by Cal Newport: http://calnewport.com/blog/2015/05/19/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
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
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