Got a problem? Create the space to solve it.
Friedrich August Kekule was a professor of chemistry who became obsessed with trying to figure out the structure of Benzene, an organic compound found in petrochemicals. Benzene is a natural constituent of crude oil, a colorless but highly flammable liquid with an aroma some consider sweet. If you like that gas station smell, like me, you probably agree.
Benzene’s flammability made it a potent and valuable energy source, but its properties weren’t well understood because its structure didn’t seem to make sense. It was known to be comprised of carbon and hydrogen, in the molecular formula C₆H₆, but the particular properties of those atoms, the positive and negative charges that had to be balanced for them to form a stable molecular chain, just didn’t seem to work. It was a puzzle, and Kekule worked for decades trying to solve it, without success.
One night while sleeping he had a vision of the Ouroboros, an ancient symbol depicting a serpent eating its own tail. Originating found in ancient Egyptian iconography, the Ouroboros entered the West via Greek magical tradition, was adopted as a symbol in Gnosticism, Hermeticism, and — ironically — chemistry’s cousin alchemy.
Alarmed by the mythical creature, Kekule lept up, rattled by his dream, gathered himself… and then it hit him.
Benzene, it turns out, wasn’t structured as a chain at all,… but as a ring. The molecule is composed of six carbon atoms joined in a planar ring, with one hydrogen atom attached to each.
Ecstatic, he arrived at school the next day and told his students about the events of the previous night, revealing the structure of the Benzene ring for all to see.
“Not bad!,” they said. “You go to sleep and you wake up with that.” To which Kekule responded,
“Visions come to prepared spirits.”
Visions come to prepared spirits. Sometimes we just need the space to solve problems creatively, to formulate new ideas. But our especially modern belief that diligence and focus are the only source of solutions to every problem actually gets in the way of creating that space, and prevents us from finding an answer.
If you’re struggling with a problem, marinate in it, deeply, as you try to solve it. Start with a clear definition — since a problem well defined is a problem half solved. Do the patient work necessary to fill your head with the fuel of creative combustion; the data, information, and ideas that fuel creative problem solving.
Then unplug. Take a walk, have a drink, take a nap. Leave it, to the unseen hand of your own spirit, and you might just hit on a vision that leads to a solution.