The film editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather I, II, and III, American Graffiti, etc.) writes in In the Blink of an Eye that every time he test screens a movie, “there’s a lot of what is medically called ‘referred pain’ in the process.” Referred pain is when you experience pain in a part of the body different from the actual source or cause of the pain. Pain in your elbow, for instance, is often caused by a pinch nerved up in your shoulder. The pain in the shoulder is “referred” to the elbow. Audience feedback is often like that, Murch continues. If a percentage of the audience agree that they don’t like a specific scene, “the chances are that that scene is fine. Instead, the problem may be that the audience simply didn’t understand something that they needed to know for the scene to work. So, instead of fixing the scene itself, you might clarify some exposition that happens five minutes earlier. Don’t necessarily operate on the elbow: instead, discover if nerves are being pinched somewhere else.”
Solving a perceived problem by fixing problems in the proximity of that problem—that’s the theme of this SIX at 6.
Space Man From Pluto
In 1984, Steven Spielberg, Bob Zemeckis, and Bob Gale submitted a draft of their screenplay, Back to the Future, to Universal Studios. A few days later, they received a memo from the head of Universal, Sid Sheinberg. After a couple sentences about how much he enjoyed the draft, Sheinberg wrote, “Now that I have buttered you up, I would suggest the title ‘Space Man From Pluto.’” Sheinberg later explained, “The title made no sense…The part that didn’t make sense is that [Marty McFly] didn’t really go to the future.” Sheinberg was right. In the original draft, Marty never went to the future. The pain in the fact that Marty never went to the future was referred to (for Sheinberg) the title. Instead of operating on the title, Zemeckis and Gale rewrote the final scene to what they ended up filming: in present day 1985, the eccentric scientist Doc pulls into Marty’s driveway in the time-traveling DeLorean. “Marty, you’ve gotta come back with me,” Doc says. “Where?” Marty asks. “Back to the future.” Doc explains that they have to travel to 2015 where future-Marty’s kids need to be saved from terrible fates. Marty gets in the DeLorean. Doc says his iconic line, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads,” before the DeLorean hovers above the ground and takes off for 2015, nicely setting the stage for the sequels Back to the Future Part II and Back to the Future Part III.
The Flying Tomato
After winning back-to-back gold medals at the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics, Shaun White was the favorite to win gold at the 2014 games in Sochi. But…White didn’t even podium. After the disappointing performance, White tried to figure out what he did wrong, and he realized, “It wasn’t a physical problem.” The qualifying runs took place four and a half hours before the Olympic finals. In those qualifiers, White scored a 95.75, which turned out to be the highest score of the night. “I had the winning cards,” as White put it. “I just couldn’t put them down when it mattered most.” “It wasn’t physical,” he repeats. “It was mental.” Before he dropped into the halfpipe for his final run, Shaun said he knew that he was going to lose, that he wasn’t going to be able to put down his winning cards. Because was overly focused on winning, on the medal, and the external expectations, Shaun said, “My mind was just not in a good place.” Shaun finished 4th in Sochi, and after the games, “I picked apart my personal life away from the snow.” There were problems in his personal life, he realized, that were being “referred” to the snow. “I picked apart things that were upsetting me: how I was portrayed online and in ads. Do I like who I’m working with? When was the last time I spoke to my brother? When was the last time I hung out with my friends? When was the last time I worked out? Those are the things I started to change in my life. It was nothing to do with snowboarding.” He started working out, “not for the physical benefits, but because I know after a good work out, I’m happier.” He deleted most of the photos on his instagram, “because I didn’t like all the old photos of me with the long hair.” He reconnected with his brother. He prioritized spending time with his friends. “I made all these changes that made me a more complete, happier person,” Shaun explained, “And then once I went back to snowboarding, I was just a happier guy on the snowboard.” Fast forward to the 2018 Olympics, “it was a deja vu of the moment at the previous Olympics in Sochi,” Shaun said. Just like in Sochi, at the 2018 games in PyeongChang, it came down to Shaun’s final run. “But this time, at the top of the pipe, I had the complete opposite feeling. I had this overwhelming confidence that I was about to win.” Indeed, on the final run, Shaun put down one of the best runs of his life, scoring a 97.75 to reclaim the gold. “And when I look back, I’m so proud of that gold medal, not necessarily because of the medal, but because of the human I became to get it. You know, a more well-rounded person. A happier person.”
In 1977, the science fiction writer Orson Scott Card sent a draft of his later-to-be award-winning and film-adapted Ender’s Game to the science fiction magazine Analog Science Fiction and Fact. The magazine’s editor Ben Bova wrote back to Card. In the letter, Bova said that, though he liked Ender’s Game, it needed to be cut in half. Before he sent the draft out, Card had read and reread Ender’s Game over and over and over. “If something could be cut out,” he said, “I didn’t put it in.” And so Card thought about Bova’s note. What he realized was this: when Bova says the story needs to be cut in half, what he’s also implicitly saying is, ‘to me, it feels way too long.’ So Card asked himself, why did it feel too long? What did I do that made it feel too long? “I realized I probably had too many battles in it,” he said. “I went in and cut out one battle entirely. I cut another one in half. Then I realized a few places where I wanted to elaborate on things. So the manuscript I sent back to Ben was a page or two longer than the one he had told me I should cut in half. But I didn’t remind him that he told me to cut it in half. What I said was, ‘I addressed the problems you mentioned*.* Let me know what you think of it.’” Bova replied back with a contract and check.
Once They Were Hats
In the mid and late 17th century, beaver hats were so popular that beavers almost went extinct. Beaver conservationists attacked beaver hatters, but they weren’t necessarily the problem. They themselves were struggling with their own problems of trying to keep up with demand. In any case, the beaver population decline nearly bottomed when a frenchman took his beaver hat to a hatter in China and asked the hatter to make the same hat but with silk. The frenchman returned home to Paris with his silk hat and the silk hat craze began. The silk hat made its way to London where on January 15, 1797—as legend has it—an Englishman was first seen wearing a silk hat. “The man had such a tall and shiny construction on his head,” a police officer said, “that it must have terrified nervous people. The sight of this construction was so overstated that various women fainted, children began to cry and dogs started to bark.” London’s The Times broke the story the next day. “The man’s hat points to a significant advance in the transformation of dress. Sooner or later, everyone will accept this headwear.” Silk hats were in, beaver hats were out, and the beaver population rose. By 2000, the population was back up to around 50 million beavers. “The resurrection of Castor canadensis (the beaver’s scientific name),” Frances Backhouse writes in Once They Were Hats, “is undeniably one of North America’s greatest conservation success stories.”
When People Say That Something Is Wrong…
Ryan Holiday has written about the line that proves true again and again: “When people say that something is wrong, they are almost always right. When they tell you how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” So don’t necessarily operate on the elbow, the title, the performance on the snow, the length of the manuscript, or the beaver hatters. Instead, discover if nerves are being pinched somewhere else.