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  • Dan Connors

Feeling stuck? Try this book


Anatomy of a Breakthrough: How to Get Unstuck When It Matters Most



“The optimal failure rate to stay motivated- and not get stuck- is roughly one in five or one in six, in most situations. If you're failing more than every fifth or sixth attempt, you'll get stuck in the short term. If you're failing less than every fifth or sixth attempt, you'll get stuck in the long term.” Adam Alter


It's great to feel like you're making progress, but it's also human to get stuck from time to time. When you're stuck, you feel like nothing is working out, and extra efforts are just wasted. Feeling stuck is an inevitable part of life, and it's our chance to slow down, take a break, and reassess exactly where we want to go. Without that, our lives would be just one boring progression from one predictable stage to another. Breakthroughs are our big chance to add meaning to our lives and to those around us.


Anatomy of a Breakthrough is a how-to guide to getting unstuck. It's author is a business school professor, Adam Alter, writer of two other books, and numerous other articles for publications like the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and New York Times. The book talks about how we get stuck in the first place and offers some suggestions to get unstuck.


One of the main reasons that we get stuck is that our course of action is in need of a correction. Our past assumptions need updating and we need to recognize our mistakes before plunging forward. I feel like the entire world is a bit stuck at the moment. Two of its cherished beliefs- that white people should be in charge and that fossil fuels are safe to use are under a lot of scrutiny, and those beliefs will have to be modified before we can move forward as a planet into a better future. One of the biggest traps that slows us down is perfectionism. We create unrealistic goals and when they don't work out we get stuck. Our imperfect brains are easily influenced by cognitive biases, and they blind us to alternatives.


One lesson I got from this book is that goals that are too big and too distant are the hardest to reach. The easy fix for big goals is to break them down into smaller, more manageable ones. Getting stuck often happens in the middle of a process, when the excitement of the beginning is long gone and the anticipation of the finish line isn't close to being in sight. Once in the middle of a journey, mistakes and roadblocks will inevitably pop up, and it's critical to learn from them rather than ignore them or give up.


Failure isn't something to avoid, but something to embrace. (I've heard this a thousand times- doesn't make it any easier to do in reality.) People who have had to respond to challenges are more resilient and resourceful than those who've had an easy path in life. Scientists have even come up with a formula- we need at least 15% of our efforts to fail in order to learn enough to accomplish our goals. (How they came up with that number I have NO idea.) Too much failure can discourage even the toughest souls, while not enough failure leads us to feel empty at the end.


Alter recommends something called friction audits, which are procedures to examine all of the friction points in an endeavor and evaluate them. Friction audits simplify complex processes into their most essential components, allowing behavior modifications that might work. When a result is not desired, like eating too much unhealthy food or drink, adding friction makes it harder to do the unwanted activity. When a result is desired, a friction audit can identify the points where things slow down and get off track, preparing us for the stickiest traps and giving us ideas of how to get past them.


Diversity is another key tool in making a breakthrough. One danger that gets many people stuck is to limit their information bubble to such an extent that the same ideas keep getting tried over and over. By varying your social circle and media intake, while challenging your assumptions from time to time, you build up a large reservoir of ideas that could come in useful the next time you get stuck. No one person can figure it all out by themselves. We all need a diverse input in order to see a problem from more than one vantage point.


Crowdsourcing is an incredibly powerful method of getting help. In a famous study, a large number of people were asked to guess how many gumballs were in a large container. While most of the people were over or under the correct amount, the average of all the guesses was very close to the exact total. This is known as the wisdom of the crowd.


While our main goal in economic terms is increasing productivity, this goes counter to the goal of making a breakthrough. Productivity commands us to work long hours as efficiently as we can. But breakthroughs require down time. They require reflection and reassessment. Many great inventions came about by accident while people were trying to do something else. Getting unstuck, or even realizing that you are stuck in the first place, requires a pause in the action, but it's an essential pause that makes life more meaningful.


Alter concludes the book with one of his most helpful suggestions- "when you're stuck, act." Move your body- go for a walk. Do very small things if the big ones seem overwhelming. Take a class and put what you learned into action immediately. Some of my best ideas have come when I was walking or riding a bike. Sitting in a stationary position for hour after hour is the best way to get stuck and feel physically stuck while doing it. It's recommended that office workers get up and walk for at least 10 minutes every hour to recharge their bodies. Action could also include talking to an uninterested person about your challenge and getting a fresh perspective.


There's something about taking action that moves things along. Even a mistaken action causes a course correction that gets us one step closer to the right actions. But sitting in stuckness and ruminating about it gets us nowhere.


In every chapter Alter provides interesting stories that illustrate his points. Seeing how other people managed to get unstuck is both illuminating and inspiring. Everybody gets stuck, and good stories are essential to making the concepts relatable and interesting. We tend to only hear the success part of success stories, but behind most successful celebrities is hidden a long and difficult journey to get there, accentuated by good luck and timing.


Alter concludes the book with an excellent summary of all the most important points of each chapter. He gives a list of 100 ideas to getting unstuck. I wish most non-fiction writers would do something like this. Once you put down a book, you quickly forget 95% of the contents. Having a quick summary sheet is invaluable for picking up the highlights later on.


This is a good book, even though it covers a lot of the territory from other self-help books. The principles are universal and, as I said, the United States and the rest of the world seem pretty stuck to me at the moment.




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