CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.
Have you ever lost your way on something important to you?
When I was in grad school, I set out to write my master’s thesis on how America was portrayed in East German radio drama. I spent weeks in archives in Berlin, long enjoyable days in the stacks in the library, and when I began writing, I was immersed. It really was all I could think about at almost any hour of the day. And then I went away for a long weekend, a music festival with friends.
Right when I got back, my parents came to visit, my brain turned to other things, and my writing stopped. Months went by, a year. It wasn’t until my advisor very kindly coaxed me back into the work that I got going again, and I didn’t finish until I was done. I was not going to let that happen again.
Our guest today calls this getting stuck, and he says it’s not just the proverbial writer’s block. It happens in all walks of life to all different kinds of people, and very often at work, whether you’re mired in a job is wrong for you or you just can’t see a project through.
Our guest is Adam Alter. He’s a professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business, and he wrote the new book Anatomy of a Breakthrough: How to Get Unstuck When It Matters Most. Hi, Adam.
ADAM ALTER: Hi Curt. Thanks for having me.
CURT NICKISCH: I think it’s easy for someone to imagine people in creative fields getting stuck, right? A painter, a poet, a writer, lacking inspiration, getting blocked. But you say it’s not just for creative types, right? That it’s inevitable that we’ll all get stuck. How so?
ADAM ALTER: Yeah, that’s right. There are lots of reasons why we get stuck. But to begin, I’ve spent the last roughly 20 years looking into the pasts of successes in every walk of life, creatives included, but also business people and some of the biggest, most successful businesses of the day. And when you dig deeply enough, you will find that there were one, sometimes two, sometimes many periods where the people founding those businesses, particularly early on, felt that they were stuck before. They made some sort of critical shift that seemed to liberate them in some way. And so I’ve spent a long time trying to understand why this happens and how we can get unstuck.
CURT NICKISCH: What is the difference between adversity and being stuck?
ADAM ALTER: It’s a matter of degree more than anything. So we all experience momentary stuckness. Every day there will be minor frustrations, minor bits of adversity here and there. Being stuck really means you’ve been mired in a particular position for a fairly long period of time, weeks, months, years, sometimes decades or longer.
And that there’s something you can do. It’s within your power to make a shift, but you’re not exactly sure what you should be doing.
CURT NICKISCH: It sounds like a different level than procrastinating too, although that might be part of it.
ADAM ALTER: It’s definitely part of it. Yeah. So I do talk about procrastination and that feeling that you can’t get started, and that’s true for creatives, but it’s true for people who are stuck in jobs they don’t want to be in. It’s true for people who are in friendships or relationships that aren’t working for them, where they feel they need to pivot. There are ways around procrastination. So it turns out that small bursts of action, even if they’re not themselves directly productive, they don’t produce something that’s usable per se, are great unsticking mechanisms. Just the act of acting itself is one of the best unstickers.
CURT NICKISCH: What is happening psychologically then in these periods of being stuck?
ADAM ALTER: It’s very uncomfortable. I’ve been running this survey on thousands of people around the world asking them about their experiences of being stuck. And the two things that come up most often are that it’s tremendously aversive. It just doesn’t feel good to be stuck, which is not surprising. But it’s also despite the fact that being stuck or getting stuck is universal for people, it feels like a very lonely experience. It’s very isolating. And so there’s something liberating about learning that you’re not the only one.
The first response we have to being stuck is a kind of flailing response. We sort of confuse being psychologically stuck mired in a situation we don’t want to be in with being physically stuck. And it turns out that it is very adaptive when you’re physically stuck to flail and to fight your way free of whatever it is that’s entrenching you or trapping you. But that’s deeply unproductive when it comes to strategizing and figuring out the best way to move forward in domains where you need to be a bit more thoughtful and strategic. That’s a pretty big part of getting unstuck, at least at first, is to slow things down. And a lot of that comes from realizing that where you are is okay, that you can accept it, and then figuring out what the next best course is.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, talk a little bit more about that because you can imagine that if you’re trying to slow things down, it seems like the opposite of what you should be doing if you’re stuck, that you should be moving forward or trying to do something.
