Adam Alter reveals the secret to breaking yourself out of any rut.
- When it pays to lower your standards
- The question to ask for better insights
- The essential skill to accomplish your goals
Adam Alter is a professor of marketing, and the Stansky Teaching Excellence Faculty Fellow at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He also holds an affiliated professorship in social psychology at NYU’s psychology department. In 2020 he was voted professor of the year by the faculty and student body at NYU’s Stern School of Business, and was among the Poets and Quants 40 Best Professors Under 40 in 2017. Alter is the New York Times bestselling author of two books: Drunk Tank Pink and Irresistible.
- Book: Anatomy of a Breakthrough: How to Get Unstuck When It Matters Most
- LinkedIn: Adam Alter
- Twitter: @adamleealter
- Website: AdamAlterAuthor.com
- Book: Goodbye, Columbus: And Five Short Stories (Vintage International) by Philip Roth
- TED Talk: Why our screens make us less happy
Adam, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.
Thanks for having me, Pete. Good to be here.
Well, I’m excited to talk about your latest book, Anatomy of a Breakthrough: How to Get Unstuck When It Matters Most. But, first, I was really digging your TED Talk about screens, and I’m curious if, in the time that has elapsed, if you’ve discovered any other fun, interesting tactics or approaches to reduce phone time.
I have been trying to acquire as many physical objects as I can that track my phone, so there are all sorts of interesting little cookie-jar type things that work for phones quite effectively. So, you put a little, that have timers, you could put a countdown on them, and say, “I don’t want to use my phone for the next hour,” and they trap your phone. I didn’t really talk about that in the TED Talk, that was a few years ago now, but I find those physical barriers very effective.
That’s good. So, the trap cookie jars, just leaving it elsewhere. I’m curious, so if you’re at a restaurant, where is your go-to hiding spot?
So, my kids are small, they’re five and seven, so when we go to restaurants, we don’t really have any screens at all. We try to keep our phones either in the car or we try to keep them under the table in a bag somewhere, so I don’t have a great hiding spot for the phone. I certainly don’t bring the cookie jar into the restaurant. That would be a little unorthodox but we’re pretty good about keeping the phones as far away from the table as possible.
Okay. Well, let’s talk about your book, Anatomy of a Breakthrough. I’m curious if there are any particularly surprising or eye-popping discoveries you’ve made while putting together this book.
That’s a good question. There are a few. One of the really fun things about this book was that I did a huge amount of research into how extremely successful people, A, have got stuck in the past, and, B, how they’ve managed to find breakthroughs. And some of the stories, I found very surprising. Let me just pick one of them.
There’s a fantastic story about Lionel Messi, the soccer player, who I think is the best player today, and he’s one of the greatest players of all time. And the very interesting thing about Messi is that he is known for being extremely anxious, and so much so that early in his career, some of his coaches said to him, “I don’t know if this is going to be right that you’re going to be a professional because you’re obviously struggling with emotional consequences of playing high-stakes matches.”
And what he ended up doing was he established this really, really interesting technique where he would get on the field, and for big matches, for small matches, he spends the first three, four minutes of the game not moving. Basically, he ambles around, he barely moves. All the other players, the other 23, sorry, the other 21 players are darting around, and he’s basically still.
And he spends these minutes doing two things. One, he calms down. He has a sort of series of mantras that calms himself down, but the other thing he’s doing is he’s developing a strategic advantage because he’s watching all the other players in a way that no other player does, and learning how they’re interacting with each other, who seems to have a hidden injury, who’s connecting particularly well with a particular teammate, and then he uses that, he deploys in the remaining 85+ minutes of the game.
And he’s never scored in minutes one and two of any match, but has scored in every minute from three on, which shows you how he’s really, essentially, not a player on the field until minute three or four. And what I found totally fascinating about that is, A, here is the, what I would consider to be the greatest soccer player of the day, who’s stuck, he really was dealing with a major sticking point, but he found a tremendous breakthrough.
And that breakthrough, what’s so interesting about it is that it’s paradoxical. Instead of doing more to get unstuck, most of us kind of flail, he does less. And I found a lot of that kind of Zen-like do more to do less, do less to do more, there were some really interesting ideas that came up as I was researching for the book, and that was one of them.
