Bare Bones Biology #025. Problem Solving II

Last time, we were talking about problem solving skills, and the first one I mentioned was the idea that each person should do whatever they are good at as hard and as fast as they can and keep doing it. According to the American Myth, if we try hard enough, we will succeed. By which we mean, we’ll “win”.

There is actually a lot of truth to that. Fun to think about. Pretty much it’s fun to do if you like competition and if you actually end up winning. But there is a big question of whether or not winning is a good problem-solving skill. We can agree that you won, but did you succeed in solving more problems than you generated. By succeeding, I mean solving a real problem in a way that’s sustainable into the future.

In order to win you have to beat someone. I know some people claim that everybody is a winner, and to them I say it’s better to deal honestly with situations than to make up fairy tales about them. Most people don’t like to be beat. They will wait generations for their revenge, if necessary, a fact that is easy to prove with examples from around the world, including our own civil war. So war, that is, the attempt to win, and that’s at any level from silent disapproval to physical battle, should be a last resort, not the first line of flag-waving. The more times you win, the more enemies you end up with until finally everyone is afraid of everyone else. Eventually, you’re afraid of anyone who is not your supporter and you have cut yourself off from the people who are the most useful for solving problems – that is, people who have ideas that are different from your own. So in trying to solve problems with the win/lose approach, you cut yourself off from the people you need the most.

Furthermore, you have cut yourself off from most of the good solutions, because winning and losing are only two of the available options. No problem is so simplistic as all that; there are always at least three possible solutions, even to the most simple problems, and usually many more. And while we’re killing ourselves trying to win, or not to lose, there are hundreds of other possible solutions we just don’t care to hear about because they don’t involve winning. Or we’re too busy. Even though they very likely might succeed in resolving the problem.

And then, there is another difficulty with the win/lose option, and that is you probably might lose instead of winning, and end up a bitter and lonely old man with no friends. I probably don’t need to explain why that’s not desirable.

So, what to do? Try this one. Whenever you get the idea that “the end justifies the means,” stop yourself. Or, if you think, “that’s the right way to do it.” Stop right there. Sit with yourself for half an hour at least, and ask very seriously if you believe the proposed action really does justify the method you plan to use. Will it really help solve your problem or will it just cause more problems later on? Is it maybe somebody else’s idea of how to solve a problem and doesn’t apply to your own problem. So that takes a little practice.

After you can do that, try this one. Go out and find somebody who disagrees with you and of course somebody who can talk rationally at the same time as disagreeing. First establish what is your common goal with this other person. There’s always a common goal. Just figure out what it is. And talk. Talk about the problem. Talk nice. If both sides genuinely want to solve the problem, you might succeed. And without all the bother and chaos of trying to win something. Or. You might not.

There are all kinds of twists to the win/lose method of problem solving, as well as any other method. For example, as Ann Garrin said recently with regard to senatorial problem solving: “They’d rather have the issue than the victory.” In other words, they’re not interested in solving problems. But that doesn’t change the fact that winning always causes more problems than it fixes.

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