Breaking Through is Hard to Do
by Mimi Winsberg, M.D.
I’ve been reading quite a bit recently on the subject of creativity, as it seems to be vogue in the literature of business, education and even neuroscience. It’s a subject that has interested me for some time and our research group at Stanford was looking at measures of enhanced creativity in patients with bipolar (manic-depressive) disease 15 years ago.
There is no question that breakthrough solutions (that is to say bursts of creativity) develop from at least two separate strategies. The first strategy is focusing the brain in disciplined ways for extended periods of time; the second strategy is letting go of one’s prior assumptions, allowing the brain to make new connections that it previously had not made. As Jonah Lehrer elaborately examines in his book “Imagine”, creativity is about thinking differently about things we do every day, and being able to imagine what has never existed.
Breakthroughs in sport share some features with breakthroughs in thinking. A breakthrough in sport effectively creates -- for that particular athlete -- what has never existed. So the first time you break 5 hours in a half-ironman, or run a sub-3 hour marathon (or whatever your barrier may be) you are entering uncharted territory and doing what you were never sure was possible for yourself, and had certainly never experienced before.
So what are some of the ingredients that foster breakthroughs?
Seek Fresh Perspective
Lehrer argues that our knowledge and biases can limit us by making us too accepting of our own limitations. Knowing, for example, that your FTP is 200 watts and that you can’t ride over that number and still run well both informs you, but may limit your perception of what you can really do. By taking a fresh innocent look at a problem, we are often able to see new solutions. Herein lies the value of a team with multiple perspectives and backgrounds: outsiders who are new to a problem can look at it in a fresh way without the biases acquired from years of study. Seeking out mentors who can take a fresh look at your training, your fitness, or your failures and infuse new ideas and perspective, can help when you feel stuck in a plateau of performance.
Be Willing to Fail
Prepare and Persist
So when you are looking for a breakthrough performance, prepare and persist, seek fresh perspective, suspend disbelief and be willing to fail. You will never know unless you try.
Mimi is a psychiatrist and multiple-time Kona qualifier. She has offices in downtown San Francisco and Menlo Park, California, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.