Thursday, March 19, 2009

Learning to listen to our intuition.

“ ... it is by logic we prove, but it is by intuition that we discover." - Henri Poincare, 19th Century French Mathematician

When Leonardo da Vinci was painting The Last Supper, he'd work very intensively for days, but then he'd disappear. The prior of the church of Saint Maria Della Grazie didn't understand that Leonardo was a genius. As far as he was concerned, Leonardo was just another painter. The prior said something to the effect that, “I have a contract here. Where's this Leonardo guy? Get him back up on the scaffolding to finish this by the deadline.” Leonardo wouldn't hear of it, so the prior complained to the Duke of Milan who had originally arranged the contract.

The Duke called on Leonardo to explain himself. Leonardo said, “Men of genius sometimes work best when they work least.” He went on to explain to the Duke that he needed time to integrate his thoughts and that sometimes he did his most productive work when he wasn't up on the scaffold, but rather just walking through the streets of Milan. That's where he explored new thoughts; that's where he brought together ideas that hadn't been brought together before.

Most people intuitively understand this, yet they often ignore it. In the past 30-years I’ve asked many people all over the world, “Where were you actually physically located when you got your best ideas?” People have almost invariably responded, “I was lying in bed," "I was out for a walk," "I was driving my car," "I was taking a bath.” They almost never said, “I was in a meeting.”

Great ideas come through using the incubatory power of the mind. One of the refinements of learning how to think is finding a rhythm between intense focus and study — and then letting go completely so that incubation and imagination can take over. This means making time to listen to that very quiet voice that the intuition sometimes speaks in before engaging in another intensive period of what we call “working hard.”

If you're working hard all the time, you can often override the subtle messages of the intuition. But if you just hope to lie around all day and be intuitive, it'll never work because you won't have anything to incubate. It's a matter of finding a rhythm between intense focus and analysis and then shifting modes to be in a more receptive state. We must trust that prior experience has given us intricate inventories and combinations of clues that can signal new ways to take action. As Michael Polanyi says, “We know a lot more than we can tell.”

Business success today demands innovation. There’s a constant need to feel around the fringes and to test the edges. However, business schools teach mostly about what's worked in the past. This not only perpetuates conventional thinking but it stifles innovation as well. If Thomas Edison had gone to business school, we’d all be reading with larger candles today.


Anti-Laureate said...

When Erwin Rommel heard that Patton, his new adversary in the field, read poetry - he knew he was in trouble. Maybe it's time to include the study of poetry on MBA courses, in order to encourage creative thinking, the synthesis of facts which lead to new ideas etc.

john cotter said...

I absolutely agree with you. Thank's for your comment.

"I can't think of a case where poems changed the world, but what they do is they change people's understanding of what's going on in the world." - Seamus Heaney