The Boring Work Cometh Before the Breakthrough

I loved Cal Newport’s article today “On the Myth of Big Ideas.” I’m a big believer in the importance of creating space in your life in order to receive inspiration, that great ideas come to us during downtime activities. Sometimes you hear this described as “bed, bath, or bus.” For me, taking a walk around the neighborhood or mowing the lawn are a prime source of ideas.

But we can’t just expect ideas to come to us. I don’t get ideas on every walk or every time I mow the lawn. You need to first be actively working on a problem, really chewing on it with a lot of mental effort, before the magic of “bed, bath, or bus” will bring a great idea to your mind. Cal shares a great story to illustrate this:

To capture the reality of this act, Rockmore tells a story from when he was a young professor. He was working with his colleagues to try to find a more efficient method for solving a large class of wave equations. “We spent every day drawing on blackboards and chasing one wrong idea after another,” he writes. Frustrated, he left the session to go for a run on a tree-lined path. Then it happened.

“As I crested the last hill, I saw it all at once: the key to modifying the algorithm we’d been puzzling over was to flip it around, to run it backward. My heart started racing as I pictured the computational elements strung out in the new opposite order. I sprinted straight home to find a pencil and paper so I could confirm it.”

As Rockmore then elaborates, in popular portrayals of mathematical machinations, the focus is often on this final bit, the eureka moment while jogging through the woods, or John Nash surveying the crowded Princeton bar and figuring out non-cooperative game theory all at once.

But this moment cannot come without the days of frustration at the blackboard. “You can’t really blame the storytellers,” Rockmore writes, “It’s not so exciting to read ‘and then she studied some more.’ But this arduous, mundane work is a key part of the process.”

I love it. In our work it’s the same. The “arduous, mundane work is a key part of the process,” even though it’s not the exciting part. Just don’t overlook it because the magic can’t happen without it.

Process Accelerates Creativity

Recently I was part of an off-site planning meeting. My company flew people from different parts of the country to Portland for three days. Part of the success of these types of meetings is of course the human aspect—when you get together in person you form closer bonds—but our great success this time came in the creative leaps we made. We owe this success to the process put in place before the meetings.

Two members of our group did a great job of getting everyone’s input and ideas written down. They produced a schedule that we used to guide the meetings. During the three days they adapted the schedule based on where the process took us. Most of the time the meetings were very free-form and spontaneous, or at least that’s how they felt to me. Once in a while we would be nudged back into the structure of the schedule. It worked amazingly well.

In our case, process enhanced and accelerated our results. The structure made creativity possible. Don’t ignore the importance of setting up effective processes.