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Rice University researcher finds ways to spark epiphanies crucial to growing a business

How do people make sense of the epiphanies when they experience them? Pexels

It might be just the right word from your boss. It might be a phone call with a trusted friend. Or it might be waking up one morning and just knowing. There's no way to predict what will spark an epiphany that changes the way you see the world. But their power can be so far-reaching, they often leave us wondering where on earth that brilliant idea came from — and how we can find more.

Studying the mental processes behind epiphanies is especially hard because these flashes of insight are usually linked with unconscious mental processing and incubation, often during time periods when one may not seem to be thinking about a problem at all. In this way, epiphanies seem to arrive effortlessly.

So how do people make sense of the epiphanies when they experience them? In a set of unprecedented studies, Rice Business professor Erik Dane set out to find answers, first examining people who'd experienced general epiphanies, then analyzing a set of accounts of work- and career-related epiphanies themselves.

The research

In his first study, Dane surveyed more than 500 randomly selected people to ask them about their experiences with epiphanies, which he defined as a sudden and abrupt insight and/or change in perspective that transforms the individual.

Subjects who said they'd experienced epiphanies reported what they'd been doing beforehand, the feelings and insight associated with the epiphany and how they thought they'd changed afterward. Interestingly, though this survey wasn't limited to career- or work-related epiphanies, 20 percent of the responses related directly to these topics.

In the second study, Dane interviewed 22 professionals, asking them about distinct work- or career-related epiphanies, most of which resolved a nagging problem. After analyzing the transcripts of these interviews, Dane developed a set of theoretical categories describing the varieties of reactions an epiphany might spark.

People generally perceive and analyze their epiphanies in similar ways, Dane found. He categorized these into four dimensions: a person's emotional reaction to the experience of the epiphany, the question of how the epiphany arose, the circumstances that preceded the insight and a person's observations about how ready they were to experience change through an epiphany.

The findings

The typical first reaction to an epiphany, Dane says, is a sudden and emotionally charged release from a problem or tension. We've all been there: a stressful work situation that seems to offer no way out, followed by a dazzling solution that appears from the clouds. It's that suddenness that leads to the second typical reaction: a sense of astonishment due to the nonconscious nature of the insight's arrival. Feeling dumbfounded for a prolonged time isn't useful, though, so we usually start examining the factors surrounding the epiphany, including our own readiness to change.

What does this imply for workplace? After all, not every problem can or even ought to be solved by epiphany. At the same time, Dane notes, epiphanies can provide critical impetus to move forward.

Interestingly, his findings hint that one can increase the chances of having an epiphany. Though further research is required, Dane concludes that epiphanies most commonly arrive when people are open to the prospect of experiencing a major change. When something is mentally constraining us, on the other hand, eureka moments keep their distance.

The conclusion

As a worker, Dane suggests, you can open space for epiphanies by being actively aware of your surroundings. Look closely at your workplace, your constellation of coworkers and your place within the system. Perceived mindfully, these details may set the stage for problem-solving in a less focused moment.

If you're a mentor or a supervisor hoping to spark epiphanies in your work team, try applying this principle at work: Rather than laying out specific targets and attacking them head-on, aim for an environment that allows for mindful engagement, one that includes the problems that feature in your long-term goals and resonate with your workers' concerns and interests. Cultivating this environment and granting workers time and space to wander through it may lead, like a divining rod, to fresh sources of wisdom.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom.

Erik Dane is a distinguished associate professor of management (organizational behavior) at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Does your brain have the right components to be an entrepreneur? Getty Images

The entrepreneur strides into a room of potential backers. Swathed in understated grey, she walks with assurance and chats in the cool, easy-going cadences of the leaders she plans to woo. But will an approach like this really affect the fate of her startup? And if not, what will?

A literature review by Rice Business professor Robert E. Hoskisson and colleagues Jeffry Covin of Indiana University, Henk W. Volberda of Erasmus University and Richard A. Johnson of Arnold & Porter offers clues to a vast range of questions about the entrepreneurs' trade. It also outlines where research still falls short. What, for example, most influences a startup founder's success? Is entrepreneurial triumph driven by innate ability or acquired skill? What's the role of factors such as regulatory structures or an entrepreneur's own work environment?

Traditional research, Hoskisson and his associates note, makes it clear that certain cognitive factors really do differentiate people who start new ventures from their more staid counterparts. And recent scholarship has traced how individual entrepreneurs decide to launch their startups and how they spot entrepreneurial opportunities. Still unclear, though, is whether entrepreneurs think differently overall, possess innate qualities that lend themselves to entrepreneurship or somehow become catalyzed by the entrepreneurial role itself.

More research could help answer those questions. Research is also needed to pinpoint exactly how the best entrepreneurs express their plans in order to sound legitimate enough to earn funding and support, Hoskisson's group says. What the scholarship does show is that that the grey-clad entrepreneur with the easygoing patter knows what she's doing: symbolic language, gestures and visual symbols all help create professional identity, emphasize control and regulate the emotions of a viewer. Setting, props, style of dress and expressiveness all count, and the more experienced the entrepreneur the more props she uses.

At the same time, no unified model fully explains how successful entrepreneurs gain their funding. Models range from the hyper-rational analysis offered by game theory to a stimulus-response model in which people react as if they're marionettes. Other mysteries include how the entrepreneurship impulse arises, how it shapes innovation and competitive advantage and how it is translated in individual actions and interactions. More research in these areas, says Hoskisson, would help not only entrepreneurs in the eternal quest for funding, but also the understanding of how to nurture human potential.

Examining institutional differences among countries and how that affects entrepreneurship is also ripe for study. So far, entrepreneurship research has focused on individual attributes. But there's a need, Hoskisson and his colleagues say, for scholars to connect the dots between startup success and political environments, rule of law, regulation and entrepreneurship.

The same goes for work on diverse contexts in emerging economies. In transition economies, China being one example, networks create political and social capital that allows special access and legitimacy. On the other hand, in those same countries ponderous bureaucracies and basic resource limitations can hamper entrepreneurial projects. Detailed understanding of such cultures will only get more urgent as ventures in emerging economies increase and companies that are "born global" proliferate.

Also on the research to-do list about entrepreneurs: the chances of securing funding in given emerging economies and the power — or frailty — of their intellectual property laws. Regulation, especially, plays a pivotal role in these countries, Hoskisson writes. The lighter the regulation, the more entrepreneurship flourishes, according to one study of 54 countries. On the other hand, countries blessed with a strong rule of law offer entrepreneurs more opportunities for strategic entry.

Understanding the entrepreneurial mind, and its interaction with the material world, isn't simple. Consider the late Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot's plan to send gifts to all POWs in Vietnam during the height of the Vietnam War. Unsurprisingly, the Vietnamese government announced that a gift delivery was impossible while Americans were bombing the country. Undeterred, Perot offered to rebuild anything the Americans had bombed. Rebuffed again, Perot chartered a plane to Moscow, instructing aides to deposit the Christmas presents, one by one, at Moscow post offices, addressed to Hanoi.

Amusing as it can be to hear about such entrepreneurial gumption, it may be even more useful to study entrepreneurship systematically. Not everyone can have an entrepreneur's brain, Hoskisson's review of research suggests, but good scholarship might be able to teach people how to walk the walk.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Robert E. Hoskisson is the George R. Brown Emeritus Professor of Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.