Fishing for Ideas

The light of the eyes gladdens the heart...
— Proverbs 15:30

According to this verse in Proverbs, there is a direct line between the eyes and the heart. Having taught this verse and its interpretation many times, I've found three distinct understandings of what kind of light has the power to make the heart happy. Rashi believes that aesthetic sights have this impact: mountains and lakes, for example. Beauty provides light and makes us joyful. Rabbi David Altshuler, an eighteenth century exegete, claims that removing oneself from doubt creates happiness, in other words personal en-light-enment. Gersonides (1288-1344), a French commentator, believes that what gladdens the heart are the gifts of the intellect; when the light bulb goes off we find ourselves experiencing deep pleasure.

Let's stay with this last view for a moment. We can appreciate that the world of ideas offers personal satisfaction, but it also generates challenge and restlessness. Where do great ideas come from anyway? In an interesting comparison, the Talmud equates idea-catching to fishing. "This is analogous to a fisherman pulling fish from the sea. When he finds big ones he takes them and when he finds small ones, he takes them as well." You present one significant idea but then add additional responses or justifications to prove a point, even if they are not as compelling. But there is a contrary opinion, of course: "This is analogous to a fisherman pulling fish from the sea. He takes small ones then finds big ones, discards the small ones and keeps the big ones" [BT Bava Kamma 41b-42a]. If you are fishing for ideas, and you come across a really terrific one, you let go of the earlier iterations. In other words, do you keep minor ideas along with the main one or when you discover something really big, do you throw away the smaller ideas because you don't need them anymore?

 In his book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant, professor at Wharton, contends that original thinkers are not always good at judging their own ideas but,

If originals aren't reliable judges of the quality of their ideas, how do they maximize their odds of creating a masterpiece? They come up with a large number of ideas. Simonton [professor of psychology Dean Keith Simonton] finds that on average, creative geniuses weren't qualitatively better in their fields than their peers. They simply produced a greater volume of work, which gave them more variation and a higher chance of originality.

Grant also writes that, "Being original doesn't require being first. It just means being different and better." In his book and his interesting TED talk of the same title, he confesses that he is a pre-crastinator. He gets work done before deadlines. As a professor, he has a lot of student procrastinators who convince themselves that they get their best ideas last minute. Who generates better ideas: early birds or late ones? In truth, neither. He argues that original thinking often emerges when someone begins the creative process early, takes a break and returns to it later, getting the benefit of additional cooking time. "Procrastination may be the enemy of productivity, but it can be a resource for creativity" and then adds this zinger: "Timing accounted for forty-two percent of the difference between success and failure."

From a spiritual perspective, we believe that great ideas can be inspired by higher thinking, prayer and mindfulness. We often say of geniuses that they are touched by God. In Jewish tradition, we pray to have the brain power to make good decisions, come up with innovative ideas and handle situations with intellectual maturity. In the blessing immediately before the Shema, we pray that God should, "...have compassion on us and put into our hearts the comprehension to understand and to be intellectually creative, to listen, to learn and to teach, to preserve, to practice and to fulfill all the words of instruction in Your Torah." Moments later in the Amidah or Eighteen Benedictions, we make a formal request for divine intelligence: "You favor humans with perception and teach mankind understanding. Grant us from Your perception, understanding and intellect. Blessed are You, God, Grantor of perception."

We ask God to grant us a sliver of divine intelligence, suggesting, with humility, that all our great ideas may not belong to us at all. If we're lucky, we stumble upon a few and feel grateful that our own originality is built on the shoulders of the giants who came before us.

Shabbat Shalom