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How to Create Insights

2010 January 3
by Greg Satell

As Marshall McLuhan once said, “A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.” We encounter that perilous luxury every day.  Achieving true insights is easier said than done.

What can seem like a great idea when mutually reinforced among colleagues in the office often falls flat in the marketplace.  Moreover, those of us who are senior managers often find our ideas accepted without question.  How can we achieve insight into the greater world when we only directly experience our local environment?

There is no better place to look for answers than Albert Einstein and one of the greatest insights in history.

A Boy Riding a Beam of Light

Despite many stories about Einstein as a child, most of which were apocryphal, he grew up rather unexceptionally.  His family was solidly middle class; he was certainly not a dullard, but not a prodigy either.

Einstein was, however, a bit dreamy and bookish.  This wasn’t surprising for a young Jewish boy growing up in Germany in the late 19th century.  It was natural for him to feel like an outsider and a boy with an active imagination would find great comfort in a dream world.

One of the things he liked to imagine as a teenager was what it would be like to ride a beam of light.  Such fantasies were a hallmark of Einstein.  Later on in life, he would wonder what it would be like to ride an elevator in space, from which he would form a new theory of gravity.

Many people have similar fantasies occur to them.  The difference with Einstein is that he would keep thinking about them intensely for a very long time.

From Maxwell to Smart

In a quirk of history, Newton was born the same year Galileo died.  Einstein, who would overturn some of Newton’s laws, was born the same year that James Clerk Maxwell died.

It was Maxwell who developed the first great insights into the nature of light through a set of equations.  These equations created a sensation and even today form the basis for much of modern physics.  One of the consequences of these equations was that the speed of light was constant.

For a young university physics student at the time, Maxwell’s equations were a main subject of study and discussion.  To Einstein especially, who was still wondering what it would be like to ride on a beam of light, they must have been of special interest.

If the speed of light is constant, what would light look like to a boy riding a beam of light?  Would he be able to see anything?

Imagination + Information = Insight

In retrospect, the concept of relativity is fairly straightforward, especially to a boy who wanted to ride on a light beam.

  • A boy riding a beam of light would also see light.
  • If Maxwell’s equations were right, then light travels at a constant speed
  • So the light he saw wouldn’t be able to just stand still, even for our special boy.
  • Speed is the movement through space over time.

Therefore, if the speed of light is constant, then time and space must be relative.

As strange as it sounds, relativity is something that we experience all the time without realizing it.  When we travel on a plane at roughly half the speed of sound, we don’t hear any difference.  Sound seems to travel the same way it does when we are on the ground.

Every time we use a GPS device, we are in effect proving Einstein’s theory.  The satellites are calibrated using Einstein’s equations.  If Einstein was wrong, GPS wouldn’t work accurately.  The fact that GPS works is, in effect, empirical proof that relativity is true.

The Confinement of Being a Special Case

The example above is Einstein’s simpler theory of “special” relativity.  His general theory of relativity is even stranger.  Published ten years later, it describes a universe where gravity doesn’t pull, it pushes. Like a bowling ball on a water bed, gravity warps space so that things move toward it.

It’s all a bit spooky.  However, as string theorist Michio Kaku points out, Einstein’s theories only seem strange to us because we live in a special case. We inhabit a world where nothing moves too fast and nothing is too big or too small.  The world we experience is a “Goldilocks reality” that is just right for our senses to perceive it.

We also do our strategic business planning in a special case “Goldilocks world.”  Our offices are inhabited by people who are a lot like us and perceive things much the same way we do.  In a sense, we all live on airplanes where the world seems to rush by while we stand still despite what the people on the ground think.

Being a special case makes insights difficult to achieve. It took ten years for Einstein to go from imagining a ride on a beam of light to his special theory and another ten years to complete his general theory.

The Art and Science of Disciplined Dreaming

While very few of us will ever achieve insights as important as Einstein’s, we can learn a lot from how he arrived at them.

Some pertinent points:

  • Einstein was constantly engaging in mental simulations and thought experiments
  • He studied physics seriously and was familiar with all available experimental data
  • He worked intensely on his equations for years before arriving at his conclusions
  • He didn’t go it alone, but actively discussed physics with others.  His conclusions were subjected to rigorous peer review.

There is nothing in Einstein’s method that we can’t all do and there is no reason that we can’t break out of the prison of our local experience. We all have the capacity to dream, study, work and discuss. Most of us don’t however, because having faith in our own experience is gratifying and comforting.

To imagine a reality that isn’t just like ours takes courage and to continue to pursue an idea down blind alleys over an extended period of time takes persistence.  It’s certainly much easier to take what our “Goldilocks” worlds give us.

Yet, the universe lacks a sense of humor.  If we choose to hide in the comfortable, mutually reinforcing world of our offices, the market will come and find us.

We have to go out and find it first.

– Greg

21 Responses leave one →
  1. January 4, 2010


    Thank you for the3-Jan-09 posting. I really enjoy reading your thoughts. Quite provoking and stimulating.


  2. January 4, 2010


    Thanks for saying so. Best of luck in the New Year!

    – Greg

  3. January 4, 2010

    this is a very interesting article. I had a conversation on insight generation with one of a great leader at Microsoft.
    I worked on most of the ideas he provided. Today u have demystified the concept and also provided a framework to achieve it. I also have a simple model and will augment the content with your stories.
    Thanks again for sharing. I loved reading about Einstein.

  4. January 4, 2010


    Thanks. Have a great week.

    – Greg

  5. January 4, 2010

    More great stuff Greg. All my best in the new year.


  6. January 4, 2010


    Thanks. Same to you.

