09/09/2014 11:05 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A New Thought

Many years ago, I sat in a pub in West Hampstead in London and watched Robin Williams perform a couple of hours of comedy in an unannounced gig where he was trying out material for a Royal Command performance in front of the Queen. While I was somewhat awed to be sitting only a few feet away from one of my comedy heroes, I was even more awed watching him work.

While some of his material was clearly very well rehearsed, the purpose of the evening was as much for him to discover and try out the unknown as to further practice the known. From time to time, usually in the lull after a pre-scripted routine had reached its comic climax, he would stand at the microphone for what seemed like an eternity, saying very little until a new thought popped into his head and off he would go on a new comedy riff, tentatively at first and then, if it took hold, with greater and greater confidence.

This dance between the known and the unknown has stayed with me over the years, and has become an intrinsic part of my own teaching style. Yes, I have certain stories and metaphors that have proved themselves over the years and I tend to dig them out when I feel a bit insecure or out of touch with my in-the-moment creative wisdom. But invariably the real magic in any talk or class comes when the audience and I are both surprised by what comes out of my mouth next.

While this willingness to stay in the unknown long enough for a new thought to appear is certainly one of the keys to teaching excellence, it is much more than that -- it is also the secret behind both personal and professional transformation.

To better understand this for yourself, think about a breakthrough moment you have experienced -- a time where things were markedly different after than before, even if those differences may have taken some time to show up fully in your life. It could be the day you realized that you actually did have what it takes to achieve a goal, stop drinking, ask someone to marry you, lose weight, make money, or succeed in the profession of your choosing. Perhaps it was a creative breakthrough where you suddenly realized exactly how to solve a problem you had been wrestling with for days, weeks, or even years.

In those wonderful transformative moments, we have discovered something that did not exist even one moment earlier -- a new way of seeing a thing that we may have been looking at for ages. In my work, I call these moments "insights," because even if they are triggered by an external event, they are seen from somewhere deep inside us and we suddenly "get it." Not intellectually, the way you might understand a concept, but at an almost cellular level, the way you either "get" a joke or you don't, even if you know that it's supposed to be funny.

I wonder how things might have turned out differently if Robin Williams had learned to trust that the same "creative well" that fed his comic genius contained a deeper wisdom to feed his soul. After an insight, nothing's changed but everything's different. We are looking at the same world but with new eyes. What once seemed confusing now seems clear, and if there is anything to be done, we do it without the need for any additional debate or willpower. Quite simply, insights change our world.

If you'd like to have more of them, remember this:

The least likely place to find a new thought is in a pile of old, familiar ones.

With all my love,


For more by Michael Neill, click here.