ADAM ALTER: Yeah, there are some really interesting paradoxes in the research about how to get unstuck, and that’s probably the first one that you tend to want to do things now, immediately, in a quite urgent way. And that’s often the worst thing you can do for getting unstuck in the long run. The sort of slowing things down, both as a leader when you’re dealing with people who you work with, but as an individual who’s trying to work through your own issues, it’s really, really important to turn down the temperature, slow things down, take a beat. And there’s a lot of evidence of that from athletes, musicians, leaders in business. That tends to work very well as an unsticking mechanism in general.
I’ll share one example that I think is really, really interesting. It’s Miles Davis, the jazz musician and giant of jazz was known for being very hard on his musicians, the people who worked with him. So his temperament was to be critical in general, but when he worked with young musicians, he had this incredible ability to turn that off and to become nurturing and to give them the space they needed to flourish.
One of the best examples of this is the pianist, Herbie Hancock, who played with Davis in his band. And during an audition, Hancock tells the story of going to Miles house and playing with these absolute giants of the jazz world in the ’60s. And Davis started playing with them, and Herbie was unbelievably nervous because he was auditioning. And about five minutes into this three day long audition, Davis goes upstairs and they don’t see him again for three days. So Hancock had decided he’d obviously failed. It took Davis five minutes to figure out that he wasn’t right for the band, but he wanted to enjoy the time that he had with these great musicians.
So they jammed for three days, and at the end of that period, Davis came down the stairs and started jamming with them again. And Hancock was surprised to see him again. He thought he wasn’t going to see him again. And he said to Davis, “I thought I was done.” And Davis said, “No, no, you were fantastic. I want you to play with the band. You can start touring with us from next week.” And Davis said, “No, I was listening on the intercom. I could tell that you were talented, but that you were deeply nervous and uncomfortable and stuck, and I wanted to give you some space. I wanted to turn the temperature down.”
And so leaders need to know when is the time to turn the temperature down and when is it… When can someone handle maybe a little bit more heat to produce the best from them?
CURT NICKISCH: Do we benefit and gain from the times we’re stuck? I mean, it sounds like it might be bad for your health the way you feel about it, but I’m curious what’s, what’s happening during this time that where you might be learning something new or actually processing something in the background?
ADAM ALTER: Yeah. Well, one finding that comes up over and over again is that these periods of stuckness, if you work with them the right way, turn out to be periods of tremendous growth. One of my favorite findings in the psychological literature of late is the creative cliff illusion, which is this finding that when you ask people over time, if they’re coming up with creative ideas, for example, if I said to you, how many different uses can you come up with for a paperclip? And you’re trying to be creative, if I ask you, are your best ideas going to come up in the first 10 ideas you have for the use of a paperclip or in ideas 11 to 20. Most people say, my best ideas will tumble out early, that’s when it feels easy to come up with ideas. And then I hit a bit of a wall and it gets much more difficult. And it turns out the best ideas much of the time happen from 11 to 20, that second period when things get tough.
And there are a few reasons for that. One is that when things get difficult, it’s a signal that you are diverging from the herd. Everyone can have the easy ideas, and we tend to have the same easy ideas, but those ideas that come with a bit more effort, where it feels hard, those are often the really creative, interesting and divergent ideas that are valuable.
And really, if you keep doing things and they feel easy, there’s no movement or change or I guess growth is the word that’s often used. So you do need to butt up against that difficulty and to push through it before you see growth in all sorts of different arenas.
CURT NICKISCH: This also makes me think about the biographies of leaders in crisis that Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn wrote. And one chapter is about Rachel Carson, the environmental leader, and there was a long period of her life where she was writing and doing work, but not making change. And she called that time the gathering years, like that was actually building up to something that she was working towards.
ADAM ALTER: Yeah, I think that’s right. There are some great examples of this. So there was a recent interview with the basketball champion and giant Giannis Antetokounmpo, one of the most prolific and successful NBA players in the US Basketball League, where he was asked by someone, “You didn’t win this year, how do you feel about failing?” And he really bristled at that question and basically said that the framing of the question doesn’t make sense. It didn’t make sense to him, and he was quite upset by it. And he said, you can’t consider every year that you don’t win a championship to be a failure. And then he gave the example, he said, “Michael Jordan played for 15 years and famously won six championships. Would you say that the other nine years were failures, or would you say that they were part of the process that was required for those other six years of tremendous success to emerge?” And I think he’s right there that we have this binary sense that you’re either failing or succeeding, but that messy middle or that period of growth or reflection or dealing with hardship, that’s essential because at the other end of it, you have whatever it is that you’re striving for, and very often that’s where the success comes.
