Think about a breakthrough moment you have experienced – a time where things were markedly different after than before, even if those differences may have taken some time to show up fully in your life. It could be the day you realized that you did have what it takes to achieve a goal, stop drinking, ask someone to marry you, lose weight, make money, or succeed in the profession of your choosing. Perhaps it was a creative breakthrough where you suddenly realized exactly how to solve a problem you had been wrestling with for days, weeks, or even years.
In those wonderful transformative moments, we have discovered something that did not exist even one moment earlier – a new way of seeing a thing that we may have been looking at for ages. In my work, I call these moments “insights”, because even if they are triggered by an external event, they are seen from somewhere deep inside us and we suddenly “get it”. Not intellectually, the way you might understand a concept, but at an almost cellular level, the way you either “get” a joke or you don’t, even if you know that it’s supposed to be funny.
After an insight, nothing’s changed but everything’s different. We are looking at the same world but with new eyes. What once seemed confusing now seems clear, and if there is anything to be done, we do it without the need for any additional debate or willpower. Quite simply, insights change our world.
Unfortunately, knowing that people need to have insights in order to really transform has always felt a bit discouraging to me. While I certainly have had some wonderful insights throughout my life, short of trying to control the process (an extremely counter-productive move as you know if you have ever tried it) or praying to the “insight fairy” (which oddly seems to work a little bit better than trying to control the process despite the fact that I’m fairly sure there is no “insight fairy”), I always felt like getting a great insight more than once or twice a month was too much to hope for.
Which is why I was so delighted recently to have an insight into insights:
All an “insight” really is… is a new thought.
Somehow, for me, that realization is a game changer. I know I could have a new thought about something in any moment. It’s not a big deal or a mystical process – it’s just the nature of thought. Our thoughts change moment by moment, so the ability to have a new thought about an old situation is natural and ever present.
Why don’t we have new thoughts more often?
Simply because most of us are in the habit of looking to what we already know to try to breakthrough whatever we think is holding us back in our lives. And the least likely place to find a new thought is in a pile of old ones.
Many years ago, I sat in a pub in West Hampstead in London and watched Robin Williams perform about 2 hours of comedy in an unannounced gig where he was trying out material for a Royal Command performance in front of the Queen. While I was somewhat awed to be sitting only a few feet away from one of my comedy heroes, I was even more awed watching him work.
While some of his material was clearly very well rehearsed, the purpose of the evening was as much to discover and try out the unknown as to further practice the known. From time to time, usually in the lull after a pre-scripted routine had reached its comic climax, he would stand at the microphone for what seemed like an eternity, saying very little until a new thought popped into his head and off he would go on a new comedy riff, tentatively at first and then, if it took hold, with greater and greater confidence.
This dance between the known and the unknown has stayed with me over the years, and is a part of my own teaching style. Yes, I have certain stories and metaphors that have proved themselves over the years and I tend to go to that well when I feel a bit insecure or out of touch with my in-the-moment creative wisdom. But invariably the real magic in any talk or class comes when the audience and I are both surprised by what comes out of my mouth next.
And while the willingness to stay in the unknown long enough for a new thought to appear is certainly one of the keys to teaching excellence, it is much more than that – it is also the secret behind both personal and professional transformation.
Have fun, learn heaps, and reflect on this:
Whatever the biggest problem is that you are currently facing, you are only one new thought away from a breakthrough