The Myth of One Giant Eureka Moment

I was talking to a journalist today about entrepreneurship. I told him my theory that the myth of creativity is that it all happens in one, giant “Eureka!” moment.

You know the image: The idea comes to mind and you freeze. Its brilliance strikes you. It’s going to change the world! Tears start streaming down your face….I’ve got it! you say to yourself.

Yeah, right.

This myth makes some people think they aren’t capable of creativity because they never have earth shattering bursts of inspiration.

In fact, I would argue most eureka moments happen iteratively; that is, one small creative burst leads to another which leads to another and slowly you start to piece together a meaningful idea. A complete idea is a mosaic of bits and pieces — it’s not a brilliant painting done in one hour.

“OK Ben, I kind of agree,” the journalist replied, “But don’t you still think that somewhere in the process of entrepreneurship a light bulb goes off, that moment where the entrepreneur realizes he or she is really on to something?”

“Sure,” I said, “At some point you think your idea has legs and you start evolving it more seriously. But, the light bulb almost surely changes colors several times in the process. It’s very rare for an idea on day 1 to be entirely the same on day 30. Ask any founder of any successful business more than a couple years old and he’ll probably tell you the business model of today is much different than the business model of two years ago.”


47 comments on “The Myth of One Giant Eureka Moment
  • I completely agree, Ben.

    When I wrote Waiting for an Epiphany ( I wanted to point out that although epiphanies make for great stories, and many people may remember moments as being epiphanies, they are likely distorting the truth.

    Every idea I have had, even those that seemed to occur all at once in retrospect, have come as the summation of thousands of little ideas all accumulating later.

    A lightbulb is a poor metaphor for idea generation — a slowly building bonfire would be more apt.

    Great post.

  • I heartily second your point, Ben, but I wouldn’t discount the possibility of revelation– not so much perhaps in business, but certainly in the arts, and sometimes the sciences, too.

    Of course, the ‘idea’ is just the beginning of the real work.

  • I honestly think you two are just debating semantics at the point where you admit there is some discernible point of ‘revelation’. Naturally, any idea requires an iterative process of development and deliberate revision in order to come to fruition, and I doubt your reporter friend or any other believer of the ‘Eureka myth’ would deny that. Your inclusion of the rest of the creative process in the concept of the ‘Eureka moment’ is simply a rhetorical strategy designed to emphasize the importance of that developmental process. I would tend to agree with the use of this strategy, since it focuses people’s attention on the important parts of creation, but I do think you are mistaken in declaring the entire concept of ‘Eureka’ a complete myth.

    By the by, to introduce myself — I am a student in the Bay Area, and I’ve been reading your blog for a while now. This is the first time I’ve been compelled to post a comment, but I enjoy the musings you post up each day, and perhaps one day I shall disagree with you enough to spark an interesting discussion of some sort. In the meantime, cheers, and keep writing.

  • Christopher’s reasoning is subtle, but I would go so far as to say that it’s possible to have a ‘revelation’ after the creation.

    Countless times I’ve written something and didn’t get the full meaning of it till later, almost as if a preternatural intelligence were operating when I wrote–one I wasn’t even conscious of.

    Someone else might have read what I wrote, and perceived what I didn’t see till later.

    So the creation, at least the part of it happening in MY mind, wasn’t over with the completion of the writing.

    This implies that further ‘revelation’ might await me, in the text of my own words, so the ‘creation’ is continuing.

    Yet, I acknowledge that there may be higher consciousness than mine, that perceives all that is to be revealed in those words at once, so the ‘creation’ is over in THAT mind before it is in mine, if it’s ever really over.

  • Christopher — Your points are well taken. “Myth” might not be the right word. My point is that people drastically overrate and romanticize a single moment at the neglect of considering the developmental process.

  • From the comments, I agree most with Christopher.

    I’ve heard musicians claim they don’t know where some of their music comes from (Paul McCartney, for example, waking up with the melody to his song “Yesterday” already in his head). This idea of musical inspiration could be similar to the Eureka moment that many claim to have in art, business, etc.

    McCartney still had to pick up his guitar and figure out which notes matched the melody, but without the original idea, the song may never have been born.

  • I think, that moment of Eureka Ben mentioned is more *real* than a *myth*.

    The first spark indeed is the nucleus (as in an atom having a proton and neutron), yet it needs a reactive configuration (of electrons) if it has to bond with other elements or find a reactive application in the real world.

    Hence I am in complete agreement with Ben that the iteration process is not just desirable, it’s inevitable – without which the spark would never be a flame and assume the non-reactive properties of an *inert gas* – (useful but only to prevent undesirable chemical reactions from taking place).

  • I believe that in the arts it frequently happens that an artist has a conception that is perceived at once as an organic whole, and has only to be translated into a particular medium to be realized.

    Picasso avowed that much of the content of his oeuvre was ‘delivered’ to him as this sort of inspiration.

    Yet I’d say that the artist himself may find continual new meaning in a finished piece that was born as a message from the unconscious.

    Picasso was no-nonsense when it came to analyzing the meaning of his productions, but C.G. Jung wrote a perceptive critique of Picasso’s work, in which he asserts that their psychic matter was an expression of evil.

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed that the poem ‘Kubla Khan’ came to him entire in an opium reverie, but that his transcription of it was interrupted by the unwelcome person from Porlock, so that the poem was never completed.

    I’ve had original literary fragments ‘delivered’ to my consciousness while under the influence of psychedelic drugs, but never an entire piece.

  • I had an algorithms teacher who told us the first day of class that creativity and discovery rarely comes from the phrase “Eureka, I’ve got it” but normally follows the phrase “hmm, that’s odd?”

    I agree. It seems even more relavent in business. People may have bursts of creativity or an idea that occasionally jumps out at them but it usually takes time to evolve, refine and ultimately demonstrate what a great idea it was in the first place.

  • Maybe it’s different in science than entrepreneurship, because in science there is only one explanation. I can only recall two Eureka experiences in the process of building the Singularity Institute and both of them turned out to be wrong. But the Eurekas on how cognition worked lasted.

    The Eureka moment in science builds slowly, over years, but it does crescendo. There is an audible click when everything finally falls into place, a click like thunder. You would be wildly wrong to focus on this part of the developmental process. It would be like looking at the IPO, instead of the whole process of building a corporation.

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