Most of us believe that breakthroughs are reserved for a few with top-shelf talents. In The Net and The Butterfly, Olivia Fox Cabane and Judah Pollack make a strong case that all humans are capable of breakthrough thinking.
They compare breakthroughs to “butterflies” because of their beautiful and elusive nature. We hold the “net” when we switch from focusing to meandering, and back again. The “net”, or mechanisms we use to capture ideas, is the way in which we wander to them, grab them and finally evaluate the breakthrough ideas for feasibility or release.
The authors pack mountains of concepts about brain mechanics into this guide. They also give us an abundant toolbox to create more breakthrough thinking in our daily lives.
Switch from default to breakthrough
"Neuroscientists have recently discovered that the secret to breakthroughs lies in our ability to switch between these two modes, the focused and the meandering."
We are all born with two brain networks. The Executive Network (EN), or Focused Mode, engages only when we need to be on-task. The Default Network (DN), or Meandering Mode, is the source of innovation, runs 24/7 and uses twenty times the body energy as the EN. Learning to switch modes is a core skill of a breakthrough thinker.
Dr. Marcus Raichle discovered the existence of the DN in 1997 and he found that it never shuts off, it only quiets down. The moment we move off task, we default to this network. Raichle declared that unconscious processing “is truly most of what we really do; because if we didn’t we’d be pretty hopeless.”
Many of our current business practices insist we keep our EN on most of the day. Yet, breakthroughs will only increase as we allow for more mode switching during the business day. “Science researchers in the field of creativity now recommend the regular inclusion of ‘mindless’ work, something low in both cognition need and performance pressure.”
Adam Cheyer, the creator of Apple’s Siri, relies on mode switching much like Thomas Edison did. “I sleep on the issues I’m wrestling with.” He discovered the hyperdrive of gathering his “genius council”, the place in his mind that collects ideas and analyzes them for potential. He wakes up with new insights from his DN and uses them to integrate into his work using his EN that day.
Cheyer is talking about using the power of the hypnagogic and hypnopompic states, the half-asleep periods just before falling asleep and just before waking. These are times when our genius council gathers often. You can move into the hypnopompic state more by:
- Watching a video on something new to trip your visual center and build associations.
- Looking through mementos to access old, forgotten memories.
- Reading a book from your adolescence.
- Taking a walk outside.
- Choosing a progressive alarm to wake slowly.
As we rise out of the hypnopompic state, it’s vital to capture the breakthroughs before we move into the EN mode. The EN will use its on-task processes to move a breakthrough forward.
Grow your very own organic plastic
"The ability of the brain to change itself to compensate for deficiencies to change what parts of itself are used for, is just the start of what we now call neuroplasticity. In fact, our brains remain ‘plastic’, changeable, our entire lives."
We used to believe that we stopped developing at a young age. Technology advances in neuroscience research have shown us that the human brain is in a constant state of restructuring, a process called neuroplasticity. Leading innovators are seeing that the higher percentage of “plastic” on a team, the more breakthrough success they experience.
Every breakthrough is a combination of ideas. We get unstuck when we create more connections. The brain trust at Autodesk created a breakthrough technique called the Seven Essential Innovation Questions, or SEIQ:
- How could I look at this differently?
- How could I use this in a way it was not intended for?
- What if I moved this into a new context?
- What if I connected this to something completely new and different?
- What if I altered a piece of it?
- What if I made something new based on this?
- How else could I imagine using this?
The authors list walking as a powerhouse tool for breakthroughs Move your body while you are learning and you will turbocharge your brain’s plasticity by increasing the size of the neural circuit which creates connections. All of these things add up to an increased chance of breakthroughs.
Practice makes discomfort perfect
"Doubt is a signpost on the road to something new, a natural part of the journey to a breakthrough. If no one had doubts, they’d all have done it already!"
Fear is an essential step on the path to a breakthrough. When fear is triggered, our body and mind work to protect us by triggering us into “fight or flight” mode. The authors name the Spiders of Fear:
- Imposter Syndrome: Self-image of incompetence. 70% of people have had this feeling. Prevalent among top performers. Blocks breakthroughs due to lack of confidence.
- The Inner Critic: The sharp voice of self-criticism that uses “shoulds” often. Reduces breakthroughs by introducing negative bias before connections can be explored.
- The Perfectionist: Strong focus on what is wrong rather than what is right. Doesn’t accept the reality of capacity limits. Hinders breakthroughs with right/wrong thinking.
- The Maximizer: Tied to perfectionism, a desire, drive and compulsion to make the best decision or most out of a situation. Limits breakthroughs by narrowing focus and limiting connections.
A breakthrough happens when we move through the fear, not around it. To plow through it:
- Define your goal: what new self-image do you want?
- Gather past evidence: Find at least five examples of your creativity.
- Display the evidence: Show yourself proof when you were doing what you want to do.
- Embrace your new self-image: Behave how you want to be and a new you will follow.
We evolved by using fear as a catalyst to do something. Using these insights, we can breakthrough our fears more often and take action to better our daily life.
The human race requires continuous breakthrough thinking to survive and thrive. The vital skills in the coming years will demand that we modernize our minds in order to sustain our future. The Net and the Butterfly gives us a framework and toolbox to practice an evolved state of working and living.
What will you do tomorrow as the leader of your life to make room to catch some breakthroughs?