Do you feel stuck in life — that you aren’t making progress in a relationship, job, or goal and you don’t know how to fix the problem and move forward? Well, perhaps you can take a little solace in the fact that it’s a universal human experience, even amongst history’s highest achievers. Indeed, when Adam Alter, a social psychologist and professor of marketing, looked at the lives of successful actors, musicians, writers, filmmakers, and entrepreneurs, he found that they all had passed through times in their lives and careers when they felt totally stuck.
Today on the show, Adam, who’s the author of Anatomy of a Breakthrough: How to Get Unstuck When It Matters Most, explains why getting stuck is an inevitability in life, as well as mindset shifts and practices to escape from stuckness. We first talk about what contributes to getting stuck, including the goal gradient effect, and how the illusion of the creative cliff can keep you from seeing that you may end up doing your best work later in life. We then talk about dealing with the emotional angst of feeling stuck, and how it can be better to initially accept your stuckness than kick against the pricks. From there, we turn to some tactics for getting unstuck, including doing a friction audit and copying the work of others. In my favorite part of the conversation, we discuss the importance of recognizing when to move from exploring to exploiting, and vice versa. We end our conversation with why the mantra for getting unstuck is “action over all.”
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Adam’s previous appearance on the AoM podcast: Episode #420: What Makes Your Phone So Addictive & How to Take Back Your Life
- a-ha’s video for “Take on Me”
- Giannis on whether he considers this season a failure
- AoM Article: Meditations on the Wisdom of Action
- AoM Article: Want to Become a Better Writer? Copy the Work of Others!
- AoM Article: Solvitur Ambulando — It Is Solved By Walking
- AoM Podcast #418: How to Get Unstuck
- AoM Podcast#432: How to Achieve Creative Success
- AoM Podcast #512: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Do you feel stuck in life, that you aren’t making progress in a relationship, job or goal, and you don’t know how to fix the problem and move forward. Well, perhaps you can take a little solace in the fact that it’s a universal human experience, even amongst history’s highest achievers. Indeed, when Adam Altar a social psychologist and professor of Marketing looked in the lives of successful actors, musicians, writers, film makers and entrepreneurs, he found that they had all passed through times in their lives and careers when they felt totally stuck.
Today in the show, Adam, who’s the author of Anatomy of a Breakthrough: How to get unstuck when it matters most. Explains why getting stuck is inevitable in life, as well as mindset shifts and practices to escape from stuckness. We first talk about what contributes to getting stuck, including the Goal Gradient effect, and how the illusion of the Creative cliff can keep you from seeing that you may end up doing your best work later in life. We then talk about dealing with the emotional angst of feeling stuck, and how it could be better to initially accept your stuckness and kick against the prick. From there we turn to some tactics for getting unstuck, including doing a Friction Audit and copying the work of others. In my favorite part of the conversation, we discuss the importance of recognizing, when to move from exploring to exploiting and vice-versa. We end the conversation with why the mantra for getting unstuck is action over all. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.io/unstuck. Alright, Adam Alter welcome back to the show.
Adam Alter: Thanks so much for having me back again, Brett.
Brett McKay: So we had you on a few years ago to talk about your book, Irresistible. You got a new book out called, Anatomy of a breakthrough: How To Get Unstuck when it matters most. You walk readers through on how to get unstuck, so let’s start with that, what you mean by getting stuck?
Adam Alter: Yeah, I mean it’s a good question because you can get stuck for 10 seconds and you can get stuck for a lifetime, and I’m much more interested in these bigger instances of being stuck across days, weeks, months, years, even decades, and those tend to be fairly common. I’ve been running a survey for a number of years now on thousands of people around the world, asking them about their experiences of being stuck, and everyone in some respect says, Yeah, when I think about it, there’s an area where I do feel stuck and I’d like to make some movement. And so I’m also not just interested in these big instances, but also instances where we have some control so, April 2020, we were all stuck in place because the government had mandated that we couldn’t travel, that’s not psychologically interesting to me, there’s not much you can do about that, you might feel stuck, but that’s just how it is for that period of time, but it turns out that far more common than that are these instances where we do have room to move, and that’s what this book is focused on.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you give three things to define being stuck in life or in work, you’re temporarily unable to make progress in a domain that matters to you, you’ve been fixed in a place for long enough to feel psychological discomfort and your existing habits and strategies aren’t solving the problem, and you said being stuck can be caused by external forces or internal forces. In this book, you’re trying to focus on the internal, correct?
Adam Alter: Yeah, I mean sometimes you’re caused to be stuck by something external, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have the power to shape it or change it, so I’m interested in cases where we have some agency where there is room for a better way, and that’s really what this roadmap that I provide in the book is focused on.
Brett McKay: Alright, so let’s talk about why getting stuck is inevitable and you highlight a few factors that contribute to getting stuck, the first one is this idea of the Goal Gradient effect, what is that and why does it contribute to stuckness?
Adam Alter: Yeah, so the basic idea is that when you do something that takes sustained effort across a period of time, there will be a lull in the middle, and if you think about it at the beginning of any goal, you have the energy of the excitement that comes from starting something new, you tend to do things fast and effectively and efficiently, and then as the goal is within sight as you approach it, you speed up again because you can see the finish line, either metaphorically or literally. In the middle though, there’s this long period of lull, a sort of quiet where you are in the middle and you don’t have a sense of that early push and you don’t have the sense of the goal finish line, and so there’s this midpoint lull, which happens in pretty much all goals, whether you’re a charity trying to attract money for a particular campaign, whether you’re an artist trying to create a work, whether you’re a business, it doesn’t really matter what it is, you will find this midpoint lull, and so that’s the Goal Gradient effect.
