20 Jun 2021
What is the limit to human achievement? To find out, we sent a team to a Greek island for a week to immerse themselves in a single problem.
‘We are capable of so much more than we could ever imagine’, said rock climber Tommy Caldwell in the movie Dawn Wall. His story is about physical achievement. But his idea also applies to creative work—whether it’s proving a theorem, writing a paper or planning a research grant. What is the limit of human achievement, and how can we get closer to it?
To find out, we did an experiment to test what happens when we separate ourselves from daily distractions to work exclusively on a single problem. We sent a small team to a Greek island for a week to write a research grant proposal. The trio stayed at a remote villa, with only the project and the sea to occupy them. By the week’s end, they cracked the proposal. Here is what they noticed along the way.
First, travelling to a remote place reduces our emotional concern with life back home, so sustained focus is a lot easier. Second, when a team is constantly immersed in the same problem—breakfast, lunch and dinner—the opportunities for superadditivity skyrocket. Third, progress starts slow but accelerates quickly, which is why a trip of at least a week is key.