I can clearly remember sitting in the back row of Mrs. Kennedy’s third grade class, but I can’t, for the life of me, remember what she was teaching that day. I wasn’t paying attention. I was staring out the window, daydreaming.
When Mrs. Kennedy noticed that my thoughts were a thousand miles away and not hanging on her every word, she stopped teaching whatever it was she was teaching and just stared at me. I’m guessing she thought this would be the perfect opportunity to teach me, and the rest of the class, a valuable lesson.
It must have been the protracted silence, that first tipped me off, to the fact that something had gone awry. When I finally came back to attention and turned to face the teacher, I saw her— and everybody else in the room—staring at me, in dead silence.
Nobody dared say a word. Except for Mindy Segal, who in that annoying, tattletale voice of hers said, “Alex never pays attention, Mrs. Kennedy. “Thank you, Mindy,” Mrs. Kennedy said. Yeah… thanks a lot Mindy.
Daydreaming has been given a bad rap. When children—or adults for that matter—are daydreaming, they are performing one of the highest functions a human creature can perform—they’re thinking. And chances are good that the thinking they are engaged in, while lost in their daydream, is of a much higher creative value than just about any other thinking they can do.
Einstein conjured up his theory of relativity while daydreaming about riding a sunbeam to the edge of the universe— after, by the way, he was expelled from school for not paying attention in class.
Newton developed his theory of gravity, after he watched an apple fall from a tree while daydreaming in his mother’s garden.
Hungarian physicist, Leo Szilard, suddenly realized how to split an atom while staring into traffic, waiting to cross a London street.
And, the Greek mathematician Archimedes had his famous Eureka! moment while taking a hot bath.
Just in case you don’t remember the story… Somewhere around 200 B.C., the king of Sicily asked Archimedes to determine whether his new crown was made of pure gold or was just some cheap fugazi.
Archimedes needed to determine, without melting down the crown, whether the king’s suspicions were well founded, and his goldsmith was ripping him off.
Day after day, night after night, Archimedes studied the problem from every angle he could think of. But he just couldn’t seem to solve it. Frustrated, he finally decided to take a mental break and soak in a hot bath.
As he settled into the tub, the water level rose. Archimedes instantly realized that the same effect could be used to determine the volume of the crown compared to a sample of pure gold of the same weight. And when he did, he leapt up and ran naked into the street, shouting “Eureka!”
We need to be careful about jumping on people who are caught daydreaming.
When I’m speaking or conducting a workshop, I carefully observe my audience for signs that they are drifting off into a daydreaming state. Experience has taught me that when this happens, I’m beginning to accomplish the goal I set out on—to cause people to think.
Based on my personal observations, from years of coaching successful entrepreneurs—helping them and their organizations to grow past their natural limitations—the organizations that tend to struggle the most, are also the ones where there is far too little daydreaming going on, and thus, far too little creative thinking.
When I first started out in business, I made it a practice to give each new hire a blank, un-ruled notebook to carry with them. The only instruction I handed out with the notebook was to, “use it for whatever you wish.” I then sat back and watched.
The “new kids” always felt compelled to bring their notebook to every company meeting and training session, where they literally transcribed damn near every word I uttered.
By contrast, my most trusted “lieutenants” had notebooks filled with little more than doodles. The scarce few notes they did jot down were, more than likely, not from anything I might have said, directly, but from insights that spontaneously occurred to them while daydreaming during one of my meetings or workshops. I’ve always been, altogether, fine with that.
Given the choice between thinking and sitting up straight and taking notes, I want the people on my team to be thinking. And that’s exactly the mindset that every manager of people should take.
The smart leader actually encourages daydreaming and actively looks to create opportunities and environments that support it.
A leader’s primary responsibility is to make competent leaders of those whom she leads. Only when a person begins to think on his own, can that person be trusted with greater responsibility, and thus, take charge himself.
And as for problem solving, ceaselessly working at solving a problem rarely results in its best solution. The better solutions typically reveal themselves to us, once we step back from the problem, and allow our minds to wander.
A recent study from the University of California, Santa Barbara, showed that people who returned to a difficult task, after taking a break and doing an easy task, boosted their performance by around 40 percent. These scientific findings provide the most direct evidence we have to date— that daydreaming does in fact enhance creativity.
Yes, contrary popular to belief and what most teachers and bosses might think, daydreaming is good. It’s one of our greatest gifts, and we’d be much poorer without it.
So when you peak into your kid’s room or your subordinate’s office and see him or her quietly staring out the window or up at the ceiling, it might be a good idea to leave them alone for a while.
Just in case you were wondering… The Sicilian king had his goldsmith’s head loped off. Ol’ lady Kennedy? Well, I’m guessing she’s probably dead by now. And as for that little smartass, Mindy Segal… Who gives a damn what she thought.
She had cooties. Everyone knew it.
Resources and links:
There’s a great Washington Post article that quotes Dr. Debbie Rhea, a Professor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, who says less classroom time and more outdoor play would lead to a better education for kids.