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Posted: March 13, 2014

The futurist: Confessions of an epiphany junkie

Living for that "Aha!" moment

Thomas Frey

I’ve always loved ideas, and I think it stems from the fact that I’ve had so many to choose from. But it wasn’t about the sheer number of ideas I got to play with. Rather, it was finding that one truly remarkable gem, the golden epiphany, hiding in amongst the others.

It’s hard to explain the epiphany experience, but it’s a euphoric high unlike anything else. Some have described it as “a orchestra from on high,” “a sudden realization,” “a epic breakthrough of the mind,” “an orgasm of the brain,” or “that Eureka moment!”

I’ve become an epiphany junkie, always in search of the next great revelation. But there’s a big difference between a minor epiphany and what I refer to as a full category five epiphany – a mass-spectrographic, isotopic, double quad-turbo, full-blown epiphany.

These are the ones people give half their kingdom for, but being part of the frequent-flier crowd for epiphanies, I’ve had the honor of dancing with them on a daily basis.

While this may sound like a braggadocios statement, rest assured, behind every idea junkie is a tortured soul. Every seismic shift in thinking is often preceded by days, months, even years of intellectual frustration waiting not-so-patiently for the next lightning strike to occur.

The epiphany phenomenon is also behind much of the surge in coffee and energy drink sales because caffeine and other stimulants can indeed trigger an “epiphanous” reaction. 

For this reason I’d like to take you along on own journey into the land of epiphanies, and offer you some rare insights into this mysterious world.

Growing Up as an Epiphany-mongerer

My early years seemed unremarkable. A farm kid growing up in a desolate region of northern South Dakota, trying desperately to stand out. Like all other kids I tried to run faster, jump higher, and think faster than everyone else.

Among a similar group of average kids, the best way to describe myself was super average.

I hated that. I was never satisfied with beating some of the kids, I wanted desperately to beat all of them. Even if it was only in one single category, I had an unquenchable thirst to be number one…. in something.

My big break came at age 11 when my Mom got tired of me sitting around at home watching television. She took me out to the field where my Dad was working and told him to put me to work. You may think this sounds mean or ill-intentioned, but as far as farm kids went, I was a late bloomer. My older brother started at age 8, so with three additional years of maturity, I was already well into my prime working years.

My first chore was driving an old John Deere 70 out to work the fields. With a small cultivator attached behind to do most of the work, it would easily take my little tractor an entire day to work a large field. The following day was always the same, endless fields, mindless work.

This John Deere 70 and I became close personal partners in the war on weeds over the coming years

It was in these countless hours of tedious tractor driving that something remarkable happened. Where most young famers found boredom, I was able to master something far different – contemplative thought.

Yes, I realize contemplative thought will never end be an Olympic sport, and I’m not even sure if that’s even the best way to describe it. But something changed. Countless hours alone on a tractor with nothing to keep me entertained other than the crazy ideas I could manufacture on my own. So every day I needed to come up with something better to think about.

It was here that I entered the world of epiphanies, forced by boredom to open my daily clown car of ideas, hoping a truly remarkable clown would appear to entertain me for the day.

Starting the DaVinci Institute

Ideas seemed free and easy and when it came to solving problems, being young and cocky, I felt I could run circles around most people.

I spent 15 years working at IBM, and the company had developed a number of internal systems for empowering their employees. These were creative outlets that allowed ideas to be submitted and I used them heavily. In fact I tended to abuse them.

Over my 15 years at IBM, these ideas resulted in me receiving 274 awards, more than any IBM engineer.

People with lots of ideas tend to be a lot of work for everyone around them. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was a lot of work.

So when I left IBM to go down the path of being an entrepreneur, I didn’t have the same type of creative outlets available to me. As a business owner, if I came up with a new idea, I would either have to act on it myself or the idea would simply disappear.


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Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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