Rules of Ignition


Beneath every big talent lies an ignition story – the famously potent moment when a young person falls helplessly in love with their future passion.

For Albert Einstein, that moment happened when his father brought him a compass. As Walter Isaacson wrote in Einstein: His Life and Universe:

Einstein later recalled being so excited as he examined its mysterious powers that he trembled and grew cold…. [Einstein wrote] “I can still remember – or at least I believe I can remember—that this experience made a deep and lasting impression on me. Something deeply hidden had to be behind things.”

For music educator Shinichi Suzuki, the moment happened was when he was seventeen and he heard a phonograph recording of violinist Mischa Elman playing Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” Suzuki, who would go on to found the famed Suzuki Method, would write:

The sweetness of the sound of Elman’s violin utterly enthralled me. His velvety tone as he played the melody was like something in a dream. It made a tremendous impression on me….I brought a violin home … and, listening to Elman playing a Haydn minuet, I tried to imitate him. I had no score, and simply moved the bow, trying to play what I heard.

These moments pop up fairly often. In his memoir, the writer Stephen King tells of the mindblowing thrill of writing a story for his mother when he was seven. The neurologist Oliver Sacks tells about the transporting smells and explosions of childhood chemistry experiments in Uncle Tungsten. (My own moment came when I read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.)

As moving as they are, these moments aren’t the whole story, of course. They are doorways to years of work and passion — the slow construction of beautiful neural broadband. But they’re still important because these moments lead us to a question: What exactly happened there? Is there something special about certain kinds of inspiration? And more important, how do we make it happen?

I think we can find one clue by looking more closely at the moments themselves. So let’s break it down:

  1. The moments are serendipitous. Nobody sets it up; there’s no mediator. It happens by chance, and thus contains an inherent sense of noticing and discovery.
  2. They are joyful. Crazily, obsessively, privately joyful. As if a new, secret world is being opened.
  3. The discovery is followed directly by action. As the Suzuki example shows, the point is not merely listening to the song, but in trying to play that song — to be the player. Like the others, he didn’t just admire – he acted.

Since these kinds of interactions are deeply individualized, they are understandably difficult for science to study. But we get one insight through the work of Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, psychologist and author of Flow. Czikszentmihalyi tracked two hundred artists from the time they were students until nearly two decades later. Over that time, some became serious painters; some didn’t. The deciding factor? Joy. The students who became serious painters were the ones who found the most joy in the sheer act of painting.

I think the emerging lesson is that these moments are a lot like falling in love — we can’t force it, but we can increase the odds slightly by doing a few basic things.

  • Create lots of encounters; approach each with an open mind.
  • Don’t think too much. This moment is not about being logical. It’s about rapture, immersion; about feeling, as Emily Dickinson wrote, “as if the top of my head were taken off.”
  • Let it be secret. For parents, this means backing off and giving space. Can you imagine if Suzuki’s parents were eagerly hovering as he listened to “Ave Maria”? Or if Einstein’s dad enrolled him in a class on magnetism? Helicopters are serendipity killers.

Speaking of serendipity: a few years after learning to play violin, Suzuki traveled from Japan to Berlin in order to perfect his craft. He spoke no German, but somehow managed to fall into a musical crowd, and made a lifelong friendship with an frizzy-haired amateur violinist who also worked as a physicist: Albert Einstein.