When we’re good at something and do it often, it’s easy to slip into autopilot and lose track of the real essence of what we’re doing. Then when we do get stuck, we don’t know how to extricate ourselves: we’re too close to the thing; we’ve lost our sense of perspective. So how do we break free? As a young dancer, I learned the answer the hard way—that is, physically.
I used to practice contact improvisation, a postmodern partner dance form based on communication and shared points of contact. I would take on my partner’s weight, he or she would take on mine; we’d charge, lift, roll, and balance each other in a state of constant awareness, tuned in intensely to one another’s subtlest movements. But sometimes we’d get stuck. Locked into a position. Communication breakdown. I’d want to move one way, my partner would want to move another, and instead we’d end up like Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: “They do not move.” And if one of us tried to force the issue, to make a unilateral decision, it wouldn’t work: cooperation was necessary for progress. So I learned, over time, to stop pressing.
Onstage under hot lights, the best response to stagnation was to give in, breathe, and rest. This stillness allowed my partner and me to detach ourselves from the sweaty heat of the moment and rediscover our perspective. Who were we? Where were we? What were we trying to do? With a renewed sense of purpose, we were able finally to synchronize our bodies and start anew—to resume the intricate give-and-take that is contact improv.
Eric Liu and I devote a section of our book, Imagination First, to a professional version of the personal artistic practice that I just described; we call it “Untie Your Tongue.” The better you are at your job and the longer you’ve been doing it, the easier it is to settle into habit and merely go through the motions. And when a problem does arise, you’re so mired in your tried-and-true methods that you don’t know what else to do. You freeze, like my dance partner and I!
When you’re in the workplace and not on the modern dance stage, one smart way to disentangle yourself from such a situation, to reintroduce yourself to the big picture, is to talk to a layman—someone from outside your field—about it. Forget all of your jargon, your assumptions, the detritus of years of experience, and achieve the stillness of a simple conversation in simple language. Who are you? Where are you? What are you trying to do? Speaking to someone who doesn’t possess your base of knowledge means discarding the clutter of details and getting back to basics; this will clear your mind and enable you to think imaginatively about your project again. Then it’s your move: continue the dance!