The Breakout Principle
Herbert Benson, MD, and Willkam Proctor
Scribner, NY, NY 2004 (paperback)
Every profession and occupation suffers from it: sport figures, writers, scientists, even religious clerics. “It” is the problem that crops up in everyone's life, for some more often than others, where no matter how hard you work, no matter how much you study or practice or run scenarios, there's a situation that you have to do something about which is very critical, and a wrong decision could harm you in many ways, a situation that seems utterly unsolvable, beyond the scope of your powers, and no matter how much you think about it, has no good answer.
Whether it's a baseball player's slump, writers block, a piece of computer software code that just won't behave, or a family situation that's been keeping you up nights for months: you've worked on it and worked on it, going around in circles trying to find an answer, but nothing works. Then you make some very rude remarks, and go golfing. But even then your mind is still on the problem, and your golf game suffers. You go home and try to attack the problem again, but no go. Finally and completely giving up for the night, you decide to drown your sorrows in a very long, hot shower. And all of a sudden, there you are, jumping out of the shower to write down the answer that suddenly popped unbidden into your head. This is what Benson and Proctor call the “Breakout Principle.”
I've seen this happen in my own life, when I worked at a university. Someone would be in the lab early in the am having come in in the middle of the night because they'd been working on something and gotten “stuck” for weeks, went home in disgust, took a shower, went to bed, and boom, they woke up with a fully formed answer and they had to get into work immediately to see if they were right.
The elements involved vary a lot from person to person. Some folks take a shower, some knit (there are interesting comments on the emergence of “male knitting”), some put together toy models or do crossword puzzles, or take to meditation and prayer. The key is having all the raw material in your head (from actually doing the homework and taking responsibility for solving the dilemma), and then letting go to allow your unconscious mind, or your spirit, or whatever actor is doing the “thinking” while you're out of the loop, do it's job. Benson and Proctor did research to determine if there were differences in brain behavior during stress, when someone was struggling, when they were taking time off from thinking about it, and after one of the “aha” moments, etc., and their work is extremely interesting, both for what it tells us, and for what is still part of the ongoing mystery.
Our grandparents used to tell us things like “sleep on it before you make a decision,” “put it on the back burner for awhile and do something else,” “just walk away and try again later.” What Breakout Principle tells us, is that they were right. The why is still a bit murky, because there are wide differences in what works for different people. For some, spirituality is the key, for others, repetitive tasks like gardening or needlepoint. Those with creative endeavors are often seen as weird or flaky because they routinely do things that seem unrelated to what they're striving to complete. Creative computer start-up companies began with play rooms and gyms and other “unprofessional” activities that served just that purpose, a break from the relentless pressure of making a new company work. Writers often talk about mulling over complicated stories or descriptions for days or weeks, and then just sitting and writing nonstop for hours, the entire project forming itself in their mind, complete, and all the writer had to do was write it down.
What is interesting to me about this book are the implications for many different aspects of our lives, from family interactions to social policy.
Do we break out to discover new “outside the box” answers only when we've struggled intensely with a problem and then let go? Do we need the stress of trying to solve the puzzle in the first place – do we need to be outside our comfort zone in order to grow and learn in new ways? If we stay within our comfort zones, do we stagnate? In a time period when may people complain about the “status quo” and want real change, but are still locked into patterns of politics and beliefs that appear unchangeable, how important is knowing how to think “outside the box,” and do we have to “give up” to find the answers? Can people step back from complex problems to do a better job of solving them?
The strategies that are described in this book (with lots of examples from their research) are very useful, the Breakout Principle described as sort of a “swiss army knife” for self-help, and for that reason alone I'd recommend this book. The writing can get a bit repetitive, as many similar stories are told over and over again, but I'm a sucker for books that help us see in more self-aware ways, and learn not only how we “tick” but how we find a path to individual growth and creativity.
This book has been around awhile without a lot of fanfare, but I think it's an important one that should be read and considered, both for its self help suggestions, and for its research, helping us to understand how we can break old patterns and succeed brilliantly in our endeavors.