A young woman standing in the woods holds an open book

What’s Anatomy of a Breakthrough about? Do you have writer’s block or feel stuck in your personal life?

We’ve all felt trapped at some point in our lives when our motivation falters and all our hard work grinds to a halt. In Anatomy of a Breakthrough, Adam Alter proposes a range of solutions that might help you find your way out of the woods.

Read below for an overview of Adam Alter’s Anatomy of a Breakthrough.

Anatomy of a Breakthrough by Adam Alter

You’ve got writer’s block. You’re passed over for promotion. Your personal life feels like it’s in a rut. You’ve been meaning to finish that half-built set of cabinets, but you just can’t seem to bring yourself to do it. Whatever the nature of your situation, we’ve all felt trapped at some time in our lives, when our sense of motivation drains away and all our hard work grinds to a halt.

In Adam Alter’s Anatomy of a Breakthrough, published in 2023, he argues that when you feel like your path forward is blocked, it isn’t a sign of weakness or failure—instead, it’s a fundamental part of the human experience. Everybody goes through hard times in which we don’t feel like we’re making any progress and we can’t, for the life of us, see a clear way out. Because we often hide our frustration, we’re usually unaware that everyone else goes through the same thing time after time. However, just because you feel trapped doesn’t mean there’s no hope, and Alter proposes a range of solutions that might help you find your way out of the woods.

Alter is a psychologist and professor at New York University. He’s explored behavioral addiction as it relates to technology (Irresistible, 2017) and the way that our environment shapes our behavior (Drunk Tank Pink, 2013). In the research that led to Anatomy of a Breakthrough, Alter discovered that feeling mired for long stretches of time is a far more common experience than anyone admits, and that it’s a struggle for organizations as much as it is for individuals.

When You Feel Stuck

Alter begins by setting forth the problem, and it’s a problem that everyone faces more than once. Namely, you hit a wall in some aspect of your life, whether that’s your career, an important relationship, or a creative endeavor. In this section, we’ll break down some common characteristics of this experience, from the inevitable slowdowns in the middle of long-term projects to the traps that can sabotage progress. These traps typically culminate in a sense of failure that—if improperly framed—is the greatest motivation-killer of all.

When discussing the blocks that life throws in your path, we’re not talking about small everyday challenges, such as making a difficult phone call or fighting the urge to skip your regular workout. The major life-blocks that Alter addresses are those in which your progress on something important to you has stalled long enough that it’s wearing you down, and whatever you’re doing to fix the situation hasn’t been working at all. Maybe you’ve been applying for jobs without success, or you’re trying to lose weight but the pounds won’t come off. The situation feels like an existential threat, and your brain shuts down like a deer in the headlights, further tripping up any chance of progress.

If you’ve been in a drawn-out situation where you felt you had no way forward, you’re not alone. Alter reports that in a study he conducted, three out of four people could easily point to a time in which they’d felt trapped in a rut, often for months and sometimes for years.

At the same time, says Alter, respondents underestimated how many others had felt the same way. This is because of survivorship bias—the media is full of stories of success, but we rarely get to hear tales of struggles and failures. When others’ successes follow a long road of struggle, we view their hardships through rose-tinted glasses while casting our own failures in a negative light.

The Long, Winding Road

There are times when it feels like you’re going nowhere simply because the path to your goal is so long that you can’t see the beginning or the end. Accepting the sheer amount of time it takes to achieve anything important in life is the first mental barrier you have to overcome. Alter explains two aspects of this problem—the slowdowns that occur in the middle part of any task and the disconnect between reality and how you imagine your progress should occur.

Alter writes that one pattern holds constant throughout any long-term project or path—we’re all energized when we start something new, and we’re energized again when the goal is in sight. In the middle, whatever drives us slowly becomes a dull routine, especially once the novelty and our initial excitement fade. Like a road trip where every billboard looks the same, there’s always a point where your progress becomes so incremental you can’t see it anymore. It’s here that you may find yourself flailing around for any way to “get moving again,” when in fact your lack of progress is merely an illusion.

However, sometimes your lack of progress is real. You may be training for a race but your times stop getting better, or you’re cramming for a test but your retention hits a limit. This may be due to what Alter describes as the plateau effect. You hit a plateau when the strategies and techniques that jump-started your progress become less effective. This happens because you grow accustomed to them—your body grows used to your athletic program, or you’ve repeated a mental technique so many times that it no longer helps you learn anything new. These plateaus occur when the tricks you employ are aimed at short-term progress rather than the long view, and it’s time to reevaluate them when you reach their limits.

