Friday, 24 May 2013

Sleeping on The Job

In my experience most employers want (or at least say they want) to have creative employees.  It seems that there is a general acceptance that it's possible to make someone creative. To this end there is no end to the number of training companies that provide creativity training. However, when you're around as long as I am (Digital, Compaq, HP, Microsoft) you get to see a pattern: two examples keep recurring - the No. 1 example cited is 3M and the 20% creativity time (recently emulated by Google) which resulted in the development of Post-Its and the other classic example being the potential of hypnagogia - the altered mental state that occurs between sleeping and waking during which Kekul√© correctly hypothesised that that the structure of benzene was a closed ring after imagining the molecules forming into snakes that swallowed their own tails, while he was half asleep in front of his fire.
 
The fact that the discovery of the benzene ring happened almost 115 years ago and even the Post-It example is almost 40 years old tells me that induced creativity doesn't have a great hall of fame to refer to. However, undaunted I've been looking into hypnagogia....
Maybe creativity is over emphasised, as Edison is reported to have said: invention is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. A favourite book of mine is Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, in this he identifies a unique cluster of, in themselves, relatively mundane markers that when they occur together account for the stand-out success of a few people in each generation. Amazingly, rather than creativity he identifies proficiency as a critical marker and he ascribes it to what he calls the 10,000 hour rule. According to this rule it takes that long doing something (anything) to become truly proficient, and if you're not proficient there's no value in the other markers. But where does this leave Mozart who was already too young to have 10k hours under his belt when he composed his first symphony, or Salvador Dali who induced creativity in himself with a special trick of holding a spoon over a glass/platter so that when he dozed off the spoon would fall from his grip and the clang would wake him. He could inspect his mind for dream contents. Similarly, Otto Loewi one night dreamt the solution to a problem in cell biology, he was smart enough to write it down, but not smart enough to be fully awake when he did and he couldn't read his writing in the morning, luckily he had the same dream again the next night and this time he made sure he was fully awake when he wrote it down. It was worth waking for - he won the Nobel Prize for his work. Stand-out successes of their generations - no 10k hour rule. Maybe there's a shortcut.
 
The reason for my doggedness arises from my frustration at the almost complete futility of creativity training as practised in today's companies coupled with my personal experience of inspired problem solving late at night or early morning. For example, while working as a software engineer writing a device driver for a laser printer many years ago I recall a particularly difficult bug (umlaut disappearing intermittently) that I suddenly solved at 4:00am on a Sunday morning  I vividly remember seeing the elusive umlaut in my dream and waking with the exact eprom return value in the form of four hex characters (like C2 43). I had spent so much time on this bug that I could mentally 'pop' and 'push' the registers and the binary values in them. In this case I systematically stepped the code mentally and suddenly realised that I was getting the wrong return value and the problem was isolated to a corruption in the printer's eprom (in the era before WfH I had to call the security company to gain access to the Release Lab, they had to call the GM, just as well I solved it!!). I know how sad this sounds, but I'm not alone, I know others who've had the same experience.
 
This is repeatable. And it's induced creativity. Given the choice between the HR-led best-practice adoption (including much expensive training) or first-person experience of the incredible insights available through hypnagogia I'd prefer to see far more emphasis on induced altered states work, like that being carried out by Tore Nielsen of the University of Montreal Dream and Nightmare Laboratory. Tore has a working procedure for the all important self-observation mechanism to systematically capture the fleeting insights that occur during, and post, the transition from sleep to wakefulness. Neilsen says "Hypnagogia is largely an uncharted domain." and that "We are still developing tools for navigating it." And it's not all sweetness and light - sometimes one can wake in a confused state which can be quite un-nerving.
 

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