Epiphanies for Sale?

A few weeks into training for the New York City marathon, Jasper Nathaniel had an epiphany. There was no nutrition company for the modern fitness consumer. Less than a year later, Nathaniel left his tech job to turn his idea into a reality.

Mystics and artists once were alone in experiencing epiphanies. But today, entrepreneurs increasingly seek them and we’re starting to learn how they really work. But as human creativity becomes a commodity, do we risk losing what made that “a-ha moment” so valuable in the first place?

Although the term has been around since ancient Greece, human beings have only recently started trying to quantify epiphanies. In Silicon Valley, epiphanies are the new currency. Idea-hungry entrepreneurs are eager to capitalize on them.

“Epiphany” comes from the Greek “epiphaneia” meaning “appearance” or “manifestation” of the gods. It’s traditionally been used in religious contexts to describe a holy vision. In Christian tradition, the epiphany marks the passage of the three wise men traveling to baby Jesus. William Wordsworth, James Joyce and John Updike apply the concept of the epiphany to the secular realm of the artist. The writers define it as a moment of deep, transformative insight.

The concept of epiphany has reached entrepreneurs. Moguls sprinkle new age words and phrases into their business practical language.  Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz recalls observing Italian coffee culture and realizing coffee was about more than just a beverage. The moment, he says, “was an epiphany.”  Similar stories among entrepreneurs abound – Ben Silberman of Pinterest, Sara Blankly of SPANX, and many more all claim an epiphanic moment as the foundation of their success.

Scientists started studying the epiphany in the 1990s while the the dot com boom that laid the foundation for today’s tech-centric economy was underway. During that time, cognitive scientists John Kounis and Mark Beeman began to study what happens in the brain when the “aha moment” happens. Paradoxically, the pair found that epiphanies didn’t involve “seeing the light,” but instead were moments where the brain seems to blink. Instead of seeing a new vision, the brain shuts down its visual processing center and turns inward. 

In order for a brain blink to give way to an epiphany, the person must either have high visual receptivity or be in a state which induces such receptivity. Jasper Nathaniel, for example, had just come in from a long outdoor run where he was exposed to the visual stimulation of passing scenery. He again confronted the problem of an intimidating sports nutrition marketplace full of supplements and recovery drinks containing obscure, hard-to-pronounce ingredients rather than real foods. This time a lightbulb went on: Why not fill the gap in the market himself? A few months later, Nathaniel and two colleagues founded Revere, a direct-to-consumer health startup on a mission to demystify and simplify the category through personalized, plant based sports nutrition.

Nathaniel’s epiphany-as-company-origin story is par for the course in the startup world. As such, the epiphany has moved from a deeply personal transformative experience to a commodity that can be manufactured and sold. Tech conferences and news sites are rife with information on how to optimize your body for idea generation (get a good night’s sleep, be in a positive mood, exercise). Even Columbia Business School teaches a class on generating epiphanies: William R. Duggan’s “Napoleon’s Glance” aims to teach students how to generate quick epiphanies as they conduct business strategy.

Scientists are scrutinizing epiphanies and studying their details. They hope to transform an unpredictable and unknowable experience into a step-by-step DIY project. Neuroeconomist Ian Krajbich at Ohio University investigates the mechanisms behind decision making. Recently, he and colleague James Wei Chen published results from a study on epiphany learning. Rather than one, big life-changing idea, epiphany learning tackles what happens when we go from not-knowing to knowing, as in the case of solving a puzzle. The study revealed that certain participants were more attuned to epiphany learning than others.

Unlocking the formula for big ideas could offer enormous gains in human potential. But there’s risk. If we only consider people as idea generators, we lose track of what makes them people. We are asking them to function like machines, in the same way that industrial revolution-era assembly line workers were tasked to function. Those workers had few protections and were treated little better than the machines they operated. The dehumanizing conditions gave rise to the labor movement, which brought the modern 9-to-5 work week, worker health and disability benefits and retirement plans.

The modern nature of work has moved away from manufacturing. The 9-to-5 rules no longer apply, but workers still need protections.  Epiphanies require rest, good health, and a positive mood. Creative workers can’t be expected to efficiently produce good ideas without the benefits of health care, breaks from work, and economic stability.  We may now know that the epiphany is an essentially human phenomenon – and in order for epiphanies to continue to drive our economy, we must meet the human needs of the workers behind them.