “So important was walking to his thought processes that Darwin sometimes described a problem he was working on in terms of the number of turns around his path he would need to solve it.”

Mason Currey, after studying the habits of nearly 200 of the world’s most prolific inventors and innovators over the ages, found that the single common habit of these great inventors and innovators was walking. As Currey reports, Charles Dickens famously took 3-hour walks every afternoon—and what he observed on them fed directly into his writing.

Tchaikovsky made do with a 2-hour walk, but wouldn’t return a minute early, convinced that cheating himself of the full 120 minutes would make him ill. Beethoven took lengthy strolls after lunch, carrying a pencil and paper with him in case inspiration struck.

Soren Kierkegaard is quoted as saying “I have walked myself into my best thoughts.” He is also reported to have often rushed back to his desk and resumed writing, still wearing his hat and carrying his walking stick or umbrella.

Walking, when used for mind-wandering, works well in quiet, peaceful places; less well when you have to be aware of cars, traffic lights, joggers, and so forth, because your executive mode has to stay active. Whether to meander or to walk with purpose is up to you: Judah is comfortable walking aimlessly, but Olivia needs a route and a destination.

Here’s the thing: you don’t just take a walk and magically have a breakthrough. Walking is a wonderful way to set the conditions, but there is more to it than simply meandering along. Putting it into practice involves multiple steps, including defining your problem—the act of verbalizing what you’re looking for can get you started on finding the answer—and setting a goal. You’ll also need to carry a notebook so you always have a way to record your thoughts. And then there are the more unexpected techniques: Keep something in your hand. A coin, a stone, a paperclip, a Star Wars figurine—we won’t judge. Our hands send massive amounts of information to our brains, and keeping those channels open keeps our brains in a more associative state. Adam Cheyer of Apple always keeps a Rubik’s Cube on his desk to play with while thinking.

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. . . . That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

Steve Jobs and Henry Ford.Photos by Shaun Curry/AFP & Interim Archives—Getty Images
Photos by Shaun Curry/AFP & Interim Archives—Getty Images

What Steve Jobs is describing is called “associative thinking,” and is essential for breakthrough thinking. Too often, we make the mistake of assuming breakthroughs are freestanding ideas, something never thought of before by anyone in any context. The truth is that almost every breakthrough is a combination of ideas that already existed.

Henry Ford’s breakthrough of the assembly line came when he made an association between the Chicago meatpacking industry’s use of mechanized hooks and bakeries’ use of industrial conveyer belts. He put the two together, applied them to the building of the automobile, and the assembly line was born.

A breakthrough in gun accuracy came when gunmakers looked to the bow and arrow. The feathers on the back of arrows cause the arrow to spin, and the spin makes the arrow fly straight. In the same way, a football flies straight when thrown in a spiral. To make their bullets spin, gunmakers carved spirals inside their gun barrels. Accuracy increased fivefold. Because putting feathers on arrows was called rifling, these guns became known as rifles.

One of Thomas Edison’s least successful inventions was the electric pen, patented in 1876, to help make copies. People just weren’t that into it. In 1891, a tattoo artist named Samuel O’Reilly saw the pen and had a breakthrough. He invented the modern tattooing machine. Instead of ink writing language on paper, he applied ink to skin to create images.

He saw how to substitute it for what he was using. And when the Southern Pacific Railroad built a series of microwave towers to facilitate an intercontinental network of telecommunications, they were just focused on improving their trains’ efficiency. But this also became the foundation for the telecom company Sprint (Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Network Telecommunications). The new use in this case became the breakthrough.


Excerpted from The Net and the Butterfly: The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking by Olivia Fox Cabane and Judah Pollack, published on February 7, 2017, by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Olivia Fox Cabane and Judah Pollack.

We’ve included affiliate links in this article. Click here to learn what those are.