May 2012

The Science & Secret of Getting Unstuck

© Nuttakit Sukjaroensuk |

Years ago, as a freelance journalist, I was commissioned by one of the UK’s top glossy women’s magazines to visit a silent retreat and write a short article about the experience. This was the first time I’d received an assignment from this particular magazine and I was determined to do a good job so they’d follow it up with more work.

I’ve always been one of those writers who crafts consecutively – by which I mean, to write anything at all I have to start at the beginning. If I can’t articulate the opening paragraph (to a book, article, or blog post), nothing else gets written.

For this particular magazine article the opening paragraph just wouldn’t come. I knew the rest of what I wanted to say, but how was I going to start my story?

The day before the deadline I was flying back from the US (I was living in England at the time) and a sense of panic hit me. If I couldn’t complete a high-quality article in the next 24 hours I was likely never to receive another commission from that magazine. My name would be mud, at least to them. So I did what seemed the sensible thing to do. Instead of pulling an all-nighter and churning out crap, I went to bed, confident that whatever was meant to happen would happen. Heck, no one was going to die!

The next morning I went to my computer and typed out 750 of the best words I’ve ever written. The editor loved my article. It was published unedited, although ironically I never did write anything else for them.

What’s the point of sharing this with you? Here it is – via a brief detour on the fallacy of “flow.”

No Flow.

People often talk about how creative types continually get into the “flow” when working…meaning they lose track of time and sometimes even a sense of self. We are supposed to become so absorbed in what we’re doing that time and our external environment become utterly irrelevant.

I’ve rarely experienced flow, and never while I’m writing. The only time I remember being in that state was during a watercolor class at a spa, when I was concentrating so hard at copying a picture from a book that three hours disappeared in a flash.

I mention flow because when it comes to writing it’s challenging for me to focus over an extended period of time because I’m so aware of how much external stimuli seeps into my consciousness when I’m trying to write. Frankly, I’ve given up worrying about that.

[Every day I give thanks that no one had coined the term ADHD when I was a kid so I didn’t get drugged up to the eyeballs and have this innate creative disposition muted or – worse still – irrevocably destroyed by misplaced over-medicating.]

It was therefore interesting to read in Jonah Lehrer’s new book Imagine: How Creativity Works (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) that:

…the inability to focus perhaps ensures a richer mixture of thoughts in consciousness. Because these people (in this study) had difficulty filtering out the world, they ended up letting in more.

Ergo, those of us who find it hard to focus when we’re writing absorb more stuff to connect together, resulting in a higher probability of the “conceptual blending” of disparate ideas that produces something really special.

Get Out!

Indeed, it is this lack of extended focus that allowed access to the kind of insights that helped me write that silent retreat article – on target, and on time.

Again, the scientific validation for what works for me in practice can be found in Lehrer’s book. Whenever something isn’t coming I either go out and take the dog for a walk, or go to bed and imagine I’m at my beach house (the imaginary one, for now!) by the ocean.

According to Lehrer’s investigations, research has shown that the brain is at its busiest during times when we are “performing a task that requires little conscious attention, such as routine driving on the highway or reading a tedious book.” When we don’t have external stuff demanding our attention, “the brain starts to explore its inner database, searching for relationships in a more relaxed fashion.”

It’s this kind of thinking – the “default,” offline state, that provides those “aha” insights that folks I know who insist on slogging it out at their computers rarely get.

So, if you’re like me and find it hard to focus for hours at a time, at least with respect to your writing, be thankful and don’t fight it. Think of all the additional information seeping into your consciousness that could provide the building blocks for your next amazing insight.

Don’t worry about not getting into the flow, just go with the flow: get out into the world, let your mind wander, and allow the brain to work harder when you’re not forcing it to do so.

Successful Books Require Better Questions

Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers. ~ Voltaire

Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers. ~ Tony Robbins

My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions. ~ Peter Drucker

One of the joys of visiting bricks and mortar bookstores is when you come across a book you didn’t know about, on a topic you didn’t think you’d be interested in, about something that is largely out of date. Ever had an experience like that? Never happens for me on Amazon!

On this occasion, having visited my local Half Price Books (stay alive, guys!), I chanced upon Randall Rothenberg’s tome Where The Suckers Moon: The Life and Death of an Advertising Campaign (Vintage, 1994) The purpose here is not to go into the content (it’s a hilarious yet disturbing account of the debacle that was Wieden + Kennedy’s early 1990s attempt at producing a winning advertising campaign for Subaru of America. Spoiler alert: they couldn’t). Let’s just say I found the book fascinating, if a little long and somewhat boring in parts, but would recommend it to anyone looking for an insight into the crazy world of advertising campaigns.

What I want to share with you  is something that former Advertising Age marketing and media columnist Rothenberg wrote in the Acknowledgments (a section that often makes for instructive reading for serious authors):

…the project really began with a troubling question asked me by Joseph Lelyveld, then the deputy managing editor (of the New York Times), who wanted to know why men and women in advertising were so passionate about what they did. Unable to answer, even after two years and some five hundred advertising columns, I (went) …to find the reasons.

Ergo, here was a respected expert on the media, who wrote for one of the most prestigious magazines in his industry, yet didn’t make the mistake of thinking he knew everything.

Had he done so, his book would have been quite different and — without a question he couldn’t answer to spur him on — have likely not become “the critically-acclaimed chronicle of the birth, evolution, and death of a single advertising campaign” that resulted.

Rothenberg produced a different book from what was typically written about the advertising industry.

How different and superior do you want your book to be?

In which case, what’s your question?

