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The Eureka Myth: Why Darwin (not Draper) is the Right Model for Creative Thinking



The Inspiring Story: A Brilliant Mind “Thinks Different”

In a pivotal scene in the Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything, the physicist is staring into the embers of a dying fire when he has an epiphany: black holes emit heat!

The next scene shows Hawking triumphantly announcing his result to a stunned audience — and just like that, his insight vaults him into the ranks of scientific stardom.

This story is inspirational. But as the physicist Leonard Mlodinow points out in a recent New York Times op-ed, it’s not at all how Hawking’s breakthrough actually happened…

The Stubborn Reality: A Highly-Trained Mathematician Works Hard

In reality, Hawking had encountered a theory by two Russian physicists that argued rotating black holes should emit energy until they slowed to a stationary configuration.

Hawking, who at the time was a promising young scientist who had not yet made his mark, was intrigued, but also skeptical.

So he decided to look deeper .

In the (many) months that followed, Hawking trained his preternatural analytical skill to investigate the validity of the Russians’ claims. This task required any number of minor breakthroughs, all orbiting the need to somehow reconcile (in a targeted way) both quantum theory and relativity.

This was really hard work.

The number of physicists at the time with enough specialized training and grit to follow through this investigation probably wouldn’t have filled a moderate size classroom.

But Hawking persisted.

And to his eventual “surprise and annoyance,” his mathematics confirmed an even more shocking conclusion: even stationary black holes can emit heat.

There was no fireside eureka moment, but instead a growing awareness that gained traction as the mathematics were refined and checked again and again.

The Eureka Myth

Mlodinow tells this story as one of many examples of scientific discoveries incorrectly portrayed as the result of sudden insight. (He also places Darwin’s finches and Newton’s apple in this category.)

There are many lessons that can be drawn from Mlodinow’s article, but there’s one in particular I want to highlight here: we need to rethink creativity.

This idea came to me soon after I read Mlodinow’s op-ed. Later that morning I was at Barnes & Noble, still thinking about his points, when I saw the table display pictured above.

The two books placed right next to each other on the display, I realized, capture a fundamental rift in our culture’s thinking on creativity.

The bottom book, titled The Eureka Factor, explains, among other things, how to setup your environment to be more “conducive” to generating “creative insights” of the type portrayed in The Theory of Everything.

The top book, titled Birth of a Theorem (which I bought and read this weekend), is written by the french mathematician Cedric Villani. It tells the tale (without undue exposition or elision) of how he came to solve the theorem that won him the 2010 Fields Medal.

The former promotes a Don Draper style story that we like to hear: if you’re willing to open yourself to your own genius, you’ll have eureka moments that change your life.

The latter paints the Stephan Hawking style reality of what produces real creativity: hard won skills are put to work in a painstaking, obsessive way to uncover, one cognitive brush stroke at a time, something fundamentally new.

In an economy where creativity is becoming both more important and complicated,  I suspect we need to abandon the old ways of thinking about this type of thinking, with its conference room brainstorming sessions and markers on butcher paper, and instead discover what scientists knew along: creativity is hard, highly skilled work that is often quite unromantic in its execution, but is ultimately a source of deeper satisfaction than any short-lived eureka moment could ever deliver.

40 thoughts on “The Eureka Myth: Why Darwin (not Draper) is the Right Model for Creative Thinking”

  1. It’s like the old saying. It takes years of hard work to be an overnight success.

    Or as the magician Harry Blackstone, Jr. once said:
    “Nothing I do can’t be done by a ten-year-old — with fifteen years of practice.”

  2. I have been listening to two audio books this month : the 7 habits of highly effective people by Stephen Covey and Mastery by Robert Green. While I do appreciate some of the advice they both produce, they did both talk about this “a-ha” phenomenon respectively as “paradigm shift” and “creativity through serendipity” and made it seem all about organizing your life to allow for those semi-conscious moments of brilliance to happen.