But it’s also made worse by the fact that in the middle of the goal, you tend to hit a plateau, so if you keep doing things the same way, let’s say you’re trying to become fit, you do the same exercise regime over and over again on your way to losing a certain amount of weight, putting on a certain amount of muscle that will stop working, and it depends on the person if there are some individual differences, but within six to 18 months, most people find that a regime that was working really well for them, stops working, it stops having a beneficial effect. Now humans like things that have worked in the past, they keep doing them until they absolutely can’t do them any longer, and so between this Goal Gradient, this mid-point lull and the fact that everything stops working and stops being effective in time, we really need to be nimble and to figure out ways to head off these instances of stuckness before they become major issues.
Brett McKay: So what are some things you can do to mitigate the goal gradient effect and the plateau effect.
Adam Alter: So with a gaol gradient effect, the best thing you can do is to shrink the middle, think about writing a book, if it’s… I wanna write 100,000 words. The day you start writing, you might have a head of steam, you might be doing fine, but there’ll be a point, and when you listen to writers, they’ll talk about this, and this explains a lot of writer’s block. There’ll be a point very soon thereafter that you say, this is hard, I’m struggling. And the idea of a 100,000 words is just completely overwhelming when you’ve written, say 500 or 1000 or 1500. So the best thing you can do is to shrink the goal, is to bracket it narrowly as they say, it’s about bracketing the goal in a new way, and so one thing you can do is you can break that 100,000 words into a 100 instances of a thousand words each, and if there’s something you like to do, that’s a small reward, you can do that each time you hit a new mark of a 1000 words. Now, the benefit of doing that is that you’ve shrunk the middle, and so when you shrink the middle or eliminate it all together, you don’t have that same lull, because you’ve reframed the way you think of the goal.
And this turns out to be very, very effective for writers. For the plateau effect, the solution is written into the problem. The problem is you keep doing the same thing, it stops working. The solution is to change things. If you’re running a race or training for a marathon, or training for an Iron Man or trying to… Whatever it might be, you hit a plateau because you’re… Learning a language is the same thing, you just need more than one technique, you can’t use the same training program all the time, or the same approach to learning all the time. And there’s just so much evidence of that across so many domains, so whenever you do anything, be prepared that within a few months, there’s a good chance you’re gonna need to do something new, so be on the hunt for another alternative.
Brett McKay: And we’ll talk about ways to hunt for new alternatives, when we talk about this idea of Explore versus Exploit, here in a bit. So you have a chapter about keeping going when you hit that low or that feeling of stuckness, and you use the band, the ’80s synth band, A-ha who wrote, Take On Me. What can they teach us about not quitting when we hit a wall.
Adam Alter: Yeah, I love these stories of colossal successes and you go back and you find out that, Hey, this thing that looks polished and beautiful and it worked exactly the way it should work, when you look back, it turns out it didn’t always look that way, it was much more complicated. And the song Take On Me by A-ha is one of the biggest selling songs of the ’80s, and in fact of all time, but it had several versions and iterations that came before it, and when the band was writing about what it was like to create the song they talked about how for several years they couldn’t get financial backing, once they got financial backing, the version of the song they created was just a little bit rusty, it didn’t have quite the same bounce that it ended up having in its final iteration.
They tried floating and releasing the song several times, and it just didn’t take off commercially, it took three or four bites at the cherry, and eventually the American arm of their recording Agency said, Hey, we gotta make a great video for this, and if you know the song, and you know the video, it’s this classic ’80s video that people will watch, I think it’s been viewed billions of times now on YouTube. That video launched the song and launched the band and made the song, and without that perseverance across a period of many years, that song wouldn’t have succeeded the way it did, and there are so many cultural products like that where what you see at the end is this end product that looks like it just sort of arrive fully formed, but that’s not where it began, there were instances of stuckness that came before it over and over again.
Brett McKay: And you have this idea, that talk about why it’s important to keep going even when things seem like it’s not going anywhere, and one of these ideas is the Serial Order Effect, what is that?
Adam Alter: Yeah, so this is based on the idea of the Creative Cliff, and what happens with the serial order effect is, some pieces of information are really accessible, they come to you really fast. Especially the first pieces of information. And so imagine that I say to you, try to come up with as many creative uses as you can for a paper clip, and what happens is early on, what’s top of mind, tumbles out, it feels like it’s really easy, you can start thinking of some ideas that just come to your mind without much trouble, and eventually what happens is you hit a wall that as you get deeper into the list and into some ideas that are perhaps a little bit further afield, it starts to feel hard and humans interpret that sort of mental difficulty that comes with struggling through a problem like that, as we’re on the verge of failure, we’re not doing a very good job, but it turns out that in the world of creativity, the good stuff happens once it starts getting hard, because the easy stuff everyone can do. There’s nothing interesting about what comes easily to you, because it probably comes easily to everyone else as well. And so the big idea is that you’ve really gotta persevere that those ideas that come later on are often the best ideas, even though we sort of perceive them as being less good, because they come to us with a bit more difficulty and trial.
