Every creative solution begins in gridlock. We know we’re close, but we don’t know how to proceed. In these vexing moments–those painful instances when you’re overcome with the feeling of simply not knowing–it’s tempting to give up. We’ve reached the limits of what we know, and unearthing a solution feels impossible.
In May, David Letterman interviewed Louis CK on The Late Show. CK performed his usual shtick but also made a shrewd insight about the nature of learning.
My kids panic when they [can’t figure out a problem]. And that’s ok. My mother was a math teacher and she taught me that the moment where you go “I don’t know what this is”–the moment when you panic–means you’re about to figure it out. That means you let go to what you know and you’re about to grab onto a new thing that you didn’t know yet. I’m there for them in those moments.
It’s a great insight because it’s true: No one likes getting stumped. And when we do, it’s natural to think that the problem is a lack of brainpower. Yet years of research demonstrate that CK is right. Impasse is a sign that we’re nearing the solution, a veiled indication that we’re almost there. The trick is how we respond.
If we believe that intelligence is the problem–what the psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”–we give up easier. But if we believe that persistence, effort or grit is the problem–a “growth mindset”–we push through the gridlock and, as Dweck has demonstrated, solve more problems compared to a control group.
Dweck’s distinction is aimed at students and schools but it’s a nice way to think about employees and work. When we’re struggling with a problem in the office, it’s easy to blame the rigid hierarchy–the equivalent of the fixed mindset–and give up. On the other hand, once we treat the office as malleable we’re more likely to accomplish our goals.
This distinction matters because in the fixed mindset, good ideas are enough. If you’ve made a great suggestion and everyone ignores it, off to the bar to complain about your colleagues–you did everything you could. In the growth mindset, good ideas are just the beginning. Overcoming those dreaded office absurdities is the real challenge.
Businesses talk about being “lean” or “agile.” Given Dweck’s insight, however, I wonder if these approaches are overrated. Instead of restructuring the company, remind employees that their job isn’t just to fulfill their responsibilities but to improve how the company operates. CK is right. You know those moments when you complain about how inefficient your department is? That means you’re one step away from a solution.