The Four Wings
All About Breakthroughs
Yet another drop of ink leaked from his fountain pen onto the page, and L‡szl— B’r— threw down his pen in disgust. A Hungarian newspaper editor who earned his salary by writing, he was frustrated with the tools of his trade. He seemed to spend his time either filling up his fountain pens, or then cleaning up the smudges they made.
Of course he was grateful for the invention of the fountain pen: it was a vast improvement over feather quills. But it still meant ink splotches and ruined pages that had to be written all over again.
Why couldn't the ink from his fountain be more like the ink used to print his newspaper? B’r— already knew the answer: newspaper ink was much too thick for his fountain pen. Right ink, wrong pen. Deciding to use the newspaper ink was a good idea. But it wasn't a breakthrough.
The breakthrough came with a new way to deliver the ink. Rather than trying to get the thick ink to flow through a nib, B’r— and his brother figured out how to set a metal ball in a socket and let the thick ink roll out from behind the ball.
Now let's be clear-ballpoint pens had been attempted before. They just hadn't worked until then. Early ballpoints did not deliver the ink evenly; overflow and clogging were just two of the many issues that made them impractical. The breakthrough came when B’r— made the ballpoint pen viable.
In business, a breakthrough is often described as an idea that solves a problem or satisfies a need in an entirely new way. Although there is no single definition of breakthroughs, we define them quite simply as the moment when you break through something that was previously limiting you, whether it's a specific problem you couldn't find a solution to, a situation you couldn't understand, or simply an old way of doing or seeing things.
Sociologist and author Martha Beck describes the experience of breakthrough as "a shift in your understanding of the world, because the lens through which you view the world has been suddenly, gloriously changed. And boy, do breakthroughs feel amazing." A breakthrough is a sudden advance in your knowledge or understanding that moves you past a barrier and makes you see things, understand things in a new way. Although all breakthroughs come from the same process in the brain, not all breakthroughs come in the same way.
There are two main kinds of breakthroughs: intentional and unintentional. You'll face some of the same obstacles with both, but these obstacles will play out in different ways. Fear, for instance, impedes both intentional and unintentional breakthroughs-but it rears its ugly head at different stages of the breakthrough experience. For intentional breakthroughs, fear interferes before the breakthrough, bringing up the possibility of failure.
Fear seeps in after unintentional breakthroughs, and it centers on the oncoming challenges of implementing a solution. For instance, you suddenly realize (breakthrough) that you need a divorce. Anxiety might arise as you foresee the unpleasantness that all too often accompanies the process (implementation) of divorcing.
Or perhaps you suddenly realize (breakthrough) you've fallen in love with a close friend. You could fear being rejected after making your new feelings known (implementation), or, confusingly, fear success and the life changes it would entail.
For unintentional breakthroughs, landing on a solution isn't the end goal: you need to act on it. As Beck says, "Having breakthroughs isn't the point. Living them is. Seeing in a new way is only the beginning." Fear is a powerful saboteur of this process.
Although all breakthroughs come from the same process in the brain, not all breakthroughs come in the same way. We have identified four different types: eureka breakthrough, metaphorical breakthrough, intuitive breakthrough, and paradigm breakthrough. Understanding the different kinds of breakthroughs will help you spot them so you don't miss a single one. It will also help you discover the style, or styles, that are most natural to you so you can learn to focus on the way that works best for you.
The key is to understand that no style of breakthrough is better or more productive than another. It is simply best to understand which style or styles come most naturally to you.
Eureka translates from the Greek as "I've got it" or "That's it." In popular culture, it has come to describe the moment when someone experiences a sudden, unexpected realization.
Archimedes, the original "Eureka!" shouter, was a Greek mathematician and scientist living in ancient Sicily in the third century b.c. One day, he was asked by King Hero, ruler of the city-state, to determine whether a crown was made of real gold. Since gold had a known density, all he had to do was measure the density of the crown and see whether it matched up.