That is intriguing. And that practice, it’s so cool in that, well, a lot of times performance anxiety issues boil down to we’re being self-conscious, “Oh, I hope I don’t screw up. I hope I don’t mess this up,” all that kind of chatter inside the head. And when your goal is to see, “All right, what’s the deal here with all these players?” it’s really quite the forcing function of the opposite of thinking about yourself and how you’re operating there.
Yeah, because I think if he spent those few minutes just thinking about his heart rate, and saying, “Well, how’s my heart beating? Am I sweating? Am I nervous?” that would be counterproductive. But what’s brilliant about that strategy, as you’ve said, is that it’s outwardly focused. It gives him a task, it gives him something to do, and so he’s not just kind of biding his time.
He’s doing something that’s very valuable for the long run, but that also, because of its nature, it’s a little bit more cerebral instead of being something where you move around, it’s something that kind of calms his body down. He’s not really getting his heart rate up the way the other players are earlier on in the game.
All right. Well, thank you. Well, now, let’s maybe zoom out a bit and hear about the main thesis of Anatomy of a Breakthrough. What do you mean by breakthrough? And what do you mean by unstuck? And what’s the big idea here?
Yeah, so the kinds of sticking points I’m talking about are protracted ones. These are ones that last often months, years, in some cases, decades, or even entire lifetimes. So, I’m not really interested in the sort of trivial daily frustrations that we all deal with. I’m interested in the bigger sticking points that we actually also happen to deal with pretty much universally.
And I’m especially interested in the ones that are susceptible to strategic intervention. In other words, there’s something we can do about them. There are a lot of things that cause us to be stuck but we don’t have a lot of say in, we don’t have much that we can do about. During the early days of the pandemic, for example, a lot of people felt stuck, but if you were physically stuck in a particular location, and you couldn’t travel because of government regulations, that’s just how it was. There wasn’t much you could do about that, and I don’t think that’s especially psychologically interesting.
What’s interesting to me is that the vast majority of cases of this kind of protracted stuck-ness are cases where there’s something you could if you knew what to do. People sort of say to themselves, “I know there’s a way out of this. I just don’t know which direction to pour my energy.” And so, that’s what this book is. Essentially, it’s a sort of roadmap for what I call finding breakthroughs.
The breakthroughs are essentially what’s on the other side of whatever it is that’s your sticking point, getting over the hurdle, getting past the mire that’s in front of you that’s preventing you from moving forward. That’s what the breakthrough is. It’s the sort of flipside of being stuck.
Beautiful. All right. Well, so how is it done? Are there some core principles? You mentioned heart, head, and habit.
Yes, there are. Exactly. So, you’ve just listed the three sections that talk about the interventions. I actually start the book by talking about the idea that it’s surprisingly common for us to get stuck. I say it’s universal, and often people hide how stuck they are from the world, and as a result, we see a lot of success stories that make us feel a little bit inferior.
So, I talk a lot in the beginning stages of the book about licensing ourselves to be stuck in the first place, and that then segues into the first section of interventions that focus on the emotional consequence of being stuck because humans actually are well-designed, well-engineered to get unstuck physically. If you’re stuck or trapped in a particular place, your first instinct is to kind of fight, it’s to flail. And that’s very useful if you’re physically trapped.
There are these really interesting stories every now and again of people finding hysterical strength, is the term for it, when they lift up a car and somehow free themselves. Now, unfortunately, we get confused between that kind of stuck-ness and the stuck-ness that’s emotional or mental, and we give that same kind of flailing response to these situations, and it doesn’t do much good for us.
So, the first thing, really, is to calm down and to accept where you are, and then to start thinking about what the best strategies are. So, the second section starts to deal with those strategies. That’s a section called head, and that’s really about what goes on inside your head as you’re trying to get unstuck, and I suggest a whole range of different sort of strategies that we can use to either find creative breakthroughs, or breakthroughs in financial sticking points, or business sticking points, or relationship sticking points.
And then the last section of the book, which I think is probably the most important, is habit, which is the argument that it’s great to think about emotions and it’s great to think about strategy but, ultimately, you can’t get unstuck if you don’t act. And so, that last section is about action. And, in fact, the last chapter is titled “Action Above All” because I think privileging action when you’re stuck is the most important thing to do.
And I talk about how, when it feels impossible to act, you can act despite that sense that there’s nothing that can be done. So, that’s a sort of roadmap of the roadmap itself.
