ThinkingDon Draper and “subconscious work”

Don Draper and “subconscious work”

My family and I are belatedly catching up with “Mad Men” on Netflix – we missed it the first time round. Something that Don Draper said to Peggy Olsen the other day really struck me.

You’ll recall that Don Draper is the (anti)hero of the series: the experienced ad executive. And Peggy Olsen (who I think is my favourite character) is an up and coming copywriter. She’s working on a new campaign – and is stuck. Don’s advice to Peggy: “Think about it really hard. Learning everything. Then, forget about all of it and an idea will just POP into your mind.”

“Think about it really hard. … Then, forget about all of it…”

George Polya, the 20th Century Hungarian mathematician (responsible for the Central Limit Theorem and other gems), talks about Don Draper’s problem solving process in his 1945 classic “How to solve it“. (By the way, do yourself a favour, if there is only one book you’re going to buy on mathematics etc…). Polya calls it “subconscious work”.

So what is subconscious work?

So, what is subconscious work? Polya describes it in this way:

“It often happens that you have no success at all with a problem: you work very hard yet without finding anything. But when you come back to the problem after a night’s rest, or a few days interruption, a bright idea appears and you solve the problem easily.”

Polya asks, who solved that problem? “Obviously, oneself, working at it subconsciously“. (Italics in the original).

This is clearly a common human experience. It has variants of course. For example, Frederik Kekule, a German chemist, describes being stuck on the problem of the chemical structure of Benzene. One night in 1865 he has a dream of a snake biting its tail – and from that he sees that Benzene has a cyclic structure.

Cyclic structure of Benzene, as dreamed by Kukule

Cyclic structure of Benzene, as dreamed by Kukule (By Haltopub [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

 So, can you actually get your subconscious to do your work for you?

So, can you actually get your subconscious to do your work for you? Polya thinks you can:

“Whatever may or may not be the merits of the theory of subconscious work, it is certain that there is a limit beyond which we should not force the conscious reflection. There are certain moments in which it is better to leave the problem alone for a while. “Take counsel of your pillow” is an old piece of advice. Allowing an interval of rest to the problem and to ourselves, we may obtain more tomorrow with less effort.”

But, not all problems are going to be solved if you just leave them “alone for a while”. According to Polya you must either desire the solution greatly, or have worked on the problem hard, or both, before giving it a break. As he says:

“Only such problems come back improved whose solution we passionately desire, or for which we have worked with great tension; conscious effort and tension seem to be necessary to set the subconscious work going.”

Otherwise, if it were otherwise, Polya notes, we would “solve difficult problems just by sleeping and waiting for a bright idea”.

Tips for setting your subconscious to work

So, here are some tips for setting your subconscious to work – based on the advice of Don Draper, Frederik Kekule, and George Polya.

  • Work hard on the problem first. Think about it. Bash your head against it.
  • Then relax – do something else. At the very least go get a cup of coffee and think about something else.
  • Even better, if you can, sleep on it. This both gives your subconscious more time and refreshes you. You never know, you might even have the equivalent of Kekule’s snake dream!
  • Come back the next day and have another go – in as a relaxed a way as possible – and see what your subconscious throws up.

I see this all the time with workshops. The best strategy workshops I do are the two day ones. And it’s the morning of the second day when all the ideas come out. The group has worked hard on the first day to understand the strategic situation. I make sure that they have started to think about future possibilities before the end of that first day. They go away, sleep on things, and everything comes out on the second morning.

When you’re planning your next strategy workshop – try that. Even if it means doing an afternoon half day on day one and a morning half day on day two.

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