It’s hard to adopt a long view toward success because when you start working toward an ambition, success is easy to imagine. Nevertheless, your dreams can take years to come to fruition, and even modest goals can often take months. Persistence is key to staying on track, but Alter remarks that we tend to admire persistence more in others than in ourselves. Since our culture is so success-oriented, you’ve probably been conditioned from childhood to view roadblocks as something to be ashamed of, not as a call to redouble your efforts. This counter-productive attitude may lead you to mishandle the inevitable problems you’ll face.

Pitfalls in Your Path

One thing that’s certain is that no matter what your goals are in life, something will always get in your way. Though unforeseeable circumstances are, by definition, unpredictable, you can predict that something will go wrong and prepare yourself so you won’t get stopped indefinitely. 

Alter cites the work of Bruce Feiler, who studies the crises that occur in our lives, from minor jolts to catastrophes. Feiler has found that there’s no schedule or pattern to the chaotic events that interfere with our plans, but he’s determined that most of them are sudden and that about 10% of them are life-changing—such as the death of a loved one or the loss of a job. It’s important to recognize that unplanned turmoil will enter your life, and you have to stay mentally flexible to deal with whatever comes your way. The hard part is judging how much energy to devote to dealing with life’s stressors so that your long-term goals don’t get lost amid the chaos.

The wrong way to deal with life’s messiness is through denial. Alter points to two forms of denial that make things worse—believing that a problem is too small to matter and mistakenly judging that a problem is so far away it’s not an issue.

Denial Tactic #1: Trivializing a Problem

The first way we deny something, says Alter, is by trivializing a problem that we don’t want to deal with. This can be as simple as ignoring your car’s “check engine” warnings. You tell yourself that the car’s running fine—that you’ll wait and have it checked when it’s more convenient. Weeks go by, maybe even months, then suddenly you’re stranded on the side of the road with smoke billowing out from your engine. Assuming an issue is trivial when there’s a possibility that it’s not is a good way to turn preventable problems into major disruptions.

Denial Tactic #2: Delaying Action

The other insidious form denial takes is when we recognize that a problem exists, but we act like it’s so far in the future that we can afford to procrastinate. Millions of Americans do this every year when they put off filing their income tax returns because it’s a stressful, confusing ordeal. Alter writes that when you know a major problem is on the horizon, procrastination multiplies how much it interferes with your life. The alternative is to deal with it sooner—it’ll still be a speed bump, but less so than the emotional stress of putting everything aside to meet the urgent deadline you create for yourself when the problem finally can’t be ignored any longer.

The “F” Word: Failure

Handling obstacles poorly and not persevering through difficult times will set you up for failure, not success. However, certain types of “failure” that we’ve learned to stigmatize are actually crucial stepping stones along your path. Alter suggests some new ways to approach failure.

Coping Tactic #1: Redefine Success

Alter begins by suggesting that many of our concepts of success are too extreme. If you’re a struggling musician with your heart set on a Grammy or a young romantic looking for your perfect soulmate, failure is almost guaranteed. However, if you set more realistic expectations, such as turning your musical hobby into a career or strengthening an imperfect relationship, then success will be hard but achievable. Even those people we perceive as great successes—geniuses, billionaires, and award-winning artists—experience many failures in their lives. What matters is how they build upon failure and readjust their courses of action.

Coping Tactic #2: Learn From Failure

Alter writes that education research has shown failure to be a vital part of learning. Students who have an easy time in school actually perform more poorly later on than those who struggle and work harder to do well. Alter explains that failure makes you re-examine your approach and try new strategies to reach your goals. If you never fail and never question yourself, you don’t push yourself, and you blind yourself to opportunities that can only be found by straying from the easy path. If you find yourself failing too often, then maybe your goals really are too ambitious—but if you don’t fail at all, you’re not stretching yourself to meet your potential.

Coping Tactic #3: Look Beyond Failure

The problem is that many of us see failure as the end of the line. This is wrong. Alter writes that since failure is a necessary step toward success, you have to reframe your attitude toward it. Choose not to beat yourself up when you fail. Simply look at your failure and figure out what it can teach you. Meanwhile, look at all the progress you’ve made. After all, if you “fail” and feel your progress has stopped, it means that you’ve been making an effort, and you’ve probably come a long way from where you started. When you reflect on the progress you’ve made and learn the lessons that failure can teach you, you prime yourself to climb out of your rut and break through whatever wall is holding you back.

