Last week I was listening to the Fresh Air podcast of Terry Gross interviewing Keith Richards in 2010 about his autobiography, Life. Despite his reputation, I have always found Keith Richards to be a very thoughtful and introspective student of his life’s work. While listening to Richards describe the process of writing songs and working with co-authors (obvriously mainly Mick Jagger), While listening to this and another interview with him, I realized that he was describing the primary method of how most good scientists write their best papers as well. He says that his process is mainly to sit down and start playing his guitar, and after an hour or two of just fiddling around almost aimlessly, a small idea will occur to him, just a germ. Then he expands on that, and tries something. That may not work, so then he tries something else. But all the while playing with the germ of an idea, that you think is good but you’re not sure.
That’s the creative process in a nutshell for most good scientists, too. What most people would describe as journeyman work, and not revelatory. Scientific discovery is portrayed as mainly the “eureka” moments that scientists have. It is described as the blinding insights that come from nowhere – Kuhn‘s Scientific Revolution. Well, sorry, but it really doesn’t work that way for almost all of us.
However, it kinda does in very small moments of insights. I would say that our insights come in small “eureka” moments. I can remember many of my own. When you listen to someone like Keith Richards talk about songwriting, you hear the same process of creativity. That process is to simply start doing whatever you are doing. Then question yourself, add something small to it, and play with that for a while. In this process, little moments of insight and “eureka” emerge.
Most of your time is spent plodding away. The moments of insight come when you start to question yourself, particularly with how two things fit together. My moments of insight come when I ask myself one of two questions. The first is when I’m working on something and then I ask myself, “and then what about this?” trying to add in the next piece. The other is when I step back and ask myself a very simple question about a hard problem I’ve been thinking about. Both allow your mind to simply free-associate things. I’ve found that it’s during that free association, where my mind simply wanders, is where these “eureka” moments happen.