Ideas Come To Us When We're Ready For Them



Because I write, people once in a while ask me where my ideas come from.

The vast majority of the time all I can say is, "I don't know."

There are occasional cases when it's possible to look back and remember what prompted some particular story, but they are in the minority.

On the other hand, it's almost always possible to trace the inception of some practical idea.

The exact moment when the idea for a new invention formed is often recalled by an inventor. The reason for that, I think, is the strong motivation that prompts us to think when we need to do something. There's an old saying in science that "chance favors the prepared mind," meaning that when you are ready for an idea, have the right mindset, and really want to know, you become an idea vacuum -- just scooping them in.

I remember a case that occurred to me when I was just 21 years old. I got out of bed, ready to drive to work, and found that the snowstorm I had driven home in the night before had continued through the night and we had 18 inches of new snow on the ground.

I had neither snow tires nor chains, and my 1935 Chevy four-door sedan was parked up an uphill driveway, and I do mean uphill.

I had visions of trudging through deep snow over the eighth of a mile to the bus stop, catching the bus, if and when it arrived, and digging my car out later that day.

However, I had to give the car a try first. So I got in, cranked up that old straight-six, released the hand brake, put the car into first, and slowly let out the clutch.

To my absolute amazement, having lived in hilly, snowy country all my life, that old buggy just rolled right up that rough gravel driveway like it was plowed, paved and straight downhill. I could hardly believe my good luck.

All the way down the hilly road where our house was located, that old Chevy continued its magic, rolling right through knee-deep wet snow like a bulldozer.

About two thirds of the way downhill to the main road, at a moment when I was pressing and releasing my brakes to avoid getting carried away with success, I heard a loud thud under the car. I wondered what it was but thought nothing more of it when nothing went awry on the way to work or back home.

The next morning, filled with confidence, I jumped back in the old car, cranked it up, and prepared for an easy drive up onto the road. No soap. I went nowhere. All my wheels did was spin.

"OK," I asked myself. "What's going on?"

Then came that practical idea. I realized that the thud I had heard the day before was my mechanical brakes coming free. They had obviously frozen solidly in the on-position from slush as I drove home in the storm. When I let up my emergency brake the next morning, I really did nothing. It stayed on.

So I pulled up my hand brake -- hard.

Guess what? I rolled right up that steep driveway just as I had done the day before. Why? The engine had enough power to force the wheels to turn, hand brake or no hand brake, but the wheels could not spin.

Still works. I do it all the time when the snow or mud is deep and slick.

Try it. It's really quite amazing. It'll get you moving when your chances of getting out seem few and none.

The whole idea is that when you're ready to find the answer to a practical question, your mind pops into gear and starts turning over some RPMs. I suppose that's what happened to Archimedes before he jumped out of his bath and yelled, "eureka," which in Greek means, "I found it!"

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