The 4 Types of Creative Breakthroughs—and How to Find Them

“You have the same brain structure as Einstein. It’s just a question of how well you’re accessing it.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • Why your best ideas happen in the shower
  • How Salvador Dalí unlocked the power of his dreaming mind
  • How a pilot’s intuition bested science—and made history

Judah Pollack is an author, professional speaker, and strategic advisor on the art of leadership and the science of breakthrough thinking. Award-winning podcaster David Burkus recently hosted him on Radio Free Leader to talk about the different kinds of breakthroughs, and how we can all tap into our creative potential.

David: Breakthroughs and problem solving tap from the same areas of the brain, the same thinking processes. But in practice, we often separate those two things as two totally different realms.

Judah: Absolutely. And breakthroughs do not have to be world-changing, identity-shattering realizations. Breakthroughs come in all shapes and sizes, and allowing ourselves to take credit for small breakthroughs is incredibly important. You can have a breakthrough figuring out that you are actually in love with your friend. You can have a breakthrough figuring out that you’re repeating your relationship with your dad with your boss. You can have a breakthrough figuring out that you should come into the next team meeting and listen a lot more than you talk. All of these are breakthroughs in their own way.

David: Your book, [The Net and the Butterfly,] talks about the idea that there are four different types of breakthroughs.

Judah: Yes. We call [one] the Eureka Breakthrough, and that is the dominant form that people think of, where you suddenly have an inspired moment, and you realize something. “Eureka,” of course, coming from the story of Archimedes, and meaning, “I’ve got it.”

This concept that you suddenly know the answer, and it shows up fully formed, does happen. There’s a wonderful story from NASA, where a scientist was driving home off the NASA campus, and suddenly had the answer to a problem he had been working on. He stopped his car, got out, left it with the door open sitting in the middle of the road, and ran back to his office to complete the problem. And when the guy finished, he walked back to his car a couple hours later, got back in, and continued on his way.

“By always looking at our phones, answering a text, going over something from work, we are hindering our ability to have a breakthrough.”

That sudden knowing does occur, but it is not the only form of having a breakthrough. There is something we call “Metaphorical Breakthrough,” and this often happens in the form of dreams. Probably the most famous story is August Kekulé, the German chemist who figured out the shape of the benzene molecule, which was a ring. The way he figured it out was he had a dream about a snake eating its own tail. He was able to translate that circular shape into the realization that the benzene molecule was shaped like a circle. So it didn’t come directly, it came in this metaphorical way. But it still had a huge impact on his thinking.

Sometimes we don’t give enough credit to those liminal states. Salvador Dalí would take a nap sitting in his chair, holding a key in his hand. And he put a metal plate underneath on the floor, so that when he fell asleep, he’d let go of the key, it would hit the metal plate to wake him up, and he would draw whatever was in his mind at that moment. He understood there was an incredible creative force in that in-between state, and he was taking advantage of it.

Then there’s another type that we call the “Intuitive Breakthrough,” and that’s when you have a deep level of mastery inside a system. You really know what’s going on, and the breakthrough doesn’t come in a Eureka way where you suddenly know a thing. Instead, it comes as a hunch. You have an inkling that you should go in a certain direction, and sure enough, stuff starts to come up. People say, “How did you know to read that book? How did you know to talk to that person? How did you know to go down that path of research?” The answer usually is, “I didn’t know, but it seemed to feel right.”

We tell the story of Chuck Yeager, who broke the sound barrier. Yeager was famous for being a natural flyer. He was a World War II Ace at the age of 22, and had flown thousands and thousands of hours. Up until then, as people got closer and closer to the sound barrier, the plane would get more and more difficult to fly, and it would shake, and the controls would freeze up. For some reason, Yeager was convinced that once he got even closer—so instead of .95 Mach he got to .96, .97 Mach—the plane would actually get easier to fly. None of the scientists believed this, but he was like, “I think that’s gonna be the case.”

