On The Origin Of Insights

“I believe in vacations,” wrote David Ogilvy. “When one of my partners gets abrasive, it’s usually because he’s worked too long without a vacation.”

Now, I wasn’t getting abrasive, but I was in sore need of a break, not just to recharge my batteries but to gain some inspiration as well. Big, majestic sights like the Grand Canyon or Africa’s Rift Valley certainly leave you overawed and changed, but for pure inspiration, I think few places can match the birthplace of one of humanity’s greatest ideas—the Galapagos Islands, a place indelibly associated with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The trivia-quiz version of the story goes something like this: Darwin visits the archipelago during his voyage on the HMS Beagle; he recognizes that similar animals (bonus point: finches!) vary greatly from island to island, in ways that make them well-suited to their different environments; back home in England, while reading Thomas Malthus on population growth and limited resources, he has a flash of insight about natural selection; he writes On the Origin of Species. The rest, as they say, is intellectual history.

Well, I’m just back from the Galapagos Islands, and I can tell you that the actual story is more complex and more interesting. It contains three important lessons for how we arrive at insights.

Write it down, even if you’re not sure what “it” is.

While in the Galapagos, Darwin was far more concerned with geology than with zoology; his notebooks contain four times as many pages on rocks than on living things.

Yet his notes and speculations on the variations he saw among animals and plants were essential to his later thinking. If you notice something even vaguely interesting, wonder whether a behavior/attitude you’ve seen a few times is part of a new cultural trend, or find yourself annoyed or delighted by something that might annoy or delight others, write it down in a place you can return to. Don’t forget to draw pictures and diagrams: sometimes it’s easier to see something when you can literally see it. Darwin (and da Vinci and Einstein and Edison and many others) were inveterate doodlers, making sketches to explore hunches and develop ideas. The pressure to create professional slides and documents can restrict thinking, and even make us afraid to express half-baked ideas. Give yourself a place, and permission, to put even your quarter-baked ideas on paper.

Wonder how Darwin found his counterintuitive insights about evolution? Click here to read the rest in a beautiful deck. Butterflies and more than just a-ha moments guaranteed! 

Grab your book and doodle on…

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