All right. Well, could you give us some examples of success stories, interventions that could be particularly helpful for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs? I’m thinking about procrastination. I’m thinking about difficult office relationships. What are some of your faves?
Yeah, one of my faves is it’s from the last chapter of the book. I was just talking about this idea that action above all is really important, that you’ve got to act. And Jeff Tweedy, the front man of the rock band Wilco, who’s also a writer, sort of all-around renaissance man, has talked a lot about the idea that it’s exhausting being someone who has to be creative and thoughtful every day for decades.
And some days you wake up and you don’t want to do the job. And it doesn’t matter whether your job is as Tweedy’s is, to write music and books, or whether it’s some other thing that requires that you bring your best self to the workplace. And so what he sort of described is if you absolutely have to be creative and you don’t want to be, one of the things you can do is you can lower your threshold as low as possible, right down to the ground.
Normally, we’re perfectionists, we want to do good work. He says the best thing to do when you first start is to say, “Anything is better than nothing.” He thinks of it as pouring out the bad ideas. And so, he says to himself, if he’s writing a particular, say, music track, he might say, “What’s the very worst musical phrase I could write right now?” And then he spends 15 minutes working on the worst musical phrases he can come up with.
Now, because he’s very good at his job, it’s very easy for him to do that. Most of us can do a bad job at the thing we’re good at or the thing that we spend a lot of time at. And even if that action is not itself useful, it’s sort of like moving sideways, it does two things. It shows you that you can move, that you’re not, by definition, stuck if you’re moving, but it also sometimes can grease the wheels for further action. It sort of shows you how to act. It shows you that you can act. It signals that you are someone who is capable of acting.
And, by contrast, if you’re coming up with bad ideas, sometimes that illuminates good ones. And so, he talks often about the fact that those first 15 minutes may be wasted but they often pave the way for many, many hours of much stronger work. He talks about it as though the crystal-clear water of creative ideas has a layer of muck on top of it. And once you pour out the muck, the good crystal-clear water is there, and the ideas pour forth.
And that’s, I think, absolutely true about general sticking points in the workplace. You just have to act, and the best way to act is to lower your expectations and standards, at least temporarily.
Okay. I like that a lot in terms of even if you, sure enough, produce nothing that feels good at all on that day, you’ve at least kept the habit, which I view as an asset in and of itself, alive and moving as oppose to, it’s like, well, getting momentum in the opposite direction, momentum towards nothingness.
Yeah, and rumination as well, because what ends up happening is, if you’re not acting, you’re thinking. Sometimes thinking is very valuable and, actually, you should think for a long time before you act. But if you’re at the point where, more than anything, thought is not going to rescue you, you really need to do something.
And it’s funny, because people don’t have that instinct. Their instinct is, “If I don’t produce something phenomenal right now, it’s just not going to be good enough.” But very, very often, it’s even mediocre products that end up freeing us. So, when you hear stories, you hear George R.R. Martin who’s writing the Game of Thrones books, or the Song of Ice and Fire books, he’s talked about the fact that he’s sometimes stuck for a decade.
Now, you can imagine how high his standards must be. And, as a result of that, unless he cranks out these passages that rival his best work, he probably continues to feel stuck. And I think if I were going to be his personal consultant, I don’t know if he’d ever want one or if he’d ever take me seriously, the first thing I’d say is, “Write a hundred really terrible pages if you have to, because behind that will be some good stuff,” and that’s what Tweedy and others, and not just Tweedy, many other creatives have found.
That sounds really cool for creative work. And as I think a little bit about my own experiences there, sometimes I feel, it’s like, “Oh, you know what, young kids and get good sleep, having this or that, I’m just slightly sick,” whatever. It’s like I’m clearly not at my best, and I know it. And I also don’t want to do the thing, so there’s sort of a double whammy there.
And so, it’s very easy for me to delude myself to saying, “Well, you know, it’s probably not going to be worthwhile anyway, so maybe just skip it.” And yet I’ve found that when I really put it to the test, that I have actually had, sometimes, breakthrough excellence above and beyond average in sort of a tired funk state. And I don’t know whether that’s true, how we explain that. Maybe, in some ways, there’s benefit associated with, I don’t know, like slap-happy condition, like when things are hilarious.
It’s like different brain portions are operating, and sometimes that works out better, and sometimes it just unmasks the lie that you’ve been saying to yourself.
