The Art of Insight: How to Have More Aha! Moments

The Art of Insight: How to Have More Aha! Moments

by Charles Kiefer, Malcolm Constable


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We have all experienced it: the jolt of an insight arriving like a thunderclap, unexpectedly and without warning. But what if insights could be accessed more reliably? Drawing on years of research, reflection, and experiences with colleagues, friends, and clients, Charles Kiefer and Malcolm Constable present a thorough, pragmatic approach for dependably generating fresh thoughts and perspectives. Guided by their user-friendly practices and helpful exercises (both in the book and online at, you'll develop your own personal approach to cultivating a mindset where insights come so readily that new or long-standing problems are solved with confidence and ease.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609948092
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 04/08/2013
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.56(w) x 8.56(h) x 0.51(d)

About the Author

Charles Kiefer is the founder of Innovation Associates, whose programs and services in insight, entrepreneurial thinking and learning-based change permanently improve a large organization’s ability to innovate.
Malcolm Constable is an accomplished writer and entrepreneur who has been using insight thinking methods for the past five years with clients in the boardroom and on the golf course.

Read an Excerpt



By Charles Kiefer, Malcolm Constable

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2013Charles Kiefer and Malcolm Constable
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60994-809-2



What Is Insight?

If you know what you're looking for, you're more apt to find it. That's as true for finding insights as it is for tracking down a lost pair of socks.

Knowing that you want more insights gives clear direction for your unconscious mind to go to work and find an answer. The clearer you are about the specific insight you seek, the more regularly the insight will occur. It's just like when you are considering buying a new car and you suddenly notice more cars on the road like the one you want to buy. Pause for a moment to pick a problem or topic you'd like some insight into and set it aside for use in the coming chapters.

Let's begin with how insight differs from other types of thought. While what follows is what we have learned from others, what an insight means for us or them is not nearly as important as what an insight is for you. With this awareness in place, you can learn how to actively listen for insights and access the state of mind in which you are most apt to facilitate insights.

Insights Are Thoughts

Insights are a specific type of thought. We may think we understand what thoughts are, but let's take a closer look anyway. For our purposes, we are going to adopt a loose definition. Thoughts are ideas, opinions, mental images, cognitive activities, or any internal activities of the mind.

Thoughts ebb and flow naturally all the time. If you were asked to think about an orange balloon, that image would appear in your mind for a moment, and then it would vanish.

Sometimes we create our thoughts by actively looking for them. The most common example of this is in problem solving. When our first thoughts don't yield a solution, we try to bring forth new thoughts. In some cases, thoughts appear unsolicited, and we simply notice their arrival.

We are not consciously aware of many types of thinking. For example, when driving a car, we may suddenly notice that we had been absorbed in thought and were not conscious of our driving. Of course, while our minds wandered at the wheel, we continued to have many subconscious thoughts telling us to slow down, accelerate, or bear right. Although rarely vocalized and never visible, these thoughts exist and are essential for driving. It is important to remember that while we may be aware of some thoughts, a great many more are constantly occurring without our noticing.

Memory Thoughts Versus Fresh Thoughts

Thoughts are constantly occurring, even when we are asleep. We have already had most of the thoughts that occur to us in some form or another. We call these memory thoughts. Memory thoughts often occur not just once or twice but many times, like a social security number or an ATM code. Fresh thoughts, on the other hand, are new thoughts that we have never had before. Fresh thoughts are new for you even if they are old for someone else.

The distinction between a fresh thought and a memory thought is useful when exploring the nature of insight. Insights are always fresh thoughts, but not all fresh thoughts are insights. You might say to yourself, "Wow, look at that flower" or "This dinner is one of the best in my life." These are fresh thoughts, but we would not describe them as insights. And just because a thought or idea is fresh does not necessarily mean it is good. Fresh or not, any thought that proves wrong would not be termed an insight. In fact, fresh thoughts are frequently way off base. Nothing's wrong with having fresh ideas that are useless, as long as they serve as part of your creative process and you don't necessarily act on them.

