The unconscious pattern recognition our brain is constantly performing is what leads to breakthrough moments—and you can train yourself to have more of them.
Suzy Bátiz remembers the moment because of the chill she says it put in her body. “I felt with certainty that this was an idea that needed to be born,” she remembers
It happened at a family gathering, her brother-in-law had wondered aloud at the table if there might be some way to trap toilet odor. Most of the other guests had politely ignored the musing, but in a flash Bátiz thought of aromatherapy oils. It wasn’t the aromas, per se; it was the nature of the oil itself. “Oil floats on water, and I realized it could create a barrier that would trap the odor in,” she explained. “In that moment, I knew I had discovered the answer.”
She immediately responded that not only could it be done, but she would figure out how to do it. Her brother-in-law scoffed. By 2016, she would sell 22 million bottles of her odor trapping oil, which she calls Poo-Pourri.
Which Wich CEO Jeff Sinelli remembers his moment like a smack in the face. He was standing in a receiving line at a conference to meet one of his heroes, Container Store CEO Kip Tindle. Sinelli was wearing, as he always does, a polo shirt with a company logo.
When it was his turn, he pressed his business card into Tindle’s hand. “‘Some people want to make superior sandwiches. Some people want to make the world a better place. We want to do both,’” Tindle read off the card. “‘So, Jeff,’” Tindle asked Sinelli, “what are you doing to make the world better?’”
Sinelli didn’t have an answer because the statement was just a tagline. “There are a few defining moments in your life,” Sinelli says. “This was one. I said when I get back to Dallas, I’m going to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and give them out to the community.” This year, Sinelli says the company will give away its 1 millionth free sandwich. He says the program has given his company a purpose, and that has allowed Sinelli to stay energized through rapid growth. He says it keeps employees engaged in the often grinding work of making fast-food sandwiches. “I had been searching for 10 years until that moment pulled this purpose out of me.”
In interviewing more than a hundred entrepreneurs over the past two years, I’ve found the belief in aha moments like these to be nearly universal. They also tend to undergird the now famous “bias toward action” of Silicon Valley, in which an entrepreneur gets inspired then acts extremely quickly to bring an innovation to the world.
These moments occupy such an exalted position in the entrepreneurial mind-set. But is the perception of such moments a quirk of human psychology, an indulgence of our tendency to craft neat little stories when we look back on complex events? Or are these moments actually instructive in building a successful business? Do insights really appear in a flash, dependent on the lucky experience of stumbling on to the right question or problem, or do they incubate over time and only seem to pop into existence when they are ready?
My conversation with Bátiz, the odor entrepreneur, helped me connect the dots that provide an answer. At the time of her discovery, Bátiz had already experienced several major entrepreneurial failures, one which had led to bankruptcy. She had promised never to take a business risk again. But she says: “I had an experience in my body where I felt I had to do this. There was no question.”
Ongoing research attempting to demystify human intuition explains a lot about what Bátiz was experiencing. And it provides a major clue as to what these aha moments are all about.
Psychological researchers point out that our brains take in and process an enormous amount of data from the environment. The vast majority of it is hidden from our conscious view, but is still very present in our brains and constantly being processed in the background. When thinking entrepreneurially, our brains process this data in search of pattern recognition. Three or four well-known pieces of information are combined to create something new. When we use analysis, we’re applying pattern recognition to the information in our conscious awareness. “Intuition” is what we call pattern recognition applied to a much larger reservoir of information in our subconscious. It is often experienced as a flash of knowing, and it is often transmitted to our conscious attention through older parts of our brains, specifically through emotion and bodily sensation.
So when Bátiz had the realization that she could combine her knowledge of aromatherapy oils with her brother-in-law’s challenge to trap bathroom odor, her first experience was both emotional and somatic. The experience was the aha moment. It seemed to come in a flash but was actually dependent upon Bátiz’s years of experience with aromatherapy, and working with essential oils was a passionate hobby.
If the invention had simply been a thought, Bátiz says, she doesn’t know if she would have stuck with it through all the early failures she experienced. But, she says, she’s learned to trust her intuition implicitly. “I grew up in a very dysfunctional household,” she says. “A raging, alcoholic father. My intuition became my survival mechanism.”
Indeed, research now indicates that the more uncertain an environment, the more we are forced to rely on intuition while strict analysis loses relevance, be that in an unstable home or rapidly evolving marketplace. But intuition isn’t magic. Researcher Robin Hogarth cautions that it can easily spot false patterns if it’s not being fed good information. Entrepreneurs, he advises, should constantly be exposing themselves to wide-ranging and relevant data, brain food for their subconscious processes. Contrary to popular belief, Hogarth says, we can intentionally train our intuition.
This seems to be the strategy behind Sinelli’s strange habit of always wearing his company logo on his chest. He says that often when he sits down on a plane, his neighbor will see the logo and start talking about their favorite sandwich or offer complaints. Sinelli says that collecting all these anecdotes gives him intuitive confidence about when to listen to market data and when to ignore it.
This close contact with the stories behind the brand, he believes, is what’s allowed Wich Which to thrive as a privately held, founder-driven company where many private equity-led chains have floundered. The company is set to open its 500th Wich Which franchise.
So our aha moments are not pure myth or magic. We can multiply such experiences by being ready for them. We can increase the odds of our entrepreneurial success by increasing the amount of interesting, unexpected, and relevant experiences we expose ourselves to (even when such encounters float at the edges of our attention). And this raises questions about the conventional wisdom on bias toward action. Although true insight might seem like a flash followed by a rush to act, that flash often takes months or years of subconscious data gathering through play, learning, and exploration. That comes only from the kind of openness to experience that we don’t have time for when we rely too heavily on a bias toward action. Perhaps more important than a bias toward action is a bias toward interaction with the widest possible world.
Without a doubt, when we experience one of these aha moments, whether they feel like a chill, a slap in the face, or a deep sense of knowing, we should spring into action, taking first steps to bring our insights out to the world where they can be cheaply tested and refined. But if we want to experience these moments in the first place, we need to do more than act: We need to cultivate a bias toward feeding and listening to our intuition, a practice that for many has been lost.
“My body is my tuning fork,” says Bátiz. “I spend a lot of my day asking, ‘Does this feel right?’ That’s not talked about in most workplaces. It should be.”