Brett McKay: Gotcha, so the Creative Cliff is this idea, it’s an illusion that our best ideas come early and then after that, they’re not any good, but it’s actually the opposite, usually the better ideas come after that wall.
Adam Alter: Yeah, sorry. Yeah, that’s exactly right. So if you ask people, imagine that I’m gonna ask you to try to come up with ideas and you’re gonna do 10 ideas now and then we’ll do a second session of 10 ideas after that, when do you think your best ideas will come and almost everyone says my best ideas will come first, and then the ideas, ideas 11 to 20 later on are not gonna be as good, it’s gonna be harder and it’s just probably gonna be a bit stale by that point, but when you actually look, that’s an illusion that we all have or most of us have. The good stuff comes at the end, and that’s the Creative Cliff illusion, we think our creativity is gonna fall off a cliff, but actually it skyrockets, it takes off, and so as things get hard, interesting ideas tend to tumble out if you persevere it’s a mistake to quit at that point.
Brett McKay: So the idea to mitigate that is just to keep, when it feels hard, just you gotta keep going.
Adam Alter: It’s not working until it feels hard basically, so that’s your signal that you’re doing something right, and that doesn’t mean go on forever, right? There is a cottage industry of books now that say, You should quit, we don’t quit often enough, and I think that’s true. I think there are many times when you need to quit, but if you’re in a concerted period of trying to come up with creative ideas or solutions, do not think that because it gets hard, you failed or that you should stop, that’s the moment when you really gotta dig in and keep going for a bit longer.
Brett McKay: And I love this idea of the Creative Cliff ’cause I’m in middle age now, I’ve turned 40, and there’s this popular idea that people have that if you don’t… If you’re not a success in your 20s or 30s, you’ve pretty much… It’s over for you. But no, actually, as you get older, if you keep pushing beyond and keep producing, you can have… And still be prolific even in your 40s, 50s, 60s.
Adam Alter: Exactly, yeah, and actually, what we focus on in the media, in podcasts, in popular culture in general, is these cases of precocious talent, we’re very fascinated by people in their teens and 20s who come up with brilliant ideas and make huge amounts of money, are very successful, and young prodigies, talents like that, precocious talents are fascinating, but they’re also incredibly unusual, when you look at the people who start the most successful businesses in the world, they are on a average, between 40 and 50 years old, and there’s a good reason for that. It’s not surprising, it’s only surprising against the backdrop of assuming that you have to be incredibly young to be a successful entrepreneur, but by 40 or 50, you’ve lived a bit, you’ve got a little bit more experience, you know what works and doesn’t, and you’ve refined your ideas and talents and yeah, using that same Creative Cliff idea across the longer period of decades, things have started to perhaps get hard, maybe your first ideas in your 20s and 30s weren’t perfect, but they came easily and then things might have got a little bit harder in your 30s, 40s, 50s, but that’s when they get good and interesting, and when you use that experience to great effect.
Brett McKay: And you also talk about the impact of luck in creative endeavors or in work endeavors, some businesses, some professions, some things are more prone to luck and that can be demoralizing, right? You put out good stuff and then nothing happens, but you have to keep going because maybe the next one that’ll be the thing that catapults you to success, like every time you do something it’s like buying a lottery ticket, in a sense.
Adam Alter: Yeah, exactly. You sort of see the luck as this kind of mystical thing and it robs you of a sense of control, but the way to really think about luck is that it just is the thing that emerges after enough time, it may come soon, it may come later, but if you have enough attempts at whatever it is that you’re doing, or you do it for long enough, you can manufacture luck, it’s a little unpredictable, but regardless of which career you’re in, regardless of how much luck is attached to that particular career, by continuing on by pushing through, you do tend to stumble on it eventually.
Brett McKay: So in the second half of the book, you talk about how to deal with the depression and angst that can come with getting stuck, and one strategy is Radical Acceptance. What is that?
Adam Alter: Yeah Radical Acceptance, it’s this idea from eastern philosophy from Buddhism, that things kind of suck sometimes, things get hard, and you basically gotta take a couple of deep breaths and accept that that’s the way they are. And it’s more complicated than that. There’s quite a lot written about it and how it works, but the basic idea is the first thing you need to do is just take a pause and kind of accept where you are before you start making strategies to change, and there are sort of versions of this in the book that I talk about, that are much more down to earth than this philosophy, which is a little bit abstract, but when you look at how some of the most talented people in their fields respond to being stuck, a lot of them paradoxically do less, they slow down, they do the kind of Zen thing which is to say they don’t do anything, at least initially, and that turns out to be a tremendously beneficial way of at least initially coping with stuckness. I talk about Lionel Messi and Andre Agassi, and the jazz pianist, Herbie Hancock, there are a whole lot of examples in the book of these people who learned to do less to get more out of themselves.
Brett McKay: Well, yeah, I think this idea of radical acceptance, I think people confuse it with having to… They confuse acceptance with putting a value judgment on it, so just because you accept something, doesn’t mean you think it’s good, you’re accepting the fact that you’re in a crappy situation, the same way you’d accept the fact that the sky is blue.
