|“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:
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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Dying of Despair
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What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Post Collapse with Michael Dowd (video)
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Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
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A Future Without Us
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CoVid-19: Go for Zero
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A Better Way to Work
Ask Yourself This
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May I Ask a Question?
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Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
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Republicans Slide Into Fascism
All the Things I Was Wrong About
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We Make Zero
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If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
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Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark
Healing From Ourselves
The Entanglement Hypothesis
Nothing Needs to Happen
Nothing to Say About This
What I Wanted to Believe
A Continuous Reassemblage of Meaning
No Choice But to Misbehave
What's Apparently Happening
A Different Kind of Animal
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
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A Canadian Sorry (Satire)
Under No Illusions (Short Story)
The Ever-Stranger (Poem)
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Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
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Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
Only This (Poem)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
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