Alter is a professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business and author of Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think Feel and Behave (Penguin Press, 2013), and Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (Penguin Press, 2017).
In his new book, Alter notes that most of the barriers we face are subjective, which means we have everything we need to get unstuck and push through to success. He also reveals the formula that he and other researchers have uncovered—called the “friction audit,” the process helps you figure out why you (or your organization) are stuck, then suggests a path to progress by overcoming the three kinds of frictions (head, heart, and habit), so you can find the breakthrough that’s just around the corner.
So just what inspired Alter to examine the nature of breakthroughs—and becoming unstuck, so to speak?
“This is one thing that I’ve been thinking about in different forms for probably 20 years,” observes Alter. “I have a document where I’ve been collecting good ideas for about 20 years now. And every time I come upon something interesting or strange or unusual, I’ll put it in the document. And maybe once or twice a year, I’ll go and look at the document and say, ‘Is there a theme that’s popping through?’ And getting unstuck, finding breakthroughs is something that’s been popping up for 20 years. It was a book that kind of started to write itself a few years ago, and then I formalized it. One of the keys, it’s so simple, but it’s realizing that you’re stuck to begin with.”
There seems to be two kinds of being stuck. There’s the kind of stuck where it’s profound and it makes you feel bad and you really have to change something. And then there’s the kind of stuck which is in some ways more insidious because you have no idea that you’re even stuck at all.
“A lot of what happens to get to that point of realizing that you’re stuck is just a matter of asking the right questions. I talk about this in the book a little bit. It’s a sort of a self-interview where you ask, am I where I want to be? Do I feel like things are going in a direction that’s profitable, that makes me feel good, that brings me welfare, meaning in my life, happiness. Do I have people around me who make me feel good? There is a set of questions you can ask, and they will reveal to you, I think, quite straightforwardly, whether you’re stuck or not,” he says.
No matter your perspective, anyone could be set for a breakthrough if they just looked at it through a different lens.
“A friend of mine’s dad was a math professor for about 40 years, and he worked on a single problem for 30 of those years where he didn’t make any meaningful progress,” relates Alter. “Was he stuck for 30 years? And my friend said, no. He was happy every day. He woke up every day invigorated, loved what he was doing. So you can make no meaningful objective progress, but feel that that’s totally fine and you’re happy with it. Or you could be someone who’s striving and succeeding in ways that objectively look incredible, but you feel conflicted and tormented by that. The thing that stands out is the subjective part—what does it feel like to you? If you’re contented and things are going well objectively, I think that’s fine.”
Speaking of finding things that work, how did you come up with the name of your most recent book, Anatomy of a Breakthrough?
Alter says, “Every name for every book I’ve had has been torment. It’s really hard to name a book because it’s going to have that name forever. It’s like naming kids. It’s tough. It was a long drawn-out process, and we were stuck for a long time. And I used a lot of the ideas in the book, in this very meta way to name the book that I was writing. I like the term breakthrough because I thought it was positive. It was forward looking. It described the other side of being stuck. And then the anatomy of a breakthrough because it describes a sort of scientific idea. This is a science to me. I wanted to capture that.”
See the full video from TMRE for more on Seth Adler’s conversation with Adam Alter, as they discuss Peter Jackson’s breakthrough during his production of Lord of the Rings, what we can learn from Jackson Pollock, Alter’s book Irresistible, artificial intelligence and more.