Anatomy of A Breakthrough – How to Get Unstuck When It Matters Most   

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Leader’s Edge: Leadership

Anatomy of A Breakthrough – How to Get Unstuck When It Matters Most*

By: Adam Alter 

Simon and Schuster, 2023 

320 Pages 

Find it on Amazon*

*As an Amazon Associate Missio Nexus earns from qualifying purchases.


“People get stuck in every imaginable area of life. They get stuck in jobs they’d prefer to leave, and in relationships that leave them unfulfilled. They get stuck as writers, artists, composers, athletes, scientists, and entrepreneurs. Sometimes they’re stuck for days, and other times for decades. Sometimes they stumble on breakthroughs, and other times they remain mired for life. We hear relatively little about these stubborn cases of stuckness because we’re bombarded by popular success stories.” (Kindle location 54) This book is an attempt to provide a “roadmap” for escaping inertia, getting unstuck and establishing the correct direction for realizing one’s full potential. 

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Best Illustration

“When Walt Disney’s first studio, Laugh-O-Gram, went into bankruptcy, he endured five years of inertia before designing a cartoon mouse who would go on to become his new studio’s mascot.” Kindle location 145 

“Edmund Hillary reached the peak of Mount Everest with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953. When the two men ascended the mountain, they licensed others to break the same barrier. Soon a trickle and then a flood of climbers attempted the feat, and today more than five thousand mountaineers have summited Everest.” (Kindle location 3,507) “A successful act—particularly an audacious act that surmounts conspicuous boundaries—unsticks others who may be game to try themselves but prefer to be second or third movers rather than pioneers.” Kindle location 3,509 

Best Idea

“Getting unstuck requires the right blend of emotional, mental, and behavioral tools, and Anatomy of a Breakthrough is a strategic guide in the war against stuckness—a war with four distinct battles that make up the four sections of this book. (Kindle location 233) The first section, ‘Help,’ demystifies the experience of being stuck.” Kindle location 235 

“The book’s second section, ‘Heart,’ focuses on the emotional consequences of stuckness.” Kindle location 239 

“The book’s third section, ‘Head,’ moves from hot emotional states to calculated mental strategies. Getting unstuck is, to a large extent, a matter of following the right mental scripts.” Kindle location 243  

“The book’s fourth and final section, ‘Habit,’ focuses on the actions that take you from sticking point to breakthrough.” Kindle location 247 

Best Take Away

“lf you’re stuck, the search for a new approach is even more urgent. With a mix of curiosity, and the right experiments that yield the right data, you’re far more likely to find a path through the weeds. The experiments themselves don’t need to be costly or intensive. They can be as simple as varying the time of day you tackle a particular responsibility, the order in which you complete a series of tasks, the mindset you adopt when you interact with another person, or whether and how you prepare mentally for a job that requires creativity.” Kindle location 2,988 

Our Recommendation

This is an interesting book by a prominent social psychologist and researcher. It contains many helpful insights into the issue of getting “unstuck” in various areas of life. Recommended for anyone currently interested in the topic.  

Best Quotes

In truth, we all face roadblocks—and being stuck is a feature rather than a bug on the path to success.” Kindle location 59 

“We pay far more attention to our barriers (or headwinds) than our blessings (or tailwinds), which leads us to believe that we face more opposition than we actually do.” Kindle location 62 

“The media devotes far more time to titanic success stories—Roger Federer and Serena Williams; Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg; Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis—than to the billions of strugglers who are more typical.” Kindle location 78 

“Each of these colossal successes had an excellent chance of failing before ultimately getting unstuck. For every public success story there are hundreds or thousands of private stories of frustration.” Kindle location 183 

“In early 2020, just before the COVID pandemic descended, I distributed an online survey to hundreds of people. I’d read of the frustrations of prominent actors, writers, and entrepreneurs, but wanted to learn more about how the rest of us experience getting stuck.” Kindle location 185 

“I learned at least three things from the people who were kind enough to respond to my survey. First, I learned that being stuck is ubiquitous. (Kindle location 189) The second thing I learned is that people don’t realize how common it is to be stuck. (Kindle location 198) The third thing I learned is that the diverse instances of ‘being stuck’ that my respondents described, fall into two categories: those that are imposed from outside, and those that originate within the individual.” Kindle location 207 

“Externally imposed constraints can be intractable and they’re largely beyond the scope of this book.” Kindle location 210 

“I’m far more interested in these internal roadblocks—the 90-plus percent that are surmountable. They may be difficult to overcome, but they’re ripe for intervention.” Kindle location 214 

“Action is the great unsticker because it necessarily replaces inertia with movement.” Kindle location 230 

“Lifequakes are sticking points … because they place roadblocks in whatever path we are following. They prevent us from pursuing the lives we previously imagined living and so leave us stuck as we attempt to construct revised lives in their wake.” Kindle location 425 

“The golden rule is that getting unstuck almost always takes longer than we expect—and too often we surrender just a few steps short of the finish line.” Kindle location 509 

“Stories of creativity through persistence are inspirational and hopeful, and we’re taught from an early age that working hard is more effective than coasting. On the other hand, people also tend to doubt the value of persistence for their own sticking points. “If people do one round of a creativity task, and their brain feels fried, they’re likely to disengage,” Lucas told me. It’s hard to train people to believe that mental difficulty is a sign of progress rather than stagnation.” Kindle location 555 

