Cultivating Passing Thoughts into Aha! Moments

The late Isaac Asimov was a famous author who wrote science fiction stories (e.g. the Foundation series) and essays.  

In one such essay, The Eureka Phenomenon, Dr. Asimov writes how some scientists made great discoveries out of the blue.  He cites:

  • Archimedes who, while taking a bath, solved the problem of determining the volume of a king’s crown by simply dipping it into a tub of water and measuring how much of the liquid was displaced;
  • Friedrich August Kekule von Stradonitz, who solved the ring formula of benzene by dreaming about it;
  • James Watt who overcame a design problem with his steam engine after he took a walk in the park;
  • Otto Loewi who won the 1936 Nobel prize in medicine for his findings about the human body’s nervous system in which he wrote down key formulations after waking up in the middle of the night with ideas that suddenly entered his mind. 

Asimov doesn’t know “how often does this ‘Eureka phenomenon’ happen.”  But he suspects it “happens often,” that many of what people discover come about from “real inspiration,” a result of “thinking under involuntary control.”  We get “revelation” and “insight” but leaves it to the “mystic” how it comes about. 

“Eureka” is Greek for “I’ve got it!” which is what Archimedes says the instant he solves his problem with the volume of the king’s crown via the displacement of water. 

It’s also known as the Aha! moment and I believe it happens much more often than even Dr. Asimov realised.

I tested that idea for one day.  Whenever I had a thought that seemed to be an Aha!, an insight that just came to mind for no reason, I wrote it down.  On that day, I tallied three Aha! moments. 

I tried it again the next day.  I only had one.

The day after, I had none. 

Aha! moments, they seem, don’t come in consistent numbers and frequencies.  But I found to getting three in one day as already a lot.  On that second day I had only one Aha! but I was in a bad mood, so I surmise emotions may have a bearing on why I hardly had any that day. 

We all have our Aha! moments.  They are those insights that light us up at any time.  They more often than not are seemingly small and inconsequential. 

One Aha! moment I had was I felt people I know from a job a long time ago have forgotten who I am when I meet them at a reunion.  If I let the thought prosper, the Aha!  becomes an insight in how we as individuals choose whom we remember and whom we forget.  It becomes a basis of how we judge others and how we feel about ourselves.  The Aha!  became a discovery about how I think and maybe how others think as well. 

I and many, if not most of us, probably discard many of the passing thoughts that cross our minds every day.  We perhaps see many passing thoughts as worthless stuff that enter our minds out of nowhere while we’re focused on something else or just doing something out of routine (like riding a bus or playing games on our smartphones). 

Too bad.  As Isaac Asimov wrote in his Eureka Phenomenon essay, many of what we think as worthless passing thoughts may actually be potential Aha! moments that can lead to big ideas and discoveries. 

Some people would disagree with me.  A search for “passing thoughts” on the web suggested a similarity to “intrusive thoughts,” which Psychology Today warns as possibly negative and harmful.  Nevertheless, I’d like to think there’s a positive side to having passing thoughts and their potential to become Aha! moments. 

Many creative problem-solving consultants teach structured approaches to seizing those Aha! moments.  Messrs. David Rock and Josh Davis, Ph.D., for instance, preach having time alone, thinking positively, and looking inward as means to maximising the Aha! moment.   

Yet, many organisations I’ve engaged with don’t really apply much in the way of structured approaches to finding ideas or solutions, no matter how many workshops and seminars on creative problem-solving these organisations may invest in.    

In many cases I’ve witnessed, executives rely on on-the-spot solutions during meetings.  Or they hand off the especially complicated problems to task forces made up of department representatives and technical people. 

The task forces often then delegate the complicated part of a problem to one or two low-level engineers or managers, who then crunch numbers, experiment, or do surveys.  Sometimes the task forces hire contractors or consultants to study further whatever the problem is.   

When all the number-crunching and multi-thousand report writing are done, the contractors, consultants, or low-level engineers submit findings to the task force who then present their conclusions and recommendations to their executive superiors.  The chief executive officer (CEO) would then supposedly decide on the proposals. 

Usually, insight into a problem and the Aha! moments that come with them happen during a task force meeting or among consultants and engineers discussing the issue.   

But as much as it may happen with the task-force, consultant, or engineer, I’ve noticed quite often that such insights don’t really reach the executives, especially the CEO. 

Many of the presentations to executives I’ve participated or witnessed have resulted in a chief executive officer (CEO) making a decision that he had already made up his mind to make, sometimes even before the executive had engaged a task force, consultant, or engineer.

The executive in charge had his own Aha! moment and many times from personal experience, task forces and consultants’ recommendations came out as nothing more than confirmations or formalities adapted to what a CEO had already made up his mind on.  

Nevertheless, I believe we should not discount the passing thoughts that enter our minds.  I believe there’s value in those nuggets of thoughts that flicker once in a while in our brains.  I also believe many entrepreneurs and scientists had found success from cultivating passing thoughts into Aha! moments, and had thought further through to formulate breakthrough ideas and discoveries. 

I’ve been making it a habit to jot down as many Aha! moments that come my way of mind.  So far, I’ve gathered four in the last two days.  I’m looking forward to getting more in the immediate future. 

I just have to avoid being in a bad mood.  

About Overtimers Anonymous

Published by Ellery

Since I started blogging in 2019, I've written personal insights about supply chains, operations management, & industrial engineering. I have also delved in topics that cover how we deal with people, property, and service providers. My mission is to boost productivity via offering solutions and ideas. If you like what I write or disagree with what I say, feel free to like, dislike, comment, or if you have a lengthy discourse, email me at ; I'm also on LinkedIn:

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