    Of course, they didn’t offer it as a substitute for hard-work but they did make it sound as if hard-work needs to lead to those “a-ha” moments to generate an incredible breakthrough, whereas most of those paradigm shifts in reality happen as the direct results of years of hard work and mastery of the skill rather than a lucky, half-conscious eureka moment.

  3. Great post as usual Cal. I wonder what’s your thoughts about excercises to stimulate creativity. Recent research had shown that with 10 to 15 minutes a day doing excercises, like writing ideas with words without relation between them, actually improved creativity. Although I know the creativity needed for scientific breakthroughs is different, I wonder if it may help in any way this type of “exercises”.

  4. Thanks Cal – your writings (just finished “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.”) have changed my outlook and increased my optimism about my career (I’m a CPA).

    I recently read an article from a weight-lifting coach named Pavel who has a unique theory of strength training that I think may apply to “deep work.” Pavel claims you can enjoyably and rapidly increase strength by only doing 30-50% of “failure” in a weight-lifting session.

    For example, if you physically are able to bench press 100lbs for 3 sets of 5, then you would aim to do 3 sets of 5 at 50lbs. Following this method you may need to work out the same muscle group more often (say twice a week instead of once a week), but you will get stronger, avoid injury, and find it way more enjoyable.

    Could a similar approach work for mental exertion or office work?

    • Concerning the weight lifting approach, if you are weak enough, absolutely every approach will work. Strength is so little and adaptability so high, that any exercise will put the body under enough stress to force adaption.

      I have grave doubts that this method would work on someone who already has considerable strength.

      And what would the adaption to mental work look like? Solving high school math problems as a PhD student, hoping to build strength to get the thesis done?

      • I meant: would it be possible to see gains in “deep thinking” if we tried to attempt hard mental work more often but we stopped when we felt 50% mentally fatigued. In other words, maybe it is more realistic to do hard mental work in smaller time chunks but more often.

  5. Isn’t this more a matter of what it’s like on the inside (months and years of study and deep thought that eventually coalesce into an insight), versus what it looks like from the outside (the ‘aha moment’ that appears to come from nowhere).

    “Feed Your Head” has long been the mantra of creativity.

    • Tricia, I agree with your first paragraph. I think that what you said is consistent with Cal’s post (and The New York Times article by Mlodinow that Cal cites).

      This, however, I have some issues with, and mention primarily because others seem to have favorably responded:

      “Feed Your Head” has long been the mantra of creativity.

      Actually, I think that “feed your head” may have originated with Lewis Carroll and “Through the Looking Glass”. Perhaps that is the context in which you meant it? If so, I think I understand.

      If not, then I’ll point out that “feed your head” as a mantra has had its most common recent usage in the lyrics of Jefferson Airplane’s song, White Rabbit. Perhaps it alludes to Aldous Huxley’s “Doors of Perception” too. Both refer specifically to heightened perception due to the use of LSD. Since then, there are a whole range of other substances that supposedly enhance creativity and cognition too. They range from the illegal (DXM? DMT? I don’t recall which one) to the unproven e.g. modafinil/Provigil. Whether they work, well, I don’t know and am kind of doubtful. That isn’t so relevant as the fact that they are used as a catalyst in the hopes of achieving a “Eureka!” moment. I think that belief in pharmaceutical-instigated creativity is a hoped-for shortcut to insights that actually require months and years of study and deep thought, just as you had mentioned.

  6. Isn’t there room for both, and even more models of how ideas are born?

    The Don Draper model may seem over-dominant at the moment but my understanding of it was that hours of unproductive application and attention to a problem tills the soil from which insight MAY arise. Admittedly it always does for our Don but not til after hours of lonely whiskeys, doodling on napkins and far too many cigarettes. I can’ t agree this model needs to be dismissed and a truer one adopted because I’ve experienced this model frequently.

    • I think thats what he’s trying to say, that you need those hours of ‘unproductive application’. Good, viable ideas do not just come in without previous effort.