“The average age for successful entrepreneurs is forty-two… Many founders thrive in their forties, in part because they’ve lived. Many have families and children; many have held jobs across multiple sectors of the economy; and, importantly, many have failed not once but over and over before they find success.” Kindle location 616 

“In disciplines as varied as chemistry, economics, medicine, and physics, scientists tend to do their best work near age forty. Nobel Prize winners and inventors similarly do most of their best work between their late thirties and early forties.” Kindle location 622 

“When smart people say, ‘You make your own luck,’ what they’re really saying is that luck is less mystical than it seems. The best way to be lucky is to persevere, because luck overlaps with longevity. If luck is by definition unpredictable, you have a greater chance of being lucky the longer you push.” Kindle location 659 

“Patience and persistence solve poor timing and allow not-quite-ripe ideas to mature.” Kindle location 763  

“Dialing back the intensity contradicts modern folk wisdom. The order of the twenty-first century is boldness. If you don’t love the hustle; if you aren’t working a hundred hours a week; if you don’t eat, breathe, and sleep triumph, you’re destined for the minor leagues. If you don’t want to get stuck, don’t stop moving. In fact, don’t slow down, because slowing down is stagnation’s baby cousin. Much of the time, this is terrible advice.” Kindle location 1,098 

“A large survey of 284 studies found that perfectionism is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, headaches, insomnia, deliberate self-harm, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.” Kindle location 1,241 

“One solution is to strive for excellence instead of perfection. Psychologists have shown that striving for perfection is often debilitating, whereas striving for excellence improves both your performance and your well-being. Excellence is less stringent than perfection. You can be excellent without being perfect, but perfection surpasses excellence and demands an often unattainable standard of performance. In one study, researchers showed that people who tended to be perfectionists performed significantly more poorly on a range of creative tasks than those who prioritized excellence. Perfectionism is stifling, whereas excellence is mobilizing.” Kindle location 1,246 

“Einstein and Mozart were one-in-a-billion talents, which is why it’s surprising to learn they were in some ways type B personalities. Neither one stood atop a metaphorical mountain proclaiming his love for the hustle. Instead, both retreated inward, embraced quiet, and allowed their ideas to land in good time.” Kindle location 1,599 

“If you’re anxious and uncertain how to proceed, pausing is valuable. But if you have a general sense of the direction in which you’d like to move, acting is the best way to get there. That’s because of the bright line between being stuck and moving forward. As soon as you act, even modestly, you’re no longer stuck.” Kindle location 3,358 

“Microscheduling isn’t the way to live your life in general. Scheduling leisure time, for example, is the best way to strip it of pleasure, and the more precisely we structure our lives, the less time we feel we have. But when you’re absolutely mired, with no apparent way through, rigidity is freeing.” Kindle location 3,385 

“Dozens of studies have now shown that moving your body is a reliable path to mental unsticking. Both during and for some time after moving, your decisions are more incisive, you’re more likely to generate creative solutions to problems that are designed to make you feel stuck, and you’re more likely to work well with teams and groups that are trying to solve creativity problems in the workplace. “Kindle location 3,407 

“Duration = success. Last longer in almost any domain and you’re more likely to succeed.” Kindle location 3,558 

“Much of the time we’re stuck because we’re focusing too myopically—on the short term—when we should be focusing on the medium and long term. Learn to vividly paint a mental picture of the future whenever you’re making decisions and choices that will have implications beyond the immediate present.” Kindle location 3,576 

“When anxious, adopt the RAIN approach: recognize what is arising; allow it to be there; investigate your emotions and thoughts (e.g., ‘What is happening in my body now?’); note what is happening from moment to moment.” Kindle location 3,598 

“The more driven you are, the more likely you are to be hard on yourself. Many of the greatest success stories are from people who were surprisingly lenient on themselves when they made mistakes.” Kindle location 3,603 

“It’s a mistake to ration praise. You can never give too much deserved praise to yourself or other people.” Kindle location 3,613 

“One of the greatest unsticking skills isn’t recognizing what’s most important, but recognizing what isn’t important. Strip any problem down to its bare essentials and it becomes far easier to overcome.” Kindle location 3,620 

“Instead of keeping an eye out for big leaps forward, look for small steps that ask relatively little of you. Take those first, unless they compromise your ability to take larger steps later.” Kindle location 3,627 

“Seek other people’s opinions. Seek many more than you think you need. Seek them before, during, and after you tackle any task, experience, or problem.” Kindle location 3,634 

“Knowledge evolves constantly, and we’re almost always wrong to assume that the way any one thing is now done is optimal. All ideas are updated over time—and much of that updating comes from smart experiments. When stuck, cycle rapidly through the OODA loop: observe, orient, decide, and act.” Kindle location 3,649 

“Do very, very small things when large or even moderate things are overwhelming. Small things take you from stuck to unstuck, even if you’re making only modest progress initially. That binary leap is the first step in making meaningful progress.” Kindle location 3,671 

“Learning and education are key, but doing the thing you’re learning is essential. (This rule borrows from the medical school guideline for mastering new procedures: see one; do one; teach one. The quicker you progress from consuming information to acting, the quicker you’ll learn.” Kindle location 3,680 


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