Different Types of Breakthrough Thinking

In The Net and the Butterfly, Olivia Fox Cabane and Judah Pollack explain “the art and practice of breakthrough thinking.”

They observe, “For many, breakthroughs are like butterflies — beautiful and awe-inspiring, yet erratic and elusive. Some people think they happen through hard work and concentration. The harder you focus on the breakthrough you’re seeking, the more likely you are to get it. Others think they are spontaneous, inexplicable, and unpredictable…In fact, breakthroughs are not accidental, they can be induced, and we are going to show you how.”

For example, here are a few of their thoughts about different types of breakthroughs:

o “Eureka breakthroughs are clear, sudden, fully formed, immediately applicable, and are most likely to arrive when you’re not thinking about a problem. They create great excitement (i.e. ‘I’ve got it!” or ‘That’s it!’) in the individual experiencing one.”

Example: James Watt realized that the power of a steam engine could be much more efficient and productive if delivered through more than one cylinder. Eventually, steam was used to power vehicles, boats, and railroads as well as factories.

o “Metaphorical breakthroughs usually arrive as metaphors or analogies and require interpretation before they’re complete. They are sometimes embedded in dreams, and occur as the brain connects two seemingly disparate items of ideas.”

Example: Orville and Wilbur Wright studied the flight of birds to gain insights into how to control powered flight. At one point, Wilbur eventually realized that “wing warping” could do that. His breakthrough “set the age of aviation in motion.”

o “Intuitive breakthroughs defy logic and explanation and tend to be more of a beginning. They allow us to make progress down a longer path.”

Example: Test pilot Chuck Yeager was among those who struggled to break the sound barrier. One day, he again lost control of his Bell X-1 at .9 Mach but continued to .96 Mach at which point he regained control and “the plane simply leap across the sound barrier. Cabane and Pollack point out that, “Most of the time, when people experience intuitive breakthroughs they don’t know why their solution will work, they just know that it will.”

o “Paradigm breakthroughs arrive in clear, straightforward fashion, similar to eureka breakthroughs. However, these breakthroughs reveal a grand theory or explanation that is without any immediate application. They bring more awe and wonder than excitement. They are the rarest, but also the most powerful, type of breakthrough.”

Example: Splitting the atom. The word atom had previously and literally meant “unsplittable.” Paradigm breakthroughs have the widest and deepest applications as well as greatest potentialities.

Cabane and Pollack conclude, “No specific type of breakthrough is better or more productive than another. It’s simply a matter of knowing which type is most appropriate to the given question to be answered or problem to be solved.”

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The Net and the Butterfly was published by Portfolio/Penguin Random House (February 2017).

Olivia Fox Cabane is the former director of Stanford StartX and the bestselling author of The Charisma Myth. She also lectures at Harvard, Yale, and MIT. To learn more about her and her work, please click here.

Judah Pollack is a former faculty member of Stanford StartX and current lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. To learn more about him and his work, please click here.

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