Yeah, one of the key axioms in the book is that if you spend, say, a thousand days doing the same thing, you’re trying to find some sort of nugget of gold, maybe it’s a creative output, maybe it’s a good song, whatever it is, it doesn’t have to be creative work, but let’s say, you do your job for a thousand days. It’s actually very, very hard at the beginning of each day to predict whether it’s going to be a good one.
There’s a lot of research that suggests this. Sometimes this happens in lots of domains. It happens with athletic pursuits as well. You often think, “Oh, I had eight hours of sleep, it’s going to be a good day,” and then it turns out not to be. Other days you had three hours of sleep and you’re hung over, and you produce your best work.
And I give this talk to freshmen at NYU sometimes where I show them the four emails over the last 15 years that changed my professional life. They were these random emails that arrived, that, for example, introduced me to the world of book-writing, or to a kind of consulting that I now do. And with each one, I was convinced that this was a nothing, I was like, “Ah, I don’t have time for this nonsense. I’ve got all these other things that I’m worried about working on.”
And, ultimately, I ended up saying yes, and sending the follow-up email. But alongside those four emails that changed my life, I don’t know, 25,000 that did nothing for me, and you just don’t know when those moments will come up. So, I think you’re right about establishing the habit because you want to be in the game when those good things do happen. It’s like being in the stock market on those few days when there’s a big bump. You don’t want to be out of the game, and I think that’s true for work, in general.
Okay. So, we’ve talked a little bit about procrastination. I’m curious about sort of interpersonal relations that can feel stuck, like, “Oh, my boss or my colleague is a jerk, or I’m not good enough. They criticize everything I do. I just don’t want to be around them. They’re toxic,” kind of fill in the blank. When a relationship feels stuck, any cool stories or tactics there?
Yeah, it’s a very different kind of situation when it’s a relationship that’s essential. That’s one of those kinds of stuck-ness, it’s where you may not have control over who your boss is. Then you have to try to figure out what you do have control over. And sometimes you have some control, sometimes you have very little control.
What you do have control over often is this question of whether, when things are really dire, this is the right either position for you at that particular company, or that particular organization, or whether perhaps you should jump ship, find something else. That’s always a question that’s worth asking, and certainly it’s worth exploring whether there are other options. If things really are that dire, that’s something worth asking.
But one of the really interesting ideas that, I think, if it’s not a truly toxic relationship, there are just people in the workplace who don’t get along. If it’s a toxic relationship, that’s problematic, and there needs to be a remedy put in place, often distancing or moving to another position, if possible. But when the relationship isn’t quite toxic, but perhaps the interactions are not all that fruitful, there’s some hopeful research that suggests that the kind of creative conflict that you have at work and in other situations is actually very good, or can be very good, as long as it’s not deeply emotionally aversive.
There’s fantastic work, for example, looking at how Pixar has come up with some of its best ideas and its best films, and its Academy Award-winning films, and a lot of them have happened where the producer, the one who’s most famous for this is Brad Bird. He will put someone, sort of a cat amongst the pigeons, he’ll bring someone in to cause creative conflict or general conflict. And you’ll have all the animators in Pixar who are famous for spending a huge amount of time getting the fur just right so it looks like fur, the water just right so it looks like water, and so on.
And these people will be brought in to, say, they’re storytelling experts, they’ll come in and say, “No one cares about the fur and the hair and the water. If the story is not compelling, you’ll lose them in five minutes. They’re not going to go away saying, ‘That story sucked but how about that fur.’ That’s not the way movies work.” And sometimes, these conflicts, if you can reframe it as a kind of challenge and you can rise through it, it could be very productive. But, again, if it’s toxic, that’s obviously not the recipe.
That’s good. The fur, boy, I had the exact same thought when I was getting a little too into audio editing, and seeing just what’s possible in terms of removing every errant thump or pop or hiss. And then I saw, I think it was iZotope who’s showing off their audio software, and I was like, “Wow, that is so amazing how they’re able to remove the wind in that scene.” I was like, “What movie is that?” And then I went over to IMDb, and people were just, like, trashing the movie for just being so terrible.
Trashing the film, right.
And I was like, “Yeah, but nobody mentioned how they did an amazing job removing the wind sounds in that scene.” So, yeah, fur and wind, that’s exactly true.
It’s easy to miss the point, right? It’s nice to have those black sheep, and they’re occasionally telling you, “Hey, you’re not paying attention to the right thing.”
