Beyond the Light Bulb

I’m getting burned out on the light bulb.

I see it a lot. Try doing a search for images related to creativity and innovation and you will, too. The light bulb has become an icon of creativity and innovation, even as the light bulb going on has become the most lauded step of the creative process.

Originally posted at Innovation Bound.

There’s good reason. We all love the moment when the solution becomes clear—the rush of excitement, the relief of freedom from uncertainty, the burst of energy which powers us forward. In his seminal model of the creative process, Graham Wallace called it, fittingly, “illumination.” No doubt it’s a pivotal moment, we couldn’t do creativity without it.

But it’s not enough.

And what stands on either side of it, is a lot of hard work.

(It’s ironic that the light bulb – an invention made possible by Edison’s famously painstaking process – should have come to represent the quintessence of instantaneous insight…)

The moment of insight arises from within the context of attention, commitment, learning and mental labor. In his classic work The Courage to Create, psychologist Rollo May described the moment of insight as the targeted outcome of deliberate mental effort, aimed at our problem or concern. It was those things toward which we had bent our energies and attention which produced the a-ha moment. We don’t get big insight moments, he implied, for things we don’t really care about, or pay attention to. The more effort we put in to defining our problem, learning about it and working it over in our minds, the more we are setting the stage for insight. “Chance favors the prepared mind,” Louis Pasteur said. This all takes a lot of work, including the years of study and practice we’ve invested in our own knowledge and expertise.

The phase after the a-ha moment can be just as demanding—and, as anyone whose brief moment of insight has resulted in years of labor knows, take just as long to play out. Here, we’re tested by the materiality of the world, and by time. An idea is quicksilver, ephemeral—if it’s ever going to go beyond that, it must become translated into the world beyond our minds. Whether the next step is to sketch the design, schedule the meeting, write the business plan, or fire up the sauté pan, you will need to move your idea into physical space, rearranging time and material resources to make it possible. And you may need to do this over, and over, and over, and over again – sometimes for years. “one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

This is commonsense to anyone who has spent time considering the creative process. I’ve been aware recently, however, of feeling burned out when I see the light-bulb icon; I think it’s being not only overused, but misused.

I suspect the words creativity and innovation often come to refer to, at least suggestively, outcomes more than processes; the light-bulb then begins to symbolize not ideas and insights, but answers, solutions, successes. This belies the hard work on either side of the quick moment of illumination by hinting that the flash of insight is all it takes. It also sets us up for disappointment, when light bulbs don’t start popping as quickly as we, or our higher-ups, hope they will, as well as missed opportunities, when promising ideas are not given the time or resources needed to fulfill their potential. This all can lead to a creeping cynicism towards the creative process, or toward our own ability to successfully deliver.

We’ve come to glorify the light bulb, without realizing that a lot of our creative work happens in the dark.

How might we overcome this tendency?

  • Educate ourselves in our own creative process so that we can identify not only with our moments of insight, but also the preparation beforehand, and the real-world work which follows.
  • Have patience for the preparatory phase, because it may take longer than we care for; have confidence that this preparation is creative work.
  • Build stamina for the development and implementation phase, because these will likely test our ideas in ways we hadn’t imagined; trust that just because it feels like grunt work doesn’t mean we’re not being creative.
  • Find symbols for the whole of the creative process. I’d love to see an image search on the word “creativity” turn up as many results for preparatory labor and execution grunt work, as it does the fantastic, beloved light bulb.