Usually when we're stuck, we want to get out of the mess in a big hurry.
As a result, we end up digging a bigger hole for ourselves. How do you—that's you and I—systematically get unstuck?
There's no precise formula, but there are stages of getting unstuck. And we have to do it slowly. Let's find out how.
It's 1970, and TV host Dick Cavett has just asked his guest an unusual question.
Cavett turns to the guest, singer/songwriter Paul Simon and starts by saying: “It's possibly an impossible question”. What Cavett is asking is “how does creativity happen?”
Referring to the super hit “Bridge Over Troubled Water “, Cavett says, “There was a moment in time when Bridge Over Troubled Water didn't exist at all. And there was another moment when it did. Where does it come from? What actually happens?
Were you in the shower one day, and some of the lyrics came to you?
At this point, Paul Simon reaches for his guitar, which is located behind the sofa.
He doesn't play it right away, stopping to tune it at first. Once he's happy with how it sounds, he describes his method. “So it started with me singing the beginning of the song I had. Tah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah.
Then Paul Simon stops suddenly explaining how the following line comes from a Bach piece. He's meticulous, going back to the first line of Bridge Over Troubled Water, then the second. He hums along nicely for a few seconds before looking up.
“I was stuck there. That was all I had of that melody. And everywhere I went, (it) led me where I didn't want to be. So I was stuck.”
We aren't stuck when washing the dishes or brushing our teeth.
Sending a text message or ordering a chai is mostly a mundane affair. Getting stuck involves something doing something new. The problem is that the newness is almost always accompanied by complexity.
If you're teaching a toddler the English alphabet, you're unlikely to tackle more than one letter of the alphabet at a time. You'd wait until they got a good handle on A before you move to B.
However, the moment we move out of toddlerhood, we're hit with newness and complexity at the same time. You don't just get into a car. You're expected to learn how to drive and get on the road in the first lesson.
You don't just learn how to use Photoshop. You're given a project, and you've got to work your way through it, even though you can't remember what you've just learned.
Even when you're good at something, e.g. writing an article, you still have to deal with the fact that you're writing about something new and different (like I am now). At this point, it's normal to get stuck, but there's an icky feeling that it's just you.
You'd do anything to get unstuck. You want to go on, just like I'd want to write the following line of this article. Yet, the way to getting unstuck is counterintuitive. The method I tend to use tends to have three elements.
Element 1: Borrowing
Element 2: Focus on the point, not the set
Element 3: Go into explainer mode
Element 1: Borrowing
Remember Paul Simon's interview with Dick Cavett? Like most of us, Simon seems to start confidently. He gets an idea for a song, then launches into the melody for the first line. The very second line trips him up. What does he do? He borrows from Bach.
Almost immediately, the thought that comes to mind is the concept of plagiarism. Yet, borrowing is nuanced. Plagiarism is a rip-off. It's copying someone else's work in its entirety and pretending it's your own. Borrowing tends to be more of a starting point.
Take, for example, a new website I started in late January.
It was the tail end of our summer holiday (because summer begins in December in the southern hemisphere). For the past two years, I'd gotten myself quite obsessed with taking photos purely as a hobby.
Seventeen thousand photos later, I had nowhere to display them. Every year I print at least two thick photo books which contain family photos, but all of these pictures of New Zealand were piling up on my computer (and backups).
I even printed a one-off book with the street photos to give them some attention, but that still left dozens of albums buried, never to be seen. It was time, I decided, to start up a website. Except, I had no idea where to go or how to design something that met with my taste.
I did what I always do: I borrowed
When we first started Psychotactics.com (and this is about 20 years ago), the format for a website was pretty straightforward. All websites looked similar. They were built on tables or frames, and you'd have a box to the left of the main text—possibly a box to the right. And the navigation bar at the top.
Those kinds of sites ran into their “use-by date”, and it was time to design a second version. Except, I had no idea where to start. While browsing, I landed on the site by my friend and designer, John McWade.
The core design for the site was the way John had laid out his site. The question is: did it end up looking exactly like his site? If you held them side by side, you might find two or three elements that looked similar, but that could just as well be the case for any two sites on the Internet. Where was the borrowing, if you couldn't see it? Yet it was there because it's where I started.
The same principle applied to the photography website (www.theotherseandsouza.com, by the way).
I was keen to get a website up and running by late January. As you'd expect, I was stuck. The first thing I did was look online for some inspiration. Yet, inspiration alone is not enough when it comes to a layout.