CURT NICKISCH: So how does the knowledge of this help when you’re stuck yourself and you’re in those moments that are very hard, very difficult, you’re working towards something, but you haven’t gotten to that breakthrough yet. It can feel very, you described it as flailing. It can feel very deflating. Is it just the knowledge of being in that situation that’s enough to help you get perspective to know that you’re working forward? Or what other types of things can you do to get unstuck?
ADAM ALTER: Yeah, I mean, I think one thing that’s very valuable as a general psychological truth is that labeling hardship of any form when you’re going through it is helpful because it tells you that it’s not this strange, unusual, unique thing that no one’s ever gone through before, but rather it’s just the natural course of things. And you happen to be in that phase at that particular point in time. So that’s at least psychologically and emotionally a really comforting idea.
But we obviously can’t just stop at dealing with the emotions because you’ll never get unstuck if you just feel comfortable about where you are, even when you are struggling. So the next thing is to figure out what the right strategies are and what sorts of things you can do to get unstuck. And that’s why you need a roadmap. And that’s what I’ve sort of tried to do in the book is to say, well, once you’ve marshaled all your emotions and you’ve come to grips with the fact that you’re dealing with what is an unpleasant situation, let’s talk about the next step you’ve accepted. Now let’s figure out how to move forward. And that’s where the strategies and behaviors come in.
CURT NICKISCH: What’s your favorite strategy?
ADAM ALTER: Well, it sort of depends on the nature of the stuckness. I think one that I really like is this idea of who to consult. I think we tend to find being stuck, as I said, very isolating, but humans live in a social universe and we’re a very social species.
And so what we often tend to do is we have friends who are a lot like us or a brain trust of people we trust who are a lot like us. A lot of leaders put together teams that look quite a lot like they do in certain respects, similar intellectual backgrounds, perhaps similar demographics. And there’s a lot of research showing that consulting with people who are the technical term is non-redundant, they don’t overlap with you in terms of background and ideas about the world is one of the most useful things you can do to get unstuck.
And so there are these all sorts of really interesting examples of this, that bringing in people from outside who are a little bit different, help you get unstuck or help organizations get unstuck.
And you can go one step further, Pixar on some of their Academy Award-winning films, they’ll find someone who isn’t just non-redundant, who isn’t just different from the rest of the team, but who is known to actively see the world in a different way to push back on what the rest of the team thinks. And so that cultivating of diverse opinions and ideas is a tremendous unsticker. And it happens very, very quickly because we are a little egocentric. We do need someone to break us out of the way we see the world.
CURT NICKISCH: Have you ever done that?
ADAM ALTER: Yeah, I do it all the time. Actually, I do it with my writing. So I do it as I’m starting to put together a book. I do it with my research, I do it with some of my consulting. I do it with life decisions I do. So I try to put together a team of people are… Or a group of people who might give advice, who are as different from me as possible. I certainly consult friends who are, I would think of as quite similar in terms of our backgrounds, but there are also people that I will turn to who are specifically valuable because they’re not like me.
CURT NICKISCH: What’s an example of an idea that you got from somebody who is very unlike you?
ADAM ALTER: So, this one was a little while ago, but it was always, it’s a powerful example for me. One of the kinds of things I do, and I talk about this a little in the book, is go into companies and show them how they can reduce friction between either workers within the company or between the company itself and its consumers, whether they’re individuals or businesses. So I’ve done this a little bit with real estate companies that specialize in the building and structuring of shopping malls. And one of the questions they might have is, “We notice that people will be shopping and then they’ll abandon their carts without actually buying what they’ve clearly spent time putting together into the cart.
And we don’t understand why that’s happening, what can we do to fix the problem?” I puzzled over this particular problem with one shopping mall for a while, and then I consulted with some people, this is before I had kids, this is a few years ago, I have two children now, but I didn’t really understand what was going on.
And I spoke to someone who at the time had two kids, two young kids. He said to me, “You’ve probably never thought about it this way because you don’t have kids yet, but one of the biggest reasons we don’t finish our shopping trips,” he was speaking about himself and his wife, was that, “One of the kids will have a tantrum and that’ll just end the shopping trip right there.”