Getting Unstuck

As anyone who feels like they’ve hit a wall knows, the hard part is picking yourself up and pushing on. Alter says that when you feel like progress has ground to a halt, there are a variety of ways to kickstart it again. These include remaining calm and being deliberate about your choices, resisting the urge to find a perfect solution, doing whatever it takes to keep moving, exploring a wide range of options and viewpoints, and increasing your odds of a lucky breakthrough by persisting even when you feel you’re going nowhere.

Stay Calm and Slow Down

The first thing to do when you feel you’ve hit an impasse is to center yourself and calmly evaluate your situation. The anxiety that feeling trapped provokes can lead to rash and reckless decisions, but Alter says the antidote is to slow down even more, taking stock of your options as you do. Alter offers two strategies to deal with the anxiety brought about by feeling trapped.

The anxiety you feel when your progress gets stalled—whether you’re writing a grant proposal or training for an upcoming race—comes from an exaggerated need to perform. Your fight-or-flight instinct will try to kick in, pushing you to act and make choices before you’ve had time to fully think them through. Instead, when you start to feel stuck you should stop and explore exactly what’s slowing you down. This practice can negate your fear-based reactions and give you time to come up with a well-thought-out next step.

Stress Relief Tactic #1: Mindfulness

Alter says that mindfulness is a good approach to grappling with anxiety. Mindfulness, traditionally learned through meditation, is a deliberate moment-to-moment awareness of your mental and physical state. Whether or not you explore meditation, it’s vital to acknowledge the anxiety you’re feeling and recognize how it manifests in your body. The hard part is letting yourself feel your anxiety rather than trying to run from it or quash it. By letting your anxiety sit and be examined, you’ll be able to root out the cause of your fear. Perhaps the barrier holding you back isn’t as insurmountable as it seems, or maybe you’ve mentally framed your situation in such a way that not moving forward feels like more of a threat than it is.

Stress Relief Tactic #2: Plan for the Worst

The most basic fear behind every impasse is usually the fear of failure, so Alter argues that you should mentally rehearse your failure before it becomes an existential problem. This goes against most self-help advice, which states that you should always visualize success. But, Alter argues, if you spend time thinking through worst-case scenarios—what happens if the thing you’re hoping for doesn’t happen—you’ll emotionally prepare yourself for the milder-than-worst-case difficulties you’re bound to run into. By fully thinking through the consequences of failure, you may also realize that not achieving your goal exactly how you want isn’t the end of the world.

Reject Perfectionism

It’s easy to get mired on the road to success if you expect your achievements to live up to your dreams in every perfect detail. Perfectionists, especially in creative fields, often feel stymied when their work doesn’t live up to their very high personal standards. Alter frames the escape from the perfectionism trap in several different ways.

Anti-Perfectionism Tactic #1: Lower Your Standards

To a perfectionist, lowering your standards might feel like betraying your ideals, but Alter says that instead of looking at it that way, you should view it as playing with new ideas. For instance, a songwriter trained in complex music theory might, when their ideas run dry, fool around with simple rhythms and clichéd chord progressions until something workable clicks. Doing this doesn’t lower the value of your efforts; rather, it gives you the freedom to explore. While toying around with “substandard” progress, you might stumble on an insight you’d never have arrived at when holding all your work to a higher bar.

Anti-Perfectionism Tactic #2: Quantity Over Quality

Another way to leverage imperfection in any kind of creative project, whether writing ad copy or painting landscapes, is to try to produce as much work as possible without getting hung up on how good it is. This “shotgun approach” to creativity is sure to result in lots of ideas that’ll end up on the garbage heap, but it also increases the likelihood that something truly dazzling will emerge. Alter also points out that increasing your output results in lots and lots of practice—which means that good ideas and well-crafted work will start to flow more naturally.

Anti-Perfectionism Tactic #3: Aim for “Good” Instead of “Great”

In the end, the key to escaping the perfectionism trap is to know the difference between “perfect” and “good.” Alter writes that in psychology, these two modes of thinking are known as satisficing—settling for “good enough”—and maximizing—seeking the best possible outcome. Though maximizing holds itself to a higher ideal, it’s restrictive, limiting, and correlated with a host of negative mental states, including overall unhappiness. On the other hand, a satisficing mindset offers the freedom and flexibility to let go of dead ends, chalk up failures to learning, and move on when reality doesn’t live up to an imagined ideal.

Keep Inching Forward

Alter’s next piece of advice may seem to contradict his earlier statement to stop what you’re doing and assess your situation. Nevertheless, when you’re stuck in a rut, nothing but action will get you out—so long as that action is well-considered and productive after taking a pause to review your best options. Continually taking action toward your goal turns progress into a habit that makes future slowdowns easier to avoid.

