Recognizing the Symptoms of Impending Brilliance

Screen shot 2013-06-04 at 8.57.09 AMBefore the beginning of great brilliance, there must be chaos.

— I Ching

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.

— Anaïs Nin

The Symptoms

I recognize The Symptoms. They’ve been a recurring “feature” my whole adult life…

Trouble breathing…

Nothing frightening in itself, but noticeable


I need to stand up, walk around, and fidget with my environment

Racing heart…

No, that’s not accurate; I just checked my pulse and I’m holding steady at sixty beats per minute – but believe me, it sure feels elevated!


A disconcerting sense that I don’t know what I’m doing. (This one’s the most distressing.)


Why doesn’t my husband clean up his stuff!


First I need to drink another glass of water, then it’s time to pee.


The irresistible need to call someone… [pause for a break to call my sister]

Do You Recognize Any of Them?

For me, those are the symptoms of the anxiety that I go through before I begin writing.

But unpleasant as they sound — not to mention how they feel — I’m not having a health crisis.

No, The Symptoms are just part of the internal process that creates enough adrenaline to narrow and sharpen my mental and physical focus.  Only when my focus is tight enough to make the world fade away, can I develop a clear and compelling idea and write about it.

And for whatever reason, many of us need to experience this kind of internal chaos and extreme tension before moments of productive coherence and even occasional brilliance.

From Chaos to Productivity

You’d think that after writing four books and an untold numbers of articles and blog posts it’d get easier for me, wouldn’t you?

But no. Even with lots of experience, you may still suffer from The Symptoms practically every time. Only after a while, you’ll recognize them for what they are:

The precursor to a creative and productive period.

You, too, may find it hard get into a state of creative flow or settle down into the focus you need for writing without first working yourself into a tizzy!

The process becomes easier only because you no longer think you have a medical problem when you can’t breathe freely, or a psychological problem when you can’t sit still.

The Reward is Worth the Discomfort

Is the process of writing and being creative still uncomfortable for me?

You bet!

But the discomfort is fleeting compared to the pleasure of channeling ideas when they finally start to flow.

The remarkable sense of relief and excitement you experience when the dam of resistance finally breaks and you get down to work is always worth the wait.

TryTry ThisThis

Imagine Your Internal Chaos as Your Prelude to Brilliance!

The anxiety that leads to procrastination is, for many people, a necessary precursor to productivity.

The next time you feel the uncomfortable symptoms that lead to being productive, translate that discomfort into excitement about the mental flow you’re about to experience.

What necessary chaos do you experience before your moments of brilliance? Share some of them with me in the comments below.

  • I’ve never heard this described so well, or so hopefully. Brilliant perception.

    But how does one hold onto it when one (nobody I know, of course!) is feeling totally crazed and scattered?

    • akihlstedt

      All you’ve got to do is to recognize your symptoms…again and again. Might not start to feel like an old friend, but at least the symptoms won’t feel life threatening! You’ve just got to wait them out until the dam breaks.

      When I was writing my grad school thesis, I had such breathing trouble from anxiety that I literally couldn’t sit down at my desk without thinking I was going to pass out. I still get short of breath, but it’s not so scary any more.

  • Lynn

    Andrea, YOU NAILED IT!!! Every one resonates!

    • akihlstedt

      So glad I’m not alone, Lynn. I did wonder for a moment if perhaps it was just my crazy symptoms.

  • Randy

    This was very good!! – Is there a symptom of blankness and unnecessary thoughts before the brilliance as well. My brain seems to only work when a deadline is fast approaching.

    I do not seem to have any good ideas until I say “Randy – you haven’t done anything at least write something – how are you going to finish?” as time wastes away – I get restless and experience some of the symptoms above but mainly disappointment in myself for not being more disciplined and focused.

    For some reason – it is at that low moment, when my brain seems to jolt and ideas begin to roll.

    • akihlstedt

      Yup! I guess Dead Lines are good for us as long as we don’t well…. die… from the discomfort of them! 😉