Okay. Well, so I loved your example of Lionel Messi there. Anything else in the zone of people and their emotions, if it’s depression, if it’s anxiety, if it’s just they feel stuck in the sense that it is just hard to handle business with the stress and the emotions and the overload and overwhelm in their lives?
Yeah, there is an excellent story, and this one is more about being a good leader, although it applies also to just working with other people in general. This is a story about the jazz pianist, the giant Herbie Hancock. And when Hancock was up and coming, he was a young pianist, he was trying out or he’s auditioning for Miles Davis’s band, and Miles Davis was terrifying to other musicians.
He would get on stage and he would shout at them, and he would tell them they weren’t doing the right thing. He was known for being a perfectionist and for knowing exactly what he was looking for. And even if you were very talented but you happened, in that moment, not to be giving him what he wanted, he would tell you, and he would do it publicly sometimes.
So, Hancock went in to an audition at Miles’ house, at Davis’s house, with some of the biggest jazz musicians of all time, I mean, the most prominent, the most impressive, the most technically gifted, and Hancock tells this story of walking into Miles Davis’s house, and all these musicians are there. He’s terrified because of the moment of the whole thing, but he’s also terrified of Davis and the fact that he’s going to shout at him. And he’s a young guy, he’s kind of concerned.
And they start the audition, and about five minutes in, Davis picks up his trumpet and he throws it on the couch, it looks like with disgust, and he goes upstairs, and they don’t see him for the next three days. And Hancock was convinced he’s blown the audition, “If Miles isn’t even there, how could this be going well?” But he starts to loosen up, he’s like, “How many chances in my life am I going to get to play with these giants of the jazz world?”
He starts experimenting, he gets a little bit expansive, played some great stuff, he’s happy with himself. At the end of the third day, Davis comes down the stairs, and he picks up his trumpet and he starts playing with the band again. And Hancock’s kind of confused, and he goes over to Davis at the end of the day, and he says, “I thought I’d lost you. You went upstairs after five minutes.” And Davis said to him, he often had this kind of Zen-like sayings, he basically just said to him, “I was on the intercom, man, and I heard everything, but I knew you wouldn’t play properly if I heard it live.”
So, he knew that. Even though he was this incredible hard ass, he knew that there were times when he has to take the pressure off, and that his musicians wouldn’t give him the best if he was there putting the screws on the whole time. And I think there’s something, obviously being a toxic leader who shouts at people on stage is bad, bad, bad, but the fact that Davis had this ability to recognize in Hancock that kind of nervous energy that could be produced or applied in the right direction under the right circumstances was, I think, something that a lot of leaders miss.
It’s really important to know when to push, and to say, “I expect a lot from you,” and it’s also really important to know when to give people space and safety to expand into their roles, especially when they’re young or when they’re early in a job. And I love that story because I think it’s a very, very powerful idea in terms of how to be a leader.
Okay. Well, now, thinking about some of the head stuff, are there any magical mental phrases or reframes that are handy that come up again and again?
Yeah, I think so. I think one of the things we do is we are often striving for genuine radical originality. That’s true in creative work, it’s true in the workplace, it’s true in businesses. It doesn’t matter what sort of work you do, you’re always trying for something new. And I think we put a big premium on newness, on novelty.
And radical originality is a myth. It’s this idea that there are certain things out there that are really new and different from everything else, and that’s just not true. There are a lot of great examples of this kind of myth. Bob Dylan is often pointed to as the kind of radical original voice of the 20th century, but when you go back, even Dylan himself said, “That’s not true. I was borrowing from all these different traditions.” And you can find the DNA of all sorts of other work in his songs.
It’s just very, very hard in any world to find this genuine originality, and, unfortunately, when we strive for it, it’s a little bit like striving for perfection. It makes us feel stuck because we can’t quite reach that standard. So, a much better thing to do that tends to be quite useful is what is known as recombination. This is when you take two existing things that are themselves not new, and you make some new product by combining them, by bringing them together.
And there are some amazing examples of this in business, in music, in art, in filmmaking. And one of the things I’ve done over the last 15 years or so that I find very useful is, any time I see a good idea, is I’ll put it down in this document that I have that’s now hundreds of lines long, and what I’ll occasionally do, if I’m stuck, I’ll go in and say, “Let’s look at idea 37 and idea 112, and let’s see. Can they be combined in a way that is new?”
