Flash Your Insight

It was July of 1993, and my son Evan was five months old. As any new parent knows, new babies require a lot of maintenance, and those first few months are exhausting.

The good news for my wife Linda and me was that at five months, Evan was already sleeping through the night. The bad news unfortunately, was that the night was only three hours long.

And so at around 5 a.m. on this particular Sunday morning, Evan was already awake for the day. I was sleepily doing laps with him downstairs, in the naive hope that he would eventually stop crying.

As I repeatedly passed our front door, I couldn’t help but notice a small, red pickup truck parked in front of our house. This was odd, because with plenty of available parking on the street at any hour of the day, people tended to park in front of whatever house they were visiting (and there was nobody visiting us at the time).

A few Daddy laps later however, the morning’s oddness score went off the charts. Here’s what I witnessed out the front window:

A young man (maybe 18 years old) jogged up the hill towards our house, carrying a ladder. He gently put the ladder in the back of the pickup truck, climbed into the driver’s seat, and released the emergency brake. Without starting the engine, he coasted down the hill and out of sight.

I knew what I had seen, but even after thinking about it for several hours, I couldn’t put the pieces together. Why did he have a ladder? Why didn’t he start the engine? And, most importantly, who the hell was he?

That afternoon, I paid a visit across the street to my neighbor John, hoping he might shed some light on the situation. To his credit, John figured it out in about 30 seconds. “Easy,” he said, “I bet that was Cindy’s boyfriend.”

Suddenly, it all made sense. Cindy was our then 17 year old neighbor. The ladder was for the boyfriend to get to Cindy’s second floor bedroom window. The coasting down the hill was to keep from waking Cindy’s parents.

I’m a big fan of “flashes of insight.” One minute confusion; the next minute all the pieces fall into place.

That said, and as any serious professional will tell you, you can’t rely on flashes of insight to run a real company. Which, I realized in a flash of insight several years ago, is why I no longer work for a real company.

Some of the best (and most profitable) ideas I’ve had – naming my company Blue Penguin, publishing a free educational newsletter, deciding to build a business around E-Newsletters in the first place – seemed relatively irrational (OK, stupid) when I first had them.

What I found however, is that sometimes you need to jump all the way in and do what seems right, before you really know why, and well before it becomes apparent how the pieces fit together. Frankly, I consider this a competitive advantages for any solo professional.

In other words, since those of us who work solo don’t have to explain – or even understand – our next move to a partner (or God forbid, a room full of spreadsheet-plugging managers who keep interrupting the discussion with the phrase, “Let me play Devil’s advocate for a minute”), we can run with things which aren’t yet fully baked.

That’s big. Not every great idea makes sense before the fact (I still have trouble imagining how anybody ever persuaded the first bank to install the first ATM machine: “All you do is fill the box with about $50,000 and then leave it on the street corner overnight…”), and if you wait until it does, you’ll do more waiting than doing.

In any case, if you find this way of thinking intriguing, here are a few suggestions for incorporating more flashes of insight into the way you do business:

  1. Change the name of your company to Blue Penguin. I’m kidding. Do things you like doing. I got started in E-Newsletters after writing my own twice a month for about a year – simply because I liked doing it. Eventually, people came to me asking for help with their newsletters. I wasn’t in the E-Newsletter business at the time (there was no such thing in 2000), but one day it just hit me… I could do this for other people.
  1. Do things that fascinate you, even if there is no obvious payback. For example, I think audio is going to be big in the business world, so about six months ago I started podcasting this newsletter. If there’s a business model for me in there somewhere, I sure don’t know what it is. That’s fine with me. I’m getting involved now, under the assumption that my audio flash of insight will show up down the line.
  1. Do things before you know what you’re doing. I’m launching a new (free) service today called “Coffee with Michael” (more on this below). After weeks of thinking about it, talking about it and trying to figure out where it will eventually lead, I decided to just wade in and (shhhh) make it up as I go along. Maybe we’ll do one session and shut it down. Or, maybe it will become the basis of an entirely new, extremely profitable, Blue Penguin adventure. I have no idea, but I do know that for me, getting in is the only way to find out.

Bottom Line: Lots of people (and most companies) need to “make the numbers work” before they’re willing to invest time and money on a new idea. If that’s the way you like to approach things too, that’s fine.

If it isn’t however, and like me, you feel the creative side of your brain shutting down when too much logic is applied, don’t worry. I absolutely guarantee you that a less structured approach to doing things works just as well.

Extra Credit: A great book on this topic is A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, by Daniel Pink. (If you can’t remember which is right brain and which is left, you’re right brain.)

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