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Where Do Great Ideas Come From?

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

Trying to be creative usually doesn’t work. Instead, relax and let loose a little. Novel ideas pop up when we least expect it.

The most popular material in spacesuits and kids’ clothing was inspired by a bad day.

In 1941, engineer George de Mestral and his dog went out along the riverbanks of the Swiss Alps. Few places are more picturesque, more calming than the Alps, but one thing was getting on the man’s nerves this particular day: nasty little things called “burs.” Small and spherical plants, with long hooks in every direction that easily latch onto soft, threadlike surfaces, such as a dog’s fur, or an engineer’s pants. Even as de Mestral’s dog rolled around on the grass, most of the burs persisted.

As the legend goes, de Mestral was tearing burs off his pants when frustration turned to curiosity. What made these little things so adhesive?

That question would go on to inspire his big invention: the hook-and-loop fastener or, as it’s more commonly known, velcro.

Stories like this — of inventors and artists struck with eureka moments in the strangest of circumstances — can be found everywhere in our culture. There’s Albert Einstein in the patent office, coming up with the basis for relativity while daydreaming. There’s the case of Kieth Richards, who was literally dreaming when he came up with the riff for “Satisfaction.” It’s easy to ascribe a certain magic to these moments, as if they could only have resulted from inimitable genius or divine intervention.

In fact, eureka moments are a byproduct of a simple psychological phenomenon.

In 2013, researchers at the University of Minnesota attempted to elucidate this phenomenon with an experiment. They enlisted 48 test subjects: 24 people working at neat desks (we’ll call them the “Neats”), and 24 at messy desks (“Messys”). Each participant was asked to come up with novel uses for ping pong balls.

The Neats and the Messys came up with the same number of ideas. However, a panel of impartial judges rated the Messys’ ideas as significantly more interesting and creative. You’d have agreed with them if you were a judge, too. While the Neats made ordinary suggestions like beer pong, and shooting the balls out of Nerf guns, the Messys came up with all kinds of oddball ideas like adding hooks to turn the balls into earrings, or filling them with water so that they could function as reusable ice cubes.

Does that mean messy people are more creative? No, because the test subjects didn’t work at their own desks, they worked at one of six predefined locations.

In other words, merely being in the presence of a mess can help any kind of person be more creative. It’s counterintuitive, because neatness is associated with clarity.

The power of a messy desk was well-known to Leon Heppel, a biochemist with the National Institutes of Health back in the 1950s. Heppel wasn’t merely disorganized — he consciously embraced clutter. Occasionally, he’d line his desk with brown butcher paper just to create a whole new surface to ruin. These messes inspired all kinds of ideas, like the day he made a Nobel Prize-worthy connection. From Bloomberg:

One day, Heppel found a letter on his desk describing a weird molecule and its effect on cellular biology. A few layers below, he found an older letter describing another molecule. He put the authors in touch, and one of them went on to win a Nobel Prize for work on how hormones regulate cells.

There’s nothing magical about a messy desk. It’s simply that our minds are more likely to make novel connections when faced with things that don’t otherwise belong together. Two letters written years apart. A bur plant stuck to your pants.

It also explains why some of the world’s greatest eureka moments — relativity, or the riff to “Satisfaction,” for instance — occurred during dream states. Dreams are constantly evoking novel connections. Einstein and Kieth Richards needed to be alert to develop their great ideas, but the impetus arrived when their brains were relaxed and free-associating. Maybe your relativity, your “Satisfaction” will come to you in the shower, or on a long walk, or while cleaning up your messy room.

It probably won’t come at work.

Work tends to be where all our most stifling behaviors arise. Think about it: when you have a tough problem to solve, what do you do? Sit down, and look at the page in front of you for as long as it takes. When a business needs to strategize a new campaign or product line, what happens? Ten employees who’ve been working in the same building all day gather at the same conference table, looking over the same Powerpoint presentation, wondering why they can’t think of anything “different.”

Perhaps we’ll all be better off if we ease up a little. If we don’t organize so much. If, every once in a while, we skip work for a hike. Or take a nap. Or talk about random things with our colleagues. It just might lead to something truly new.

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