Psychologist David Niven begins his new book with a very funny retelling of a Hollywood legend. When Steven Spielberg was filming “Jaws” in 1974, his phenomenally complicated mechanical great white shark was a failure. It didn’t work, or when it did work it was ridiculously slow. “You could get out of the water, dry off and eat a sandwich before it could get you,” one cameraman joked. Spielberg’s budget was melting away in shark repairs. He was desperate.
Then the 26-year-old director re-envisioned the movie from a story about a predator fish to one about people fearing a creature that they couldn’t see, that attacked them silently from below. The shark’s presence was implied, not shown. The (indeed, really clunky) mechanical shark doesn’t appear until 81 minutes into the movie. And you know the rest.
Spielberg’s masterstroke, Niven explains in “It’s Not About the Shark: How to Solve Unsolvable Problems,” was to concentrate on the solution (how to scare people) instead of the problem (the balky shark). And while few of his stories are quite as entertaining as the history of “Jaws,” he tells good anecdotes with interesting data to back up his theory that when we focus on a problem, we get trapped within it and are less able to solve it.
So, when you run into issues, try to panic less, think more and think differently. Get some exercise. Go look at abstract art (which frees you from linear thinking). Or give yourself a treat. In a 1994 study, researchers asked several doctors to examine the same patient. The doctors who were handed a small bag of chocolate candy did “vastly” better than the others at getting the right diagnosis, which was chronic active hepatitis, and they performed better on a separate test of creativity.