Insight

The frustrating thing about insight is its unpredictability. We all have flashes of insight, of understanding our challenges and their solutions, but those flashes are just that: lightning strikes that illuminate the page just long enough to read a phrase, but not long enough to take notes in the margins. And you certainly can’t plan on a lighting storm just when the proposal is due or the data come in or the team begins to come apart at the seams. But insight isn’t a gift of the gods or a sign of hidden brilliance. Insight is just your brain doing its own work on its own time.

Most work is controllable. We can decide to work well and thoroughly and we will do so. Every morning it takes about an hour and a half to slog through my emails, and I do it. Many days have meetings scheduled, and so I show up and participate. Most weeks, and certainly every month, quarter, and year, I have deadlines to meet and so I put pen to page (or fingers to keyboard) and produce documents. I control those things. What I don’t always feel like I control is the unpredictable presence or absence of insight, of the flash of lightning that will sometimes mean that a proposal wins, an argument convinces, or a decision makes life better for a colleague.

What is insight, really, and why can’t we control it? I really like this definition of insight: an instance of apprehending the true nature of a thing, especially through intuitive understanding. The true nature of a thing. So often I feel like I am peering into dim, murky light when I am trying to solve problems or even create text describing the world as it is, or as we would like it to be. When I am able to do that well it is because of that flash of light that allows me to see the true nature of a thing, and then I am better equipped to act on it. But why can’t we know the true nature of a thing without insight? Why isn’t the true nature of a thing – especially a thing like a behavior or an epidemic or a bureaucracy – apparent in plain light?

Maybe it is because we cannot see and hold in our conscious minds all the glittering bits of data that make up the true nature of a thing; intellect, while powerful, has bandwidth, and complex problems exceed it. If you think of intellect as the part of your mind that you direct to crunch data and answer emails and write text, imagine it operating in the plain, ordinary light of day. Beneath that self-directed activity, though, is the rest of your brain with its trillions of connections operating in a different, brilliant light. Just as you could never expect to run or leap just by ordering your muscles to fire (your intellect would make a mess of ordinary movement) you cannot expect your brain to solve every complex problem by intellectual effort. Sometimes you have to let your brain make the leap, undirected. And when that leap happens you see the light flash as the door between the unconscious mind and the conscious intellect swings open to let the insight through.

Is this all a little too woo-woo? Probably. I’m not much of a neuroscientist. But the truth is that we do find solutions to complex problems when we deeply understand them, and those solutions often come to us complete and without conscious effort, and usually when we don’t have a pen handy. So how to help urge insight along, make that flash a little more likely? I’ve got two thoughts.

Help your brain do the work. Insight isn’t magic – you can’t have insight into something you don’t know or don’t understand. Your intellect can help insight along by doing the work of learning, exploring, asking, and thinking. Give your brain the information and learning it needs to make connections, find commonalities, and make generalizations. Feed your brain with experiences, real and secondhand, to learn from. You need grist for the mill. Provide it.

Open the door. The furious intellectual work we often do to solve problems pushes hard against the door between our conscious and unconscious minds, but that is the same door that must swing open to let insight through. As long as we are pushing that door stays shut. When we do something like shower or run or daydream our busy brain relaxes, the pushing stops, and the door opens enough to let the light through. My advice? Smell the flowers, stare out the office window, look at the clouds, walk aimlessly. It’s the only way I know to call down a lightning strike.

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