What Separates Superior And So-So Authors

Ganesha, Hindu God of Knowledge

The question that I answer with this book is….

When faced with completing that sentence, what’s your initial response? Most likely it will be to choose a question you already know how to answer, in the hope that it’s also one of interest to your target audience.

This kind of “knowledge sharing” is the default for most people. It’s also the reason why their books are ones that any other subject matter expert could have written – and may already have. These books are typically knocked out quickly and easily (always the carrot dangled by those “write your book in a month” programs). With few exceptions they’re so-so books written by — forgive me for saying so — average thinkers.

Don’t you want to write something more unique? A book that is superior in content? One that not only meets your readers’ needs, but offers you greater satisfaction as the writer — because it takes you longer and is a bigger challenge? A book that changes you as a consequence of birthing it? One that makes you — well, smarter?

Here’s how. Learn, provoke, challenge yourself to think like a knowledge discoverer instead!

There are two kinds of writers — that I’m calling knowledge sharers and knowledge discoverers — who have been found by psychologists, who study the science behind how and what we write, to produce vastly different experiences both for their readers and for themselves.

Knowledge sharing

Knowledge sharers are content to write about what they already know. For them it’s a simple case of extracting what’s in their heads, figuring out some kind of organizational structure, and then writing their books. When answering the question I posed above they go immediately to: What do I already know? And that’s what they share. These people may be adults but, in scientific terms at least, they are “immature” writers. Meaning that their approach is simplistic and not particularly sophisticated, cognitively speaking. Really, they’re not using much of their minds.

This approach is qualitatively different from what knowledge discoverers do.

Knowledge discovering

When faced with completing that first sentence outlined above, knowledge discoverers set themselves a greater challenge. They may begin with a general theme for their book and then ask themselves, What do I need to know that I don’t already about this topic? That, then, is their self-appointed quest — to find out. In doing so they have a greater chance of uncovering material that likely has never been offered before. And they increase their odds of being able to write more intriguing and valuable thought leadership books.

Put simply, knowledge sharers focus more on what they do know. Whereas knowledge discoverers are more interested in what they don’t know — and what they have to do or find out to plug those gaps. This not only makes them much more interesting authors, from a reader’s perspective, but superior thinkers.

As Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia point out in The Psychology of Written Composition:

The composing behavior of expert writers may in these terms be distinguished from that of novices by the greater frequency with which regulatory mechanisms are used compared to nonregulatory mechanisms such as generating and transcribing.

Put simply, knowledge discoverers — “expert” writers by dint of the greater mental effort they bring to bear to the task of writing — not only use different, cognitively sophisticated parts of the brain but in doing so they more successfully stimulate and expand their minds.

Quality thinking

In an age when just about every man and his dog is now an “author,” isn’t a goal of yours to distinguish yourself from so-so writers and thinkers? Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing more about the ways in which the knowledge discoverers I work with not only transform the quality of their work, but the quality of their thoughts because of the process we go through together.

In the meantime, however, think about this. Next time you sit down to write — your book, your blog, an article, white paper or whatever — challenge yourself by asking, What still needs to be discovered about this topic? What don’t I know that I’m excited to find out? What’s missing from what’s typically being written?

Then again, maybe you don’t want to be a thought leader. And are content to be a so-so author instead.

Your thoughts?


What Stephen White “Gets” and Seth Godin Doesn’t

Fortunately for all of us, my books don’t go directly from my word processor to the bookstore. First, the pages go through the hands of exemplary professionals who tune them, shine them, and prepare them for the light of day.

The above comes almost at the end of the two pages of acknowledgments that one of my favorite thriller novelists, Stephen White, includes at the close of Warning Signs. Given that this guy — a clinical psychologist  as well as a New York Times best-selling author so no duffer in the intelligence stakes — recognizes the value of the people who helped him with research, editing, and general feedback, I’m at a loss to understand why Seth Godin continues to perpetuate the unhelpful view that writing a book is a “solo endeavor.” 

Well, let me rephrase that, because in reality oftentimes it is, especially in the world of self-publishing. But writing a quality book is never a solo endeavor. Godin may well point out that:

One person with time but no money can produce a first draft that is substantially similar to what the public will end up reading.

And therein lies the issue with so many of the poorly conceived, badly written, never-edited, and barely read c**p that is available online today – novels and nonfiction.

Please!!! Pay no attention to this nonsense. If your first draft looks “substantially similar to what the public will end up reading” you are either a genius or not trying hard enough. With all due respect, I’m going to opt for the latter. Certainly, I would never embarrass myself — after 25 years as a professional writer and internationally published author — or show such disdain for my readers to put out something that too closely resembled my first draft.

I’d rather be influenced by the humility and professionalism of Stephen White, and the many others who echo his sentiments in their own Acknowledgments pages, given that his 19th novel is about to hit the bookstores and the man goes from strength to strength with his writing. More so than Seth Godin who, I swear, would never sell that many books if he wasn’t in what my friend calls the “G2F” market: Guru to Follower. People will buy whatever he churns out because he’s Seth Godin. Much of his writing isn’t that good, in my opinion. It was once, but not any more.

Could it be because Godin takes his own advice and his first draft too closely resembles what he puts out for the rest of us to read?

What do you think?

Authoring a Book – My Talk in Bangalore, India captured by Vinod Kumaar


Image: Rajiv Mathew/ThoughtWorks

Immensely grateful to Vinod Kumaar Ramakrishnan who succinctly captured many of the points I made to the aspiring (and previously published) authors who attended my recent talk at the ThoughtWorks offices in Bangalore, India recently.

Read  Vinod’s blog report here.

  • RSS
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter