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Mind of Jacka: 'Honest, I'm Working'

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Nov 09, 2022

A recent conversation with a friend of mine led to his asking me a question that writers, artists, musicians, and creatives of all types are constantly asked. While discussing this blog, my friend asked, "Where do you get your ideas?"

That, my friends, is the multimillion-dollar question, the secret word that brings the duck down from the ceiling, unearths the priceless bauble from the bottom of the Frosted Flakes, and reveals the convertible behind the curtain behind Carol Merrill, the seventh city of Cibola, the Dutchman's gold, the tomb of Genghis Kahn, the Amber Room of the Romanovs, and the auditee that agrees with every finding. It is a question for which there is no real answer, as ephemeral as the gossamer drifting from a fairy's wings.  It is a question that has haunted scientists and philosophers since the first creative acts could actually be observed by scientists and philosophers.

Where do you get your ideas?

Author Harlan Ellison had one of the best answers. He told those who asked the question that he used an idea service that was based in Schenectady. For a nominal fee they would send him three ideas a week. (There will always be literalists in the crowd so, invariably, someone would come up after a presentation asking for the address.)

So, with all that baggage behind the question, I provided an answer that, for me, is occasionally true. I read a lot. And I get a lot of my ideas from that reading. As I read, some ideas will strike my fancy. And I have gotten into the practice of connecting such ideas with internal audit. Voila, a blog post is born. Now, what is the magic that occurs between the written word I read to the written word you are reading? No idea. All I can identify is the priming of the pump. How the pump then works is a mystery to me.

This naturally led our conversation to the topic of reading. And from there, we began talking about finding the time to not only read, but to absorb, translate, and transform such inputs. And that led to the need for all professionals to be allowed and to allow themselves such time — even in the workplace. My friend is an advocate of allowing his audit team this freedom, not forcing them to look busy, and letting them know they can sit at their desks and just think. That is an important part of their success.

Working, thinking, developing ideas, drawing conclusions, thinking critically, being creative, etc. are not necessarily physical activities. People do not run around the room screaming, "I'm drawing a conclusion!" or pound on the desk shouting, "I'm thinking critically! I'm thinking critically!" And they should not be expected to spend all their time furiously writing, stabbing at their keyboards, shuffling papers, or any of the other tasks that we think of as "work." In fact, focusing on physical action deters the mind from absorbing and analyzing. Sometimes developing ideas, thinking critically, et al. are best accomplished by sitting back, closing your eyes, and ruminating.

And now, let's invite serendipity up to the stage.

Two days after the conversation with my friend, I was reading a newsletter that comes from Farnam Street. "Brain Food," as the newsletter is called, is a "weekly newsletter packed with timeless insights and actionable ideas from a wide range of disciplines."  As good a definition as I can think of. And I would suggest you subscribe or at least check it out.

This particular edition of the newsletter started with a quote:

"Learning is necessary for our success and personal growth. But we can't maximize the time we spend learning because our feelings about what we 'should' be doing get in the way."

The source for the quote is an article titled, "Let Go of the Learning Baggage," and can be found here. Let Go of the Learning Baggage ( The primary focus of the article is how we learn and how we might do a better job of learning. It is worth reading.

Within that article is that nugget speaking to the guilt we feel when we spend time learning, thinking, and allowing ourselves the time to breath — time that is required for our brains to rest and go the unexpected directions that create the unexpected successes. We must permit ourselves time to think and we must treat our staff in a similar fashion. We do no one any good by pressuring them to "look busy!"

Every head of audit, everyone hiring auditor, everyone who has any say in the success of an internal audit department indicates, that the number one skill required of staff is critical thinking. Yet, the processes and functions within most internal audit shops — the constant grind of meeting deadlines that always seem to be rushing past — allow no time for true critical thinking. And we allow the optics of our workplace to override the need for time to ruminate. Yes, auditors can think in these situations, but the critical part of critical thinking takes a massive hit because of the misplaced value in everyone looking busy.

But, beyond critical thinking, allowing people the freedom to not look busy also assists in that seemingly unattainable goal, creativity. For internal audit to succeed (for anyone to succeed, but we'll stick with our bailiwick right now), we must foster the creativity that will help us find the "Next Big Ideas." And that creativity cannot even begin to plant a seed, let alone blossom, if we don't allow people time to sit back and think.

I've asked many participants in many conferences/presentations/training sessions, "When do you get your best ideas?" Never once has anyone responded, "When I'm working real hard."

So, what's this really all about, Alfie? Look at your department. How much of your time is spent working hard? And how much time (if any) is spent thinking about all that hard work? And, for the individual, how much time do you allow yourself to think about information you have gathered (including information that, at first blush, has nothing to do with your job, your career, or your profession)?

Take that look around and, if you aren't taking the time to think, make that time. Critical thinking, creativity, and serendipity will follow shortly.

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

Co-founder and Chief Creative Pilot, Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services (FPACTS), based in Phoenix.