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Surviving Scrutiny: Insights From DNA’s Dramatic Discovery And Stanford’s Top Designers


🚨 Breaking news for creative minds of all kinds - neuroscientists have shed new light on how to tap into the elusive state of “flow” in a newly published study

There is ample pontification around how we access creative flow states—where time melts away and our performance becomes effortless. But it turns out that chasing flow may be a fool’s errand if you’re just starting out. 

In a study of 32 jazz guitar players, those who had a lot of musical expertise tapped into flow more often and more intensely than their less-practiced counterparts. 

Moreover, when researchers peeked into the musician’s brains, they saw that flow states were characterized by less activity in the “executive control” regions. This finding supports the idea that we have to bank many hours of practice before our brain is able to relax its control and trigger a flow state—a concept that’s been dubbed the “expertise-plus-release” theory of flow. 

So if you’re just starting out with a new creative endeavor, have patience—it may take some more practice before your brain is ready to go with the flow. 

Coming up in this week’s action-packed digest:

  • ⛓️ A vital yet painful reminder on achieving creative breakthroughs gleaned from the dramatic battle to discover DNA’s code. 

  • 🚀 The number one strategy that winning creative teams have in common according to Stanford University designers.

P.s., you can check out editions 1-5 here in case you missed them. Seriously, there are some gems you’ll appreciate in these early editions. ;-)

1. Good ideas must survive multiple bouts of scrutiny.

Contrary to popular belief, good ideas aren't always recognizable at first glance; rather, they must endure the relentless forge of scrutiny, rejection, and rebirth to reveal their true value. It's both easy and common for big ideas — often unfamiliar and daunting — to be dismissed prematurely, never reaching their full potential. However, it's crucial to resist this urge, maintaining a spirit of playful optimism. This approach ensures that truly innovative concepts are given the chance to flourish and redefine what's possible.

On one cold, November morning in 1951, two young physicists were having a heated exchange in an English train carriage. The older of the two, Francis Crick, was annoyed with his younger American counterpart, James Watson.

The pair were racing to become the first scientists to unravel the mysterious form and function of DNA. Should they succeed in becoming the first to crack the code, their names would forever go down in history. But they were up against much better funded and more experienced teams. Any mistake could cost them the race, and Watson had just made a big one.

Watson had recently attended a talk where crucial details about the water content of DNA were discussed. He was trying to relay the information to Crick but “my answers were frequently vague,” Watson confessed, “and Francis was visibly annoyed by my habit of always trusting to memory and never writing anything on paper.” “The possibility existed that I might be misleading Francis by an order of magnitude difference.”

Watson strained to offer a figure to the best of his recollection. Even though he wasn’t 100% sure it was accurate, the number seemed to click with Crick, because he began furiously scribbling away in his notebook. Then, after a few minutes, Crick made a surprise announcement: according to his new equations, they were perhaps a week away from solving DNA’s mystery! The next step was to hunt down the size of some inorganic ions, and so by midday they were running from bookstore to bookstore until they found the necessary textbook.

They were soon so confident about their model that they arranged a meeting to show it off in front of a group of their colleagues. But the demo turned out to be a disaster. The figure that Watson had provided Crick with in the train carriage was indeed off by a multiple of at least 10. Their demo was a waste of everyone’s time and made a fool out of their lab. The lab’s director was so furious that he banned both Watson and Crick from spending any more time on DNA, effectively bringing their quest to an end.

Watson continued to work away at the problem in secret but his efforts seemed futile. It was an endless cycle of hope and disappointment: “on a few walks our enthusiasm would build up to the point that we fiddled with the models when we got back to our office. But almost immediately Francis saw that the reasoning which had momentarily given us hope led nowhere.”

Twelve whole miserable months went by like this until the final nail in the coffin arrived from America. A famous researcher at Caltech claimed to have finally discovered the shape of DNA. The truth is that no one had expected Watson and Crick to succeed anyway. Their approach was childish—they had relied on using toy-like models to test their theories and hoped that tinkering would reveal the answer through sheer luck. Their theories were laughable—their colleagues responded to most of their ideas with snarky derision. And their characters were questionable—their disregard for authority frustrated landlords, sponsors, and fellow lab members alike.

