Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger have announced their resignation from Facebook, the company that acquired Instagram for $1 billion. "We're planning on taking some time off to explore our curiosity and creativity again. Building new things requires that we step back," Systrom wrote in--where else--an Instagram post.

Time off and stepping back is exactly what neuroscientists believe drive the most creative ideas. Systrom is a perfect example of the theory. His approach to creativity offers a valuable lesson for all entrepreneurs.

Breakthroughs happen when you let it all go.

In a recent Wall Street Journal profile Systrom said he gains his power and energy by going on solo bike rides. "That's why I love cycling. Because I can be out in the middle of nowhere on my bike and let it all go." 

Letting it go is exactly what cognitive psychologists say entrepreneurs should do when they want to rediscover their creative energy. 

"In order to have a Eureka breakthrough, you have to be deeply immersed in a problem. But then you have to let go of it, let your mind wander off and go do something else," writes Olivia Fox Cabane in The Net and the Butterfly. Cabane and co-author Judah Pollack were former directors and faculty members for Stanford StartX, a startup community associated with Stanford University. 

The authors say that our brain switches between the executive network (EN) and the default network (DN). The EN focuses on problems, projects and get through a list of tasks. It 'executes' on what needs to be done. Here's the key. Your most innovative breakthroughs come along when you switch to the DN mode--your brain's creative space. 

In a brilliant analogy, Cabane and Pollack liken the DN to a council of geniuses inside your head. They're meandering around, exchanging ideas and theories. "Imagine a lounge full of plush couches, beanbags, drinks and snacks, whiteboards and sticky notes and different colored pens and pencils. Leonardo da Vinci is sitting in a corner doodling on his sketch pad," they write. 

Accessing the creative network where breakthrough ideas happen occur most often when you're relaxing, taking a trip, a shower, or a solo bike ride like Systrom enjoys. 

Systrom's trip to Florence triggered a $1 billion idea.

Remarkably, the location of Leonardo da Vinci's most impressive achievements was the place Systrom credits for his own breakthrough idea. On a visit to Florence, Italy, during his junior year in college, Systrom brought along an iconic toy camera called a Holga. The photos were square and the development process gave the black and white photos slight color tones. When he started Instagram, Systrom's first photos were reminiscent of the ones he took with the Holga.

Kevin Systrom discovered his best ideas out of the office. In his book, Iconoclast, Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, says a change of scenery is an effective way to trigger the flow of creative ideas. "Sometimes a simple change of environment is enough to jog the perceptual system out of familiar categories...It is in this process that the brain jumbles around old ideas with new images to create new syntheses," Berns writes.

By taking some time off to explore new things in new surroundings--and taking those long solo bike rides-- Systrom understands exactly how creative ideas have the best chance of flourishing. 

Published on: Sep 26, 2018
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