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The Eureka moment

Over the past few weeks, I'd been trying to solve a problem at work. I kept going back and forth with ideas that would initially seem plausible candidates to solve the problem, but upon further exploration turn out to be duds. And then, late last week, I was deep in discussion with a colleague on a different topic, when I saw parallels to the discussion we were having and the problem I had been trying to solve. And just like that, I had the solution.

It was my eureka moment.

I've had such eureka moments many times before in my life and for a variety of problems and topics. So, I started thinking how it is that eureka moments come about. After all, this won't be the last time I'll have a difficult problem to solve. If I understand how to engineer a eureka moment, I'll be better equipped to solve such problems in the future.

Base knowledge
In order to have a eureka moment, the first important thing is to develop a good base knowledge in the domain of the problem. If the problem is about engaging users more in an application I'm building, the base knowledge is understanding the reasons why people use the application in the first place, what they're trying to achieve with it and what motivates them to choose this application for that need.

At the same time, base knowledge is also about the psychology of the users, the larger context of the worlds that they live in and the perspectives they hold. And a third aspect is the capabilities of the technology and ecosystem powering the application in the first place.

Without having this base knowledge, there is no hope of having the eureka moment as we don't understand the problem deeply enough to have a revealing solution to it. This is why I have never had a eureka moment on how to cure cancer or how to optimize data centres for lower energy consumption. I don't have the base knowledge necessary to get my subconscious involved for solving the problem.

Having base knowledge in the domain (and possibly in the ancillary domains) is a pre-requisite for having a eureka moment.

Active debate
While base knowledge is necessary, it shouldn't be one-sided. I could read up all the material available on the domain, but I'd still fail to have a eureka moment for a difficult problem that nobody has seen a solution to, because I have only been consuming the information out there rather than develop the capability to question what I come across and deepen my understanding of the domain.

Without an active debate (with myself or with others) where I can consider different perspectives and form my own conclusions on why things the way they are, and form opinions on how things ought to be, I would just be an information hoarder and not be in a position to make any deductions.

This is where traditional schooling fails today as it focuses more on acquiring base knowledge and less on active debate for assimilating that knowledge.

I have found that this process of active debate becomes much simpler when I try explaining my ideas to others. Either in a conversation with a friend or as a blog post, when I try to put down my ideas and communicate them to someone else, I start to consider the other person's perspective and that creates a natural debate within my head as there is often a lack of perfect overlap between the perspectives of two people.

While it is possible to arrive at a eureka moment with extensive base knowledge and regular active debate of ideas, it is a long and hard path when there is no cross-pollination of ideas.

The most common eureka moments I've had are when I've been immersed in a domain completely (or partially) removed from the core domain or problem that I want to solve and have been able to actively transfer ideas and learnings in one area to come up with ideas to solve the problem in the other area.

When I'm consumed with solving just one area and am spending all my active waking hours on it, I will start to see diminishing returns on that topic as I start to get jaded. However, if I shift to a new topic that also requires my mental effort, the progress I make there often triggers progress in the area of the original problem I was working on.

So, I always make sure to be working on three to five different projects at any given time to make such cross-pollination of ideas possible.

While the eureka moment seems like a solution has come to us out of nowhere with little effort, a lot of time and effort has actually gone into engineering the eureka moment that we aren't actively aware of or that we don't actively associate with it.

Creativity works the same way.

To hit a eureka moment, you have to:

  • have extensive base knowledge of the domain (and ancillary domains)
  • actively debate your ideas and consider different perspectives 
  • allow for cross-pollination of ideas from other domains
Now, go have that eureka moment.

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