[Editor’s Note: MacGyver series creator Lee David Zlotoff wrote the popular “MakeShift” column for Make: magazine from 2006–2011, in which readers were challenged to think creatively to get themselves out of a hypothetical jam using household objects. In Lee’s new book, co-written with Colleen Seifert, Ph.D., he shares his own tricks for problem-solving under the gun — here’s an exclusive preview of The MacGyver Secret: Connect to Your Inner MacGyver and Solve Anything.]
You know MacGyver. That icon of “calm in a crisis.” The very embodiment of resourcefulness and ingenuity who can overcome any obstacle by using whatever lay at hand. The absolute epitome of coming up with a brilliant solution when seemingly all looks hopeless. And doing it all with a smile. Right?
Of course, that MacGyver is just a fiction. Sure, you’ve probably done a ‘MacGyver’ or two, using a bit of tape or a paperclip to fish your keys out of a crack or keep that annoyingly loose car door from flying open on the highway.
But to consistently come up with clever solutions when your back is against the wall and everything seems to be falling apart? Again and again? How many of us really have that kind of genius? How many of us can be like MacGyver? No, that’s got to be just a fantasy cooked up by some smartass TV writer, no?
Or does it?
My Story: How I Discovered The MacGyver Secret
It was sometime in the late 70’s, after having spent a fruitful but frustrating year writing dialog for a soap opera in New York. I convinced my then-pregnant wife that our destiny — and fortune — lay waiting for us in the entertainment capital of Los Angeles. No doubt I was brimming with the confidence of someone in their mid-twenties, and had squirreled away enough soap writing funds to effect such a brash plan. We knew almost no one in LA — and not a single soul who was actually in show business. But move we did.
And, after a few years of trying to break into writing for TV — and by then the father of two children — the golden door finally swung wide and I landed a job on the writing staff for a prime-time TV series. That was the good news.
The bad news: I suddenly found myself having to crank out not only dialog but stories, outlines, and scripts for episodes at a feverish pace to keep up with the relentless demands of TV production. This was a near-constant stream of creative material that I had to produce in very tight time frames. And I must confess, I was woefully unprepared.
And in the constant struggle to generate fresh material under such enormous stress, I began to notice something curious; namely, that the best material seemed to occur to me when I was either driving or taking a shower. Sound familiar?
Though grateful for these helpful revelations, I initially dismissed this as a coincidental quirk. Neither of these activities seemed like they should be particularly productive. After all, they appeared to be the opposite of actual work, which I — and my employers — presumed was supposed to happen at my office computer, or someplace equally suited to the task.
And yet, the material continued to “bubble up” while in the driver’s seat of my VW hatchback, or my morning hosing, with consistency. I soon found myself making excuses at the office to jump into my car, or rush to the nearest gym for a quick shower whenever I was under a deadline, and was hard pressed to crack another story or untangle a seemingly impossible plot twist.
Of course, constantly disappearing from work on vague “errands” and often returning freshly showered inevitably led to rampant speculation around the office: I was either on drugs, or a shameless lothario. Both possibilities were tolerated in Hollywood as long as I continued to deliver usable scripts on schedule. Showbiz; you gotta love it.
A more meaningful result was the inescapable question that occurred to me: What was really happening when I drove around or showered that not only allowed, but also seemed to encourage such useful solutions to come to mind? And might there not be a way I could get the same thing to happen without hopping in the car? Or running around Hollywood looking for a shower?
At that point, I didn’t really understand what was at the heart of my curious creative process. Such a subtle but complex question might’ve seemed daunting, if not beyond my reach entirely. But as I was regularly weaving intricate stories of plot and character — and doing this very successfully — I figured maybe I could make some sense of this peculiar pattern. And, I was determined to get to the bottom of it, one way or the other.
So over the next few years I began to explore this creative process, and experiment with various techniques to see if there was some way to better understand what was really happening in me, and how I could capture the effect of driving or taking a shower in a more convenient and efficient way (gas and water being somewhat precious resources).
And, as fate would have it, it was when I was writing the pilot script for MacGyver — that master of ingenuity — that the pieces of this puzzle finally came together in a complete picture, and revealed the essence of this mysterious process. Along with it came a remarkably simple and workable technique for producing my driving/shower epiphanies. I soon learned to produce good ideas virtually on demand in nearly any setting I chose. More about the details of that soon.
But the bottom line was, I had uncovered the secret! I had found my inner MacGyver.
Now, to be honest, I didn’t really think of it like this back then. I mean, who knew if the MacGyver pilot would even be made, much less turn into a hit series, a global phenomenon, or such a popular verb that it was ultimately even recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary!? (“To MacGyver” — Go ahead, look it up.)
Nor did I imagine it had any use or applications beyond my own creative process, or that it might work for anyone else. I was, after all, just another Hollywood TV writer. This is not a group exactly renowned for its intellectual breakthroughs. But, I knew I had just cracked the secret: I found the most amazing creative process that never failed to produce great results, wherever and whenever I needed them.
And, as I refined this secret over the ensuing three-plus decades of my career, the liberating impact of it both personally and professionally proved nothing short of transformational.
The stress of creation and problem solving was all but eliminated. And, knowing I had access to the extraordinary resources of my inner MacGyver rendered me fearless in the face of any project or deadline.
Over time, I would casually share this secret with friends and acquaintances, most of whom found it too incredible to take seriously. After all, it’s nothing like the way we’re taught to solve problems. Fair enough.
That is, until I offered it to a young friend and colleague, Jared (who will tell you his own story in another chapter of this book). Jared had landed a job to launch an internet company, and he decided to try using the secret to solve the constant crush of problems that comes with such an undertaking.
Well, having experienced the same transformational results, Jared came back to me raving about how amazing and effective it was. He argued that this secret could be successfully applied to any number of endeavors, well beyond the creative writing I’d been doing with it.
Much discussion with other friends and colleagues followed, along with a bunch of research into the current state of the science behind this secret. I was eventually persuaded that this is indeed a secret to share with anyone who wants to create great ideas and solve tough problems.
I mean, WWMD? (What would MacGyver do?)
THE SCIENCE: WHAT LEADS TO “AHA”?
Almost everyone has experienced insight; you give up on a difficult problem, and then later, the solution suddenly comes to you: “Aha!” Just like Lee, you may have wondered why these breakthroughs come in the shower, and not when you need them at work! The answer may lie in relaxing within the stream of our daily experiences.
Studies of brain activity during problem solving have identified a resting-state brain activity marked by diffuse (rather than focused) attention. In this relaxed state, we may be better able to allow unusual associations to emerge into consciousness. This “default” mode of thought appears to support our ability to daydream so effortlessly (and often: We spend almost 50% of our days thinking about something other than what we’re doing).
Having an insight may depend upon disengaging from the external environment. Turning your attention inward — such as closing your eyes or staring blankly without “seeing” — may allow more focus on an internal train of thought. In the lab, eye-tracking measures show that people are more likely to blink and look away just before an insight occurs.
Interestingly, the mind is only sometimes aware of its wandering. Brain imaging studies show that the default network and executive control systems are even more active during “zoning out,” when we’re not even aware that our minds are wandering.
Getting “lost” in driving or showering, as Lee describes, may help to prepare our minds for new ideas to arise.
—Colleen Seifert, Ph.D.
Excerpted with permission from The MacGyver Secret: Connect to Your Inner MacGyver and Solve Anything, available for pre-order now at macgyversecret.com, on sale November 1 at Amazon. Learn more about MacGyver and the MacGyver Foundation at macgyverglobal.com.