Steven Spielberg had a problem. I discovered it quite by accident.
I’d ordered a book by David Niven for a project I was working on; completely unaware there are actually two published authors by that name. One, an English novelist and actor, and the other – completely foreign to me until his book showed up on my doorstep – a psychologist with an intensely yellow book cover shouting, ‘IT’S NOT ABOUT THE SHARK’ in capitals.
After the disappointment of now owning a book I did not want, I skimmed through the books introduction about a first time Hollywood filmmaker with a gut wrenching problem: Months into shooting his big break movie Jaws the – then unknown – director Steven Spielberg still didn’t have any useable footage of his films fickle, and wildly expensive, leading star. The mechanical shark, designed to be the films main actor, certainly wasn’t going to be giving moviegoers’ the nightmares the studio had been banking on. It couldn’t bite, couldn’t swim, and couldn’t even float properly in the water. Almost comically the carefully crafted synthetic shark skin would quickly become waterlogged; transforming the shark from a terrifying predator into a giant sea marshmallow, while the corrosive effects of salt water on the mechanical levers meant it only seemed to work when the cameras weren’t on it.
With a dud shark on his hands, Spielberg had a sizable problem. The entire films budget was long overspent, along with the studio’s patience. And the struggling director was facing the fact this was not only his first major film but probably his last.
I was hooked. No, I have never been in a situation where my mechanical shark wouldn’t work, but yes – a thousand times over – I have felt that familiar knot in my stomach when I have a problem. Small problems. Big problems. Problems that set up boundaries around me and point out all the ways I am failing. Yes, I stare at problems like they are the sun and make them so blindingly bright that I can’t possibly see anything else.
And no one would have blamed the poor guy for focussing on his problems: We are running way over schedule… We need a better shark… We need more money…It’s not my fault… I’m going to need a new job…
So, what did Steven Spielberg do? He reveals, “I thought, ‘What would Alfred Hitchcock do in a situation like this?’” And then, “I got the idea that we could make a lot of hay out of the horizon line, and not being able to see anything below the waistline when you’re treading water. What’s down there? It’s what we don’t see which is really, truly frightening.” Spielberg turned his focus on finding the solution: Making a shark movie without the shark.
When the Jaws movie finally made it to the big screens, audiences and critics alike were in awe. Named one of the greatest (and thankfully for Spielberg, highest-grossing) films of all time, the most frightening scenes in Jaws are those where we don’t even see the shark.
It was all about focussing on the solution.
We have been taught to fixate on the problem. But when we allow problems to serve as our guide then our problems define what we can’t do, what we can’t see – and our thoughts become all about negativity, absence, and lack.
Do we spend more time looking for a solution, or a problem?
Do we think more often about what we want, or what we want we don’t want?
The Bible says in Ephesians 3:20 “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us.” Any excuse I might have had for wanting to let a problem take centre stage even a minute longer just went out the window. I actually have a choice.
It’s like opening the floodgates—you won’t believe how much you have been holding back until you see the ideas that come rushing in.
May your thoughts be focussed on solutions. I’m off to find the David Niven book. The other one.