Gardner, in his book Creating Minds, says:

“What may distinguish creative individuals is their way of productively using the insights, feelings, and experiences of childhood. For some purposes, it may prove adaptive to erase memories of childhood. But when it comes to the forging of new understandings and the creation of new worlds, childhood can be a very powerful ally. Indeed, I contend that the creator is an individual who manages a most formidable challenge: to wed the most advanced understandings achieved in a domain with the kinds of problems, questions, issues, and sensibilities that most characterized his or her life as a wonder-filled child.”


It is incredible that a young man of such talent (Einstein) was academically unemployable just a few years before making his epochal discoveries. One wonders whether the same blind spots exist in the field today. As is well known, Einstein landed a job as a patent officer in Bern, Switzerland; when not evaluating inventions, he worked on physics.

Without the benefit of hindsight, an observer of the young Einstein might well have considered him somewhat of a failure: he had not graduated successfully from the gymnasium, he had not gained entry to the polytechnic on his first try, he lacked influential mentors or sponsors, he had failed to secure an academic job, and he had not completed his dissertation. It seemed likely he would remain in obscurity in the patent office.


On the surface, neither Freud nor Einstein is easily described as childlike or childish, in the manner of Picasso or even, at times, Gandhi. They were, after all, members of the German bourgeoisie, and they dressed and acted accordingly. There are occasional pictures of Einstein clowning, and Freud was well-known as a teller of jokes, but it would be straining to think of either scholar as an individual who never grew up.

At a deeper level, however, we can discern the links to childhood that run through the lives of highly creative individuals. As Einstein often pointed out, the problems he pondered were those that children spontaneously raised but that most adults have long since stopped thinking about. While the issues that preoccupied Freud are less likely to arise naturally in the minds of young children, they dominate the actual lives of children: phenomena like dreaming, joking, and sexual play, as well as psychological processes like displacement, condensation, or substitution.

Only individuals still in touch with their childhood experiences could have unraveled these phenomena. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, “It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.” The prolific inventor Buckminster Fuller put it more bluntly: “Dare to be naive.”

Like children, the idea behind childlike observation is to find information and data that you would have never thought might exist. Children see the world as it is. Adults don’t. Our past programming skews our observations and colors our judgments. But as adults developing childlike observation skills, we can see with wisdom—seeing things without prejudice, resentments, or biases stemming from greed, hatred, and delusions.

During the incubation process, you need to be most receptive, to listen like a child, emphatically and openly. Children listen carefully, not just to content but also to form and tone—not just to what adults say to them but how they say it. Child-listening is when you hear everything in your surroundings, not just what you want to hear.

Like a child who hates routine, you must avoid mundane thinking. Let ideas emerge freely and be receptive to them. Avoid negativity and tension. Negativity that impedes the flow of ideas through the mind is analogous to tenseness that constricts the flow of blood through the muscles of the body. The simplest acts of physical relaxation—letting go of tensions—free the mind to be open to new ideas.

Avoid the same comfortable ways. Psychologists call the trap of routine “functional fixedness”—seeing the obvious way of looking at things. You must be willing to question any and all assumptions about your past and what caused your apathy. Have no preconceptions. Look for ways to change the paradigm. The ability to see things in a fresh way is vital to the incubation process.

Avoid the traps of self-blame, self-criticism, and self-censorship; they create barriers to absorbing fresh information. Self-blame, self-criticism, and self-censorship are the inner voices that tell you, “Everyone thinks I’m dumb,” “It will never be accepted,” or “They will think I am crazy for thinking like this.” In the incubation stage, you will be actively defeating these negative beliefs. You need to learn how to recognize and change this self-defeating mechanism.

These inner voices of judgment limit the incubation process. They set shallow boundaries we wrongly consider acceptable based on our own destructive advice. Once the voice of blame is stilled, what emerges is a spirit of hopefulness and optimism. The incubation stage needs bold innovators with a clear vision to dismiss the voices of fear and doubt.

Gathering information and childlike observation might involve visiting bookstores and roaming through books to discover your passion. Traveling to exotic places, gardens, and nurseries to find a childlike desire to conquer and discover. Accept no boundaries. Push your limits. In the incubation stage, you try to make sense of all the data you have gathered. Remember when you had a great idea. It could be a time when you discovered you had talent in one area, were creative in another, or solved a problem ingeniously. It could be a time when your imagination resolved a work dilemma. Think of things you are good at, and because of them, you are more worthwhile for having done them. Remember, everyone is capable of tapping into their motivating spirit. Remember which of your actions were the most satisfying, noble, and virtuous. Which gives you a deep-down sense of pleasure? The incubation stage is where you will uncover your innate excellence and unique genius. If you feel you have found your competency, it is more likely you will excel at it. You will receive more praise and have even more self-esteem. However, in the incubation stage, any scale of excellence is irrelevant. A true sense of motivation depends on doing things that give you more confidence.

Inside the incubation stage, your mind must stay passive; let things occur and observe information in the mind’s unconscious, outside your focused awareness. Use this time (or a quiet walk in the woods) to daydream. Getting away from all distractions is important. You need a space where your mental chatter and all the judgments about who you are and what you are doing are turned down. Then you can get in touch with a deeper part of yourself that can start revealing patterns. These can be patterns of new intuition. Incubation for motivation is in the process.

Have you ever heard that for some people, the answer will eventually come to them during the early morning or even while taking a shower? These are little incubation stages where the unconscious mind is intellectually richer than the conscious part; it has more data from which to draw. What the unconscious mind knows is often more apparent as a felt sense of correctness, a hunch. This stage is powerful and successful because there are no self-censoring judgments in the unconscious.

Cognitive scientists, who study how information flows through the brain, tell us that all memory is unconscious before it becomes conscious and that only a very small fraction of what the mind takes in, less than one percent, ever reaches conscious awareness.

Further, the unconscious speaks to us in ways that go beyond words. What the unconscious mind knows includes the deep feelings and rich imagery that constitute the intelligence of the senses. We call this kind of knowing intuition.

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