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Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. The plane got easier to fly, and he just leapt across the sound barrier. How did he know? We don’t know how he knew, but he did, and that’s what happens when you have mastery in a subject.

The last one is Paradigm Breakthrough, and that’s Einstein-relativity style. You can’t set out to have this kind of breakthrough, [and] it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It’s as much luck of timing as it is anything else. You’re going to change the world, but it has a very low chance of happening.

David: Is Paradigm Breakthrough like a Eureka, but with higher stakes?

Judah: It’s a combination of all [types of breakthroughs]. If you take the example of Einstein, he’d been working on this problem of light and time and simultaneity for about 10 years before he came up with his theory of relativity in 1905. So there was deep mastery, and there were lots of Intuitive Breakthroughs along the way, as well as lots of dead ends, of course. At the same time, he was constantly using metaphors. Those are his famous thought experiments, to understand what he was thinking about. So imagining he was surfing on the edge of a light beam, and what would that look like? He was constantly engaging in metaphorical insight to try and find his way there.

His sudden realization was more of a Eureka insight, where he spends the whole day with a good friend going over his theory. Finally, at the end of the day, he throws his hands up in the air and says, “You know what? I quit. I’m done.” And he walks home. He goes to sleep. He wakes up and says, “I’ve got it.” Now he’s got the theory of relativity. That was the Paradigm Breakthrough. So when you look at the process, it’s a combination of all [the types of breakthroughs] as you move to this huge moment. But that moment is actually the pointy end of a 10-year spear.

David: Let’s talk about sleep, because you’ve mentioned it with both Dalí and Einstein. I feel like the sleep thing happens because throughout the day, most of our attention is going in a million different directions so that we’re not bored. So there is no prompting, apart from sleep, that deliberately activates that default mode network [in the brain], which is critical to having these breakthroughs.

“You have the same brain structure as Einstein. It’s just a question of how well you’re accessing it.”

Judah: It’s true, we don’t stop. Even if there is some opportunity to be bored, we can pick up our phones and be entertained or engaged immediately. It fundamentally stops our ability to access the default network, which is the network that enables us to have breakthroughs. So by always looking at our phones, answering a text, going over something from work, we are hindering our ability to have a breakthrough. Sleep has become this last bastion for the default network, [which] can turn on and start to pull all these ideas together to create novel connections and hand us breakthroughs.

David: Let’s back up and talk a little bit about what’s going on in the brain.

Judah: You have two networks in your brain that are working together to create breakthroughs. The first one is your executive network, the part of your brain that makes you an adult. It inhibits you socially so that you don’t say the wrong thing. It’s the part of you that stays on task and gets things done, picks up your mother at the airport on time, goes to the market, makes sure that you get your reports in. It’s functional, rational, goal-oriented.

There’s this other network called your “default network,” or your “default mode network.” It’s called that because when you’re not on task, your brain defaults to it. This network is made up of about 10 different brain regions, and they take in a massive amount of information. They deal with things like your memory, empathy, sense of self, error prediction, awareness of your environment, and whether you should change your behavior.

The default network is constantly building a story of the world around you, making sense of the information you take in. The trick here is that so long as you’re on task, so long as you’ve got the executive network firing, the default network is going to work at about half-speed. It’s not going to be doing its all. You have to actually come off task, take a break, take a walk, daydream, take a nap. You have to slow down in order for the power in your brain to reroute to the default network. Once the power reroutes to the default network, it starts taking in all the information that you’ve been pulling in from the executive all day, and it starts mixing and matching it.

This mixing and matching, this novel connecting, that’s where the breakthrough happens. So you need the new information that the executive goes out and gets, then you need to move away and have the down time for the connection to be made.

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But the amazing thing is even if you think of yourself as not creative, you are. You have the same brain structure as Einstein. It’s just a question of how well you’re accessing it. Your brain has figured out how to determine whether or not you’ve had a good idea, and your “Ah-ha” moments are your brain saying, “This is a good one,” and bringing it to your level of awareness. It’s kind of magical, because nobody has figured out how your brain is doing it.

