Whether visiting an artist’s studio, an inventor’s workshop or a researcher’s lab, people often ask innovator’s the same question: “Where do your ideas come from?”
A well-known origin story of a great idea is that of Isaac Newton and how he devised a theory of gravity after an apple fell on his head. The implication of this story is that great ideas strike those lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
Unfortunately, this tale is a myth. Epiphanies don’t exist. Great ideas don’t miraculously come to people in a moment of inspiration; they evolve over a lifetime of hard work and personal sacrifice.
The word epiphany contains deeply religious connotations. Originally, it meant that all moments of inspiration came from God. Today, the word is less associated with religion, but the core implication nonetheless remains: when people exclaim that they’ve just had an epiphany, they’re subtly suggesting that they’re not quite sure where the idea came from, and thus couldn’t possibly take full credit for it.
The belief that great ideas exist in a realm beyond our control and come to us in mysterious ways could be a psychological tactic to alleviate guilt and frustration when we’re staring down at a blank sheet of paper, unable to commit any creative idea to it. But such a belief is a distortion of what the creative process actually entails.
Instead of a divine moment of inspiration, most creatives accumulate many small insights over time. Indeed, if you look closely at any great idea, you will see that it’s composed of an infinite number of previous, smaller ideas. For example, it was only after almost four decades of multiple innovations in the realms of networking, electronics and software that Tim Berners-Lee was able to build upon the concept of the internet to create the World Wide Web.
Unlike Newton’s apple, great ideas don’t just fall from trees. To come up with an innovative thought, we need to give it time.