Awe, Insight, and Flow: The Keys to Breaking New Ground

As a species we’re intent on pushing the limit.

There’s really no telling how far we’ll go — to the edges of space and time itself? Or to a self-inflicted oblivion?

Whatever the answer, we’re not going to stop trying to push forward anytime soon. We like innovation and creativity, we thrive off of it, it invigorates us.

There are three large areas of interest I’d like to discuss, and that I think provide a model for the most efficient and enjoyable road to innovation.

None of them are easy to accomplish, and you might consider yourself fortunate to have just one of them. But in combination, to go from one to the other, could form a sort of magical and time-alternating descent into new lands.

Awe

“A feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.”

The main point is to be ‘struck’ by something, to be amazed by the beauty/size/complexity or otherwise.

Awe is directed at objects considered to be more powerful than ourselves.

DriveIn Dan Pink’s book Drive, he stresses that in work we should be looking for autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Awe is where you find your purpose. It’s when you find something you consider to be bigger than yourself, and you know you need to know more, you’ve got to understand it, you’ve got to become a part of it and make it part of you.

And it will become a part of you.

Piaget coined two processes of learning. Assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is fitting new information into pre-existing cognitive schemas, using what you know to understand something new. Accommodation on the other hand, is the process of taking new information and altering your pre-existing knowledge to fit it in.

Awe requires accommodation. It happens when you see or experience something that doesn’t quite fit with what you already know, so you need to alter what you know to make room for it.

That’s the feeling of awe, what causes your eyes to widen and mouth to drop, when you need to take in everything, your sense of self is lost and all that exists is this new experience.

Insight

If awe provides you with your purpose, insight gives you your niche.

Insight is sometimes called the Eureka effect, or the “a-ha” moment.

But while awe is something that needs to come to you, insight has an essential prerequisite.

Research.

Insight shares a strong bond with creativity, but in order to experience it, before you can start to piece together parts of the puzzle deep in your subconscious, you need to have the pieces of the puzzle inside.

Once you have your moment of awe and find your direction, you need to learn everything you can, you need to go until you can’t go any further. When you’re stuck, when there’s no logical road to continue, or you run into a problem that lacks a current solution, this is your chance at insight and also at innovation.

This is where you relax and do something else. You let the deep recesses of your inner subconscious take over.

We’ve all likely had several of these moments in our lives, where we keep ourselves busy with a mundane task, or we’re at rest and daydreaming, perhaps even sleeping, and an answer to a burgeoning question comes and slaps us in the face.

Suddenly we drop everything and get to our feet, screaming “EUREKA!”

The way I’m using insight here though, is a little different from an everyday experience. I’m using it to define the moment where you realize something can change, something can be done differently, better.

It’s not just an answer to a math equation or an intuitive way to fix the leak in the ceiling, it’s a way to break through and go somewhere no one else has — the earth is round! And it orbits the sun!

Flow

You found your purpose, and you’ve made a discovery. What’s next?

You go further, you take that discovery as far as you can.

FlowMihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that people are happiest when in a state of flow, which he defines as completely focused motivation. A state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.

Flow is your movie montage moment. That part of a movie where someone’s flicked a switch and kicked themselves into action, and the next couple of minutes are filled with shots of determination and, of course, music.

Rocky in a state of flow

Mihaly designed the flow model, in which he places flow as the point where you have a difficult task to accomplish, but you have all the necessary skill to do it.

If the challenge is difficult and you’re a novice, the result is anxiety. If you’re skilled but the challenge is easy, the result is relaxation or boredom.

You’ve done your research, and now you’re breaking new ground. The challenge is to use what you know to go further and to make sense of your new discovery.

It could be that you want to write a book — flow will come from sitting down and getting all those bottled up thoughts out. You might have discovered a perfect business opportunity — flow will come from designing it the way you now know is going to work best. A musician that’s suddenly heard the music in their head, and now has all the skills needed to put it down, will enter a state of flow when he does just that.

And Repeat

From there it’s up to you where to go. You’re on your own.

You could start from the beginning, wait for another moment of awe to strike you, and enter this new domain from scratch.

Or you could stay on the same page, look for new ways to mix things up.

Just try not to do nothing. That’s a waste.


In all of these states, your sense of self should disappear. They each come from the subconscious to lead you somewhere, but that somewhere is lost when ego comes in.

The motivations are intrinsic — money and wealth are left behind as meaning, curiosity, knowledge, and enlightenment take over.

And they’re not easy, either. They don’t appear when you want them to, when you look for them or try to coax them out.

It’s them that find you, when you stop looking. It’s for this reason they’re difficult to study scientifically. But rest assured they are there, and getting all three of them to synchronize together is the ultimate way to go where no one else ever has.

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