Motivation, Startups

How to Make a Breakthrough Happen


This column is by David Kadavy, Author, Design for Hackers

If you’ve been searching for the right idea, you need a breakthrough. When you have a breakthrough, a seemingly unrelated group of things come together to create explosive success.

You aren’t banging your head against the wall anymore. You aren’t chipping away at your secret masterpiece. You go from zero to one. It looks like an overnight success.

You can’t predict a breakthrough. But, you can create the right conditions for one, and be ready to take action when the opportunity comes.

Max Temkin’s grandpa used to tell him “everybody gets lucky sometimes,” and that you have to be smart enough to recognize when luck is happening.

Max and his friends were smart when they got lucky. They had made a card game that not only made their friends laugh, but that also made strangers laugh. They put PDFs online to share with the world for free.

Then, Lady Luck — frustrated that they weren’t getting the clue — smacked them in their faces. They kept getting emails from people who didn’t want to print out the cards. They just wanted to buy the game.

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Now, Cards Against Humanity is the #1-selling item in Toys & Games on all of Amazon. Max and his friends have made millions.

Here are some ways you can create the conditions for luck, and make your breakthrough happen:

  • Become a connoisseur. It’s possible that you can randomly come across a breakthrough, but you’ll have a better chance if you have some knowledge about what you’re making. Max and his friends had played so many games, they ran out of games to play. That’s why they made Cards Against Humanity. Give yourself permission to get lost in the details of something you love. If you’re going to make something, become a connoisseur of that thing.
  • Follow your curiosity. When you’re following the work of others, your thinking can get stuck in a rut. It can be all about comparing your work to your “competitors.” But, breakthroughs happen with unexpected combinations. If you follow your curiosities, you’ll find yourself in places where there are no competitors, and you’ll create the conditions for luck. When I had the breakthrough of my book, Design for Hackers, it was because I had pursued curiosities that previously had nothing to do with each other: design, computers, entrepreneurship, and writing. (Note that these have a lot to do with each other now, but at one point they didn’t. That’s the point.)
  • Build the habit. The more chances you get to flip the coin, the more likely it will come up heads. The more you make, the better the chances you’ll have a breakthrough. As Adam Grant observes in Originals, to have a handful of great pieces, Mozart composed 600 pieces, Beethoven: 650, Bach: 1,000. Build the habit of creating over and over again, and you’ll create the conditions for luck.
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Making breakthroughs happen takes boldness and bravery. You have to ignore the short-term gains in front of you, and venture into the uncomfortable and seemingly non-productive space of getting lost in your love, following your curiosity into the brush, and fighting The Resistance to roll the dice one more time.

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