Leaps of insight emerge from prior thought

When looking at someone else’s stroke of genius, you see only the end product. You don’t see how much kindling was burnt before that sudden realization was possible. In part, that’s because even our own epiphanies don’t feel like they emerge as a natural consequence of prior efforts—but they do!

Leaps of insight depend on having accumulated lots of prior thought on those topics. Sometimes that accumulation happens entirely within our subconscious (our “subconscious back burners,” as May-Li would say), but it’s helpful to design our external cognitive systems such that our day-to-day noodling can accrete (see Knowledge work should accrete).

One practical implication of this notion: Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work.


Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers.

focus lies almost always on the few exceptional moments where we write a lengthy piece, a book, an article or, as students, the essays and theses we have to hand in.

Every intellectual endeavour starts from an already existing preconception, which then can be transformed during further inquires and can serve as a starting point for following endeavours. Basically, that is what Hans-Georg Gadamer called the hermeneutic circle (Gadamer 2004).

But most importantly, without a permanent reservoir of ideas, you will not be able to develop any major ideas over a longer period of time because you are restricting yourself either to the length of a single project or the capacity of your memory. Exceptional ideas need much more than that.

The things you are supposed to find in your head by brainstorming usually don’t have their origins in there. Rather, they come from the outside: through reading, having discussions and listening to others, through all the things that could have been accompanied and often even would have been improved by writing.