That Aha! Moment

exclamation“Then suddenly it hit me…”  We use that kind of language to describe Aha! moments, realizations that seem to come out of nowhere, but immediately seem obvious. “How could I not have (a)realized, (b) considered or (c) thought of that before?”, we ask ourselves, incredulous at our previous foolishness. Hit yourself on the side of the head already, that it was stuck in there so long before it came out. Duh!

It’s different with children. I’ve watched children learning something, or discovering something, or imagining or inventing something, and like adults they get that look (you know, the wide eyes and the index finger pointing upwards, which I’m convinced was the inspiration for the design of the exclamation mark, which the Spanish have the good sense to put upside down at the beginning of sentences to warn you to get ready for it). But with children it’s easier, more natural, less earth-shaking, more frequent. They don’t need warning.

It seems to me there are three different types of Aha! moments:

  1. Ideas — when you suddenly imagine (“come up with”) something new that is interesting or useful or expressive
  2. Discoveries — when new information “comes to light” that provides important new perspective
  3. Understandings — when stuff “comes together” and suddenly something “makes sense”

Mountains of books have been written on how to “spark” all three types of Aha! moments. I’ve written about how to imagine and how to think differently (type 1) and about where to look for information whose discovery could innovate your business or a whole industry (type 2).  Less has been written about the process of mental synthesis that leads to breakthrough understandings (type 3), producing whole shifts in how you see a problem or see the world, though much of what is involved in Presencing and in Open Space is about allowing such understandings to emerge, naturally and unforced.

There are those who believe these sparks happen better in solitary moments, and others who believe they happen better through collaboration and brainstorming with others. I think there’s room, and need, for both.

Notice that my definition of all three types of Aha! moments include the word “come”. Indeed, we use the term “it suddenly came to me” to describe all three types of moments. Mystics and consultants also talk about the process of “letting come”, opening yourself up to allow more such moments to occur, to “present” themselves to you.

Perhaps its just because I’m a slow learner, but I’ve found that as I get older, such moments “come to me” less often. I still get just as many ideas (in fact, because I’ve been practicing in both a personal and business context and have acquired a lot more information to draw from, I get many more ideas now than I used to — I’m never at a loss for what to write on my blog). But I find I’m making fewer discoveries of important or useful new information (probably because I’ve spent so much time researching my writing and my work projects that I’ve already cherry-picked the best — and should look offline, in the real world, more often).

And, more importantly I think, the Aha! moments of understanding are fewer and farther between than they used to be. They’re the ones that are so context-specific and dependent on all the baggage to be organized in your own brain that they are the hardest to share with others. Although reading Straw Dogs probably produced my biggest Aha! moment in several years (that neither I nor any group can ‘save the world’ because it is not in human nature to change that fast), I doubt that my waxing rhapsodic about it has sold many copies of Gray’s book. In fact, all 15 of the bulleted selections in my How to Save the World Reading List provided me with Aha! moments of understanding, and it is readers who have waded through most of the readings in this list, or at least similar readings and experiences at similar points in their lives, who report having had similar Aha! moments. We have a shared context to produce them.

As Daniel Quinn says “people will listen when they’re ready to listen and not before” — Aha! moments of understanding only come to us when the context for them is in place in our heads, and when the time is right. When I first read The Spell of the Sensuous a decade ago I tossed it aside, where now it is one of my favourite books of all time. At the time of the first reading, I just wasn’t ready for it.

In that sense, while the first two types of Aha! moments are like small tremours that shake our world, the third type is like a tectonic shift, massive, disruptive, causing our old ‘world’ to crumble and causing us to rebuild new frameworks, new mental infrastructure for our lives. They reshape our world, and frequently produce ‘aftershocks’ that ripple through other aspects of our thinking and our lives, altering them profoundly.

As the world becomes more complex and our lives more specialized and disconnected from others’, our shared context is being continually diminished — despite the increase in cultural homogeneity in our society. As a result, I think, shared Aha! moments of understanding are getting rarer, and harder to come by. We fall back on poor proxies for shared understanding — namely shared ‘values’, icons, and political and commercial brands.

