Insights – Anatomy of A Breakthrough- Notes from the Book

27th October 2023

Posted in: Insights

Adam Alter identifies reasons why we as humans are destined to get stuck at one time or another, what causes us to get stuck, why it is easier to see our own barriers than those faced by others, the traps and snares that catch us, and how we can change our view to get past the stucks and embrace the failures.


People get stuck!

Why is it easier to recognise our own barriers than those that others face?

  • Headwinds/ tailwinds asymmetry- we pay far more attention to our barriers than our blessings which leads us to believe that we face more opposition than we actually do.
  • We also overlook the hardships that other people experience.
  • It’s difficult to see other struggles as they tend to approach these behind closed doors.
  • Success eclipses the struggles that preceded it and failure is so commonplace that we don’t notice it.


“Inspiration is for amateurs. the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain you are not going to make an awful lot of work” – Chuck Close


  1. Getting stuck is ubiquitous- everyone gets stuck at some stage
  2. People don’t realise how common it is to get stuck
  3. Some stucks originate internally, some from the outside


What does stuck mean?

  • One you are temporarily unable to make progress in an area that matters to you.
  • You’ve been fixed in a place for long enough to feel psychological discomfort.
  • Your existing habits and strategies aren’t solving the problem.



Goal gradient effect- we struggle in early stages but tend to speed up as we near the finish line.

Quick slow pattern – means we tend to get stuck in the middle.


One way to overcome these issues is to divide a larger experience into smaller sub experiences

This is known as narrow bracketing   – You can’t get stuck in the middle if you eradicate the middle completely


The plateau effect – once a technique works we tend to use it over and over rather than revising our approach however this will progressively lose its power over time

Need to try new strategies- We are short sighted- we prefer an adequate solution now than a great solution long term.


People tend to lose their mojo just before the turn 40 -Midlife crisis

Applies across all ages ending in nine as people start to contemplate what they have achieved, meaning of life etc


Lifequakes+ Roadblocks in whatever paths we have chosen

All life stories are jotted with disruptions- unwanted and unchosen

Hard to predict.

Tricky to know how much energy to devote while leaving enough for others.

Particularly important when you are depleted running towards the finish line.


Teleoanticipation- knowledge of an approaching endpoint


Mindfulness means being present and will be less likely to flail about for a finish line that doesn’t exist


Keep Going

Creative cliff – if artistic creations are not perfect early on they are unlikely to improve

Creative cliff is just an illusion

  • But it is hard to train people to beliive that mental difficulty is a sign of progress rather than stagnation
  • But People are reliably productive over time and often the quality of output is improved
  • The payoff that makes friction worthwhile is more not less likely to appear as time passes
  • Audit markers or waypoint times where you re examine your success and determine whether or not to continue
  • Causes people to fold too early a useful rule of thumb is to give yourself 50% more time then intuition suggests
  • Insight lens suggests creativity is product of a-ha moments
  • Production lens- sees creativity as a product of hard work
  • Both suggest the more time effort and energy you put into creative shoot the more likely you are to succeed
  • Serial order effect – When you’re generating ideas the first thing that comes to mind accessible things and therefore won’t be very creative- people exhaust obvious things first before they switch to new idea categories – need to keep going to get best ideas
  • Diversity – don’t put all your eggs in one basket or have all the same age of eggs.
  • The best way to make your own luck is to persevere – overlaps with longevity
  • Random impact rule is the haphazardous of success across careers
  • Success more likely for those that non judgementally run over events from prior day- those who ruminate or beat themselves up are less likely to make progress,

Positive techniques

  • emotionally detach – image it is someone else’s problem


Capacity fluctuates over time.


Traps and Snares

Unintentional herd behaviour

  • Failed attempts to behave differently from the majority
  • Creativity is elusive as we are all susceptible to the same cultural and biological forces
  • Ask people the first vegetable that comes to mind and majority will say carrot
  • Optimal distinctiveness – need to slow down and consider more before making a decision. Question everything 3 times or brainstorm 3 x

Miscommunication – you might know it’s happened or you might not

  • Pseudo intelligibility trap – both think you’ve communicated perfectly but your actually on a completely different tangent.

Small problem trap

  • Need preventative maintenance
  • Minimal problem will resolve themselves or be placed on a watch list
  • If it is a trap a series of regular but minor checks and longer term major checks should catch catastrophes disguised as minor hindrances

Short sightedness

  • We generally prefer to be lazy today even if it means working twice as hard tomorrow


How can we overcome?

  • Exhale – Often the best way to deal with being mentally stuck is to do nothing and just breathe.
  • Dial back the pressure and don’t overthink the consequence rather than “do something and do it now” mindset.
  • Reframing to Reduce feeling of threat to be a challenge eg If you are in a position of power – your presence might be seen a a threat and source of anxiety. Do what you can to reframe as a challenge and give permission for the timid to gather their bearings.
  • Do the opposite of visualising success –  think what are consequences of worst case scenario? There is life on the other side of disappointment.
  • Radical acceptance – learn to live with prospect of failure.

If you can’t do the above

  • Relaxing your definition of success
  • Satisficing- option that is just good enough rather than an exhaustive search for the absolute best outcome (maximising).  These are actually personality types not just behaviours. We are choosing a higher level than giving up or settling but accepting it isnot perfect. Maximising leads to stress and anxiety where’s as satisficing is flexible and accommodating.


We can learn to move towards this by

  • Assigning importance levels – only focus on those that meet a certain criteria
  • Impose artificial time constraints – agree to accept the best solution in a limited time.


Maximising overlaps with perfectionism – which is often paralysing, anxiety provoking, drive for lawlessness.

  • Strive for excellence not perfectionism
  • Atomise – shrink goals to tiny elements
  • Letting go – sometimes you need to relax to loosen the trap
  • Finding yourself stuck because you are stubbornly clinging to a standard that no longer makes sense is far more degrading than accepting that you will have to settle for evolution rather than the revolution you had originally planned


Pause before you play

Preparation is key to overcome anxiety

Lionel Messi technique

  • Calms himself
  • Easing into game
  • Spends first few minutes scoping out opposition

Slowing down – pausing even -until time to renegade

  • Ready you to act when time is right and stops rash responses
  • Pausing in communication and negotiation rather than talking.
  • Inspires deliberation



Recognise what’s arising

Allow it to be there

Investigate your emotions and thoughts

Note what is happening from moment to moment

The longer you can resist the urge to act the more likely you are to triumph over friction,


We all fail – so Fail Well!


Author: Donna Bruce