Today's Reading

I measured how long people took to respond to each question in the survey and found that, on average, they needed less than ten seconds to identify a sticking point. Seventy percent of them said the sticking point came to mind "very easily" because it sucked up a big chunk of the mental energy they expended every day. Half had been stuck for years or decades, and 80 percent had been stuck for longer than a month. Seventy-nine percent felt "very or extremely negative emotions" when thinking about this situation, and—striking because most of them weren't wealthy—many were willing to pay thousands of dollars, and to sacrifice a large portion of their assets, to free themselves.

The second thing I learned is that people don't realize how common it is to be stuck. Many people said they felt lonely and isolated, imagining that the rest of the world was making progress while they were fixed in place. They described a mixture of anxiety, uncertainty, fear, anger, and numbness. Psychologists call this a classic case of pluralistic ignorance—the tendency to believe you see the world differently from other people when in fact you feel the same way. For example, if you ask college students how comfortable they are with the drinking norms on campus, most will tell you they privately believe that students drink too much, but that the average college student is quite comfortable with campus drinking norms. The problem arises because behavior is visible, but attitudes and beliefs are hidden from view. Most college students don't visibly protest campus drinking norms—and some visibly drink too much alcohol—so students are left believing their views are unusual. In the case of being stuck, I found the same pattern: people imagine others are gliding through life and only they and a minority of other people feel stuck.

The third thing I learned is that the diverse instances of "being stuck" my respondents described fall into two categories: those that are imposed from outside, and those that originate within the individual. Externally imposed constraints can be intractable. If you want to travel from New York to Paris during a pandemic and the borders are closed, you're physically stuck; if you want a Ferrari but can't afford a used Honda, you're financially stuck. These instances of inertia reflect constraints that aren't always surmountable, and they're largely beyond the scope of this book. They're also relatively uncommon—in the survey I learned that truly intractable inertia is surprisingly rare, accounting for around 10 percent of all cases of chronic immobility. People want plenty of things they can't have, but they're plagued by the things they feel they 'should' or 'could' have. 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. To give you a sense of how they sound, here's a small sample from my survey:

Respondent 6: "I'm in my 30s. I can't seem to save up money. I always find ways to spend in the moment and can't get myself to stop. Saving is impossible for me. I'm anxious and fearful about how I'll afford to live in the future."

Respondent 107: "I've been trying to learn how to play the piano. I was making steady progress, but in the last couple of years, I feel I haven't improved at all. I continue to practice the basics but I feel stuck, and it is making me worry that I'll never improve. It feels as if I'm wasting my time."

Respondent 384: "I'm stuck in a thankless job and want to be able to start my own business. I want to take the leap, but I'm worried about my finances and the uncertainty of going out on my own. Thinking about this leaves me numb and devoid of emotion."

Respondent 443: "I'm an artist. I've hit a plateau and can't seem to improve further. I need to practice—to put my nose to the grindstone—to improve my skill in drawing portraits and landscapes. I need to learn how to be more creative, and to find creative solutions to my problems."

You can hear the frustration as you read each account. Respondent 6 lacks the willpower to save money more responsibly. Respondent 107 has plateaued on the road to learning a new skill. Respondent 384 is scared to leap from a stable but uninspiring job to a risky business venture. And Respondent 443 is grinding through a period of creative block. Theirs are four brief stories among hundreds of responses, and surely among billions of humans across the globe. Each of these people was willing to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to get unstuck— including, paradoxically, Respondent 6, who says both that he doesn't know how to save money and that he'd pay $500 to get unstuck.

* * *

As the respondents to my survey showed, to be alive is to battle stuckness. People get stuck at home and at work; financially and intellectually; individually and interpersonally. They get stuck as creatives and entrepreneurs; as athletes and thinkers; alone and in groups. The term 'stuck' covers a broad range of contexts and experiences, but to be stuck, as I think of it, means three things: (1) that you're temporarily unable to make progress in a domain that matters to you; (2) that you've been fixed in place for long enough to feel psychological discomfort; and (3) that your existing habits and strategies aren't solving the problem. Being stuck, then, is more than brief discomfort that can be remedied with the diligent application of old ideas. 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.

The first section, "Help," demystifies the experience of being stuck. Once you accept that being stuck is universal, you're primed to ask how it could be a feature of progress, rather than an uncommon glitch. Why is being stuck a natural default state, while consistent progress is vanishingly rare? Why do so many public success stories begin with extended, private bouts of hardship? Why do barriers block the paths of people across so many disciplines, from entrepreneurs and athletes to actors, artists, and writers?

This excerpt is from the ebook edition.

Monday we begin the book THE EXPERIENCE MINDSET by Tiffani Bova.

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