Long-time Society friend, David Niven, PhD is sharing an excerpt from his new book, It’s Not About the Shark. You might know him from his book 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People.
Lessons from a Shark that Couldn’t Swim
Director Steven Spielberg had a big problem. His film’s star was simply impossible to work with. Complicating matters, the usual inducements—money, flattery, obsequious attention to his comfort—had no effect whatsoever on the film’s fickle lead.
The star in question – nicknamed Bruce in honor of Spielberg’s attorney – was the mechanical shark cast as the title character in Jaws. Meant to haunt moviegoers’ dreams as some kind of Godzilla of the sea, it turned out that Bruce the shark couldn’t swim, couldn’t bite, and couldn’t even tread water.
With filming already begun, the shark problem offered Spielberg several unattractive options that all led to failure. He could put all available resources into repairing the shark—and almost certainly see his unfinished movie shut down when he ran out of money and time.
He could ditch the failing shark and start from scratch, building a new version designed to overcome the first model’s limitations—and almost certainly never gain the green light to resume filming.
He could forge ahead with the malfunctioning shark, employing translucent wires or whatever tools he could improvise to make it move—and get the film shut down, get himself fired, or make a movie remembered only for being embarrassingly bad.
If Spielberg had stared straight at the problem, his film and his shark would surely have sunk to the bottom of the sea. Instead, Spielberg took the breakdown of his mechanical shark as an opportunity to reimagine what he was doing. Instead of trying to fix the problem, he sought a solution. “I thought, ‘What would Alfred Hitchcock do in a situation like this?’” Spielberg said.
From that thought he saw a revolutionary solution: Make a shark movie without the shark. Spielberg supplied the suggestion of the shark—in the sight line half above and half below the water, in the ominous and unforgettable John Williams score (which he described as the sound of unstoppable force). And that suggestion of the shark provided the unmistakable, unrivaled presence of menace.
Instead of being the center of every scene as written in the script, Bruce the shark does not make a full appearance on screen until eighty-one minutes into the movie. “It became, the less you see, the more you get,” Spielberg said.
Audiences and reviewers were awed by the effect, ultimately making Jaws the highest-grossing film to date and earning Jaws a place in the permanent collection of cultural treasures in the Library of Congress.
Looking beyond the problem to find the solution is not just valuable in film making, it turns out. In an experiment, Texas A&M researchers asked two groups of engineers to come up with designs for a variety of mundane products, like a bicycle rack for cars and a spill-proof coffee mug. The group asked to come up with a design innovation was 17 times more likely to succeed than the group asked to fix a design problem, despite the fact that they were actually working on exactly the same issue.
The difference was that the first group sought solutions while the second group was lured into unsolvable traps by the details of the problem.
Whatever your problems at work, at home, in life may be, you can solve them if you are willing to look for a solution instead of staring at the problem. And when you do that, the problem won’t be so scary anymore. You might even be better off for having it. After all, as Steven Spielberg put it, “The shark not working was a godsend.”
David Niven, Ph.D., is the author of It’s Not About the Shark: How to Solve Unsolvable Problems, The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People, and seven other titles in the 100 Simple Secrets series. David is known internationally for translating powerful research findings into practical advice anyone can apply to their daily lives. Published in more than two dozen languages, David’s books show that a more satisfying life can be had with small, sustainable changes in our actions and attitudes.
Be sure to check out David’s books. They are awesome!!
It’s Not About the Shark
100 Simple Secrets