Have you ever experienced the elation of an ‘aha!’ moment? An ‘aha!’ moment is a miraculous little pocket of discovery when seemingly disparate things in life finally gel together in a way that just makes sense. These eurekas, while sometimes elusive, are such a delight because they help us understand both ourselves and the world better. On a globe rife with turbulence and disarray, any taste of clarity is a welcome treat.
Often, an ‘aha!’ moment follows a period of confusion or murkiness, when we’ve been stuck or wrestling with a problem. Then, something unexpected—an insight from a book, a lyric in a song, a passing comment from a friend, an observation on a walk etc.—careens into our consciousness at just the right time, in just the right way, activating our synapses and helping us draw connections that create newfound clarity for how we live, lead, relate to other people, and make sense of a senseless universe.
In the popular imagination, ‘aha!’ moments are stumbled upon accidentally. Legend tells us that Isaac Newton was lazing under an apple tree, with no intention of having a “eureka!,” when an apple fell from the sky, bonking him on the head, and prompting him to wonder, “why do things fall straight down, instead of upwards or sideways?” That simple question led him to develop the law of universal gravitation.
Day-to-day, for most leaders, eurekas don’t generally fall from the sky; they need a little coaxing. And, they demand that we meet life’s questions with openness—a willingness to see where they lead. Even Newton’s discovery was not instantaneous, it required some probing.
‘Aha!’s Are No Accident
Newton’s story shows us that we don’t have to wait for miracles in order to experience the jolt of revelation. His ‘aha!’ moment didn’t happen when the apple fell from the tree—that was merely the impetus, a point of confusion where he encountered something he didn’t understand. The real epiphany occurred afterwards, because he hungered to know the world better, to turn something hazy into something clear. And the result was magical.
The same magic is available to any one of us. With the right mindset, ‘aha!’ moments do not have to be rare, incidental marvels that happen to us. They can be desired events that we seek, and create, with intention. We only have to train our minds to be both curious and prepared.
This thinking deeply informs our work at ConantLeadership. Among other things, we guide people through the messy but rewarding process of developing their own personal leadership models. These models are visual representations of a system, composed of concepts and practices, which leaders use to help other people—and themselves—understand their approach to leading. Each leader’s model represents a series of “aha” moments about what matters most to them, what they value, and how they want to show up for others.
To help leaders create their leadership models, we designed a process tailor-made to facilitate joyful discovery: The 6-step Blueprint process. The process guides leaders through prompts for reflection, readings, and exercises which help them unearth previously hidden insights, all while celebrating the unity between their seemingly disconnected goals, thoughts, and feelings.
Ultimately, leaders on their Blueprint journey wade into a patchwork of different ideas, experiences, and observations, and they draw connections—momentous ‘aha!’s—that are greater than the sum of their parts. Some discover they want to change roles or industries, others realize their true calling, and many develop unprecedented lucidity about what will fulfill them in work and life. Without fail, things are always fuzzy at the beginning, and much clearer by the end.
As stewards of this process of discovery, we’ve learned that there is a simple way to train your brain to be more open to eurekas. You don’t have to wait for inspiration to strike. You can have more miraculous ‘aha!’ moments by internalizing one key leadership mindset.
The Growth Mindset
On that fateful day, in Newton’s family orchard, he could have easily let the question, “Why does an apple fall downward?” flit through his brain without pursuing it further. A less curious mind might have accepted that humans’ understanding of the universe was finite, fixed where it stood.
But Newton was open to following his inquisitiveness, and determined to embark on a course of discovery, even though the destination was up-in-the-air and no answer was promised. His commitment to rolling around in the unknown led to an “aha!” that helped him, and everyone else, expand their knowledge of the universe. In the ensuing years, gravity—at first a mind-bending epiphany—has been integrated into our shared understanding of reality. Now, we take the existence of this invisible force for granted.
To chase the thrill of epiphany, leaders must meet the world with the same questioning spirit as Newton—not only to find insights that can improve your leadership approach, but to learn to enjoy the journey of inquiry itself, regardless of the outcome.
How? The key is in cultivating a growth mindset, a concept coined by renowned researcher and psychologist, Carol Dweck. In simple terms, people with a growth mindset believe that intelligence can be developed and improved, and that innate talent pales in importance to dedication and hard work. It stands in opposition to a fixed mindset, which is the limiting belief that intelligence is static and cannot grow or progress.
Dweck’s research shows that people with a growth mindset tend to put in more effort because they believe improvement is possible. In contrast, people with a fixed mindset do not see the point in expending energy because they believe their abilities will remain the same either way—so they avoid sticky challenges and often achieve less, foregoing opportunities to broaden their minds.
To make sure you are ready to generate ‘aha!’ moments, you must train your psyche to believe that examination and reflection are worthwhile. If you want a greater grasp of your life and your leadership, you have to believe in the premise that grand realizations are achievable. A growth mindset teaches you that exploration is necessary, and that breakthroughs are feasible, as long as you invest your time and attention in the effort.
And, this mindset helps you embrace the thought that improvement is perpetual—it’s not a pursuit that is ever “finished.” Growth-minded leaders aren’t disheartened by this. In fact, they get a lift from the idea that their learning is ongoing. When you’re excited by the prospect of growth, the promise of a lifetime of continuously getting better is appealing (that’s why the final step in the Blueprint is ‘Improve,’ because effective processes honor the growth mindset by being iterative).
Wonder as a Way of Life
The research around the growth mindset illustrates a self-fulfilling prophecy: People who think they can get better, do. People who don’t believe they can improve, don’t. It’s the same thing with epiphanies: If you’re open to having them, you probably will; if you’re not open, it’s less likely. But even more importantly, the growth mindset illustrates how joyful the pursuit of knowledge can be, regardless of the conclusion.
Dweck writes: “In the fixed mindset, everything is about the outcome. If you fail—or if you’re not the best—it’s all been wasted.” Whereas, “the growth mindset allows people to value what they’re doing regardless of the outcome. They’re tackling problems, charting new courses, working on important issues.” She notes that even when someone with a growth mindset doesn’t reach the precise answer they’re seeking, they still find the search for meaning deeply rewarding. They revel in the journey, regardless of the destination.
The same principle applies to continuously growing your awareness of what matters most to you in life and leadership. When you approach each day with the assumption that your next ‘aha!’ is right around the corner, you become more alert to your surroundings and more open to exploration. You look closer. You innovate. You don’t take things for granted. And you begin to delight in small moments, knowing that even the most mundane observation or interaction has the potential to lead to a revelation down the road. Wonder becomes a way of life.
And when you’ve integrated a sense of wonder, you are poised to meet life’s questions with curiosity, and to deepen your engagement with your peers, colleagues, family members, and friends. If you train your brain to embrace the growth mindset—when the apple falls, you’ll be ready.
About the Author: Amy Federman is ConantLeadership’s Director of Content and Editor in Chief, and co-author with Doug Conant of the WSJ bestseller, The Blueprint.
Ready to train your brain to be more receptive to ‘aha!’ moments? Apply to our signature leadership development program, The BLUEPRINT Boot Camp by ConantLeadership, a 2-day leadership intensive offering elite-level, highly interactive training with Doug Conant and a community of your peers. Learn more about this premium tier of transformational leadership development here or set up a complimentary consultation call here.
For more from ConantLeadership, engage with our suite of written leadership resources here, or start your Blueprint journey—an iterative approach for getting more joy and fulfillment out of your work—by getting your signed copy of the book here, or by downloading the first chapter free here.
(Cover Photo by Hacı Elmas on Unsplash)