Adam Alter: Yeah, exactly. And in a lot of the cases that I’m focusing on in the book, you can accept the things are the way they are right now, without having to accept it that they’ll always be like this. And so you accept it. You say, it sucks that I’m in this position, I’m gonna have to do something to get out of it. And very often, there is something you can do, but it’s okay to take a moment to just say, Hey, this is kind of painful, this is not working the way I’d like it to work, some change has been visited upon me in a way that I didn’t anticipate or invite, and now I have to figure out what to do next, but it’s okay to take a minute to strategize, slow things down, turn down the temperature, and that’s what these geniuses from you know Einstein did this, Mozart did this, Claude Monet did this, they all would spend long periods of time just kind of mired in what the situation was, before they tackled it, before they came up with a strategy to move forward.
Brett McKay: And you just said once they do the acceptance, one of the things they do is they take their foot off the gas and they might even start relaxing their definition of success, and it’s interesting ’cause you think when you’re stuck, you wanna push harder and that could be that maybe you need to do that in some situations, but often times if you just take your foot off the gas, that might help you get unstuck, it’s like the same thing when you’re trying to get a car unstuck, alright you wanna kind of rock it back and forth, so you’re gonna push on the gas, take it off, let it rock, push on the gas and that’ll get you unstuck.
Adam Alter: Yeah, I mean that’s exactly right. And the way I think about it is there’s a very big difference between being physically stuck and being stuck metaphorically or emotionally or psychologically, the way I’m interested in this book. Now there are all these cases of hysterical strength, where you read someone lifted a car off another person or something like that, humans are really well designed for instances of being physically entrapped, we have a lot of mechanisms, we have a rush of adrenaline, all of that sort of helps us get unstuck physically, but the same just hurts you when you’re trying to get unstuck mentally ’cause what you really gotta do is, as you said, turn down the temperature, slow things down. Your first instinct to just do anything to get unstuck in that case is just unhelpful, so I think that’s a really important insight that the first thing you gotta do as you say, is turn down the temperature.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and you mentioned Messi, he does this and he’s the greatest soccer player ever but he’s got really bad nerves or anxiety before a game, and the way he counters that, you need to go into detail about it, but basically he just says, I’m gonna take my time before I get going in a game, he’ll spend the first couple of minutes of game, just kinda walking around near the sideline, not being part of the action.
Adam Alter: It’s totally fascinating. Yeah, I agree with you. I think he’s the greatest player today, maybe of all time, and I was very, very surprised to learn this, that he is among the most anxious soccer players on the field, and in fact, in his early days, his coaches said, I don’t know that this guy is gonna make it, ’cause he’s got talent, but he doesn’t have the temperament for the game, and so Messi had to figure out a way to get unstuck, he would start games and sometimes he’d be physically sick, he just really couldn’t play at the beginning of those games, and sometimes he would be debilitated. They’d have to take him off the field. So that’s exactly right. What he does now is he spends the first roughly three or four minutes of the game ambling around the center circle of the field, he doesn’t really move around much, if you plot the movement of all the other players, they’re darting around the field trying to get into the game. And he’s barely moving, he walks, and he’s doing that for two reasons, one of them is because it helps him calm his nerves, gives him a few minutes to kind of get into the game, so he’s more effective for the remaining 85 plus minutes.
But the other thing it does is it makes them incredibly good as a strategic perceiver of the game, because he spends those few minutes saying, Oh, I see there’s an injury over there, that player is limping, these two players are not working particularly well together, I can exploit that later on. On his own team, he’ll see who’s playing well, who’s doing something strange. And so what he does is he kind of compiles this idiosyncratic list of features of that particular game that he can then bank away and use for the remaining time in the game, and so it makes him just unbelievably effective for the rest of the game. Now he’s never scored a goal in the first two minutes of a soccer match, but he scored in every minute from minute three on, which shows you that he really isn’t playing the game until that third minute.
Brett McKay: So another thing we need to learn how to do when we get stuck is learning how to fail well, because often times, we get stuck because we’ve had some sort of failure. We didn’t achieve a goal or something like that had happened, so we’re kind of, we’re stuck in this little plateau trying to figure what to do. So what can we do to fail better because failing doesn’t feel great?
Adam Alter: No, it doesn’t feel great. The first thing to do is to recognize that there is an optimal failure rate in general. There are some studies that have tried to look at this. How do you maximize growth? And how do you minimize getting stuck? And what you find is that about roughly one in six to one in four occasions when you’re practicing or trying something or learning something new, you should be failing. If you fail much less than that, you’re not gonna grow. You’re just gonna be doing the same thing over and over and again, like hitting your head against the wall. If you fail much more than that, you’re gonna become de-motivated and that means that whatever you’ve put in front of yourself is a little bit too advanced for the level that you’re at right now. And so that’s the first thing. Failing well involves, first of all, failing at all, you’ve gotta fail the right amount roughly. And to temper the practice sessions and the learning experiences so that you’re failing roughly the right amount. The second thing is to basically over-train is one thing you can do. That’s very effective. There are a lot of athletes who do this, but to inoculate yourself against the hardship that will come when the real experience arrive.
So there are golfers who will play three rounds of golf on a practice day, so that when they have to play a single round of golf, they are deeply focused for that 72 plus or minus shots. And so if you’re hitting 300 or 250 shots in a day and you can focus for all of those, it’s obviously gonna be easier to focus for 70 shots. And so over-training is a great thing you can do. And then the last thing I would say about failing well, is you wanna make sure that as you fail and you don’t quite reach your goals, the gap is getting smaller across time. So you’re learning to the point where you are converging on the goal, even if you haven’t quite got there yet. And honestly, if you’re not, and you’re not happy with that, and it looks like over time you’re diverging from the goal, you’re moving further away from it, you’re not getting closer, maybe it’s time to try something else.