    – Greg

  7. January 5, 2010

    Hi Greg,
    Happy new year, lets hope its a prosperous one.
    How lovely that we’re discussing Einstein, he happens to be a favourite philosopher of mine. I use philosopher here in the in the context that his mind was so much bigger than just physics, he explored many realms.

    Ah… the dream… this is the wonderful avatar world where everything is possible , and for a boy who wanted to ride a light beam , well…

    Let’s imagine for a moment that riding a beam of light might feel similar to inertial motion, or rather ‘free falling’, therefore while moving with the speed of light in ‘free fall’ one cannot detect their own accelerated motion, it is only observers with an accelerating reference frame who can detect motion.
    Consequently, this might have the feeling for the boy who is travel in ‘free fall’ with the speed of light to be similar to an implosion, such as the force of gravity pushing inward, which would then concentrate matter and energy, thus reversing the mass energy equasion E=mc2. This in effect might appear to be what Einstein refers to as resting in a gravitional field, or to help understanding further , a spinning top in peak ‘balance’ spin appears to stand still (only appears this way because of our reference frames) and it can stay in this ‘field’ a long time; until a gravititional force knocks it off balance at which time it would wobble and slow down considerably, until stopping.

    Einstein also referred to field equasions as defining the topology of spactime and how objects move inertially, somewhat how the mind leads and the body follows, which is the interesting link to my ‘field’, organisational psychology, and my fascination with physics.
    Therefore in the spirit of philosophising with Einstein, and his endeavour to find a unifed field theory, my research extends the external pursuit of physics to the internal possibilities of the mind.

    food for thought
    kind regards

  8. January 5, 2010


    Thanks for the nice summary of the general theory. It really is cool stuff:-))

    – Greg

  9. Joan Bernard Bradley permalink
    January 6, 2010

    Thanks for the great article on insight, Greg.

    Having lived in 5 countries I have met many who are happy to hide in their “comfortable, mutually reinforcing world”. For me the benefits of this broad-based experience have been tremendous — quick ability to adapt and innovate while learning quickly and transferring previous knowledge successfully to accomplish targets I feel strongly about. It’s been fun having this “special” experience.

    Happy New Year!


  10. January 6, 2010


    I really know what you mean (and after only 4 countries!).

    Happy New Year to you as well.

    – Greg

  11. January 6, 2010

    Hi Greg,
    I’ve been wondering if you might allow me put a link to your great insight article on my website. I’m sure my clients might enjoy this special experience too.


  12. January 6, 2010


    Sure! Thanks for asking.

    – Greg

  13. Sarah Crowther permalink
    January 7, 2010

    Wow, powerful stuff! I read another article yesterday which suggested looking outside of your industry to find fresh material that could be applied to your own industry to create new ideas and insights. Your article is a fantastic example of this and has caused me to start thinking in a serious way how I can do the same to produce content for our website and email programme…. Thanks for taking the time to provide such well thought out ideas – you have obviously taken a leaf out of Einstein’s book!

  14. Sarah Crowther permalink
    January 7, 2010

    Sorry I forgot to attach a link to the article!

  15. January 7, 2010


    Thanks for your comment. Research into creativity and innovation had shown that great discoveries also come through the use of analogues taken from different contexts. The more analogues you have at your disposal, the more creative you’re likely to be.

    Another point about Einstein that people often over look is that as brilliant as he was, he worked for a very long time on his ideas. I think his persistence was as much a part of his success as his extraordinary mind.

    – Greg

  16. April 26, 2011

    I like you am fascinated by playing with other people’s words and thoughts. One of my favorite quotes if not my favorite is “Imagination is more important than knowledge” though the quote speaks for itself many don’t realize that what i believe he was referring to is observation with a “sense” of imagination. Let’s take another quote to kind of combine the meaning of it, Sherlock Holmes said, “you may have seen but not observed” seeing is knowledge but observation is imagination.

    If your interested have a look at something i’ve been working on in regards to methods and thinking. (note hover over the words research, create, intelligent value)

  17. April 26, 2011


    I like it! Although I think you should probably add something about problem definition, which reminds me of another thing Einstein said: ‎”If I had 20 days to solve a problem, I would take 19 days to define it.”

    – Greg

  18. April 27, 2011

    Thanks Greg i totally agree on problem finding, and Einstein was right, what i appreciate about him and his words is that they delivered a sense of humility in the power of wisdom, and yet he realized how important it was to be realistic in that pursuit…


  19. April 27, 2011


  20. November 6, 2011

    Thanks again – good stuff:

    Some pertinent points:

    Einstein was constantly engaging in mental simulations and thought experiments
    He studied physics seriously and was familiar with all available experimental data
    He worked intensely on his equations for years before arriving at his conclusions
    He didn’t go it alone, but actively discussed physics with others. His conclusions were subjected to rigorous peer review.
    There is nothing in Einstein’s method that we can’t all do and there is no reason that we can’t break out of the prison of our local experience.

    Having done that for the best part of forty years to develop my insights into economics, do you know how painful it is to try to be heard at policy making level without much response?

    I know I have to publish the book but anyone that has studied my work at close quarters says I am right. Why the hell do we have to go through the banking crisis and the Sovereign Debt Crisis when listening to me could have avoided both?

  21. Kevin L. permalink
    November 21, 2012

    Dear Edward,

    I can’t relate first hand, but I imagine that must be a very frustrating situation. I would like to point out though that policy making is a different beast than scientific and academic discourse. Take climate change for instance. There is considerable scientific agreement on the human influence on global warming, yet there is very significant resistance at the policy level to use those findings to implement solutions. What I’d like to say is that, even if there is rigorous peer review to support a conclusion, policy decisions are affected by more than scientific facts – for better or for worse. I personally think that eventually policy decisions will reflect scientific understanding, but there is a lag due to existing societal perceptions. Admittedly, this could vary between disciplines, however.

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