Hence I simply copied the structure of photographer Gavin Gough. Once again, if you were to go to Gough's site right now and compare our site with his, you're likely to find almost nothing in common.
Magician Derren Brown drives two advertising executives on a pre-arranged route in a remarkable experiment.
Two members of Saatchi and Saatchi, the world-famous ad company, are taken on a car ride to their eventual destination. Brown tells them they have to come up with a poster for a product.
The product happens to be taxidermy stores (stores that stuff dead animals). “It's a chain of stores,” he tells them, “and you're supposed to come up with a strapline or slogan for them, as well as the picture.”
Twenty minutes is all they have to complete the project. Brown also casually leaves a covered version of his ideas that together they can look at later if needed. He gives them a bit over twenty minutes, and they come up with the following.
- Name of company: Out of Africa
- Slogan: As good as it gets
- Graphics: Kid crying, a lizard saying Mommy, and a man with a stuffed lion in the backseat of a car.
He then asks them to open the envelope, and they start giggling. Brown's sequence is like this:
- Name of company: Out of Africa
- Slogan: As real as you like
- Graphics: Dinosaur creature saying Mommy.
Brown also talks about polar bears, and the advertising executives nod because they did polar bears but didn't show him the images. And if you're wondering how all of this happened, it's because of how things are set up.
The executives run into specific slogans, graphics and even a group of people crossing the road with t-shirts with the word “polar bear” quite prominently across the chest.
Each of these terms, slogans and images repeat themselves along the way in different forms—dinosaurs on balloons, a man carrying a dinosaur toy, and so on. By the time the executives get down to doing their assignment, they don't have much of a problem because they're borrowing without knowing it.
The reality is it's impossible NOT to borrow
We all have to borrow whether we are making coffee, learning a language or creating a new rocket. If someone says their work is utterly original, you can smile, wave and slowly back away from them. That's because we have no choice but to borrow.
However, our childhood has been tainted by people who have told us repeatedly that we should not copy and not trace. It's terrible advice to begin with, but it roots itself deep into our consciousness, and we try to be original at all times.
Instead, start with borrowing.
If you have to create a new mascot, start with Sonic the Hedgehog. Or Porky pig. If you're building a website, start with someone else's layout. If you're writing a book, copy the core structure of how your favourite book was written.
Borrowing from Bach isn't as bad an idea as you'd believe. No one is saying you should “photocopy” the other person's work, but you're going to draw on past experiences anyway. You may as well start with borrowing.
However, borrowing is just the starting point. There's a snorting bison in your path. And that's called the “project”. This is why we have to use the second concept of “focus on the point, not the set”.
Element 2: Focus on the point, not the set
Think of a loud, argumentative tennis player from the '80s, and most people think of John McEnroe.
“You cannot be serious!” McEnroe would shout at the umpire. He'd curse. Throw his racquet into the ground so that it bounced like a ball. McEnroe's tantrums and meltdowns got him the nickname “Superbrat”.
On the other hand, one of McEnroe's most significant rivals on court was Bjorn Borg.
Borg, a Swedish player, No.1 in the world, was known as the “Ice Man” or “Ice Borg” for his temperament. Always calm on court, his demeanour rarely wavered. Except, this wasn't how Borg started.
“I was a real nutcase,” Borg has said.
“I swore, threw my racket around and cheated.” Sweden's tennis authorities, appaled at his behaviour, banned him for six months. He was even prevented from practising at his club.
The fantastic turnaround from Bad Boy/Cheat to Ice Borg could be credited to his coach, Lennart Bergelin. “One point at a time, not the set” seemed to be Bergelin's advice to Borg.
No matter what project we're currently tackling, the overwhelm comes from the vastness of the project.
For instance, I was working on a sales page for a course
As the summer vacation wound down, and I headed back to work on the 1st of February, I was still very much working on my photography site. Yet, there was another pressing issue: the sales page for the storytelling course that we were going to hold in April of that same year.
Like most people, I pretended like every other task was important
However, I had a fixed deadline of five days. What wasn't helping very much was that New Zealand has a surge of public holidays at the tail end of January. While everyone else was having a great time, I didn't want to be cooped up in the office.
“One point at a time, not the set”.
Okay, so it's not some great advice. After all, a journey of a thousand miles does begin with just one step. Even so, the “one point” stuck with me. I started “working” for just 30 minutes at a stretch. When the time was up, I'd be done for the morning or even the day. Not being bound to the computer screen meant I could focus on the point.