Brett McKay: Well, it’s interesting, this idea of you need to fail in order to succeed, and failure close the gap to your goal. This reminds me, did you watch that video of Giannis, the basketball player from the Milwaukee Bucks?
Adam Alter: Yeah, I thought it was fantastic.
Brett McKay: He has that the same sort of… He’s had this great response to a reporter who asked him, it’s the season of failure, ’cause the Bucks, they lost to the Miami Heat. And his response was awesome. He just said, you asked me this question last year, it’s a dumb question. He said, Look, every time I fail, it’s a step towards success. He says, Michael Jordan played 15 seasons, he won six championships. He says, were the other nine years of failure? He’s like, No, those failures led to those successes. So I think that’s a great way to think about failures are steps to success.
Adam Alter: Yeah, I agree. And I thought you’ve captured the best parts of the video, that where he talks about Jordan’s 15 year career and says well, nine of the years is failure. I think one of the things that highlights as well is that we see failure as a kind of binary or failure or success as a kind of binary, you’re either failing or you’re succeeding. And the idea that you can break down a career and say, well, fail, fail, fail, success, fail, fail, fail, success. The way this reporter was trying to do with the Giannis telling him that because he hadn’t won a championship that year, it was a failure, is just, it’s, first of all, it’s deeply unproductive. It doesn’t help, it doesn’t make your life better. It doesn’t help you progress or persevere, but also it’s a, it’s just misguided. The world doesn’t operate on that particular binary because failures lead to the next thing. And the next thing is often better than what came before precisely because there was this, what that reporter would call failure.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break. Few words from our more sponsors. And now back to the show. Alright, so we’ve dealt with the emotional aspect of being stuck. So reframe how you think about failure, take your foot off the gas, practice radical acceptance. The next part is to start coming up with a plan to get unstuck. And one of these things you suggest doing is called a friction audit. What is that and how can it help us get unstuck?
Adam Alter: Yeah, so this started, I do a fair amount of business consulting and consulting for charities and non-profit organizations. And the big question a lot of these organizations have is how can we spend less money to make more of an impact? Or how can we spend less money to do better sales or whatever it is they want? And so the technique that I’ve found with a great return on investment is known as a friction audit. And so what you do is, if you think about a company that’s making a product, you essentially have two ways to improve your bottom line. One way is to make the product better. And that’s expensive, sweeten the deal, make the carrot more attractive, get people in the door, get more people in the door, have them stay for longer. You can do that as a business, but it’s not cheap.
It’s hard. You’re gonna have competitors and so that’s not the road to go. The road to go is to say, one of the reasons we are not doing more or doing better is because there are friction points. People are getting stuck in interacting with our company or in the process of completing a sale or whatever it might be. So the best thing we can do is to remove some friction. So the friction audit is this process that I originally used in this business context where you say, where is the friction? How can we intervene on it? How can we sand it down? So we remove it or at least make it a little bit less friction filled. And then let’s confirm that it’s actually done some good. An example of this is I worked with a whole lot of shopping malls. They found that a lot of parents were coming and shopping and abandoning their carts without buying.
They figured out it was ’cause one of the kids they came with had a tantrum and they had to leave. So you put in these very inexpensive little play playgrounds and gyms and things, jungle gyms, they cost a few thousand dollars to install, and over the course of a year, you save a hundred thousand dollars of lost sales. And so that small investment, massive return. But this works in our lives as well. You can run a friction audit. I talk about this process in the book. You can run that process on any aspect of your life. Relationships, work, creativity, athletics, it doesn’t really matter what it is, it applies there as well.
Brett McKay: Oh yeah, imagine you could do this if you’re trying to lose weight, kinda look at your life, okay, what is causing me to maintain the weight that I’m at and preventing me from putting into action my intentions, right? So it could be, well the friction point… You actually, you can actually do this. You can actually increase friction, right? If it’s too easy to get to food that’s not good for you. The friction audit would say, well I can make this harder by just not even buying this stuff and putting in my house.
Adam Alter: Yeah, exactly. My last book on phones and screens and how much time we spend on them was about largely this idea that it is just too easy to start using these products. And so they end up sucking up a huge amount of our lives. Just as you might say, I won’t buy chocolate ’cause I don’t wanna eat chocolate, if you keep your phone far away from you, you create friction, you’re much less likely to use your phone. And so this, it’s an important general insight about humans that the things that are close to us or that are easy to access are the things we spend more time interacting with than doing, the things that are much further away tend to have a smaller impact on our lives. And so you’ve gotta sort of design your, the world around you, the way you design any other thing, the way an architect will design a building or a city, you’ve gotta do that for your own world. And so keep things around you that you wanna have around that’ll do good things for you and the things that you don’t wanna keep around you because you think they’re gonna make your life worse off. Make sure that they’re nowhere near you in physical space.
Brett McKay: So you also suggest when you’re in that stuck place in life or in work is try copying others to help you get unstuck. How can that help you get unstuck?