And it’s a great exercise because it kind of makes you a little bit creatively limber but, also, if you’re ever stuck, just think about two things that you like that are interesting that haven’t been combined, combine them and you’ve got something that’s new, it’s a recombination. It’s a great way forward.
So, in your document that’s hundreds of lines long, it’s anything you saw that you thought was cool or a good idea of any domain.
Yeah, that’s one version.
Okay. So, can you give us a couple examples, like, you’re in the grocery store, you’re like, “Oh, that looks tasty”? Or, what are some lines?
Yeah, so here are two lines. One line is I teach a case to my MBA students on a little alarm clock called the Clocky. I don’t know if you know about this clock, but when it rings, to stop you from hitting the snooze button, it’s on wheels and it runs away from you, and it runs around the room. So, you’ve probably heard of this. It’s a clever little alarm clock.
So, when I first heard about this, about maybe 15 or 20 years ago, I thought it was really clever. No, it’s probably 15 years ago. So, I put it in the diary, it’s in that document, and it sat there for a long time. And then a number of years later, I was writing about how we could stop ourselves from binge-watching too much Netflix or too much of whatever video platform is your poison.
And I was wondering, “Could you somehow marry this Clocky idea to the binge-watching that we do?” which, by the way, the way we binge-watch and why we binge-watch, it’s a brilliant piece of product engineering, that the next episode automatically plays, so I thought that was a very clever idea used a little bit nefariously.
And so, I took these two ideas, and one thing that I now do is if I don’t want to binge-watch, I don’t have Clocky because Clocky is a bit random for this purpose, but that kind of same principle of making it hard to hit the snooze button, I will set an alarm, put it in a different room of my house for, say, an hour and a half later. In that way, if I’m watching Netflix, I have two episodes in and I don’t want to watch a third, I timed the alarm to coincide with the end of the second episode. I have to get up and go turn the alarm off to continue watching.
It’s not like I cannot watch anymore, but it’s a good way to minimize the likelihood that I’m just going to sit there in a stupor, not moving and let the next episode play, and that’s been very effective for me. So, that’s just one example, a very personal one.
Okay. So, we have an example, Clocky, like it is necessary to move in order to shut the thing off. So, okay, nifty. So, I guess I’m wondering, in the course of just living life and capturing ideas, it’s just anything you think is clever in any domain?
Pretty much. I’ve got different versions of the document. So, there’s a document that is called book ideas, and that’s like any idea that I think is interesting enough that, at some point, I might explore it for a book, to write a book about it, and see whether it’s thick enough and interesting enough to form a book. And there are a hundred of ideas in there, and that would be lifetimes of book-writing, so I won’t do many of them but it’s a useful exercise.
I’ve got one for research that I do as an academic, like the kinds of projects I want to do. And then I’ve got this sort of generally cool and interesting ideas document which sometimes comes up in consulting or speaking engagements. I’ll bring some of those in if I think they’re useful. And often they form the basis of case studies for teaching.
All right. In your book, you’ve got a section called 100 ways to get unstuck. Could you share one or two or three extra fantastic ways to get unstuck that are broadly applicable, highly powerful, provide a good ROI, and that we haven’t covered yet already?
Yeah, absolutely. I think experimentalism. Experimentalism is a philosophy that makes adults more like children. So, the way this works is, you know, kids ask a million questions. I have a five-year-old and a seven-year-old, they don’t stop asking questions about everything, and they’re learning at an incredible rate because they don’t take anything for granted. No common wisdom is common wisdom to them. Everything has to be pushed and prodded. They’ve got questions for everything.
And we lose that somewhere between childhood and adulthood. We start to assume things are the way they are for a good reason, or at least we don’t really question it. Experimentalism is this philosophy, the sort of child-like philosophy of saying, “Is this really the best way things could be?” And what you find is many of the most successful people in all sorts of domains are chronic experimentalists. They question everything, or if there’s a particular area that matters to them, they specifically and sharply question all sorts of assumptions in that domain.
A really good example of this was an Olympic swimmer named Dave Berkoff who swam for the US in the ’88 and ’92 Olympic games. He was a backstroke swimmer but he wasn’t as tall or as broad shouldered as a lot of the backstroke swimmers. He didn’t have the same kind of natural talents as some of the other swimmers did. But what he did have was he was an experimentalist. He was incredibly curious.
