5 famous people who had their genius breakthrough while goofing off

Slogging away at your work for hours without a break can be often be counter productive. It's often in our down-time that our most inspired moments of genius occur.

Stepping outside for a stroll, taking some time to play with your children, staring out the window, having a nap, or even bunking off for the afternoon can all be an important part of the creative process as these 5 famous examples show.

1. The birth of Harry Potter

J. K. Rowling was travelling alone on a delayed train from Manchester to London when

“...the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into my head.”

Over the next four hours,

“all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn't know he was a wizard became more and more real to me”.

Finding herself without a pen and too shy to ask anyone in the carriage for one, Ms Rowling was forced to do nothing but imagine the story until she got home.

2. Nobel Prize winning fun

Physicist Richard Feynman was watching someone messing around throwing a plate in the air in Cornell University’s cafeteria when he decided to describe its wobbling movement in equations “for fun”.

He eventually succeeded in obtaining these equations and showed them to his advisor who said ”That’s interesting, but what on earth is it good for?” Feynman replied ”Why, absolutely nothing.”

In fact, the spinning plate equations turned out to be critical to his study of quantum electrodynamics, the work that went on to win the Nobel Prize.

From that point on Feynman pledged never to work on something unless he found it interesting; the only work he would do would be to satiate his own curiosity.

3. Dreaming of Yesterday

Paul McCartney woke up with the tune for Yesterday in his head, along with some lyrics. The lyrics though would need a little work:

Scrambled Eggs
Oh my darling you've got lovely legs

McCartney was convinced he must have heard the tune on the radio or elsewhere. But finally he played it for his fellow Beatles, and none of them remembered the tune from anywhere else. They put it together with some more romantic lyrics:

Yesterday
All my troubles seemed so far away,
Now it seems that they are here to stay,
Oh I believe in Yesterday.

The song of course went on to become one of the Beatles' biggest hits.

4. Snakes and chemical compounds

Chemist Friedrich August Kekulé discovered the baffling ring shape of the chemical compound benzene during a nap:

"...I was sitting writing on my textbook, but the work did not progress; my thoughts were elsewhere. I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes... long rows sometimes more closely fitted together all twining and twisting in snake-like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes.

As if by a flash of lightning I awoke; and this time also I spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis."

As an excited Kekulé went on to tell his colleagues, “Let us learn to dream!”

5. A dream on a plane becomes a bestselling book

Novelist Stephen King dreamt the idea for Misery, the book which went on to become a best-selling book and Hollywood film:

"Like the ideas for some of my other novels, that came to me in a dream. In fact, it happened when I was on Concord, flying over here, to Brown's. I fell asleep on the plane, and dreamt about a woman who held a writer prisoner and killed him, skinned him, fed the remains to her pig and bound his novel in human skin. His skin, the writer's skin. I said to myself, 'I have to write this story.'

Of course, the plot changed quite a bit in the telling. But I wrote the first forty or fifty pages right on the landing here, between the ground floor and the first floor of the hotel."

~

And finally to sum it all up, here's one of my favourite quotes:

“It’s necessary to be slightly underemployed if you are to do something significant.”
James D. Watson, Nobel Prize winner and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA

Thanks to mindpowernews.com and bellaonline.com for some of these stories


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  • This is fabulous! That Richard Feynman story is one of my favourites (for anyone who has not read his "Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman" book, do. He is the ultimate mad genius).

    My breakthrough came while goofing off work (taking a 'diversion' going to Green Park for the afternoon rather than to a conference...). I remember playing with the ducks and geese, feeling free and actually alive.... and having more ideas and inspiration than I had had in years of sitting at a cubicle.

    Realised then that structured office life just wasn't going to let me perform at my best, ever, and that a Free Range life was the way forward!

    Like you say, the line between work and play can be blurry... but work is almost always enriched when you play. Thanks for a great post John!

  • Andrea

    Thanks for that quote John, I love it, especially that I am currently 'underemployed', so that I can finish a qualification that will hopefully form the basis of my new career. I still however feel I have to justify to people why I hadn't been working for the past 2 months. This quote gives me strength, I don't need to justify anything to anyone, I am doing this because it is important to me and that is the main thing.