Nonetheless, their hearts were heavy as they read the research report. But then, partway through, Watson’s heart leapt. He’d just spotted a glaring mistake! The Caltech researcher had made a fatal error just as they themselves had done a year prior—rendering his model dead wrong. Perhaps they could be the ones to solve DNA’s mystery after all!

Watson spent that whole summer pouring over research studies, textbooks, and anything that could possibly shed light on their puzzle. Then, as he sat one night doodling ideas, a promising structure snapped into place. It seemed perfect on paper but Watson knew it was vital to reconstruct it using the lab model before getting carried away.

But yet another obstacle emerged. It would take two days for a few of the model atoms to arrive at the lab. “This was much too long even for me to remain in limbo,” Watson recalled, “so I spent the rest of the afternoon cutting accurate representations of the bases out of stiff cardboard.” Once the cardboard shapes were ready, Watson assembled them together. As he looked down at the completed model he saw that the decades-long search for DNA was finally over. They’d cracked the code.

Watson & Crick’s story teaches us that good ideas, no matter how groundbreaking, are not self-actualizing. Even a concept as promising as DNA went through endless cycles of rejection, scrutiny, and iterative improvement before it could be willed into existence.

Even after their smartest colleagues chided their ideas, they kept going. Even after they were banned from pursuing the project, they kept going. Even after the 100th model was struck down as a failure, they kept going. How many would have done the same?

But the truth is that breakthroughs and bold leaps of progress demand that we keep going in the face of these challenges until our results finally speak for themselves.

And there is one additional trait that Watson & Crick embodied that proves vital for success…

2. In the race of innovation, swift iteration leaves slow deliberation in the dust.

Over the course of two weeks in 2003, students who enrolled in Stanford’s 310 design course competed to see who could build the fastest vehicle made of paper. When researchers studied winning teams, they found that…

🔐 This insight, which reveals the strategy shared by both Watson & Crick and winning design teams at Stanford is for premium subscribers (yep, this weekly digest is reader supported) . For the price of one fancy coffee per month our research team will agonize over the lessons learned from world class creative leaders and teams who make ideas happen, and send their tightly summarized conclusions directly to your inbox on a weekly basis. What a proposition, huh?!

☕️ Join us and help make this weekly action catalyst for creative minds a sustainable project.  

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Action, Action, Make Ideas Happen

The Action Method was designed almost 15 years ago to help the most productive and creative teams in the world think and work with a bias towards action.

The Action Method is a 3-part system with each page containing a zone for your preparation notes (prepare), a zone for you to jot down thoughts and ideas (explore), and a zone for you to convert ideas into action steps (execute).

It's like having a personal trainer for your productivity, ensuring you're always exercising your brainstorming and execution muscles with excellent form.

Over the years, iconic leaders across design, entertainment, and business became loyal users. Now, after a short hiatus, the original founders have assumed responsibility and updated the products.

Check out the new and improved Action Method family.

It’s not about ideas, it’s about making ideas happen.


If you want to stay sharp and immerse yourself in the discipline of taking action and making ideas happen on a weekly basis (and unlock the final section of today’s digest - the number one strategy that winning creative teams have in common according to top Stanford University designers), join us for the price of one fancy coffee. ☕️

Upcoming insights and hacks for subscribers:

  • What does it mean when the critics start laughing at you? J.K. Rowling, The Beatles, and Jeff Bezos show us how to respond when smart people laughing at our ideas.

  • Why are strongly divided reactions the first sign of a brilliant idea? A counter explosives expert teaches us why our greatest ideas die and how to save them.

  • Why is productivity and decisiveness insufficient? The strange habit that turned around a failing soup company reveals an essential leadership principle.

  • So much more… Making ideas happen is a form of fitness, and we are your trainer. ;-)

We’ll leave you with this…

“Often he came up with something novel, would become enormously excited, and immediately tell it to anyone who would listen. A day or so later he would often realize that his theory did not work and return to experiments, until boredom generated a new attack on theory.” 

Watson Crick on the tenacious optimism of his partner, Francis Crick

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