The Net and the Butterfly: A book review by Bob Morris

The Net and the Butterfly: The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking
Olivia Fox Cabane and Judah Pollack
Portfolio/Penguin Random House (February 2017)

How breakthrough thinking can accelerate personal growth and professional development

Olivia Fox Cabane and Judah Pollack make brilliant use of similes and metaphors as they explain the art and practice of breakthrough thinking. “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.” However, “we will not be giving you a magic formula. Owning a net isn’t sufficient to catch butterflies; you need practice, patience, skill, and a little luck.” Cabane and Pollack provide a framework and a set of tools; they also provide substantial material that can serve as an operations manual. That is to say, they identify the what and then explain the 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.”

The “framework” to which I referred earlier is presented in Chapter 4, “The Butterfly Process.” Briefly, questions serve as the foundation of a seven-step process:

  1. What aspects of the given problem could we look at in a new way, or from a different perspective?
  2. What facts of that problem could we use in a new way, or for the first time?
  3. What parts of that problem could we move, changing its position in time and space?
  4. What could we connect that’s not yet connected, or what could we reconnect in a different way, if it’s already connected?
  5. What could we change of alter, in terms of design and performance?
  6. What could we make that is truly new?
  7. What could we imagine that would create a great experience?

Having read and then re-read The Net and the Butterfly, I could not agree more with Cabane and Pollack that, to derive the greatest benefit from the material, “There is no substitute for doing the exercises in the book. Skimming through them with the earnest intention of completing them later is not enough, nor is doing only the exercises that seem easy of interesting. When an exercise asks you to close your eyes and imagine a scene, really close your eyes and imagine. When we ask you to write out a scenario, grab a pen and paper and write. If we ask you to do something, it is for a very good reason, and it will have a real impact on your level of breakthrough thinking.”

In fact, I now offer what is for me a very rare guarantee to those who carefully read The Net and the Butterfly and then conscientiously complete all the exercises: This will be the most exciting book you will ever read, one that will have the greatest impact, in terms of your personal growth and professional development.


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