He tried a whole lot of different techniques, a whole lot of tweaks, and his coach encouraged that in him. He ended up discovering a special technique that became known as the Berkoff blastoff, where he would go under water and stay under water for almost a full lap of the pool. And it turned out that that made him about 85% faster. And he broke world records that way until other swimmers caught on. He still ended up winning other medals because he was continuing to experiment.
But it’s a great illustration of how we take so much for granted, and often it’s deviating from the herd by experimenting that produces really interesting insights.
I dig it. Okay, experimentalism. What else?
I think I also really like the idea of exploring and exploiting, as these two basic approaches to growth and change. So, exploration is this period of time, where, let’s use sort of the hunter-gatherer approach. Imagine you’re on the plains, you’re a prehistoric person, you’re trying to find food. Exploring is when you say, “I don’t know where to even begin. I’m just going to try all sorts of different areas of the pasture in front of me. I’m going to go far. I’m going to go close. I’m going to go left. I’m going to go right. I’m going to try everything.”
After you do that for a while though, you might decide to say, “Well, there’s a little patch over here that seems promising. I’m going to spend all my time on that patch now. I’m going to exploit that patch for all it’s worth.” And that’s a really good metaphor for what we can do in the workplace. So, exploration, if you think about a painter like Jackson Pollock, Pollock became very well known for a certain style of painting – drip painting.
But before he did that, he tried five or six or seven other techniques for about five years, and then he hit on this drip technique, and he was like, “This is me. This is for me. This is my thing.” After exploring those other options, he switched into exploit mode, said no to anything that wasn’t about drip painting, and became an absolute expert in this one thing that he owned.
And it’s a great lesson, and actually, it turns out that when you look at the best periods in people’s careers, they almost always follow a period of exploration, followed by a period of exploitation. So, go broad and wide, say yes to everything, be an omnivore, consume whatever you can consume, try everything. But then at a certain point, you’ve got to say, “Well, what was the best of that?” And then you go deep in that thing and say no to everything else. You are single-minded. You say no to almost everything. And that is the recipe for the best creative and really professional outcomes, in general.
All right. Any others?
Yeah, there are plenty of others, there are hundreds. Let me try and pick which one I like best to hit off. All right, here’s a good one. I really like this one. There is an idea known as the creative cliff illusion. The creative cliff illusion is this illusion that our creative ideas are best when they first arrive. So, for example, if I say to you, “Come up with ten slogans for this particular company. Here’s a product, give me your best slogans for the product. Imagine we’re trying to sell as many as we can.”
You ask people, “Are your first five slogans going to be best or are your 15th to 20th slogan that you come up is going to be best or better?” And almost everyone has this instinct that the good stuff is easy to come by, which is the first stuff, it just kind of stumbles out. And then it gets hard, and then it’s probably kind of clunky and it’s not very good.
It turns out that that’s the illusion, that there’s a creative cliff, that our creative ideas fall off a cliff. The early stuff turns out to be trite and boring and that’s what everyone else is thinking, too. If you can push against the difficulty of that next phase when it stops being easy, that’s when you start to have divergent thinking. When you get a little bit idiosyncratic, you think about things in a way that makes you different from everyone else.
And so, the quality of ideas gets better if you can sit with that discomfort with further attempts. And so, that, I think, is a really profound idea because we often associate hardship with badness. But, in this case, it’s the hardship that signals or heralds the good things that are about to come.
All right. Well, Adam, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?
I’ll say one more thing. There’s a really interesting idea called teleoanticipation. Teleoanticipation is very important when we think about long-range goals, which is when we tend to get stuck, something that you’re doing for a long time, whether it’s a physical pursuit, like a marathon, or whether it’s something at work, like a project that takes six months or a year or five years to complete, or a long artwork that you’re working on that takes a long time to complete, or whatever it is.
Teleoanticipation is a term that basically means forecasting the end. And it’s a really important skill because it means that proportioning your energy, your creative energy, your physical energy, such that you have just enough to reach the final point. The best way to run a marathon is to collapse right after the finish line because then you’ve put everything in. Sometimes people put in too much a little bit early, and then they collapse before the finish line.
One of the best skills we can learn is to be better at teleoanticipation, to knowing how to proportion our energy so we don’t come out the starting blocks too fast either physically, when we’re doing a marathon, but also intellectually and creatively, when we’re doing creative tasks. It’s very, very important to know how to pace yourself. And it’s a skill that’s worth learning.