Action Tactic #1: Break It Down

Breaking down projects into smaller goals is a common strategy recommended by productivity experts, but Alter says that it’s even OK to create arbitrary benchmarks where none logically exist, such as rewarding yourself for every hour worked rather than completing specific tasks. Dividing a long-term task into smaller units lets you defer the emotional weight associated with your overall goal. Instead of being hampered by that weight, you can focus on the practical details of simply doing the next step without agonizing over your total progress.

Action Tactic #2: Discard What’s Inessential

One way to ramp up your progress is to discard any inessential steps when you break your project into its components. After all, as stated earlier, everyone slows down in the middle of a project, whether it’s designing a month-long training program or building a business that’s years in the making. Alter suggests that wherever possible, you should cut out as much of that middle as you can. Plus, reducing a task to digestible chunks creates many more “beginnings” and “ends,” those points when your energy and motivation are strongest, while shrinking the drawn-out middle of your journey into smaller paths that are individually easier to cross.

Action Tactic #3: General Housekeeping

Sometimes the next step toward your goal still won’t be clear, but there’s still productive work you can do. Every project has some tedious aspect that often gets put to the side—some of which grow into the pitfalls discussed earlier in this guide. When you’re stumped, Alter writes that one way to keep moving is to do preventative maintenance on the less-than-thrilling aspects of your work. For example, a writer stuck on her next chapter might spend time double-checking her royalty statements. Not only does this type of work let your creative mind rest, it also prevents potential future roadblocks by stopping small tasks from blooming into big ones.

Explore New Directions

Despite all your efforts to keep moving forward, sometimes your plans simply won’t work out and you’ll discover that a goal isn’t as achievable as you’d originally thought. Alter argues that rather than throwing your hands up and quitting, you might need a change in direction. He says that you can sometimes change failure into success by pivoting from your original goal, experimenting with a variety of options, and seeking outside ideas on where to go next.

Just as slowdowns are inevitable, so is the need to periodically change course, especially when something you’ve worked for doesn’t happen. Alter says the first step when facing failure is to ask questions. Can any part of your work be saved? Are there adjustments that can turn things around? Suppose you’ve worked hard to start a new business, but customers aren’t flocking to your store. Before declaring a total loss, ask if anything could be changed about your merchandise, marketing, or location that would make your business more successful.

Many Ways Forward

Alter writes that changing course on a long-term ambition requires flexibility and a willingness to experiment. The whole basis of experimentation rests on the idea that there’s more than one potential path to success. Instead of being trapped by one guiding idea, be curious about alternatives and explore every viable option until you find a way to make progress again. For example, some people who feel stalled in their careers often leverage their skills to switch career paths into a whole new field. The same holds true for organizations, as evidenced by the many established companies that explore new markets by funding start-up ventures.

Businesses look outside themselves for new ideas, either by hiring consultants or recruiting new talent with a diversity of backgrounds. Alter suggests that individuals who feel their progress waning can do the same thing. If you’re out of ideas, reach out to somebody else. You can do this through your personal circle or via many networks online, but it’s important that when you seek outside ideas, they should come from perspectives that differ from your own. Even if the ideas aren’t from experts in your field, seeing your work from a different angle will disrupt your status quo and may spark inspiration you wouldn’t have received in any other way.

Persist and Get Lucky

For all the practical and psychological tricks to get yourself moving when progress has stalled, the most basic one to cling to at all times is simple perseverance. Persisting even when you feel like you’re not making any headway at all provides the surest guarantee that you’ll overcome whatever obstacles are in your way. Alter discusses how to think about your progress in order to give your perseverance a boost, as well as the way that persistence and luck go hand in hand to guide you toward success.

Alter argues that there’s nothing worse than giving up on a goal just before you achieve it. For that reason, for whatever you’re working on, take time periodically to evaluate your progress. Even when it feels like you’re not moving forward, looking back will show you just how far you’ve come. And though sometimes redirecting your energy is important, Alter recommends that when you hit a barrier, you should devote 150% as much time and energy as your gut says is reasonable before giving in. More often than not, you’ll find a way through when you keep pushing beyond where you feel you should have quit.

Alter acknowledges that luck plays a part in success—it’s not just persistence. However, the more you persevere, the more likely you are to have a lucky breakthrough. The person who applies for 200 jobs is more likely to stumble into their dream career than the person who gives up after only 20. Studies show that most creative people enjoy one peak period of maximum performance at some point during their lives—but that it can come at any time in their career. Only by holding fast to your goal will you be ready when the chance to realize it comes. As the saying goes, fortune favors the bold, but it smiles more often on those who stick with it.

Adam Alter’s Anatomy of a Breakthrough: Overview & Takeaways

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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