Adam Alter: Yeah, it’s funny that, we privileged this idea of radical originality. One of the things I teach my MBA students, we talk about innovations and we look at all the greatest products of the last 50 years. We talk about them and I ask my students, tell me a product that’s truly radically original that had no predecessor, there was, it wasn’t built on the ideas of someone else. And it’s very, very, very difficult to do that with products. And it’s just as difficult to do that with things like films or music or art. And the problem with privileging and putting on a pedestal radical originality is that it sets this unrealistic bar. And so I talk about the idea that a better way to go is to recombine old ideas. And actually, almost every instance of something that seems from the outside, like it’s new and radically different is just a new way of thinking of two things or meshing two or more things together.
I talk a little bit about, for example Dave Grohl, Bob Dylan, these musicians who, when people talk about them, they say they’re doing something that’s pretty new and pretty different. And even other musicians say about Bob Dylan in particular, he was a genuinely original voice of the 20th century. But when you go back and you look at where his origins began, he was combining folk, he was combining rock at the time, pop, he was combining blues. He put it all together in a new way. But the building blocks of all of that were not themselves new. And I think that’s, it’s an important insight because it makes the process of coming up with good ideas, with good products, with good whatever things you’re trying to create much more tractable. It means you’re much more likely to succeed.
Brett McKay: When I read this idea of copying others, it made me think of the idea of woodshedding. Do you know about this idea?
Adam Alter: No, I don’t.
Brett McKay: So Woodshedding comes from jazz. You’re supposed to go to the woodshed where it’s kind of far away and no one can hear you and practice. And the idea is you practice where no one can hear you so that you could come back later and then show off what you’ve learned. And I think woodshedding, you can copy the work of others in woodshed at the same time, right? Like you want to do this in private, you wouldn’t want to copy someone out in the public blatantly ’cause that’s just, that’s just copying, that’s like plagiarism. But what you can do is you can take the work of others and practice with it privately, remix it, try things, and then once you got something new, then you can bring it out.
Adam Alter: A 100%. Yeah. So no one would say that Dylan isn’t doing something that’s on some level different. I just think that the idea that these things that seem new are kind of mystical and just appear out of nowhere, that’s the nonsense, right? So I’m sure Dylan did something like woodshedding. He took these ideas that he liked and maybe he didn’t even do it explicitly, but they were infused in his music. And so he went and he practiced and he created the style that became Bob Dylan’s style. But that doesn’t mean that what he was doing was plagiarism or that it wasn’t on some level new and different. It just means that all that other stuff seeped into it. It was like a sort of tea that had been made with all the ideas that had come before. But you need time for it to steep and that’s that process of woodshedding or practicing or honing or whatever you wanna call it.
Brett McKay: So I know… Yeah, I know. What’s the guy’s name? He wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Oh, Hunter S. Thompson.
Adam Alter: Hunter S. Thompson, yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah. He supposedly typed out, I think it was The Great Gatsby ’cause he just wanted, he wanted to see what it felt like to write a great novel. Who knows if that did anything, but maybe it did. But I also Austin Cleon has that idea of steal like an artist. All artists are just copying each other, but they’re, it’s not blatant like word exact copy. Like you said, you just kind of, you work with the previous people’s stuff until it seeps into what you do and then you come out with something original. That’s how creativity works. You also have this chapter about when you’re stuck about understanding the idea or the difference between exploring and exploiting. And I really like this chapter. So what’s the difference between exploring and exploiting?
Adam Alter: Yeah, this goes back to evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology that you basically have essentially two ways to look for something new and fruitful and valuable. Let’s say you are hunting and gathering, you’re looking for fruit or food or whatever you’re doing it, you are roaming the Savannah, it’s thousands of years ago. You can roam far and wide, you can cover a lot of terrain, very shallowly. Or you can find an area that seems like it might be fruitful and really dig deeply into that area. But then you’re gonna be leaving a lot of the other pastures without your attention and so you might be missing something. And that’s really how we are as we navigate the world, as we figure out the best way forward. And so there’s a lot of research on these two. Exploring is basically a moment where you say yes to opportunities or options.
So if you think about, I, for me it was like the early days of college, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. So anytime an opportunity came along. I was like, yes, I will try that, see what that’s like. Figure out if that particular career path might work for me. I might meet a person who’s interesting and shows me a new way of doing something. I’ll just say yes to any invitation that comes my way. That’s exploring, it’s being open to different approaches. Jackson Pollock, the Painter for example, before he was doing his drip paintings that he became very famous for, was trying five or six different techniques. Peter Jackson, the director of Lord of the Rings films and the Hobbit, before he was this kind of giant fantasy epic film director and producer. He was doing a hundred other things. He wrote horror films, he wrote all sorts of other films.
And so you’ve gotta kind of dance around and figure out what works best. But if you do that forever, you’re never gonna get anywhere. So once you’re done exploring, you basically have to call it and say, okay, I’ve been exploring for a while. Of the five things I explored, this one looks like it’s the most fruitful. And so what I’m gonna do moving forward is say yes only to that thing. I’m gonna put all my time and attention and money towards that thing and say no to everything else. I’m gonna become singularly focused on that thing and make the most of it. And that’s when you see Jackson Pollock with his drip paintings and you see Peter Jackson with his fantasy epics. You just can’t get there if you don’t first explore. And you can’t succeed if you don’t, after exploring exploit, go really deep and make the most of what you’ve got. And so when you look at careers, you look for the period of careers where you find a hot streak, like the best period in someone’s career. It’s almost always after they have explored and then exploited and sometimes multiple times between the two. Explore then exploit, explore then exploit. And that’s when those hot streaks come up.