The first part of measuring density was easy: determine the crown's weight. But the second part required measuring the crown's exact volume. Now, measuring the volume of an object like a cube is simple. But how do you determine the volume of an object as irregularly shaped as a crown?
Archimedes puzzled on the problem until one day while taking a bath. As he stepped into the bathtub, he watched the water rise, displaced by his leg. He realized that, just as the water had risen to accommodate the new volume of his leg, it would rise in response to the volume of the crown. So he could submerge the crown and measure the amount of water displaced to know the crown's volume, and thus calculate its density. He cried "Eureka!" and jumped out of his bath and ran through the streets of Syracuse stark naked, shouting all the way.
We tend to have eureka insights when we've been mulling over a problem for some time. Take, for example, the time two helicopter mechanics in the Army Reserve saved the army tens of millions of dollars because of their shared love of NASCAR.
During the Iraq War, desert sand and dust were damaging helicopter windshields faster than the army could replace them, and costing hundreds of thousands of dollars every month. Lexan, the shatter-resistant plastic the windshields were made of, tended to scratch easily.
As it happens, Lexan is also used to make NASCAR windshields. But to solve the scratching problem, NASCAR drivers had learned to cover their windshields with thin sheets of transparent Mylar film they called "tearaways." At the end of each race, the used Mylar sheet is torn off, and the Lexan windshield underneath is left without a scratch.
Two national guardsmen on a helicopter maintenance crew in Virginia happened to be big NASCAR fans. As they surveyed the extent of the damage done to their helicopters' Lexan windshields, they were hit with the possibility that NASCAR's solution could offer in solving the army's problem. Creatively reapplying an existing solution is a common type of eureka insight. In fact, NASCAR first borrowed the Mylar technique from motorcycle racers protecting their helmets.
When eureka breakthroughs happen, they happen fast. They are the proverbial lightning bolt over the head. Many people report the sensation of receiving information from a location "above." And this sudden discovery of an immediately applicable solution is incredibly exciting.
Eureka insights are the ones that your author Olivia gets most often (she's ruthlessly pragmatic). These ideas arrive with a clear mental picture of how to execute them and the confidence that they'll work.
They are most likely to come when you have been living with a problem or a block. This problem is interfering with your peace of mind; you think about it often during the day. But the actual breakthrough will most likely occur when you're no longer thinking about the problem.
James Watt did not invent the steam engine. In 1764, at the University of Glasgow, he was repairing what was known as a Newcomen steam engine, which Watt considered very inefficient. He worked on the problem until one spring day in 1765, he was walking through a park when the breakthrough came to him: he needed two cylinders. Eureka! Watt's breakthrough made the engine so much more powerful and efficient that it ushered in the true age of steam.
A century later, the next great breakthrough in power occurred in a remarkably similar way. Nikola Tesla had been working on the concept of an alternating current motor for a few years. One day while walking through a park in Budapest he had a feverish vision of an alternating current motor complete with three slightly out of phase magnetic fields turning the drive shaft. The solution had appeared fully formed. Eureka!
This is part of the grand paradox of breakthrough thinking. In order to have a eureka breakthrough, you have to be deeply immersed in a problem. But then you have to let go of it, let your mind wander off and go do something else. It's while you're otherwise engaged, and not focused on the problem, that you will be rewarded with a eureka breakthrough. How to switch between these two modes-focus and lack of focus-is one of the most important things this book will teach you.
"In my experience, eureka moments happen when we face a high level of pressure," explains Victoria Spadaro Grant, CTO of pasta behemoth Barilla and one of Olivia's favorite clients, "whether the pressure is generated as a by-product of a self-imposed challenge or the result of external circumstances."
When Barilla CEO Claudio Colzani, concerned by the increasing consumption of saturated fats reported by the World Health Organization, ordered a massive reduction in saturated fats across Barilla's entire bakery portfolio, Spadaro-Grant faced a "massive challenge." As head of Research and Development for the Barilla Group, she was in charge of reformulating the portfolio and bringing it to market within five months. "At the time, we did not know how to solve the technical challenge of delivering the same eating experience with less saturated fat, not to mention implementing new manufacturing processes and addressing the multimillion euro cost and profitability impact."
