Seeing an apple fall off a tree helped Isaac Newton discover the laws of gravity. As a teenager, Albert Einstein imagined himself riding alongside a light beam. The narrator in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time bit into a tea-soaked madeleine and found his mind flooded with vivid memories of his childhood.
All these are examples of epiphanies—“aha” moments that give people sudden, deeper insights into their lives and sometimes, the nature of things. The word comes from the Ancient Greek for manifestation, as when the infant Jesus manifested himself to the three Magi, but the term took on a secular meaning in the 20th century and now is widely applicable, even in the workplace. Epiphanies allow people to find solutions to vexing problems in a flash, resolving tension and helping them see things in a whole new way.
Poets&Quants’ Professor of the Week, Erik Dane of Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business, has studied epiphanies and the role of nonconscious thought in decision making. His paper, “Suddenly Everything Became Clear: How People Make Sense of Epiphanies Surrounding Their Work and Careers,” published in the journal Academy of Management Discoveries, attempts to uncover how people understand and utilize their epiphanies.
THOSE ‘AHA’ MOMENTS ARE COMMON AMONG ENTREPRENEURS
Drawing upon discussions of epiphanies in several disciplines, Dane defines an epiphany as “a sudden and abrupt insight and/or change in perspective that transforms the individual’s concept of self and identity through the creation of new meaning in the individual’s life.”
Epiphanies, he writes, “involve a shift or alteration of how one has previously conceived of the problem,” and “transform a situation marked by confusion and opacity to one of clarity.” In business, they’re more commonly associated with entrepreneurs, but also happen to employees who confront seemingly intractable problems—or people who are dealing with unhealthy habits or problems in relationships. Epiphanies usually follow a long period of “incubation and nonconscious processing” in which people’s minds work through many possible solutions before the breakthrough occurs that reframes the issues and finds a satisfying outcome.
Surprisingly, Dane found people are modest about these experiences. “People are generally reluctant to take credit for their epiphanies,” he writes, but instead tend to attribute them “to forces beyond themselves…This attribution leads people to perceive their epiphanies as products of good fortune; they feel lucky that such experiences occurred in their lives.”
TO HAVE ONE, IT HELPS TO BE OPEN TO EXPERIENCING AN EPIPHANY
On the other hand, he continues, “people believe their epiphanies occurred not only due to serendipitous circumstances but also because they were open to the prospect of experiencing an epiphany…By achieving a state of ‘readiness’…one may set the stage for an epiphany to occur.” You don’t need to meditate or practice yoga to achieve that; people may just need to accept that solving common problems may require them to be “ready” to see that problem in a new light.
In the study—which comprised online surveys and in-depth interviews with graduates of a business school—Dane found many participants had strong emotions about their epiphanies that lasted for years; they were often, but not always, accompanied by positive feelings and a sense of relieving tensions.
Can people “engineer” or promote epiphanies? Probably about as much as they can will their own dreams, because both emerge from the unconscious mind. But ”although epiphanies arise through nonconscious processes, people can, nevertheless, make sense of them in a moving and meaningful manner,” Dane writes, and that can help “inform the choices they make subsequently, and chart the course of personal change.”
Dane, 40, is the Jones School Distinguished Associate Professor of Management. His research focuses on “cognition in the workplace,” including topics such as attention, creativity, intuition, and mindfulness. He teaches classes on organizational behavior across the Jones School’s MBA programs, structuring his courses around the theme of “challenging conventional wisdom.” A podcast on his research is also available.
Dane earned a BA and MBA from Tulane University and his Ph.D. in organizational behavior from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2007, after which he joined the Rice Jones faculty and has taught there ever since.
Howard R. Gold is a contributing writer to Poets&Quants. He is also a columnist at MarketWatch and his writing has appeared in Forbes, Barron’s, Money, and USAToday. Follow him on Twitter @howardrgold.