So your job, if you’re doing running a friction audit, you’re trying to shave down the friction in this organization is to figure out how you can help this family with a kid that’s going through a tantrum, continue shopping. And so one of the things we did as a result of that was to put in fairly inexpensive little jungle gyms in the center of shopping malls. This was in Australia that dramatically changed or reduced the number of abandoned carts from parents who had tantruming children. And so I would never have come to that realization without speaking to, in that case, someone who was different in the fact that he had kids, and I didn’t.
CURT NICKISCH: Do these personal psychology tricks also work well in the organizational or corporate space. And I ask just because a lot of companies are trying to develop new products, a lot of teams are trying to do new things or reach new markets, and it’s often very difficult. And so I wonder if some of these techniques can apply to that kind of stuckness.
ADAM ALTER: They absolutely do. There are some really interesting studies showing that if you introduce an AI engine into the process for a group of trying to solve a puzzle, that there are these studies where people are put into groups and they’re told, we will pay you a certain amount of money for each mental puzzle you can solve. And then they’re given a series of puzzles and they’re told, “We will give you an AI bot that you can turn to something a bit like a chatGPT that will give you advice.” And when those bots are programmed to be agents of chaos, they’re actually programmed to hinder by throwing in randomness and nonsense that actually leads to more solutions. So it goes beyond just diversity, but it goes to the point where shaking things up can be valuable.
But there are many other ideas that I think apply to business as well. One of the things I talk about in the book is the idea that we strive for radical originality in business and really in all walks of life, we are looking for something truly, genuinely new, which to be honest is a mirage most of the time. Even things that look from the outside like they’re genuinely new are not.
And so I talk about this idea of recombining or taking old ideas and merging them in ways that are novel and the tremendous value you can unlock doing that.
CURT NICKISCH: I feel like there are examples of this where some companies say, how would FedEx handle this problem? Or how would Amazon deal with this? Insert successful company with a very defined business model into this blank and see how they would approach this solution? And sometimes that helps you think about a different way of going about it that you just didn’t consider.
ADAM ALTER: Yeah, that tactic that how would this other group think about this problem? It’s a specific version of what’s known of as the wisdom of internal crowds, that what you’re essentially trying to do is turn yourself into multitudes where you have more than one opinion so that you can combine those opinions to form a more useful outcome than your first instinct might suggest.
So people do this either by saying, “Here’s what I think, but if I were Jeff Bezos, what would I say? Or if I were Bill Gates, what might I say?” And then they’ll say something like, “Here’s what I think, but let’s imagine that I’m completely wrong. How am I wrong? And how would this second opinion that questions that first one be different?” And then you can either average those two to find some sort of compromise or you might say, “Hey, that second version, pushing against the intuition that I had, turns out to be much better.” And so that attempt to turn yourself into wise council, I think is a really interesting one.
CURT NICKISCH: How can you tell if somebody you work with or somebody who reports to you is in this situation?
ADAM ALTER: I think one important thing is to communicate about it, is to ask, if you notice a change or stagnation or a plateau, any of those, especially if the change is negative, you might want to ask the question, “What’s happening?” Try to get a sense of what have changed. Very often people hit a plateau because they keep doing the same thing over and over again. So when you speak to someone, a subordinate or someone that you’re managing and they say, “I don’t feel that anything has changed.” Often that’s totally honest and it’s true. And it’s that the same technique applied over and over again for months or years will eventually stop being fruitful.
And that that’s this plateau effect is tremendously common. It happens in all sorts of different areas. So I think asking the question is really valuable, and then when there’s measurable output, you can really start to see whether when someone’s starting to hit some sort of a wall because either they produce less or the quality of what they’re producing declines.
CURT NICKISCH: How as a manager would you approach it then to help somebody through this situation?
ADAM ALTER: The first thing to do is to, as Miles Davis did with Herbie Hancock, is to turn the temperature down a little bit. I think managers need to make room for people to fail, to error, to make mistakes as they grow. And we know that to some extent, but there’s this very interesting research on how to fail well. And failing well involves, first of all, failing roughly the right amount of time. And that’s true about people that you’re managing as well. And depending on the domain for optimal growth, you need to fail between one in six and one in four times you try something. That’s obviously going to vary a lot depending on the situation and the individual. But the key takeaway from that is that failure is necessary and this sort of myth that the best workers don’t fail, they don’t make mistakes they don’t do wrong, is extremely damaging. And it also is damaging for the actual organization, the wider organization, because it suggests there’s a culture where people aren’t given that room to make those errors.
