The Greek scholar Archimedes had the first ever eureka moment, as legend would have it, when he realized why the water level rose when he got into his bath. Newton apparently had his eureka moment—discovering gravity—when an apple fell from a tree onto his head.
These days, some CEOs and entrepreneurs report being lucky enough to experience a sudden magic moment when all became clear. And any number of other CEOs must be wishing they could join the club, as they fret about bleeding customers to disruptive upstarts.
Trip Adler, the founder and CEO of digital library Scribd, had his special moment during a conversation with his father. A doctor, he had a medical paper he wanted to publish and share with colleagues, but the formal route to publication took as much as 18 months.
“So that inspired the idea of making a website that would let him really easily share this paper. And then we decided to broaden that to all kinds of content,” Adler has claimed.
“Ideas don’t come out fully formed. They only become clear as you work on them. You just have to get started.”
While a convincing account, other leaders should be careful about how they interpret such stories, according to one of the world’s most easily recognized innovators.
Mark Zuckerberg reportedly had his eureka moment when he and three of his Harvard classmates created FaceMash, a hot-or-not game that allowed users to compare the physical attractiveness of student photos placed side-by-side.
But in a speech to Harvard students this week, the Facebook CEO rubbished those claims.
“Movies and pop culture get this all wrong,” he said. “The idea of a single eureka moment is a dangerous lie. It makes us feel inadequate since we haven’t had ours. It prevents people with seeds of good ideas from getting started.”
By Zuckerberg’s account, he had no idea what Facebook would become. “But let me tell you a secret: no one does when they begin,” he said. “Ideas don’t come out fully formed. They only become clear as you work on them. You just have to get started.”
Neil Blumenthal, the co-founder of eye glasses company Warby Parker, agrees. He acknowledges the idea for the company was inspired suddenly when friends, frustrated about losing their glasses, thought it would be great if people could order cheaper, more accessible pairs online. But for the most part, he says, most innovators won’t experience a single lightening strike that brings them instant success.
At a recent forum on coming up with ideas, he recommended that leaders instead spend time each day writing down a few frustrations, building to dozens of gripes by the end of the week and scores by the end of the month. “And you can go through those and prioritize to figure out is there an opportunity here for us to solve a real problem,” he said.