What ways have you discovered to provoke more Aha! moments in your own life, and in others? What’s the mostimportant Aha! moment of your recent life, and how did it come about?

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9 Responses to That Aha! Moment

  1. My AHA moments almost invariably occur in the shower, which is very distressing because a waterproof dictaphone has not yet been invented, to my knowledge.Also, they happen just before I nod off to sleep. Lovely! That is why I need a pad next to the bed. :)

  2. kerry says:

    I think an AHA moment is another way of describing intuition. I develop mine by consuming as much information as possible on diverse, and often, tangential subjects. I follow my feelings without consciously trying to reach for an answer or even a question. Simply indulge my mood for, say, documentaries, until I’ve had my fill which will then probably lead me to desiring something more light-hearted in the music sphere. The more information in my head the more likely I am to connect two pieces in a new and original way. Key is diversity of information and willingness to switch from micro to macro…in other words, self-exploration and inner-searching relates to world and global understanding and vice versa. Information, like anything else on our planet, is a part of the ecosystem and thrives on diversity.

  3. Andrew says:

    Thank you for your articles. I find them very interesting and thought provoking. Cheers

  4. Aha moments require a certain amount of buildup, much like the buildup of a static charge before lightning strikes. I’ve found that once I start down a road of discovery, reading everything I can on what I think is the topic or idea I’m after, also taking various tangents along the way, I come to a point at which I’ve absorbed all I can for now and it’s time to do something else, something that rivets my attention and is completely unrelated. That’s when all I’ve taken in has a chance to gel in the back of my mind for a while, uninterrupted by me (my conscious thought), and I never really know what will come out until it does. Aha is about combining unlike elements, sometimes, too. Reading in unrelated, apparently out-of-context areas will make sudden sense of whatever I’m seeking–because that buildup was there to begin with.

  5. Barbara – quite interesting you mention that process. I often find that, when writing a uni paper, if you leave it alone for a week once all the research is done, it is incredile when I sit down, because the essay just about writes itself.Once the brain has connected everything, it flows out on to the page without much conscious thought.

  6. Siona says:

    I started walking to work a few months ago; it’s four miles each way, and it’s rare that I get through the hour it takes each morning and evening without some kind of minor AHA moment. For me the meditative rhythm of walking – and a certain attention to presence (I do try to stay in the moment) – does it every time. It’s frequently the closest I get to, as Gray would put it, reconnecting with my animal nature. Somehow this isn’t surprising.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    It’s interesting how much more often you get such moments when you make time for them. They really are emergent, and cannot be forced. It is perhaps not suprising that big corporations, with fewer and fewer people working longer and harder all the time, utterly cease to be innovative or to realize their own predicaments — they just don’t have time.

  8. Martin-Eric says:

    My AHA moments tend to happen when I travel and passively stare at the scenery (car, ferry or train) or at the clouds (plane), because there is nothing else to do than sit and daydream. Natural elements or passively eavesdroped conversations attract my attention and the AHA moment happens.Another kind of circumstance that generates plenty of AHA moments is after spending some time close to Nature, such as after a weekend of camping or being at someone’s summerplace. Supercharged by a moment of communion with Nature and by sharing those moments with friends, I return home and get AHA moments in spades for the next few days.It was said that Albert Eistein would go for a walk in Nature and bring his violin along, after an intense session of scientific theorizing, and come back home with a fresh perspective on theories drafted earlier and knowing what to do next. I concur. It works.

  9. Jens says:

    Walking, showering, reordering information by drawing, clustering, mindmapping, talking to other people. Association does it sometimes. Reading and being aware of, as Win Wenger called it, my “sidebands of awareness” or the monkey mind or whatever you call that pictures and words that always go on in the background but which you ignore most of the time.But the best method by far is walking.The greatest AHA! moment? Perhaps realizing that I’m a perfectionist in disguise, that I’m often procratinating or abandoning projects because I don’t think I will get it right. What now is missing is another AHA! telling me how to avoid this.Thanks for giving me food for thought,Jens

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