The Myth of the Aha Moment

I blame Oprah. Apparently she’s responsible for “aha moment” becoming a common phrase and getting added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2012. Of course people have been using this phrase for a long time. Oprah, it seems, just made it more popular. Does Oprah know there’s an unintended lie behind this hopeful little phrase?

Myth #1: Aha Moments Have No Roots

Ask most people what an aha moment is and they’ll tell you something about a sudden insight or a flash of inspiration or an instant understanding of something they hadn’t previously been able to figure out. It is talked about like a random, disconnected revelation of the universe just for you…and therein is a subtle lie.

It’s a lie because these moments are born out of everything we’ve done up to that point like your education, experiences, conversations, observations, etc. Aha moments have long tentacles that reach into days, months or even years worth of information gathering and sorting. To think that an aha moment is isolated is like appreciating a flower but denying the presence of the stem holding it up and the roots underground sustaining its life. 

The aha moment isn’t disconnected and alone. It’s just the fruit becoming evident for the first time. Yes, it may seem like a single, isolated insight, but it’s been quietly simmering in your mind for quite a while. It needed a fermentation period.

Myth #2: Aha Moments Are Accidents

The other myth of aha moments is the notion that they happen accidentally. Wouldn’t it be great if you could actually create aha moments and not wait for the lightning to strike? You can.

As I consider any aha moment I can recall, I’ve realized these moments happen more often when I’ve taken in more information and given it time to marinate. Steven Kotler underscores this idea in his book The Rise of Superman. He talks about taking in information so you can be more creative later on.

Here’s an example: one of the things I get hired to do is come up with marketing strategies, ideas and campaigns for my clients. I generally start with an information gathering and research phase and then I set aside a half day to think about ways they can spread the word, grow the brand, reach their audience, etc. I usually block out four hours for this and what I find is that the ideas in the first hour are not as good as the ideas in the second hour. By the fourth hour the ideas are even better. That’s when aha moments really start to happen, but it took the information gathering time and the early idea work to really get those breakthroughs.

Making Aha Moments

So if I can take in information, let it simmer, and then come back to think about it further, I can actually create more aha moments? Yep. It’s like winning the idea lottery every time you’re willing to do the advance work.

The big myth of the aha moment is that it seems impossible to replicate. If you think it’s a disconnected, accidental, momentary gift you may treasure it, but you’re also left waiting for lightning to strike again. We should, instead, start looking at aha moments as a skill to develop.

We all love those light bulb moments when clarity shines brightly, but the light has a switch and a power source. Lights are connected and require activation. If you want to turn on more aha moments in your work, it starts with believing a switch exists and that you can reach it.