All right. Well, now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
I think, because so much of what we’ve discussed has been about creativity, I like the idea, this goes back to Henry Ford, the idea that instead of thinking about how to create a better horse and buggy. I can’t remember the quote itself, but we need to think about creating something altogether different, and that’s where the car comes in.
So, instead of trying to perfect something and make these little tweaks to it along the way, think about whether there’s a completely different alternative altogether. And that’s what the car did. It, essentially, changed the way we travelled altogether. So, even an inferior car was better than the best horse and buggy you could come up with.
And that goes a long way to that experimentalism idea that I mentioned earlier, that sometimes the very best version of what everyone else is doing is not as good as this new thing you could be doing. Even in its infancy as it’s half-formed, it could be a better way to do things. And so, I think that’s quite powerful.
All right. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?
One of the pieces of research that I really love is this anthropological work that Bruce Feiler, a writer, he’s done, where he went around the United States and interviewed people about change, and found that on average, every roughly five to ten years we experience what he calls a life quake.
A life quake is a massive change. It can be something we invite into our lives. It could be something that we have no control over. It can be good. It can be bad. Things like birth of a child, death of a loved one, divorce, change of job, change of career, moving to a new country, and so on. And because those are universal, we all tend to have five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten of them in our lifetimes. It suggests that we need to be very nimble in the face of these changes.
And that’s why you essentially need a roadmap for these moments when you feel stuck in the face of this kind of change, because what you were doing in the past perhaps won’t serve you quite as well in the future.
Okay. And a favorite book?
It’s summer, and every summer I read Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth. It’s a book that sort of explores the idea of good times, and the transience of good times, like a summer. That’s my favorite time of the year. And the book is essentially about this period in a young guy’s life that is bounded. It ends when the summer ends, and he goes back to college.
And I think one of the really nice insights there is that it’s so important to kind of leach out the very best from these periods, and make sure that you capitalize on them to the extent possible. I think we often look back on periods of our lives, and say, “Well, that was amazing, and I really miss it.” But one of the things that I do a lot in my research, and what a lot of my research focuses on, is on, “How do you, in the moment, extract as much juice as you can from that particular situation rather than looking back in the future and saying, ‘Oh, that was really nice. I wish I could have more of it’?”
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?
A favorite tool I would say is, I travel a huge amount, and I have a digital notepad. It’s called a Remarkable, and it goes everywhere with me. If I only have one thing with me when I travel, which happens sometimes, it’s my Remarkable because that’s where all those ideas go. I’m constantly hoovering up ideas and trying to make sure I don’t forget them.
I always worry about this, actually. I do a lot of my thinking when I’m running. And then when I get home, I’ve forgotten what I’ve thought about. But the Remarkable is a great tool because it goes everywhere. It seems like an endless capacity, and I use it constantly.
All right. And a favorite habit?
A favorite habit is running, I would say, four times to five times a week for 30 or more miles a week. I’ve been doing that for long enough now that I can call it a habit.
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?
Yeah, one of the things that I talk about a bit is the question of how we should structure the work week, which is obviously very relevant to work. And some of the first research I did that made me interested in what I do is in whether we should have a five-day eight-hour-a-day work week of 40 hours, a four-day ten-hour-a-day work week of 40 hours, or a three-day 13-hour-and-20-minute work week, which is also 40 hours.
And the research that I did suggests that three-day work week is the best one. And I think a lot of people find that a little surprising. They imagine 13 hours of work, and they’re overwhelmed by it. But, also, that gives you four days of the week when you can do other things. And that’s something that I hear talked about quite a lot.
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
They can find me on LinkedIn, they can find me on Twitter, and they can find a lot of information at my website, AdamAlterAuthor.com.
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?
Yeah, I think action above all. I think do something ASAP, I would say today, tomorrow, whenever you can carve out a few minutes. If there’s something that’s been making you feel stuck, where you haven’t been able to make as much headway as you’d like, lower your threshold down, say, “It doesn’t matter whether I do a really bad job at this,” liberate yourself to do a poor job, but just do something in the general direction of the thing that you’re trying to achieve. And I think you’ll find that just that feedback you get from having done that is itself good medicine, and it pushes you in the right direction as you move forward.
All right. Adam, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you much luck and many fun breakthroughs.
Thanks so much for having me, Pete.