CURT NICKISCH: Anything else for managers and leaders to know about when to embrace the stickiness and then when to try to change the thinking and push through it?
ADAM ALTER: Yeah, I think there’s a really interesting set of theories about that bear on this question. In terms of human evolution, there are really two ways to go out and try to find good things, whether they’re creative ideas or whether it’s food that you’re foraging for in a forest. It doesn’t really matter what the situation is, but you can use two strategies and they’re in opposition to one another.
One of those is to explore. This is to range far and wide to look cover as much territory as possible to try as many different approaches as you can. And that might involve, for example, there are examples of this from the world of art. People like Jackson Pollock who was very, very famous for his drip painting style, before he even began to do that, he tried five or six other styles for a few years. And so that’s the period of exploration.
In the workplace, exploration basically means letting people try different things, trying different techniques, maybe spending a bit of time in different areas of the business to see what makes the most sense for them. But you can’t explore forever. And so evidence about the best periods in people’s careers suggests that they first explore, but then when they find something that seems to work, they exploit, which means moving from this phase of saying yes to everything, trying everything being as broad as possible to a phase where you say no to almost everything unless it’s specifically in the service of that one thing that you are now pouring your heart and soul into.
And so one useful thing I think managers can do is to convey this idea that there are these two periods you need to explore, then you need to exploit, and then you can go back to exploring and exploiting again that one-two punch over and over again throughout a career. And the evidence suggests that at the end of that explore, exploit tandem process. That’s where hot streaks in a career come, that’s where the most growth in a career comes. And I think it’s important to cultivate that in the people you’re working with to give them that space to explore, but then to push them to exploit whatever works best.
CURT NICKISCH: What about when the opposite happens? When you’re decidedly unstuck, you’re almost on a hot streak and nothing’s slowing you down. What does that mean?
ADAM ALTER: That means that you found something that works, and exploration is the worst thing you can do in those moments. You’ve got to make hay, and that means exploiting that thing that’s working so well for you until as will inevitably happen, it stops being quite as successful. And that’s when you hit a plateau and that’s when you need to go back to exploring again perhaps. And so when you are doing something that is working, the worst thing you can do is divert your attention elsewhere unless you feel that it’s getting stale. And then you obviously need to consider alternatives. But if it’s working, it makes you happy. You’re in what is very commonly now and famously known as a flow state, things are going well for you, then you’ve got to keep doing what you’re doing.
CURT NICKISCH: What’s the biggest misunderstanding about being stuck, whether it’s in a personal setting or in a business setting? What’s the biggest misconception that people have that you want to clear up?
ADAM ALTER: I don’t know that it’s a misconception per se, but I think we spend a lot of time thinking, strategizing, planning, managing our emotions. And in fact, much of what I’ve said has been about exactly those topics. But the final topic of the book, and I think it’s the most important idea in the book, is titled Action Above All. That we often spend so much time trying to figure out what the best thing to do is that we just don’t do anything and we spend forever planning.
One of my favorite examples of this is Jeff Tweedy, the front man of the band, Wilco, who also happens to be not just a musician, but a writer of books as well. He talks about how sometimes over the course of a career over decades, you hit walls, you wake up in the morning, and the last thing you want to do is be creative. And so his choice is to just accept that and do nothing. But what he does instead is he says, he lowers his threshold for action down to the floor. And he says to himself, “What’s the worst sentence I could write right now? What’s the worst musical phrase I could compose?” And that’s easy to do, and it’s trivial, and he does it for a few minutes, and it turns out to be an unsticking mechanism.
So the best way to get unstuck is to do, even if the doing that you’re doing now is not creating something that’s usable per se, it greases the wheels, it lubricates the process, makes it much smoother. And so above all else, when stuck, just do something, anything.
CURT NICKISCH: Adam, thanks so much for coming on the show to talk about this.
ADAM ALTER: Thanks so much for having me, Curt.
CURT NICKISCH: That’s Adam Alter professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business, and author of the new Book, Anatomy of a Breakthrough: How to Get Unstuck When It Matters Most.
And we have more episodes and more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career, find them at hbr.org/podcasts or search HBR in Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox. And Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Curt Nickisch.
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