The story is legendary. Sir Isaac Newton, father of modern physics, discovered the law of gravity after being pelted by a falling apple. He was at his family's farm in the English countryside, fleeing Oxford due to an outbreak of the plague. For eighteen months, Newton had the freedom to let his mind wander. Unencumbered by an academic schedule, Newton received no emails or text messages. He did not update his Facebook status. He attracted no new followers on Twitter. Rather, in a tranquil rural environment, Isaac Newton passed the time by thinking. In addition to working out the law of gravity, Newton also made advances in the study of light and the understanding of mathematics. All the while, his imagination was his primary companion.
What can we learn from Newton's example? In order for breakthroughs to take place, we need to give our brains time to relax and make connections in stress-free settings. Life in the first world in the 21st century is loud, active, and reactionary. These conditions make us more productive, but they may hinder the type of thinking that will give us the Big Ideas of commerce, medicine, and public policy. For our kids' benefit, we have to help them strike a balance between preserving imagination and existing in our multi-tasking-obsessed contemporary world.