  7. While your posts do not paint the path to success in the most inspiring light, they do create a liberating awareness when viewing this path.

    It’s like someone telling you repeatedly that you can’t have an effect without a cause. It’s daunting but it’s rooted in a concreteness that is indispensible in tackling reality.

    Thanks Cal for all the insights you share.

  8. It’s easy to be seduced by the Draper style. The practical method always seems to come back to persistence. Even in our ancestral days, we were good persistence hunters.

  9. I’ve read about those “Heureka” moments quite often, but I can say that I’ve never experienced them myself.

    During the course of my studies, when something was difficult for me to grasp, insight came after persistently taking different approaches to the problem. Step by step, another small aspect was revealed, until I had enough pieces to see the whole picture.

    I never, ever had a heureka moment in my entire life, but always looked back at understanding difficult things being a gradual process.

    Or things were so obviously trivial that one could grasp them immediately. But “Heureka!”, no, never.

  10. Hi Cal,

    I have been following your blog for a couple years and I think I have a recent story that encapsulates all of your teachings focusing on your craft.

    Charlie Puth is a 23 year old musician who has been working on his craft for many years. Putting in the thousands of hours of deep practice. His “first” song got 280 million views in the first month.

    Cal you are going to love this 3min video where he tells his story.

    • I don’t think it is possible to increase creativity for an individual. There are no shortcuts to gaining deep subject matter knowledge, or to deriving empirical results e.g. from experiments and analyses.

      Sometimes, if the circumstances are just right, a group of people with overlapping skill sets can collaborate to achieve more creative insights than any one of them could individually.

  11. Cal, I think the Don Draper approach was to work really hard on an idea and then, if you don’t have a good idea, wait for the insight. The flaw with this approach is most people wait for the insight without doing the hard work. There is nothing wrong with turning a problem over to your subconscious, assuming you did the hard work first.

  12. Thank you for your posts Cal, very sobering for me.
    Once I started looking, I find similar approach everywhere, here’s an interview with Chris Duffin, record-breaking weightlifter –
    “to succeed in the gym, in life, it takes vision, consistency and hard work, and people think about vision the wrong way. They think about it as everybody should be a dreamer, and I say bullshit. There’s a million dreamers out there. Everybody has a dream of, you know, being a star, being a millionaire, whatever it is. A vision is a picture of every step along the way it takes to get there. A vision is the drudgery, the hard work, and all the things, the years that it’s going to take of one foot in front of the next, and knowing what that’s going to take, to get to where you want to be.”

  13. I agree with Phil, I think that both phenomenon exist in life. I have personally experienced the “ah ha” moments many times–not on the kind of problem Hawking was working on–but on my own questions. And the sudden strokes are not necessarily preceded by extensive, plodding, ploughing, thought–though they are not without some preceding concern. A simple example: Standing on the beach on the coast of Israel a guide said the sand there was the gift of the Nile. I didn’t understand. I don’t know if the guide even understood why. The following year I read a book on the geography of the biblical world and encountered a sentence that said the currents in all inland seas (in reference to the Mediterranean) are counter-clockwise. All of a sudden those two ideas connected and I said out loud “Ah ha.” I understood what the guide meant.

    On the other hand, I am deep into an extensive study which I will continue through the remainder of my life (I am 71), which has been going on for about 8 years and I am amazed at the consistent new insights and “discoveries” I have encountered in this project. I’ve reflected many times about the value of the persistent long-termed effort of going back to the same subject time and again, reading everything I can find on it and being stimulated by each piece with new thoughts, ideas, insights, and breakthroughs-each adding to what I have already learned and allowing me a certain degree of creativity I wouldn’t have without this work. [Is this Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule in play?]

