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Published: November 23, 2010
 / Winter 2010 / Issue 61


How Aha! Really Happens

The greatest military scholar of that period was Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian, whose lifetime of work led to the book On War in 1832. If we read On War with a knowledge of modern neuroscience, we see that Clausewitz offers useful guidance on how to apply intelligent memory to strategy. A great general gets a strategic idea as a coup d’oeil, which means “strike of the eye.” It’s a glance that shows you what to do — a flash of insight. Two steps precede the flash: “examples from history,” when you explicitly study what others have done before you, and “presence of mind,” when you clear your brain of all expectations of solutions. In a clear mind, selected examples from history combine as insight. The last step is resolution, when the flash gives you the will to act on the idea despite the obstacles you face.

Examples from history are a form of intelligent memory. The shelves of the brain are stocked with what you’ve seen or heard or read about what others have done before. This process takes place naturally in every human brain, but active study can accelerate and improve it, as Napoleon showed. He won his first battle at the siege of Toulon at the age of 24 without any previous military experience. But he was a thorough student of military history, and he combined elements from past battles to make up his winning strategy. The elements were not new, but his combinations were new. His thinking process exemplified the way in which intelligent memory produces creative ideas.

The presence of mind Clausewitz describes is akin to the calm state that precedes a flash of insight, which neuroscientists can now measure. Their subjects include Buddhist monks and other masters of meditation. That explains why you get your best ideas not in formal brainstorming meetings but in the shower, or driving, or falling asleep at night — when your brain is relaxed and wandering, instead of focused on a particular problem. Incidentally, brain scans of these masters also show this presence of mind and reveal it as a mental discipline you can learn.

You can find the four steps of Clausewitz — examples from history, presence of mind, flash of insight, resolution — in countless cases of genuine innovation in practice. Take Google, for instance. Let’s reconstruct how the original Google guys, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, came up with their great idea. My source is The Google Story, by David A. Vise and Mark Malseed (Delacorte, 2005).

The third founder of Google was Rajeev Motwani, a professor in the computer science department at Stanford University. Page and Brin were his graduate students. Were they working on search? Not at all. At the time, nobody thought that companies could make money from search engines alone. The prevailing idea was to create a portal, like Yahoo, where a combination of shopping, e-mail, search, news, and other features would keep people lingering on the same site for as long as possible. The portal owners would make money through banner and pop-up ads that looked like magazine pages and kept people on the site even longer.

Google would turn out to be a highly creative opposite to the portal business model. In a second or two, the searcher would get a result and click through to another site. But nobody understood that at the time, not even Motwani, Page, or Brin.

Instead, the trio was working on a more academic subject: applying data mining algorithms from bricks-and-mortar retail to e-commerce companies. They looked on the Internet for companies to study. They used AltaVista to search for them, because AltaVista was the best search engine at the time. It was the first to download an index of every page on the Internet on a huge array of computers and do a full-text search. One day, while Page was using AltaVista, he noticed something. On a search page, he could type in a URL and find other sites that linked to that URL. In a flash of insight, that realization combined with something else on the shelves of his mind — academic citations.

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