The Thinker Thinks… About The Thinker

By Balaji Prasad

"Alas, the frailty is to blame, not we
For such as we are made of, such we be."
~ William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

“Problem solving and data analysis" is one of the math topics that is tested on the SAT. It is something that high schoolers have to deal with whether they take the SAT, ACT or even school tests.

Everyone should study for the SAT!

I am being a little facetious, of course. But not entirely. If you go beyond the literality of the exhortation, problem-solving and data analysis is what all of us do every moment of our lives. We take in lots of data about the world we live in, and about the things that constantly happen around us.

We don't take in the data as it is. We filter it, prioritize it and jiggle it around inside our heads to make it somehow fit with whatever already exists inside. We analyze the data, interpret it and transform it during our “data processing" phase of our knowledge cycle.

Also, it is not sufficient for our purposes to just integrate the new data with the existing gray-matter patterns inside us; we find it necessary to beat it into different abstract shapes and patterns to allow our limited cognitive capacities to make “sense" of it.

Clearly some dexterity with data analysis is something that we all can benefit from. But that is not the end of the road. Data for its own sake is useless. We are interested in data in the first place because we feel the need to make our lives better in some way. This often involves solving problems.

Everyone is a problem solver

Human beings are endless generators of problems. We are always looking to optimize things so that our desires and fears are addressed. We are reluctant to let the universe spin on its own path. “Hey, what about me!?" we constantly clamor, as we seek to have the universe spin a little more this way in our favor rather than that way, which could be a random and undesirable direction from our very human standpoint.

So, as we look for opportunities to intervene productively in the machinations of an otherwise uncaring universe, we frame problems that guide us in our life-enhancing endeavors. Framing problems correctly is obviously important. Perhaps, even more important is whether a problem should be framed at all. Our fears and desires can drive us to go wrong with both of these aspects of problems: naming and framing.

Nature resists framing

The difference between us and the universe is simple: emotion. We want things to be what we want them to be, and within timeframes that we decide to impose as deadlines. Nature, on the other hand, doesn't seem to particularly care for anything to be this way or that. And even if it does, it seems to operate in timescales that are far greater than human time horizons.

Given this mismatch between our nature and nature's nature, we are likely to do our own thing while nature does its thing. And so, the problems we frame in our “humanverse" can be quite tangential, even irrelevant, in the real one that we are compelled to live in.

The framer is also a gamer

Regardless of the quality of the “problems" we frame, for better or for worse, they are what we use to focus our energy on as we hunt for “solutions" to these fabrications. These solutions will end up moving something somewhere. So, it is important that we are careful with these, and realize that while problems might influence our thinking in incorrect ways, solutions can be worse – they can shift things in the real world to the wrong places. For, this is where the rubber meets the road. Or doesn't.

Alas, the same human weaknesses that lead to the poor framing of problems cause us to create solutions that can do us harm rather than the good that we crave. When we are filled with excessive fear or desire, we can be like desperately thirsty wanderers in an arid, merciless desert, seeing mirages everywhere as solutions that will slake our thirst. This is what happens when we play games with our mind – we think we get a solution, but we get something that can lead to our dissolution instead.

The challenge is to somehow improve the framing of problems and stop ourselves from gaming our own minds to create illusory solutions that can destroy us. If we realize the existence of this “meta-problem", the focus shifts away from the problems and solutions that the harried thinker needs to deal with. The emphasis moves to the thinker, with the enlightenment that the thinker is much more important than the thinking. Or the data. After all, what use is data if the thinker is corrupt?


Balaji Prasad is an IIT/IIM graduate, a published author, SAT/ACT Online and Offline Coach, interview, resume, and career coach at NewCranium. Contact: 704.746.9779 or