    Some years ago I read an article by a woman who argued for the benefit of memorizing great thoughts. She described the effect of “learning by heart”: “in the unconscious, where the Muses sing to us darkling, and all the richness of what we know and value can come together in unexpected, unheard-of combinations. Memory is not the enemy of Inspiration, or of thought either. … it is the essential prerequisite of both.” [Clara C. Park, “The Mother of the Muses: In Praise of Memory,” The American Scholar, 50 (Winter 1980/81), pp. 70-71.]

  14. Similar (hopefully not an echoe) to what’s been said above: I have “A-HA!” moments fairly often in my work (I’m an artist/graphic designer, creativity is my Trade). They can happen at seemingly random moments, but never in application to a random problem, but something that has stumped me for quite a while. It’s like all of the information and options have been bouncing around subconsciously, like a computer “thinking,” and they just suddenly bubble up to the surface when the computation are either complete, or the final puzzle-piece is stimulated from some external source.

    I hear the wife: “You’re thinking of that NOW?!?!?” …like there is any control over such things.

  15. Interesting topic Cal. I’d like to propose a relevant book for you to read on the topic. Creativity – Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a relatively famous psychologist. In this book he deals precisely with different types of creativity and different ways of experiencing it. The book for the most part is a recollection of a large number of interviews from people who are considered creative in their respective field. I’m about to finish reading it and it has been quite enjoyable, despite a few paragraphs of “classic” psychobabble.

  16. Work and rest are both needed. Just as a bodybuilder won’t grow without periods of inactivity. Our brains need diversion and sleep. Kukelé famously dreamed about the structure of benzene, but only after exhaustive study.

  17. Great post. The Darwin approach sounds mighty familiar – is this the same approach described in “Where good ideas come from” by Stephen Johnson?

    I read that book because it was referenced in this other book I was reading. Don’t know if you’ve heard of it – it was called “So good they can’t ignore you”… 😉

  18. The article and the comments really encapsulate what I have experienced about the Eureka moment. I noticed that I usually get it after periods of intense followed by a moment of break and walla, a new insight, etc. Usually, my problem is to hold on that moment and jot it down before it disappears from my mind! 😉

  19. Hi Cal,

    Todd Sampson’s Redesign my brain – Make me Creative is a documentary which supports the claim – creativity can be improved by certain methodical approaches.
    Interestingly, in ‘So good that they can’t ignore you’ you had emphasized the importance of serious study and why one is more likely to hit a performance plateau by simply putting in the hours. I wonder if the same is applicable for creativity. Can Creativity be thought of as a skill that can be improvised with deliberate practice?

  20. So, why is the ‘Eureka Myth’ so prevalent? A few years ago, I was researching for a new publication about game design. I had a tight deadline, a bunch of core material, and a basic idea of what I wanted to say. I had plenty I could say, and yet, still, I had no coherent message. Until one day, while driving home, with all of these ideas swirling in my head, a new idea sprung to life. Everything connected together – BOOM!

    That idea evolved into a paper, which became a conference presentation, which won Best Tutorial at a major conference. There is no question that I spent MANY years reaching that moment, and many years since refining it. There is also no question that I had an honest-to-goodness, ‘Eureka Moment’ that sent chills up my arms. It felt inspired, as if outside of myself.

    Though I’m a better writer now, it’s still Google’s first result for “Why Games Work”.

  21. I’ve just came across this via some links.
    Just a particular response to:
    “In an economy where creativity is becoming both more important and complicated, I suspect we need to abandon the old ways of thinking about this type of thinking, with its conference room brainstorming sessions and markers on butcher paper, and instead discover what scientists knew along: creativity is hard, highly skilled work that is often quite unromantic in its execution, but is ultimately a source of deeper satisfaction than any short-lived eureka moment could ever deliver.”
    This is what I wrote two days ago on a road trip with a wandering mind: The definition of “genius” gets complicated in our time because there is hardly any insights, opinions, thoughts that are not shared with people before our time. Instead, if a person has never has such exposure but is able to come up with new idea that derives solely from observation and insightful thinking, we shall consider this person, a genius.


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