How to Create Insights
As Marshall McLuhan once said, “A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.” We encounter that perilous luxury every day. Achieving true insights is easier said than done.
What can seem like a great idea when mutually reinforced among colleagues in the office often falls flat in the marketplace. Moreover, those of us who are senior managers often find our ideas accepted without question. How can we achieve insight into the greater world when we only directly experience our local environment?
There is no better place to look for answers than Albert Einstein and one of the greatest insights in history.
A Boy Riding a Beam of Light
Despite many stories about Einstein as a child, most of which were apocryphal, he grew up rather unexceptionally. His family was solidly middle class; he was certainly not a dullard, but not a prodigy either.
Einstein was, however, a bit dreamy and bookish. This wasn’t surprising for a young Jewish boy growing up in Germany in the late 19th century. It was natural for him to feel like an outsider and a boy with an active imagination would find great comfort in a dream world.
One of the things he liked to imagine as a teenager was what it would be like to ride a beam of light. Such fantasies were a hallmark of Einstein. Later on in life, he would wonder what it would be like to ride an elevator in space, from which he would form a new theory of gravity.
Many people have similar fantasies occur to them. The difference with Einstein is that he would keep thinking about them intensely for a very long time.
From Maxwell to Smart
It was Maxwell who developed the first great insights into the nature of light through a set of equations. These equations created a sensation and even today form the basis for much of modern physics. One of the consequences of these equations was that the speed of light was constant.
For a young university physics student at the time, Maxwell’s equations were a main subject of study and discussion. To Einstein especially, who was still wondering what it would be like to ride on a beam of light, they must have been of special interest.
If the speed of light is constant, what would light look like to a boy riding a beam of light? Would he be able to see anything?
Imagination + Information = Insight
In retrospect, the concept of relativity is fairly straightforward, especially to a boy who wanted to ride on a light beam.
- A boy riding a beam of light would also see light.
- If Maxwell’s equations were right, then light travels at a constant speed
- So the light he saw wouldn’t be able to just stand still, even for our special boy.
- Speed is the movement through space over time.
Therefore, if the speed of light is constant, then time and space must be relative.
As strange as it sounds, relativity is something that we experience all the time without realizing it. When we travel on a plane at roughly half the speed of sound, we don’t hear any difference. Sound seems to travel the same way it does when we are on the ground.
Every time we use a GPS device, we are in effect proving Einstein’s theory. The satellites are calibrated using Einstein’s equations. If Einstein was wrong, GPS wouldn’t work accurately. The fact that GPS works is, in effect, empirical proof that relativity is true.
The Confinement of Being a Special Case
The example above is Einstein’s simpler theory of “special” relativity. His general theory of relativity is even stranger. Published ten years later, it describes a universe where gravity doesn’t pull, it pushes. Like a bowling ball on a water bed, gravity warps space so that things move toward it.
It’s all a bit spooky. However, as string theorist Michio Kaku points out, Einstein’s theories only seem strange to us because we live in a special case. We inhabit a world where nothing moves too fast and nothing is too big or too small. The world we experience is a “Goldilocks reality” that is just right for our senses to perceive it.
We also do our strategic business planning in a special case “Goldilocks world.” Our offices are inhabited by people who are a lot like us and perceive things much the same way we do. In a sense, we all live on airplanes where the world seems to rush by while we stand still despite what the people on the ground think.
Being a special case makes insights difficult to achieve. It took ten years for Einstein to go from imagining a ride on a beam of light to his special theory and another ten years to complete his general theory.
The Art and Science of Disciplined Dreaming
While very few of us will ever achieve insights as important as Einstein’s, we can learn a lot from how he arrived at them.
Some pertinent points:
- Einstein was constantly engaging in mental simulations and thought experiments
- He studied physics seriously and was familiar with all available experimental data
- He worked intensely on his equations for years before arriving at his conclusions
- He didn’t go it alone, but actively discussed physics with others. His conclusions were subjected to rigorous peer review.
There is nothing in Einstein’s method that we can’t all do and there is no reason that we can’t break out of the prison of our local experience. We all have the capacity to dream, study, work and discuss. Most of us don’t however, because having faith in our own experience is gratifying and comforting.
To imagine a reality that isn’t just like ours takes courage and to continue to pursue an idea down blind alleys over an extended period of time takes persistence. It’s certainly much easier to take what our “Goldilocks” worlds give us.
Yet, the universe lacks a sense of humor. If we choose to hide in the comfortable, mutually reinforcing world of our offices, the market will come and find us.
We have to go out and find it first.