Brett McKay: I think this is great advice for people. Again, going back, I’m middle-aged. If you feel like you’ve reached a point in middle-aged where you feel stuck, you probably had a period in your 30s, maybe through your 40s where you were exploiting, like you did all this exploration in your 20s, you went to college, tried different classes, tried different careers, you moved to new cities, made new friends. And then you slowly found, here, this is what’s working for me. I’m gonna just, I’m gonna exploit this. And you probably stopped exploring. You might reach a point where you’re like, I’m feeling stuck, I’m feeling stagnant. And that’s where you have to sort of purposely and intentionally shift into exploration mode. And that can be hard because you’re probably comfortable and there’s this, gonna be an inertia not to say yes to things or try new things, but that’s what you gotta do.
Adam Alter: Yeah, you’re right. There is an element of difficulty here, right? Whenever you’re doing something that you’ve been doing for a while and therefore by definition perhaps, you’ve reached a plateau, it’s very comfortable at that point. Part of the plateau is this signal that you are doing something that no longer taxes you and so you’re not improving. And there’s, in some cases, nothing wrong with that. There are these famous cases of people who said, I was overwhelmed with the job I was doing. So every day, I wore the same clothes. I had 10 of the same suit or Steve Jobs in his black turtleneck, Barack Obama in the same suits every day. That’s an attempt to kind of minimize the mental load. And so there’s value in that in just doing things the same way all the time. But as you say, you have to reach a point where you say, I’m gonna pivot back to exploring. You’ve gotta range far and wide again.
Brett McKay: How have you done this in your own career? I mean, you’ve had a long career and varied career. How have you kind of gotten over that inertia to not explore when you needed to explore?
Adam Alter: Yeah, I mean for me, this started really early. I was at university in Australia. I was studying actuarial science, which is this sort of high level financial math course. And I knew I didn’t like it. And I was on a fellowship. And one day the person running the fellowship came in and said, if you keep doing this for another week, you’re gonna thereafter, if you ever quit, have to pay back the money. And that was the signal I needed. So I quit. I said, look, this isn’t working for me. But I had no idea what to do next. I felt profoundly stuck. I was obviously spending a fair amount of money being at the university, amassing a fair amount of debt and I wanted to figure out what was next, but I had no idea where to go. So what I did was I spent six months going to every possible first level class that I could.
I went to English classes, math classes, chemistry classes, engineering classes, psychology classes, law classes, you name it. I went and sat in and tried to get a taste of it, and that was my period of exploration. And from that, I realized that I liked psychology and I liked law, and those are the two degrees I did as an undergrad, psychology and law. And then ended up doing what I do now, which is sort of, in the beginning it was a combination of the two, and then I pursued psychology more heavily and then ultimately ended up in a business school as a marketing professor. But that’s all… I couldn’t have done that without that six month period of exploration. I needed to do that before I exploited the degrees and the courses that made the most sense to me.
Brett McKay: Well I was thinking as you were saying that. Another reason why going back into explore mode could be hard is ’cause it makes you feel dumb, right? ‘Cause you have to be a beginner again. Like you went to those introductory college classes, and it doesn’t feel good to be a beginner. You’re thinking, well I’ve mastered some things. Why am I not sticking to that? But now you gotta feel how bad it feels sometimes to be a complete noob at something.
Adam Alter: Oh, absolutely. It’s not easy on a certain level, you gotta swallow your pride. But also, you can think about this. There are two ways to live in any moment. You’re either stagnant or you’re growing. And one way to grow is to be a beginner. Beginners grow really fast, much more rapidly than experts grow. And so to go from being a beginner to being someone who’s moderately proficient at something or lots of things, that is a true form of growth that I think a lot of us don’t experience and don’t cultivate. There is massive benefit in that. I will say that period of exploration where I didn’t end up becoming an English major or a chemistry major or a math major, I still learned quite a lot about those areas. And I think that was important for me as well. That period of gathering little bits of information about 25 different disciplines had a massive amount of value that I didn’t foresee. So it’s not like this is all going to waste when you’re exploring, it’s all becoming a part of who you are. And David Epstein wrote the book, Range, about exactly that idea that in the course of ultimately flourishing, you’ve gotta kind of spend some time just dancing around different areas and figuring out if they’re worthwhile for you. And that will have a beneficial effect for whatever it is you ultimately specialize in later on.
Brett McKay: Yeah, no failure, just steps to success.
Adam Alter: That’s it.
Brett McKay: How do you know, if you’re in the explore mode, how do you know we need to shift to exploit mode?
Adam Alter: Yeah, so there are a few ways to do this. One is to just say, I am gonna give myself a certain amount of time. So in the example I gave you when I was jumping around from different course to course in college, I knew that the semester was gonna end at a certain date. So I used that as my guide and then I would have to sign up for a new program and that’s what I did. So I had a very clear six month period to do that. If you have objective metrics to pay attention to, if you’re doing something that gives you numerical feedback, you can use that feedback. Like for example, you might say, I’m gonna try these five different techniques. Let’s say you’re trying to work out, which I don’t know, technique of art is the one that you want to pursue if you’re an artist, something like that, you could say to yourself, I’m going to create five artworks in each style and then once I’ve done that, I’ll have my 25 artworks, five styles times five works, and then I’m gonna decide which one to exploit.
