In a recent blog, I ranted about what should have been a quick start to my day. How I’d begun my daily session with high hopes to create something meaningful. I’d been inspired, and I’d wanted to get my thoughts down as quickly as I could.

Instead, my laptop rebelled. After several false starts, reboots and corrective actions, some 35 minutes later I found myself sitting before a blank screen, my inspiration gone. So I wrote — complained, really — about this frustrating experience, titling the piece “The Person from Porlock.”

So who or what is Porlock, anyway?

Porlock is a tiny coastal village in England, population just over 1400. Like many tiny coastal villages, it would have remained contentedly obscure, well off the beaten path of modern-day hysteria, were it not for Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Many of you may remember Coleridge, having suffered through the sufferings of his “grey-beard loon,” the Ancient Mariner. Coleridge was addicted to opium, widely prescribed at the time for any number of medical ailments. In the summer of 1797, to address several health issues, he retired to a farmhouse on the English coast between Porlock and Linton, to recuperate. One day, he fell into an opium-laced sleep while reading a description of Kubla Khan’s palace.

Coleridge experienced a profound and detailed dream, and when he awoke he hurried to translate his visions into verse, before they escaped. But shortly into the effort, he was interrupted by a visitor — the infamous “person on business from Porlock,” who detained him in conversation. When the visitor departed, Coleridge returned to his desk and his fragment — only to find that the inspiration and imagery had vanished.

Thus, Coleridge’s famous poem — “Kubla Khan” — exists as a fragment only, with a beginning famous in literature:

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.”

Now, some have plausibly suggested that Coleridge invented his Porlock person, having written in feverish haste and then become stuck. Anyone who’s tried to put the genie on the page can relate to this. Inspiration is a flash, after all. It illuminates, blinds, and disappears. We capture bits of it as we can, left with the impression that there was more we could have done, better ways to describe what we’d experienced.

Where words fail, music can sometimes substitute. Even here, where the notes may sail more purely from the soul, where improvisation captures inspiration, composers struggle to freeze that fiery moment on the page. Having composed piano suites, I can attest to this frustration: what my soul suggested, what my ear tried to hear, and what my pen could not scribe. Chopin, perhaps, came closest, his dreamscapes slipping from his mind into our hearts. It’s as though Porlock never visited him, even once.

That leaves the rest of us. What to do with these interruptions? What does a visitor from Porlock really mean to us?

I think this.

These days, our lives are peppered with Porlocks. We are bombarded with social media rants, the latest news, popup ads, text messages, on and on. When we clear some space to try and work creatively, our electronic tools all too frequently push us into technical corners. In so doing, these well-meaning tools shift us from the spark of creativity to the smudge of transactional assembly: How do I create shading for that box? Why won’t my font choice work? Where did that image go?

When it comes to our dwindling forests, we rightly bemoan clear-cutting and deforestation. But with Porlocks we must be ruthless. We must grab our mental machetes and clear out the underbrush, the tangled vines scrimming our senses. We must create birthing space for our ideas. This is no different from what our ancestors did, as they banished their own Porlocks over the centuries.

Simple tools rule here. Yes, we can type faster than we can write, and our tools will draw straight lines instead of squiggles. But inspiration has always been a light piercing a cloud, creativity an intense, erratic fire. Neither desires precision, not yet, not when the soul is feeling its way. Precision at this point clips the wings. It’s enough to sketch the spirit.

In groups, we often start with brainstorming. We impose only a few rules to ensure we will build on each other’s ideas. We scribble on erasable surfaces. We outlaw the Porlockian phrase, “Yes, but” — two words injecting hard transactional restraint, damming creative flow.

Time enough for that later. Just now, our new ideas are nascent poems. Like Coleridge with Kubla Khan, we try to snare the butterfly before it flits to the next field. So often, as with Coleridge, something Porlockian intrudes, and the vision vanishes.

But inspiration, like the strike of a match, means little if it cannot be harnessed into something that benefits more than the inspired individual. At some point, we must marry the inspirational with the transactional. We must bring that person from Porlock back into the room and invite comment and criticism.

When do we do this?

Great ideas, like great poems and great music, are not truly great unless they are tested. No matter how awesome we may think our ideas and creations may be, if they are not fingered, fiddled with, and fumbled over by others, they may as well have been sewn into the lining of a seat cushion. That’s how much good they will do.

The art is in the timing. Ideas and creations must be just young enough to accept changes in their formation before they ossify into the cortex. And they must be just old enough to withstand those changes without being destroyed in the process, even if they are absorbed into other, bigger, perhaps better ideas. Like teenagers, they must be free within limits, exploring their rebellion while learning where and why they may need to conform.