The five-day deadline stretched to eight.
However, I'd focus on working just 30 minutes (and longer, but only if I felt like it). I'd write the bullets for the sales page one day and then stop. The next day, just the headlines for the benefits and features and bring the day to a close.
The following days were dedicated to the uniqueness, to the graphics etc. And the work on the photography website didn't slow down. I'd do an album or two there as well.
The idea that sticks in our mind is usually “one point.”
Which is to say: you handle a tiny bit. But if you were to take Lennart Bergelin's concept a little further, what we also get is recovery time. You play your shot; maybe you hit it in the net. But then you walk back to your spot. You're not running around.
You have time to recompose yourself, and there's recovery. Then, you focus on the next point. It doesn't matter if you're the top player in the world. It matters not if you can write sales letters in your sleep. Every project has enough challenge to confuse you just enough to get you stuff.
A point, however, is just a point.
Borg won an incredible five Wimbledon Championships in a row.
There's a good chance that he was taking it on point by point. There's also a likelihood that he felt frustration, just as his opponent, McEnroe did. Even so, he'd hold it back, point by point.
However, for some reason, “One point at a time, not the set” seems modern and doable. And it's the second step in getting unstuck.
The third, and probably the most efficient, is to get into explainer mode. Just what is explainer mode? Let's find out.
Element 3: Go into explainer mode
You know how you're sometimes in a conversation, and you're paying attention to an adjoining discussion as well? It can be confusing because you have to do two things simultaneously.
Explainer mode is a bit like that.
Someone will ask me: What's this new website all about? And frankly, I'm stuck for the answer. For example, if you take the photography website, it's not clear what I'm trying to achieve.
The short story is I bought a Sony A7R III, then a Leica, then another Leica and I got hooked on taking pictures.
At first, I didn't even know what kind of pictures I wanted to take.
I'd do some architecture, a lot of people, and a token number of landscapes. If you asked me: What was the website about, I'd have no clear answer. That lack of clarity means the project seems to waver as well, no matter what project you're working on.
However, even if you take something modest, like an article, it's not always clear what you're trying to achieve or why it seems like you're stuck. If you're writing a book, what is the book about? What's it trying to achieve?
Which is where explainer mode comes into play
You talk, but you're also listening to yourself. People often comment that The Brain Audit is quite a cool name for a book. I got that name because I was explaining to someone what the book was all about.
The explanation went somewhat like this: It's like a checklist, an audit. It shows you how the brain works when it's making a decision. I guess you could call it a brain audit.
The same applied to the membership site at 5000bc.com
It's an odd name. With all gorgeously catchy names like Inner Circle and Seven Figure Club, we chose 5000bc to be the name of the membership site. How did that come about? Again, it was the explanation that not a lot has changed in human psychology in over 5000 years. Bingo!
Getting stuck is normal.
Getting out of that stuck zone involves explaining yourself. We should all be so lucky to explain ourselves once and quickly get out of the mess. However, it may take you several passes before you find that elegance with which to express what you're doing.
There's also a good chance that when you're explaining yourself, the other person will look at you as though you're not making any sense. In which case, you should encourage them to ask more questions.
There are times when you're all alone.
On centre court, Bjorn Borg lost seven match points against McEnroe. He blew seven chances to wrap up the match and win his fifth consecutive Wimbledon title. There was no one to talk to, no coach to work out the issues.
We are rarely on such a tight rope in our day to day lives. Yet, we work to behave as though only we can solve the problem. That it's up to us to figure out the way forward.
It probably is the best way. It could be up to you
The reality isn't that we don't have the answer. Often enough, we do. However, the way forward isn't clear, and that clarity shows up a lot faster if we explain ourselves.
When I'm stuck, I will talk to my wife, Renuka.
But just as often, she'll be saying something to me about her problems. In what can only seem like a comedy of sorts, we're both talking to each other but hearing ourselves. “Aha,” she'll say to me and walk off with a solution of her own making. And often enough, I will have the same result.
You and I have solved many problems simply by explaining ourselves verbally or on paper. We find our answers to complex and seemingly frustrating yet straightforward questions.
Then do it. Explain yourself out of the problem.
This brings us to the end of this little series on how to get stuck and also how to get out of the mess. The problem is that we get stuck quickly but try to wriggle out just as rapidly. Instead, we should slow down.
1: Take time to borrow and then build over what you've borrowed.
2: Focus on the point, not the set.
3: Explain yourself.