With the clock ticking, Spadaro-Grant assembled "a SWAT team of only six people who were eager to try, test, break rules, and make bold decisions. We realized that with such a short time frame, we had to throw the old rule book completely out the window. That realization led to new margins of tolerance across technical solutions, manufacturing setups, formulation costs, and marketing communications. As simple as this sounds, this was the way we changed technical paradigms about how to use fats in our bakery." Eureka!
In 1782, there was no such thing as a bullet: guns did not shoot small, tapered missiles, but rather lumps of lead known as "shot." Most people produced shot by rolling out a sheet of molten lead, waiting for it to cool, and then chopping it up. This wasn't very effective in producing smooth spheres: the projectiles were misshapen, pitted, or even completely perforated.
As a result, it was nearly impossible for anyone to shoot straight. Because of their irregular shape, the slugs would catch the wind and curve like a paper airplane; their trajectory was always unpredictable. In 1782, hitting your target had more to do with luck than with aim. Since England was in the business of ruling the world at the time, and in the midst of a war with its pesky American colonies, the ability to shoot straight was of great interest.
Producing shot was also expensive, time consuming, and labor intensive. After the chopping method, people tried pouring molten lead into spherical molds. Unfortunately, the cooling process tended to create off-center spheres, and in addition air bubbles left deep, random pits.
Enter William Watts. A prosperous plumber living in a three-story house in the town of Bristol, England, Watts experienced a week of particularly trouble some sleep. Night after night he was puzzled by the same dream: He was walking along a street when it began to rain-only it wasn't raining water, it was raining lead. The drops of lead piled up around his feet. When Watts bent down to pick one up, he saw that it was a perfectly round sphere, the ideal lead shot everyone was chasing after. Watts was dreaming about the perfect product falling from the sky. But what did it mean? Day after day he pondered that question in vain.
After a few days, tired from lack of sleep at night and from puzzling over the dream during the day, Watts went for a walk. As he went down the street he had a flash of insight and suddenly understood the meaning of his dream. He ran home and set to work.
Watts added three floors to his house, making it six stories high. He cut holes in each floor, one atop the other, and put a water tank at the bottom. Then he stood at the top of this shaft with a copper sieve and a bucket of molten lead. He poured the liquid lead through the sieve and watched as lead droplets fell the length of the shaft, landing in the cool water below with a hiss.
He ran downstairs, dipped his hand into the well, and pulled up a handful of beautifully round lead shot. The even pull of gravity in the stillness of the airshaft had produced perfect spheres. Watts had invented a process to make it rain bullets, turning his dream into reality. Patented in 1783, these "shot towers," as they came to be known, sprang up all over England, Europe, and America.
Watts's mind had presented him with a solution indirectly: his brain came up with an analogy and shared it through a dream. Watts dreamed that he was walking in a rain of little lead pellets, had the same dream for a week without knowing what to make of it, then finally had a revelation, and the insight that his mind was trying to communicate became clear.
Metaphorical insights aren't as direct as eureka insights. Answers come to you first as metaphors or analogies, and you must interpret their images before the breakthrough is complete. With Archimedes' eureka insight, the answer came fully formed. There was no need to interpret a metaphor: the submersion of his leg was a direct correlation to the submersion of the crown.
If Watts's insight had been a eureka insight, he would have seen a concrete solution: an image of a tower, of drops of metal falling and being shaped into spheres by friction with the air, landing in water, and cooling down. It would have been a one-to-one correlation. Instead, he had a dream about rain, and then saw that the drops of rain were drops of lead. It was raining lead. The elements were there: the lead, the fall, the water. But there wasn't a direct correlation; a process of interpretation was necessary.
Copyright © 2017 by Olivia Fox Cabane. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.