Houston Voices

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.

Need a job in STEM? You've come to the right place. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Sure, Houston can boast that it's the Energy Capital of the World. That's undisputed. However, Houston also is making strides in the wider range of STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

A new study from the American Enterprise Institute's Housing Center finds Houston is No. 2 among the best U.S. metro areas for STEM workers. Dallas-Fort Worth topped the ranking, and Austin earned the No. 4 spot.

The American Enterprise Institute sifted through data in three categories — STEM employment in 2018, overall employment growth since 1990, and affordability for first-time homebuyers — to devise its ranking. In all, the institute examined the 30 metro areas with the most STEM jobs.

Houston landed at:

  • No. 10 for STEM employment, with 207,000 jobs in 2018. (The Greater Houston Partnership puts the current figure at more than 240,000).
  • No. 6 for overall employment growth (70 percent) since 1990.
  • No. 6 for median home price for first-time buyers.

The study notes that the vibrancy of home construction helped Houston maintain a high rate of employment growth and a high score for home affordability.

"On one hand, some metro areas with relatively high home prices are desirable places to live in terms of jobs and local amenities," the study says. "On the other hand, house prices may be higher than they really need to be due to local policies that needlessly drive up the price of land and thereby constrain the amount of new housing. Households should be aware of these tradeoffs."

Houston fared better in the American Enterprise Institute study than it did in a recent STEM ranking from personal finance website WalletHub. To determine the best markets for STEM professionals, WalletHub compared the 100 largest metro areas across 20 key metrics. Houston ranked 33rd, while Dallas-Fort Worth ranked 38th and Austin came in at No. 4.

Whether Houston stands at No. 2 or No. 33, business leaders are confident the region is fertile territory for STEM.

"Houston's talent base of 300,000 educated millennials and more than 240,000 STEM workers power our leading industries, including life sciences, energy, and manufacturing and logistics," says Susan Davenport, senior vice president of economic development at the Greater Houston Partnership.

"For us to continue to compete and grow in these critical sectors," Davenport adds, "we need to continue to foster and attract new STEM talent and market the positive attributes that make Houston a great place to live."

The Greater Houston Partnership touts several strengths that will propel the region's STEM sector, including:

  • The Texas Medical Center's recently announced TMC3 research hub.
  • A firm foothold in the life sciences industry, thanks to the Texas Medical Center, the world's largest complex of healthcare and life science institutions.
  • NASA's Johnson Space Center.
  • A cluster of more than 6,000 manufacturers.

Davenport points to establishment of Houston's four-mile-long Innovation Corridor — featuring an array of startup accelerators and tech incubators — as another vehicle for STEM success. At the heart of the corridor will be Rice University's new $100 million innovation hub, known as The Ion.

The corridor, she says, "will help Houston create the next generation of companies solving big problems."