So you can use different decision rules to decide. I think also it’s important to pay attention to what it feels like to be in this process ’cause you can get to the point where exploring gets stale. Where you start feeling like, I don’t want to be doing this anymore. I’m ready to really focus on something. And I know that happens with me with books. Between books, I will, this is my third book now. Between books I’ll say I’m interested in 10 different things, but I don’t know when I’m ready to start actually making one of them a book. So I will spend a certain amount of time until I, that the ideas become from 10 to nine to eight to seven, and then I’ll be left with a few that look like good candidates. And eventually, I’ll hit a wall and just say, I can’t keep noodling about with this. I’ve gotta really make a go of it. And that’s when I’ll write the proposal and work on the book.
Brett McKay: So we’ve talked about how to deal with being stuck by changing how we think about being stuck, changing about how we think about failure, thinking of ways we can get unstuck, but then eventually, you gotta start taking action. So what role does action take in helping us get unstuck?
Adam Alter: Yeah, so it’s funny, the last chapter in the book is titled Action Above All. And that’s because all of the discussions about emotions, slowing things down, strategies and so on, none of that would matter for getting unstuck if you didn’t do something, all of that is in the service of action and action is really the main thing that we’re focusing on here. So action is critically important for getting unstuck ’cause it’s the thing that actually un-sticks you. And that’s true in a sort of very obvious sense that you can’t get unstuck if you’re not moving, if you’re static. But it’s also true in a more profound sense, which is that when you do something, when you act, even if the action itself is not dramatically productive, even if it doesn’t produce something that you can then use for the rest of time, the mere fact that you’re acting lubricates the wheels and gets you moving forward.
There’s this great example of this that I love Jeff Tweedy, the front man of Wilco who writes music for the band Wilco, but also is a writer. He writes books. He’s talked a lot about his creative process and he talks about the fact that he wakes up a lot of days, he’s been doing this a long time for decades and he’ll wake up on a lot of days and say, I don’t feel like being creative today. Nothing’s gonna happen. And so what he does is, he says to himself, you know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna spend say half an hour in the morning pouring out all the bad ideas, like sort of extracting them from my brain, putting them on the page and then that will make way for the good stuff. And so what he does is he says to himself, what’s the worst sentence I could write right now? Or what’s the worst bit of music I could compose? And he does that. Sometimes it’s better than he thinks and it’s valuable, but a lot of the time, it’s not, it’s not actually useful, but it’s, it by definition, by doing that, lowering the bar all the way down to the ground, you’re still acting. And so you show yourself something about your capacity to act rather than sitting around and naval gazing you’re doing something and there’s value in that.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I like that idea that quantity and quality are related because the more stuff you put out, you increase the chances of you actually having a home run. I mean the same thing with baseball, right? I think what everyone famously says, Babe Ruth, he’s the home run King, but yeah, like the most strikeouts, he’s struck out a ton of times.
Adam Alter: Exactly.
Brett McKay: He’s taken action. The same idea that applies to any other domain in life.
Adam Alter: Exactly.
Brett McKay: And then also you talk about besides taking action on the thing that you’re wanting to get unstuck in, you also talk about just physically moving can help you get unstuck. Like actually getting up and moving your body can help you get unstuck from whatever is you’re stuck in.
Adam Alter: Yeah, there’s a lot of research on the value of walking, of moving and so if you’re trying to think of something and you’re sitting on your seat at your desk and it’s not working, walk outside if it’s nice out, get on a treadmill, if it’s not. Move your body pace around, it tends to sort of grease the wheels a little bit and get things moving again. If you are an athlete, do whatever it is that you like doing. There’s this amazing set of videos of Paul Simon who obviously not an athlete but a great musician. And Paul Simon was notoriously shy, but he was on a number of talk shows in the ’70s and ’80s. One of them was the Dick Cavett show and he would get onto the show and Cavett would ask him questions, and he would just absolutely struggle to respond. And it was clear that he wasn’t comfortable being there.
He would even make comments about the microphone and its position. He just felt really uncomfortable. But Cavett very wisely said to him, why don’t you pick up your guitar and show us how you wrote bridge over troubled water or something like that. And Simon did that and the minute he started strumming, he was charming and relaxed and things came to him much more easily. So if there’s something you do, whether it’s lifting weights, going for a run, riding on a bike, it doesn’t matter, rowing, whatever it is, that movement seems to be, it gets you to a comfortable place mentally as well and seems to lubricate whatever gears need to be turning in your head to unstick you.
Brett McKay: Yeah, getting into your body gets you out of your head sometimes, which can be useful.
Adam Alter: A 100%.
Brett McKay: Well Adam, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Adam Alter: Yeah, so I’m on Twitter and LinkedIn and are my main channels, that’s where I post information. I’ve been posting about the book a fair amount there, so there’s quite a lot of information there. I also have a website, AdamAlterauthor that is basically a compilation of all the press material and other things that have been written about the book or that I’ve written about the book. And those are probably the two places. But yeah, the book is available online, it’s available in bookstores and will be available from May 16.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Adam Alter, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Adam Alter: Thanks so much for having me, Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest, it was Adam Alter, he’s the author of the book, Anatomy of a Breakthrough. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, adamalterauthor.com. Also check our show notes at aom.is/unstuck, and find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.
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