About the Book by Adam Alter titled “Anatomy of a Breakthrough: How to Get Unstuck When It Matters Most”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Belinda Lanks of the book by Adam Alter titled “Anatomy of a Breakthrough: How to Get Unstuck When It Matters Most”:

After the debut of his 1952 novel “Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison spent 42 years writing a follow-up—only to leave it unfinished when he died in 1994. Truman Capote, by the time of his death in 1984, was still working on his self-hyped novel “Answered Prayers”—decades after publishing his 1965 masterpiece, “In Cold Blood.” Fran Lebowitz has been wrapping up a book since the year Ellison died.

Creative blocks aren’t exclusive to famous authors, or even to people we think of as being creative. We all get stuck.We make strides on a project—whether it’s mastering a sport, changing careers or building a company—and then, we just don’t.

Blocks are common, but how we respond to them varies wildly. Some give up in frustration or despair, others stubbornly hew to habits that no longer work, still others get caught in a vicious web of perfectionism. Adam Alter wants to rescue us from those unproductive impulses. In “Anatomy of a Breakthrough: How to Get Unstuck When It Matters Most,” the New York University marketing professor draws on research studies, anecdotes and interviews to reveal the self-imposed barriers that thwart our progress—and the actions we can take to surmount them.

The first step, according to Mr. Alter, is to reframe our perception of failure. Bombarded by success stories, we often overlook the struggles and obstacles that came before them. The truth is that we all encounter roadblocks—Thomas Edison famously tried out more than 1,600 filament materials for his light bulb before finding the right one. We’re better served, Mr. Alter tells us, by recasting a barrier as “a feature rather than a bug on the path to success.”

Another mistake is underestimating how thorny and lengthy the creative process can be. At the first sign of difficulty, we might doubt our ability to overcome it. We value persistence in others but question whether it will help dig us out of our own mud. But few ideas arrive fully formed and viable; they can take years to bear fruit. While we’re quick to judge our first ideas as our adequate best, we’re inclined to get more (not less) creative.

Psychologists call this the creative-cliff illusion: the mistaken belief that our creative output declines over time, when in fact our first ideas tend to be the easiest, most accessible ones. They’re also likely to be the most obvious to those around us who share the same culture and information. Mr. Alter suggests going through three rounds of brainstorming to arrive at a truly novel idea. Which isn’t to say that radical originality is always the goal. Breakthroughs can happen by combining two or more existing ideas—or incrementally improving upon what came before them. Google, Mr. Alter points out, learned from the mistakes of 21 earlier search engines, including now-quaint-sounding products like AltaVista, Lycos and Ask Jeeves.

Just as originality isn’t a prerequisite of success, neither is youth. (Remember, creativity matures over time.) Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg might have experienced breakthroughs in their 20s but, Mr. Alter reminds us, they aren’t the norm. The founders of the most successful startups have been, on average, 45 years old—more than double the cutoff age for the Thiel Fellowship, a $100,000 grant for college-dropout tech entrepreneurs who are 22 or younger.

According to one study performed by the Census Bureau and two MIT professors, a 50-year-old founder is twice as likely to succeed in selling her company than a 30-year-old founder. “The richest advances,” Mr. Alter concludes, “come from getting stuck and then unstuck over and over; from learning what works and what doesn’t; from persevering in the face of difficult lessons.”

Of course, persisting indefinitely without any gains doesn’t make sense, either. If an endeavor isn’t going to plan, Mr. Alter suggests conducting what he calls a friction audit: identifying the point of friction, developing solutions and choosing the best option from the resulting list. As an example, he recalls working with some real-estate companies specializing in shopping malls that had observed a dismaying pattern: People were spending time walking through the stores and strolling down the walkways, but then suddenly left the building without purchasing the items they intended to buy. Why? It turned out that the shoppers’ children had reached the limit of their patience, prompting the families to make a hasty exit. The solution was simple: Install play areas in the malls—a bonus that will be familiar to parents who have been to Ikea, where Småland play spaces essentially provide shoppers an hour of free daycare.

Mr. Alter offers some concrete strategies for getting unstuck and moving forward. Experiencing a midpoint slump? Break up your project into smaller, discrete goals, rewarding yourself for the completion of each. Paralyzed by perfectionism? Strive for excellence instead. Have a tendency to isolate? Assemble a crew of people and invite their feedback before, during and after each step in your process. But these useful tactics can be found in other books focused on productivity. The same can be said for the well-worn business philosophy of embracing failure.

The most valuable lesson of “Anatomy of a Breakthrough” is to relentlessly experiment like a scientist—zooming out from your personal experience to analyze your sticking points, brainstorming ways around them and acting on the optimal solution. The best unstickers, Mr. Alter says, are the people who are open to trying new techniques, pivoting when necessary and consistently punching in. As the painter Chuck Close once said, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”

Belinda Lanks is a New York-based editor and writer.

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