David: I feel like a lot of people spend too much time in the default mode network, and don’t realize that you need that preparation, that attention, all the things that the executive network brings. There’s a process here, not just one or the other.

Judah: Yes, and we call it “mode switching.” You’re switching between the executive and the default networks, and it’s the switching back and forth that is super important here. It’s the switching where the magic happens. One of the interesting things that we notice in a lot of stories is that once the default network delivers a breakthrough, there’s a massive amount of time after the fact where the executive network is making sense of it, and figuring out how to implement it.

So the idea that a breakthrough is just a magical thing that happens out of the blue is a very damaging myth, because there’s a tremendous amount of focused attention that goes into making a breakthrough happen, both before and after the moment of “Ah-ha.” Einstein may have come to his friend after one night of sleep and said, “I’ve got it,” but he spent six weeks after that writing up the theory, making sense of it. That part gets left out a lot.

“The idea that a breakthrough is just a magical thing that happens out of the blue is a very damaging myth, because there’s a tremendous amount of focused attention that goes into making a breakthrough happen.”

David: What are some ways that we could get better at switching back and forth?

Judah: Some of the best things we have found are ways you play a trick on your executive network. Your executive network likes to have a goal, right? For anybody who has little kids, sometimes you just tell them like, “Okay, you’re gonna run to the fence.” You just made that up, picked the fence, but they’re off. They’re like, “All right! I’ve got something to do.” And then when they come back, you say, “You’re gonna run to the fence again.” You’re just trying to exhaust them so they go to sleep, but your executive network is kind of the same way.

If you give it something to do, it will do it, and it will quiet down. You’re trying to find goals that are easy, that are kind of muscle memory goals, but it make the executive go quiet so that the default network can rev up and start coming up with novel ideas. This is why you have breakthroughs in the shower, because showering is a goal, but you don’t have to think about it. You’ve done this so many times, it’s easy, and it’s a great space to allow your default network to start mixing and matching ideas.

David: You also talk about folding the laundry and other repetitive tasks.

Judah: They all do the same thing. You’ve folded the laundry a thousand times, you can do it in your sleep. For some people, it’s cooking [or] playing an instrument. Walking is a huge one, because you can say, “I’m gonna walk to the store.” You can give yourself a goal, which will quiet your executive and allow your default network to start engaging at a higher capacity. Anything that you know how to do easily, anything that can put you into a state of flow, these are the places where you’re going to access the default network.

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There are other ways to do it that pop new ideas into your head, which are just changing your perspective. One thing we’ve told people to do is, “Just go sit on the floor, in your house, in your office, it doesn’t matter, and just look around.” It’s a brand new perspective, and it’s going to change the way you look at the world. And while your executive is taking it in, your default network is going to take in new information, which allows it to create novel connections.

David: There were also a lot of exercises [on] perspective that were very Einsteinian, if that’s a term, like looking at gravity the opposite way.

Judah: Yes. Thought experiments really push your brain to look at things differently, because in the end, that’s what a breakthrough is. It’s looking at something in a fundamentally new way. In the book, we ask the question, “Imagine that gravity stops working at 10 P.M., and starts working again at 7 A.M. What does the world look like? How do we build our homes? How do we throw parties? How are children strapped into bed? How do teenagers rebel in that kind of a world?”

The practice of thinking about that is the same mechanism you’ll use to have a breakthrough about something at work, or in your personal life.

A lot of people make the mistake of thinking of themselves as creative couch potatoes. “I’m just not creative. I just don’t do that.” That is equivalent to sitting on the couch for two years, and then somebody asks you to do 10 pushups, and you can’t, and you say, “I guess I’m just weak now. I’m a weak person.”

You’re just out of shape, and you need to practice. The same is true with being creative. And so a lot of these are different [exercises] to help you get into shape, to start being more creative.

 

This conversation has been edited and condensed.