JUNE 22 ― How do you break free from whatever block you’re facing (as a writer, artist, designer, musician, project manager, athlete, etc.)?
How do you (finally?) achieve some progress? How do you find that solution or “answer” you’ve been chasing for?
I first knew of Adam Alter when his book on social media addiction, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (New York: Penguin Press, 2017), first came out.
It was from that book that I first learnt that Steve Jobs prohibited his kids from playing with the iPad. (Imagine that! Obviously the creator of that magical device knew something the whole world didn’t!)
Anyway, this article isn’t about that earlier book but about Alter’s latest (which came out last month) called Anatomy of a Breakthrough: How To Get Unstuck When It Matters Most (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2023).
The book’s theme is about, of course, how to get “unstuck”.
Those of you who enjoy reading case-studies of successful people or companies will love this, as Alter cites Brie Larson, Airbnb and Amazon to make the case that being stuck is a very common phenomenon.
While I wouldn’t rate this a ground-breaking book, it does have a few helpful insights. Here are eight (out of about 12) I’d like to share:
1. Chunk down big tasks
Often people get stuck in the middle of huge tasks, so one tactic is to “eliminate the middle” entirely ie. break large tasks into smaller ones so we won’t get into a lull in the middle of any one task.
Example, if you’re about to read a 500-page book it may help if you plan to finish, say, 50 pages a week and budget to complete the entire book in 10 weeks.
Failing to do that ― unless you’re a very matured reader used to finishing big tomes ― may result in getting stuck around the 100- or 200-page mark.
Ditto with other projects like writing a dissertation, building a DIY cupboard, career planning, etc.
2. Try new strategies to beat the Plateau Effect
Habituation and/or the plateau effect is when old ideas no longer work as well and are frequently a cause of being stuck.
This can be circumvented by, duh, try something new (which, of course, requires recognising that our previous strategies or approaches need some modification).
If something has worked in the past but isn’t working now, try something new. Eg, SPM “learning” methods of memorisation can only get students so far.
So it’s best to slow down, go back a bit to learn new ways of learning.
3. Predict (and accept) setbacks before they arise
If we understand that setbacks can and will occur (which lead to us being jammed up), this helps us prepare.
Alter quotes a study of middle-aged folks which reports that, “People are slightly more likely to seek extramarital affairs or even to end their lives as new decades approach,” as a prelude to a discussion about life-quakes ― those crises which rock us and leave us stuck).
He quotes Bruce Feiler’s mantra, “When in turmoil, turn to narrative.”
In other words, we must learn to see ourselves as part of a story which has ups and downs.
The ups cannot exist without the downs and, in fact, can only be attained when the downs are embraced and lessons learnt from.
I see this as basically an affirmation that shit happens to everyone, so if we can structure our lives around this non-negotiable fact, hopefully when s*** hits the fan we’ll be able to adapt/cope better and, of course, get unstuck faster.
The above aligns well with a concept by Tara Brach, “radical acceptance” (elaborated in the later part of the book) — this willingness to “allow” one’s self to live with failure and to acknowledge there’s life on the side of disappointment.
4. Beware the 'creative cliff' illusion
This is the mistaken belief that our creativity falls as we grow older.
Alter reports that the average age of successful entrepreneurs is 42 and Nobel prize winners are usually from the late 30s to early 40s; long and short, Alter counsels everyone to keep going and don’t stop (or at least don’t quit because you think you’re past your prime — cue Michelle Yeoh’s Oscar speech?).
Alter says precocity is fascinating because “the richest advances come from getting stuck and then unstuck over and over; from learning what works and what doesn’t; from persevering in the face of difficult lessons.”
5. Keep multiple productive threads in each area of your life so that losing a single thread isn’t so painful
This is Alter’s way of saying don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Instead, “your various baskets should also contain hatchlings, older chicks, and mature chickens.”
So if you’re a trainer it’s good to have programs you’ve done a zillion times, programmes you’ve experimented with only the most patient clients, half-baked programs which only have the course outline, etc.
For corporate executives, I guess you can try thinking of your skill-set in this way? You have those skills which have served you well for decades, then skills you only use once in a while, then new skills you’re learning, etc.
6. Remember the Random Impact rule
Basically, your success may come when you least expect it so (again), don’t give up and keep trying.
Alter notes that “Michael Jackson and mathematician Paul Erdös achieved their biggest hits during the first third of their careers, whereas Stanley Kubrick and Agatha Christie had their biggest hits during the final third of their careers... Had Agatha Christie or Stanley Kubrick retired during the spring or summer of their careers, their biggest hits would have gone uncreated.”
7. Do less, dial down the intensity
Here Alter tells a cute story of the legendary Miles Davis exiting the room when Herbie Hancock (then a newbie) joined Davis’ band.
Davis knew that his presence would cause Hancock to be anxious, and Davis wanted him to relax, to not try to perform at such high levels first.
The point about dialling down the pressure is to reduce anxiety which then hopefully spurs us to get unstuck. If anxiety levels are sky-rocketing, quality and progress suffers (cf. Asian education systems and culture which keeps piling pressure onto students?).
This section also advises us to (occasionally!) accept lower standards, to redefine success, to even engage in satisficing (as opposed to maximising) happiness if only to stop us from chasing perfection all the time.
With some luck, we can obtain excellence instead of perfection, the former being “associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, headaches, insomnia, deliberate self-harm, and obsessive-compulsive disorder...(scarily) the proportion of high school students who identified as perfectionists doubled between 1989 and 2016.”
If we run with options that are just good enough (instead of being perfect) the likelihood of getting unstuck rises, because it means we can move forward instead of waiting for “the best”, etc.
8. Pause before you play
This section has a fascinating chapter about how Lionel Messi used to vomit many times before a game, leading to even Diego Maradona complaining that “it’s useless trying to make a leader out of a man who goes to the toilet twenty times before a game.”
However, things turned around when Messi learnt to study and observe his opponents during the first one to two minutes of the game (Alter remarkably notes that Messi has scored in every minute of the game except the first and second minute) i.e. Messi learnt to pause before playing.
There’s also a story about how Agassi studied Becker’s serve to try to find something to beat the German (who won the first three times they met).
He found it, finally being able to determine where Becker would be serving by observing Becker’s tongue (!) before the serve.
The key point here is to spend time in preparation, pausing and taking a break to study the situation — maybe a way forward can be found.
I hope the above helped to give a gist of what you can expect from the book. There’re about half a dozen more concepts shared in the book, so maybe you’d like to go through it to find out what they are.
I think it’s worth digging through if only for the amazing stories; but even more if the ideas help us get out of a rut.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.