Those elusive “aha” and “eureka” moments where everything changes.
Breakthroughs are important, because they don’t just change everything – they make change fast.
Normally, humans – both as individuals and groups – make liner progress: In school, we learn to multiply and divide, the history of our country, some basic facts about our planet, and how to read.
As communities, we learned over many generations how to raise livestock, store grain, and extract useful minerals from the earth.
Breakthroughs are different. 100 years of slow, incremental progress can be surpassed almost instantaneously by a single breakthrough.
The wheel was a breakthrough for transportation. Vaccinations were a breakthrough for human health. Refrigeration, the printing press, and the Internet – all breakthroughs.
Another distinction held by these giant leaps forward is that, most often, there’s no way for the step-by-step method to achieve the result.
That is, the normal, incremental progress that typifies how we live and learn is rarely capable of taking us to the promised land of revolutionary innovation.
Nobody tried a square wheel, then thought “you know what, that might roll better if I knocked the corners off.”
This solution could only be reached by a quantum leap in judgment. A new paradigm in thinking.
For instance, in my work as a marketing strategist or “breakthrough artist” – I remember one client was using a bunch of different landing pages to make offers to their prospects, but not keeping good track of performance.
In less than an 30 minutes, I was able to identify the top performers, which produced over 3x the businesses average. By funneling all their prospects to those pages and ceasing to use the underperformers, they could increase sales by a conservative $20,000.
That’s a breakthrough. Even if the solution was an obvious one for someone who knew where to look.
I apply the same mindset to language learning.
The conventional approach to learning languages is to do a bunch of memory drills and mental calculations of grammar and syntax.
Vetran language learners have made a breakthrough in their approach – instead of trying to become better calculators, they know that the most important thing is to develop their intuition of the language.
Just like I (and possibly you) speak English naturally, without thinking about things like word order, tenses, and verb conjugation, polyglots aim for the same skill set in their 2nd, 3rd, and additional languages.
That’s a strategic breakthrough that not only expedites the learning process, it makes the use of the acquired language much more fluid and natural – or fluent. And it requires doing something totally different in our brains, even if some of the techniques look similar.
The question then, is how can we create breakthroughs?
After all, if these are quantum leaps in judgment, or wisdom, or strategy, and we can’t approach them step by step – how the heck can we do this with intent? Isn’t the Newtonian apple-to-the-noggin our only hope?
Fortunately for the novice, there is one powerful question we can start asking ourselves that can put us on the precipice of finding the revolutionary answers we seek:
If I could never do “x” again, what would I try instead?
Let me explain.
When we are trying to solve a problem, we usually look for the exact same types of answer.
The dieter tries one diet. Then another. Then a 3rd. Whatever the flavor of the week is.
A bachelor trying to get more dates might focus on learning “pickup lines” or other, basic conversation starters, continually adding to his repertoire of openers.
Someone trying to get rich might favor multi-level-marketing companies, trying Mary Kay, Amway, and Herbalife.
There might be slightly more variation within these examples, but we are creatures of habit, and we tend to look for variations of the solution we want instead of something truly innovative and new.
The question: If I never do “x” again, what would I try instead?” forces us to look outside our habitual stomping grounds.
For example, if someone trying to lose weight asks themselves “If I never try a diet & exercise regime again, what would I try instead?”
They haven’t given themselves a definitive answer, but what they have done is they’ve made an answer possible to find.
Because as long as they’re hopping from one fad diet to the next, they have no way to see the other factors involved in weight loss – the bigger picture.
Diet tunnel vision means missing out on all the other lifestyle factors that may play a role – of which sleep, stress, and sex are 3.
If we go a bit deeper, the would-be-dieter asking themselves this question might also realize that worrying about where they are/aren’t, feeling badly about their self image, or wanting to fit into their prom dress/tux again really aren’t the best reasons to be dieting. And dropping that emotional baggage will at the very least be a weight off their shoulders while they look for a way to take weight off their waistline.
A breakthrough of this nature played an important role in my own life too.
When I couldn’t talk for 2 years or use my hands due to a coincidental repetitive strain injury, I was extremely stressed out because it meant I couldn’t interact with family or friends the same way, couldn’t write, and couldn’t play guitar.
All that at once was a brutal psychological blow, and it brought me down for a while.
However, I then used this question to help find something meaningful to do with my time.
I asked myself: “If I never talk or can use my hands again, what would I do?”
And there were answers that were surprisingly simple: I could run. I could also do yoga or play soccer, do freerunning/parkour, and other leg-intensive activities.
It wasn’t the same, of course. But it was an important development – because I could then reorient myself to things I enjoyed and excelled at, which cascaded into an improved outlook, more energy, and hope. Less stress and fatigue. All that meant a greater ability to find the answers I was looking for.
Now it’s your turn. To create your next breakthrough, follow these steps:
Often, we make progress simply when we stop doing the things that aren’t working. And that’s something we can do immediately. So do this now, and if you’re feeling brave – let me know in the comments what your answers to this exercise were. Make it social and make it real.