In my 9th grade advanced English class, I stumbled upon an idea that has stuck with me for almost 30 years now. In a term paper, I explored the idea that memories move in spirals. Some moved in tight circles around a key theme or activity in the past, moving in closer as we try to recall details, sometimes giving us a solid view of the memory as we circle around the “celestial bodies” of our mind. Other memories move in more of an elliptical pattern, sometimes passing close to the memory, allowing us to get a glimpse of one facet, one aspect of the memory, but like a comet passing by an object in space, the memory quickly fades as it spirals away into deep space. Images and details seem to come in waves as we spiral in tighter, helping us to recognize more of the memory, or give us only faded recollections and disconnected images of details as we spiral away, losing patterns due to distance and interference.
A thought came to me last night while I was preparing to go to sleep. For a moment, the memory of that paper came into my mind as I tried to relax, and free myself from the day's activities and thoughts of the remaining week’s activities and endless task lists. The thought that came to me was that innovation followed similar patterns as memories.
Similar to how relaxing -- and even focusing on another topic or activity -- can allow the brain to access different parts of your memory, relaxing the mind also sparks innovation. Maybe that's what initiated this idea, bringing forward this old memory of Oakridge High School in El Dorado Hills, California back in 1984. Sometimes you don't know what inspires you, where a new pattern has taken root, why it suddenly appears again because of something you’ve read, something someone said. Often, my mind will jump to a seemingly disconnected idea, and then attempt to build some kind of connection, but this idea that innovation moves in spiraling patterns seems to fit with my old paper, and so my brain put 2 and 2 together.
Whether through inspiration or through measured scientific method and analysis, sometimes innovation is clearly visible as you make tight rotations around the idea – the idea is clear, well formed, and you can take action. At other times you only catch glimpses while hurtling through space, recognizing only one distant view at a time while you rush past it, losing sight until you can later make another pass.
What I take away from this is that the secret to innovation is often the same secret to unlocking a partial memory -- give it time and be patient, because it may come back around in its orbit, giving you another view of the planet below, or possibly another of a perspective to take action on the idea. Or maybe you’ll find yourself staring at the ceiling, making people around you uncomfortable at your sudden silence.
Hopefully the former, otherwise people might get weirded out.