Thomas Edison famously said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Funnily enough, that is exactly the calculation I have made of my doctoral research.
99% is: reading dense chunks of literature. Making notes. Crossing out notes. Churning out sentences. Revising sentences. Formatting. Entering citations. Adjusting citations because I can never remember where the commas go. Wrestling with my EndNote library. Fact-checking. Making coffee. Drinking coffee. Googling how to get MS Word to do that thing I want it to do. Gazing wistfully out the window and being surprised that there is weather out there, and people and a world. Etcetera.
It’s not glamorous work, and it’s not terribly exciting in a day-to-day sort of way. In the doldrums of all this 99% perspiration, I tend to forget my long-term ambitions and focus on small pleasures. These socks are warm. There might be a bit of wine left in that bottle in the pantry at home. My supervisor wrote me that kind email once. And so on.
Over time, ambition becomes drudgery, and drudgery translates into survival. This comic from PhD comics is quite relatable:
But that’s only 99% of the time. The remaining 1%? Pure inspiration. Those 1% moments are the times when I have an idea that breaks my research wide open. When I’ve gestated a fragmentary chapter long enough that its grand unifying principle bubbles serenely into my mind. When I think of the perfect way to articulate something that has been hazy to me for years. When I discover something wholly new to human knowledge.
These are the research wins; the “eureka” moments. They are the nuggets of genius that make it all worthwhile.
But they require a whole different type of thinking than the 99% moments. Most of the time, I need to think analytically. But to get those inspired 1% moments? That requires creative thought.
So: how can you manufacture a more creative, inspiration-ready brain-state?
This is totally counterintuitive, but if you think all day, sometimes your brain needs a little time out to really get creative. Harvard psychologist Shelley H. Carson calls these time-outs “incubation periods.” When you’re at the gym or in the shower, you can drop the intense focus that comes with being at work, and your thoughts can wander creatively.
Court that dopamine
Dopamine is a “feel good” chemical that acts as a neurotransmitter, helping signals to travel between neurons in the brain. Neuroscientist Alice Flaherty has researched a link between dopamine and creative thinking, and found that mesolimbic dopamine is associated with creative drive. Your brain is flooded with dopamine when (among other things) you experience pleasure. Does that mean that eating chocolate makes you more creative? I like to think so. However, boosting dopamine during an incubation period (by taking a long, peaceful walk for instance) is probably a better option.
Be OK with bad ideas
When the brain gets creative, it doesn’t always stay smart. Management researchers at MIT and UC Davis have found that people who have lots of good ideas also have lots of bad ideas. If you inner critic is constantly policing your brain against having bad ideas, then it’s quite possibly blocking the good ones too. Let all your ideas flow out when you brainstorm – you can cull the bad ones later.
Have you found a great way to coax your brain into thinking creatively? Share in the comments!