Thinking About Thinking - 2018


What is Your Big Problem for 2018?

By Balaji Prasad

“Every time you think the problem is 'out there,'
that very thought is the problem."
~ Stephen Covey

Solving problems is an inescapable part of life. We can't avoid problems, because we are beings that generate problems. We just can't let things be! This restlessness is a hint that we see the key to survival as gaining control over the world. The obsession with control is the mother of all problems. So, as part of the survival game, we create an endless supply of problems, and continually challenge ourselves to solve them. There are those who sit on desolate mountaintops, and pontificate, “Let your problems go, my child! All your problems lie within". But for the rest of us who don't dwell in the rarefied heights of Mount Kailas, problems are a part of our universe. The only way to run away from your problems is to run away from yourself. Fortunately, or unfortunately, such an event occurs only once!

Life is multiple-choice

The good thing about realizing how central your role is in creating your problems is that it allows you to roll your own: “It's my life, and I revel in the freedom to create my own problems."

But is it wise to create problems simply because we can? What we need are problems that are relevant to our quest for survival – problems, which if we solve, will help us gain control over our circumstances. Ideally, we want to put some governance into the problem-generating machines that we are, so that we generate the right problems, and avoid chasing the wrong ones. After all, wouldn't it be nice to be able to say, at the end of the whole thing, that you created lots and lots of problems for yourself, but they were all important problems, not ones that were thoughtlessly created and adopted?

Life is not multiple-choice

Being the one who always gets to select the specific problems that need to be solved would be great, but it doesn't seem to jell with our day-to-day experience of how this works. Problems are constantly thrust upon us, much to our displeasure. Try telling your math teacher that you want to cherry-pick the problems from the test that he or she created, and that you will solve only those. There are many of these kinds of “foreign" problems that happily coexist with problems of a more domestic origin. And, it is very hard to tell these apart, because where we end, and where our circumstances begin is a blurry, blurry line. Our circumstances and we are, together, co-conspirators in the crime of creating problems.

Problem jail

So, the reality is that we find ourselves, at times, incarcerated in problem jails, and forced to solve problems not of our own making. We accept many things as being required of us, because of the way the world is structured. For example, many of us need to work for a living. We need to deal with all kinds of people – customers, suppliers, uncooperative co-workers, and sometimes, even difficult bosses. So what do we do when we are thrust into problem jail, facing problems we didn't choose?

Solvable problems are better problems

When you come to terms with the fact that, while you desire ultimate control over what problems you need to tackle, that it just doesn't work that way, your attitude shifts. You realize that, as the saying goes, when you can't beat 'em, you need to join 'em. Bring on those problems – domestic, foreign, whatever. This attitude is important. It is important because energy, time and attention are limited. We can spend our scarce personal resources on lamenting that the problems we face are “not invented here" or we can expend that same energy to deal productively with the problems. The only way to solve problems is to solve them! And, the only way to do that is to apply your energy in that direction. There is also a side benefit to channelizing the energy away from ranting, and toward the problems: it will feel a lot less stressful for all concerned, including the owner of the problem.

Applying our minds to a problem can make it more solvable. However, not all problems are solvable. Some are truly “out there" problems, e.g. how to detect dark matter, and what the meaning of life is, and so on. It is certainly interesting to engage with such problems, and some among us have the luxury of being able to do this on a full-time basis, but the rigors of day-to-day living do not permit most of us to indulge ourselves in these mind-stretching escapades. But we are all certainly endowed with the power to create our very own, homegrown unsolvable problems, such as how to get some intransigent family member or relative to do what we are convinced they should do. We can end up looping endlessly, often with considerable unhappiness, laboring frantically to make the world get in line with our minds.

Wisdom lies in seeing unsolvable problems as unsolvable ones and solvable problems as solvable ones. And, in seeing that solvability is not just a property of the problem: it is also a property of ourselves.

Many solvable problems exist

Society has done a reasonably good job with framing some problems so that they are solvable. As a trivial example, think of the SAT test. All the problems in that test are solvable. As a test-taker, you can confidently bet on this. Similarly, if you have to learn to play a piece on the guitar, it may seem intimidating at the outset, but you know it is a solvable problem, because others have solved this problem, and because you have solved similar problems, though not this particular one, before.

A new year needs a new problem

The New Year has come! It is a good time to review our problems, whether domestic or foreign, and tune our portfolios. Maybe, too, it's time to add a brand new problem – of the kind that someone has solved before. For example, maybe you want to learn to play the piano. Make that your big problem for 2018. Or maybe you want to nail the SAT test. Make that your big one for the year. Framing the problem is the first step. And, if you think I can be of help in the solving, please reach out to me.