We must introduce “what if” to “yes, but” as gently yet firmly as we can. And we must take great care deciding when we do this.

It is this subtlety of timing, this nuance of introduction, that is central to the challenge of progress — whether in art, business or public policy. How often have we seen ideas rushed to the marketplace, only to fall flat? How many times have we experienced the pain of realizing that what we thought was a flash of insight turns out instead to be unrealistic or just plain wrong?

A friend of mine once said that a piece of music created in the dark and brilliant heat of inspiration must nonetheless await the “cold light of day” before its quality can be determined. Writing that first draft or fastening that music improvisation on the page can be incredibly rewarding — the artist alone in the forge. But rewriting and revising must be public. It is only through the eyes of others that we can truly see what we’ve done. We must invite Porlock in.

So in business as well. The greatest lost opportunity is the idea killed too soon, for every good reason the rational among us can muster. And the greatest loss is incurred when an idea that should have been challenged is left to flail and fail in that cold light of day. Many a business has damaged its reputation or put its operations at risk pursuing an idea that simply wasn’t workable.

But what, then do we make of Edison and his hundreds of tries before he found the right filament for his electric light bulb? Perhaps it was because he knew that the underlying premise — a strand of some material could be made to glow in a vacuum without catching fire and disintegrating — had in fact already been proved by others. Edison’s inventiveness, as he well knew, drew less on the spark of creation and more on the relentless pursuit of excellence. Think of his famous quote - “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Edison perspired out of urgency. The light bulb had already been invented by others with equal insight but with perhaps less marketing savvy. (Who today remembers Warren de la Rue or William Staite?) Edison’s genius was to recognize the practical application of the mass-produced light bulb, to assemble a team dedicated to the work, and to win the race to market while burnishing his image. And along the way, to test and test and test and test, until he got it right.

So perhaps it’s best to recognize inspiration as a spark igniting the combustibles of previous ideas. What makes the flash at once both profound and elusive may be related to how far apart those ideas were in the first place. That I have connected them in this fashion may be exciting to me. That I can convince you of the significance of this connection is hard work. That I can convince a stranger, harder still.

If I string together words, fashioning a story at once unusual, new and yet familiar, have I succeeded in taming the inspirational beast? At what cost, this taming? If I assemble notes and build chords under a fresh yet familiar melody, have I stretched the boundaries of music sufficiently? Will you understand what I have done? Does it matter if you do? Art taken to extreme can seem genius to some, incomprehensible to others. Should we knuckle to the marketplace or not?

How now, Porlock?

In business, Porlock’s place is secure. The pressure to establish another new market toehold is too great. Much of what happens in business, even in innovative environments, is accelerated tinkering, building byways from existing trails. Many of our self-labeled disruptions are variations on this theme.

This is not a bad thing. We yearn for true disruption, but too much of it can create chaos. While there is simple, perhaps childlike joy in blowing up things and watching the shards scatter, those shards are sharp, their landings random. This is the aftermath. And it can be much, much harder than we think.

So while markets crave disruption, they reward calculated risk-taking. For every disruption that sparkles at last on the world stage, there are dozens of carcasses, ideas too radical to be accepted, creations that flashed and fizzled. Some of those carcasses may yet yield something just new enough to be the idea whose time has come. Many an artist and inventor has been unrecognized in his or her time.

Thus, Porlock. “What if” meets “yes, but.” It can also meet “yes, and what if also,” and other phrases that stretch and pull the original idea. The “person on business” will help to ensure continued acceptance, as the spark-become-idea-become-new offering lurches out the door and into the wide world. Whether sculpture, story or symphony, poem or product, that new offering may nudge the world forward. Or it could burst upon the scene, a flash that may flare, fizzle, or fundamentally change our world.

But have we changed?

Are we really so different from those of us who walked thousands of years ago?

Certainly there are more of us. And we rely more and more on the stuff we’ve made, the energy we’ve harnessed. Our children accept as given inventions that would have amazed our ancestors. So it goes.

Has this changed us? Are our minds somehow more facile, our frontal lobes somehow more capacious? Our neuroscientists tell us our brains are plastic, able to rewire and reshape as we advance through our lives. Our brains will unfold or curl, even as we do. But do our brains arrive already changed at birth? Or do they remain as we have long surmised them to be — mysterious, marvelous and malleable lumps of potential?

In the end, we discover that our questions yield more questions, and our answers springboard us into new unknowns. We are explorers all, though so many of us deny it, and some others of us may rage against this fate. To explore is to deny acquiescence and to seek new fields we may claim as our own. And even if others have walked this way before, still it will be new to us. Our courage to face that newness is what matters.

We must each be free to find and fashion our own Xanadu.