Intellectual CaptialPeer-Reviewed Research

Aha Moment

A single illuminated single light bulb hanging
  • Epiphanies, or flashes of insight about a puzzle or problem, are vivid experiences that can change the course of your life.
  • ​While every epiphany is unique, the way we interpret them can be categorized and studied.
  • Fostering a work environment of “readiness for change” may do more to spark personally transformative work/career epiphanies than more conventional approaches such as coaching or motivational lectures.

It might be just the right word from your boss. It might be a phone call with a trusted friend. Or it might be waking up one morning and just knowing. There’s no way to predict what will spark an epiphany that changes the way you see the world. But their power can be so far-reaching, they often leave us wondering where on earth that brilliant idea came from – and how we can find more.

Studying the mental processes behind epiphanies is especially hard because these flashes of insight are usually linked with nonconscious mental processing and incubation, often during time periods when one may not seem to be thinking about a problem at all. In this way, epiphanies seem to arrive effortlessly.

So how do people make sense of the epiphanies when they experience them? In a set of unprecedented studies, Rice Business professor Erik Dane set out to find answers, first examining people who’d experienced general epiphanies, then analyzing a set of accounts of work- and career-related epiphanies themselves.

In his first study, Dane surveyed more than 500 randomly selected people to ask them about their experiences with epiphanies, which he defined as a sudden and abrupt insight and/or change in perspective that transforms the individual. Subjects who said they’d experienced epiphanies reported what they’d been doing beforehand, the feelings and insight associated with the epiphany and how they thought they’d changed afterward. Interestingly, though this survey wasn’t limited to career- or work-related epiphanies, 20 percent of the responses related directly to these topics.

In the second study, Dane interviewed 22 professionals, asking them about distinct work- or career-related epiphanies, most of which resolved a nagging problem. After analyzing the transcripts of these interviews, Dane developed a set of theoretical categories describing the varieties of reactions an epiphany might spark. 

People generally perceive and analyze their epiphanies in similar ways, Dane found. He categorized these into four dimensions: a person’s emotional reaction to the experience of the epiphany, the question of how the epiphany arose, the circumstances that preceded the insight and a person’s observations about how ready they were to experience change through an epiphany.

The typical first reaction to an epiphany, Dane says, is a sudden and emotionally charged release from a problem or tension. We’ve all been there: a stressful work situation that seems to offer no way out, followed by a dazzling solution that appears from the clouds. It’s that suddenness that leads to the second typical reaction: a sense of astonishment due to the nonconscious nature of the insight’s arrival. Feeling dumbfounded for a prolonged time isn’t useful, though, so we usually start examining the factors surrounding the epiphany, including our own readiness to change.

What does this imply for workplace? After all, not every problem can or even ought to be solved by epiphany. At the same time, Dane notes, epiphanies can provide critical impetus to move forward.

Interestingly, his findings hint that one can increase the chances of having an epiphany. Though further research is required, Dane concludes that epiphanies most commonly arrive when people are open to the prospect of experiencing a major change. When something is mentally constraining us, on the other hand, eureka moments keep their distance.

As a worker, Dane suggests, you can open space for epiphanies by being actively aware of your surroundings. Look closely at your workplace, your constellation of coworkers and your place within the system. Perceived mindfully, these details may set the stage for problem-solving in a less focused moment.

If you’re a mentor or a supervisor hoping to spark epiphanies in your work team, try applying this principle at work: Rather than laying out specific targets and attacking them head-on, aim for an environment that allows for mindful engagement, one that includes the problems that feature in your long-term goals and resonate with your workers’ concerns and interests. Cultivating this environment and granting workers time and space to wander through it may lead, like a divining rod, to fresh sources of wisdom.

 

Erik Dane is a distinguished associate professor of management (organizational behavior) at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Dane, E. (2019). Suddenly everything became clear: How people make sense of epiphanies surrounding their work and careers. Academy of Management Discoveries.