The sword was hanging above my head, at least in a literal sense. Twenty-five years ago, my doctoral advisor had just given me a one-week deadline to resolve a tricky operationalization problem in the conceptual model of my thesis or be expelled from of the program. I had already been working on this devilishly difficult challenge for two years and only arrived at a solution that I knew was only “so-so but okay,” but I hoped still acceptable. Boy, was I wrong! In my proposal defense, my “Doktorvater” crushed my lackluster idea of how I suggested operationalizing the construct of “financial management performance” – and looking at it in retrospect, rightfully so. So I had one week to come up with a breakthrough solution for this problem I had been unable to resolve in the prior 24 months. On day 5, I got the winning idea in an awe-inspiring Eureka moment of breakthrough creativity. Here is what I did to turn the odds in my favor.
Desperate for a breakthrough idea? Stop your usual striving and embrace the unusual
Returning home after my crushing defeat in my thesis proposal defense, I sat in the dark for an hour, desperate, licking my wounds and thinking about what I could do. I accepted that the odds were not in my favor but believed I somehow could find a solution. I resolved to take massive action in the days ahead. So, the same evening, I began rereading the relevant academic papers and books related to my operationalization problem.
After one and a half days of intensive re-examination of the relevant domain literature, I intuitively felt that continuing wouldn’t bring me closer to the solution. Quite the contrary! I noticed that the more papers I read, the more nervous and desperate I became. Unexpectedly, I screamed: “Stop! That’s not me! This is not going to work!” I sensed that to get the right solution, I needed to do it my way. I needed to seek inspiration in harmony with my personality and preferred creative ways. So what were some of the extraordinary things that I did?
- My intuition encouraged me to predominantly invest time in doing things that I enjoy and am passionate about, that can inspire me, and keep up a positive spirit to help counter the stress and immense pressure I felt given the one-week make-or-break deadline.
- Then, I curiously asked myself odd questions (“How is performance measured or assessed in other areas, such as sports or the arts? Why has no one else discussed this in the literature so far? What makes the problem so fiendish? What else? What else?”) and shifted perspectives by looking at the issue from the viewpoint of a CFO, a CEO, or an external auditor, among others.
- Next, I asked myself, “When and where do I get my best ideas?” The answer came immediately: “Running.” At that time, I was still a competitive middle-distance runner, so I resolved to go on a solo run in nature twice a day for the remaining days up to my deadline.
- I also noticed that I might get fresh ideas by reaching out to practitioner experts and chatting with friends. Hence, I stepped out of my comfort zone and began cold-calling some financial business consultants I had identified as being praxis-oriented experts in the field; after briefing them about my study and the related financial management performance measurement challenge, I asked them for any suggestions. In addition, I called and met up with friends, openly shared with them the dire situation I was in, and asked them for any advice or anything that came to their minds on resolving my challenge.
- To relax and get further random inspiration, I also browsed through magazines and my favorite comics. Moreover, I watched TV for 2-3 hours a day, often zapping between different, rather trashy talk shows to listen for stimulating sentences and unrelated comments I could relate to my challenge. (In other words, all these actions allowed me to collect fresh dots from both domain experts and complete laypeople I could connect to my challenge).
- Over the following days, my schedule was a mix of work and play activities: Calling financial experts in the early morning, going for my morning run, having an extended lunch break in the university canteen with friends, browsing through magazines, and watching TV in the afternoon, going for a second, longer run in the late afternoon, and calling friends by phone and more TV in the evening until heading to bed for 7-8 hours of sleep.
- While following this unusual schedule, I kept the faith that I would get my Ph.D.-saving idea in time if I followed this daily routine and essentially let go of the challenge to get into my flow. However, sensing that I might need more profound inspiration from a higher creative force, I pledged that if I got the idea in time and was able to continue with my Ph.D., I would sponsor the education of a child in a developing country. This commitment further strengthened my belief that the right answer would arrive in time and gave me the courage to let go of my prior conscious striving.
And guess what? The winning idea came to me on day five during my afternoon run in an enlightening Eureka moment of breakthrough creativity. (An earlier article titled How does it feel to experience a Eureka moment? describes what was going on at that moment). After working through the night to outline the breakthrough idea, I presented it to my advising professor the following morning. He approved the solution and gave me his blessing to begin the data collection two weeks later. Roughly a year later, I defended my Ph.D. thesis successfully and was awarded a doctorate degree with the grade “Magna cum laude.”
How my unusual actions prior to my Eurekas reflect the unusual ways of genius
Put yourself into my shoes for a moment in this make-or-break situation. Ask yourself: Would you have taken the same actions to resolve a wicked problem that you couldn’t solve within two years of prior work within a one-week deadline that might end your career? Most probably not. Most people would have dug deeper into the domain literature to look for a cue they had missed before — and consider the things I did slightly crazy and perhaps even reckless.
Interestingly, it worked for me. But make no mistake: Walking away from reading the domain literature in this situation and letting go of my conscious striving to instead incubate subconsciously on the challenge required colossal courage. I could only do it because I believed in myself, my ways, and perhaps being able to attract divine support if I worked on a worthy cause for the greater good beyond just me. And that’s the start of the Genius Journey, where at destination stop 1, the corresponding stop-start mindsets are as follows:
STOP your doubts, worries and fears.
START becoming a courageous, action-oriented believer.
Roughly five years after my first Eureka, I experienced a second moment of breakthrough creativity for another significant challenge I was desperate to resolve (“Why am I here? What should I rather do with my life other than being an accomplished but unenthusiastic corporate banker?”). Once again, it happened after I had taken similar unusual actions to collect fresh dots and inspiration.
Experiencing a Eureka twice in life is so unusual that it motivated me to investigate the phenomena of ingenuity and sub- and superconscious creativity in the pertinent literature. I discovered that most geniuses and creative top achievers share similar mindsets and routines that align with those I maintained at that time to beat the odds. I conceptualized these genius mindsets and routines in Genius Journey, the creative leadership development and breakthrough creativity method I have developed for Thinkergy.
I firmly believe that this advanced creativity method and related activities can help empower a new generation of creative leaders who will use it to come up with more breakthrough ideas for the many significant challenges humanity needs to resolve in the coming 2-3 decades. “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them,” noted Albert Einstein. Indeed, we need to move to higher levels of consciousness and creativity — first individually as a single creative leader, then collectively as a team, business unit, company, and society.
Conclusion: Geniuses get unusual ideas because they think and act in unusual ways
“There is a genius in all of us,” pronounced Albert Einstein. I believe he’s right. If an ordinary person like me can discover his hidden ingenuity by daring to follow the less well-trodden path and do things in his own extraordinary ways, so can you. But it requires courage to let go of your normal, ordinary ways of thinking and doing things and start your journey into the abnormal, extraordinary ways of geniuses. So when are you ready to begin your Genius Journey?
- Find out more about Genius Journey, Thinkergy’s creative leadership development method that allows you to reconnect to your original creative self.
- Are you ready to experience the Genius Journey? We offer enlightening training courses for companies (of one to three days) to show you how geniuses advance to higher levels of creativity. We can also tailor a more extensive Genius Journey development program for a cohort of executives keen to rediscover their inner genius and evolve into authentic creative leaders.
- Contact us to learn more about unleashing the genius in you and your creative leaders.
© Dr. Detlef Reis 2022.
Credits: Title photo by Florian Schmetz on Unsplash