Flashes of insight can be personally transformative, creatively inspiring, or even spiritually transcendent. Is there a way to manufacture an “aha” moment,” or at least improve the odds of having one?

From PSYCHOLOGY TODAY (cover story), March 2015

Simon Lovell was 31 and a professional con man who had spun the gambling tricks he’d learned from his grandfather into a lucrative if bloody-minded business fleecing strangers. Without hesitation or remorse, he left his marks broken in hotels all over the world.

Nothing suggested that this day in 1988 would be any different. Lovell, in Europe, had spotted his victim in a bar, plied him with drinks, and drawn him into a “cross”—a classic con game in which the victim is made to believe he’s part of a foolproof get-rich scheme. The con went perfectly. “I took him for an extremely large amount of money,” Lovell said later.

Lovell hustled the drunken man out of the hotel room and left him in the hallway for security to deal with. But then something unexpected happened. The mark went to pieces. “I’d never seen a man break down that badly, ever,” Lovell recalled. “He was just sliding down the wall, weeping and wailing.”

What followed was a moment Lovell would look back on as the hinge point of his life. “It was as if a light suddenly went on. I thought: This. Is. Really. Bad. For the first time, I actually felt sorry for someone.”

Lovell’s next move was hard even for him to believe. He returned the guy his money. Then he went back inside the hotel room, sat down, poured a drink, and declared himself done with buy ambien american express this dodge. “There was an absolute epiphany that I just couldn’t do it anymore.” The next day he felt different. Lighter. “I had become,” he said, “a real human being again.” He never ran another con.

In the decades that followed, Lovell turned his gift for smooth patter and sleight-of-hand into a successful one-man show that ran off-Broadway for eight years. After he suffered a stroke, good wishes and cash donations for his care poured in from friends and fellow magicians. In his professional world and well beyond it, Lovell became respected, even beloved. His rehabilitation was complete.

But a central mystery remained. That moment in the hotel was Lovell’s wake-up call. But what is a wake-up call? What could possibly explain an event so unexpected, forceful, and transformative that it cleaves a life in two: before and after?

Most of the time, ideas develop from the steady percolation and evaluation of thoughts and feelings. But every so often, if you’re lucky, a blockbuster notion breaks through in a flash of insight that’s as unexpected as it is blazingly clear. So-called “aha moments” can be deeply personal and even existential, prompting the realization that you should quit your job, divorce your spouse, move to another city, mend a broken relationship, abandon an addictive behavior, or, like Lovell, redirect your moral compass. They can also be creative, generating the brilliant idea for a tech startup, the theme of a musical composition, the plot point of a novel, or the answer to an engineering quandary. In all cases, you apprehend something that you were blind to before.

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