Highways and Byways

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What if your most challenging task became quick, easy and fun?

When I was a doctoral student, I labored for years to finish my dissertation.  I thrived during the coursework and teaching, but sitting alone with research notes and a blank computer screen became the bane of my existence for several years. I was frustrated, drained, and quickly losing confidence in myself. In fact, at one point, I decided it may just be time to call it quits, even though I had invested five years of my life in the process.

Then I decided to join a creative writing group.  Instead of academics and researchers, I was surrounded by playwrights, poets, and authors of children’s books.  I decided to try the same techniques that those artists use as a way to get through my academic writers block.  Getting out of a more structured, university environment and into a creative and free-spirited one was what I needed to reframe the challenge that had dogged me for years.

Sometime later, I learned about the neuro-pathways that are formed very early in our childhood.  With repeated use, these pathways become “superhighways” of thinking, behaving, and feeling.  They are traveled repeatedly and, not surprisingly, become quicker, more efficient, and more pleasurable pathways for achieving our goals.  Other paths, or “byways”, represent an experience we’ve been exposed to but without consistency and focus.  These feel more like dirt roads, with plenty of bumps and false turns along the ways.  They take longer, wear us out, and without a guarantee that we’ll actually ever get to where we’re trying to go.

Think of children who are not only exposed to another language, but are immersed in conversation and practice that language for many years.  That “highway” will be most likely be a fast-track for the rest of their lives, making foreign languages more easy and pleasurable to learn.  Compare that to someone with only brief exposure, at a later age, with minimal reinforcement.  As an adult, it may feel impossible to turn this “foreign language dirt road” into a smooth, paved highway.

For me, creative writing is a highway and academic writing is a dirt road byway.  I can travel both paths, but one is easy, quick and fun, and other requires tremendous energy with very little return.   The trick for the academic challenge I faced was staying focused on the desired outcome (a completed dissertation) while completely changing my mindset on what path I was going to take to get there.  Once I switched from my dirt road (a very linear, structured writing method) to my natural highway (a more creative, story-telling-like approach to describing my research findings), this mammoth task become what I would have never imagined it could be — done.

Think about where you are most stuck.  What is the challenge that confronts you again and again, that you just wish would disappear?  These are my suggestions for getting redirected from your dirt road to a speed lane.

1.  If you’re trying too hard, stop trying. 

“Stop trying” is not a recommendation to throw in the towel on a meaningful goal.  Instead, it’s an invitation to take a step back, shift from “doing” to “being” mode, and give yourself a minute to notice what else is shaping success or failure beside your own dogged willpower.  Perseverance is admirable, but there’s no virtue in doing more and more of what you know doesn’t work.

2.  Redefine WHAT you are trying to accomplish, instead of HOW you are going about it. 

My father-in-law wisely told me that the only thing I should get out of a doctoral program was myself. Clarifying that my true end goal was to graduate by meeting the basic requirements, rather than capture my entire lives’ work, helped me reframe my thesis challenge in a more realistic, and doable, way.  Get really clear on the end goal (e.g. a finished paper, a successful meeting, a strengthened relationship), and really flexible on the paths to get there.

3.  Completely switch domains.

I’ve taken doctors and hospital administrators to Disney to get unstuck about how they think about creating a patient “experience.”  Intel (and other innovative companies) turn off your company email and give you a mandatory sabbatical every seven years in order to try something totally new (and come back refreshed, with new perspectives). Switching from a Harvard computer lab to a creative writing group in a downtown coffeehouse did it for me. Change your environment so dramatically (at least temporarily) that you’re forced to look at your “dilemma” from a completely different lens.  The change in scenery alone will shift your perspective, as well as the set of tools you see as available to you.

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