Most of the answers we need every day lie in memory, and there is no reason to look for an insight if the solution is already known. If the solution is not known, then memory thoughts are no longer sufficient, and fresh thoughts become essential. Memory thinking seems to have a self-reinforcing nature. With each use, we learn to depend more and more on it to solve our problems to the point that a strong reliance is established. Our educational institutions reinforce this pattern by stressing the accumulation of facts and the application of logical reasoning and generally encouraging us to become proficient memory thinkers. Thus, when faced with a question, our minds look first, and often exclusively, to our memories. When we get stuck in memory-based thinking, we are unconsciously disconnecting ourselves from our natural capacity for insight.

Fresh thoughts have a distinct, albeit often-unnoticed, feeling associated with them. A light, spacious sense of surprise or even joy accompanies a fresh thought. The presence of such a feeling can alert you that something novel has arrived. Even ideas that turn out to be poor can appear with a good feeling at the outset. Of course, some fresh thoughts carry an ugly feeling, like wanting revenge and suddenly seeing a new way to get it. Even though they are fresh, these hopefully rare cases would not be called insights.

To Have More Insights, Have More Fresh Thoughts

Trying deliberately to have an insight in any given moment rarely works, as we will see in upcoming chapters. What you can and should do is be deliberate about having more fresh thoughts. You have to discipline yourself to look for something fresh. Sometimes your fresh thoughts will be good, and other times they will be bad. You can learn to discard the bad ones, and over time the increase in fresh thoughts will yield an increase in insights.

You Need Both Kinds of Thoughts

Of course, you don't have to create everything completely from scratch. Memory, knowledge, and the thoughts that accompany them are essential. And you must grasp the basic fundamentals of what you are doing. For example, a lawyer needs a strong understanding of case law, but the best attorneys are not those who just remember the most from law school. They also have the ability to come up with an original and persuasive approach to a case. The best doctors are knowledgeable about pathology and human physiology, but they are also skilled at applying that knowledge insightfully to a particular medical case or condition.

In the case of insight, we operate more effectively when memory thoughts are present in the background and fresh thoughts are out in front, but the right relationship between fresh and memory thoughts is not just about having one kind in the back and one kind in the front of the mind. A healthy interplay between the two must be active and ongoing. As your memory bank grows and expands, you accumulate more raw material for insights. If you are trying to become well versed in a subject, you must search for more information and more ideas outside your own and add them to your memory bank. Nobel laureate Linus Pauling believed memory of isolated facts lay at the core of creativity. Pauling's Caltech students were reported to complain bitterly at having to memorize facts they could easily look up. One of his students, Dr. Samuel E. George, paraphrased Professor Pauling's response:

It's what you have in your memory bank—what you can recall instantly—that's important. If you have to look it up, it's worthless for creative thinking.

[Pauling] proceeded to give an example. In the mid1930s, he was riding a train from London to Oxford. To pass the time, he came across an article in the journal Nature, arguing that proteins were amorphous globs whose 3D structure could never be deduced.

He instantly saw the fallacy in the argument—because of one isolated stray fact in his memory bank—the key chemical bond in the protein backbone did not freely rotate....

He began doodling, and by the time he reached Oxford, he had discovered t

Excerpted from The ART of INSIGHT by Charles Kiefer. Copyright © 2013 by Charles Kiefer and Malcolm Constable. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Aha Moments
Chapter 1. What Is Insight?
Chapter 2. The Insight State of Mind
Chapter 3. Insight Listening
Chapter 4. Thinking Into and Out of an Insight State of Mind
Chapter 5. Insight in Practice
Chapter 6. The Art of Insight in Organizations
Chapter 7. Life In an Insight State
Assessing Your Progress
About the Authors

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Conventional wisdom holds the generation of insights to be an elusive and mysterious process. Kiefer and Constable turn conventional wisdom on its head with this marvelous addition to the library of all those devoted to improving the quality of their thinking.”
—Len Schlesinger, President, Babson College, and former Vice Chairman, Limited Brands

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