Physicist and author of Einstein’s Dreams Alan Lightman once did a study of 30 of science’s great discoveries. He wanted to learn what he could about the creative process from which they sprang. In most cases, he found that the scientists involved had made their breakthrough after finding themselves stuck. In his Big Think Edge video, “Spark Innovation,” Lightman explains how finding yourself in such a position means that you’ve been handed an opportunity to move beyond what’s known. It doesn’t signify failure. “You should celebrate,” says Lightman, “because you’re on the edge of making a discovery, and you should honor that stuckness and embrace it.”
Forced into creativity
Getting stuck has a way of stimulating the creative imagination since, having already tried and failed to move forward with what should work, you really have no choice but to move your thinking outside the box. It’s the only place left to go.
A breakthrough idea doesn’t always arise, of course, but Lightman recommends two things you can do to stack the odds in your favor.
Be an expert
“In no case,” says Lightman, “was a major discovery made by an amateur.” Each of the scientists, he says, had prepared for a breakthrough by becoming an expert in their area, steeped in its history of advances and missteps. They knew all too well the boundaries of existing knowledge, and it’s typically at these edges that they found themselves stuck. In front of them were nothing less than the “frontiers of knowledge,” empty canvasses for their creativity and expertise, a chance to re-synthesize all of that which had come before into something new.
Inspiration keeps its own schedule, and it comes when it comes. Or it doesn’t. However, those able to put inspiration to use when it does arrive are those who keep their skills ever-sharp.
For Lightman, as a writer, this means writing every day. “I may throw 90% into the garbage can of what I write that day. But just getting the habits, getting the juices flowing is important.”
Continuing to remain actively engaged in your field — even if you’re stuck on something — helps keep you ready when you need to be. “It’s just like exercise,” says Lightman. “If you want to stay fit or feel good you’ve got to commit yourself to exercising on a regular basis.”