Thinking About Thinking - 2019


Dissolve Your Problems

By Balaji Prasad

“I have no time to think about other writers. I am too busy with my own problems." ~ Harper Lee

Whether we realize it or not, we have certain notions that get deeply embedded in us from childhood. How could it be otherwise? When you hear the same drumbeat constantly, wherever you go, is it difficult to see how the rhythm and beat will continue to echo inside your head, long after the drummers outside your brain have stopped pounding their instruments. It becomes your instrument! For you become a drummer, too, and carry an unseen drum inside your head.

There is one such drumbeat that we may carry from the cradle to the grave: the idea that there are “problems" and that there are “solutions". It is not that a cookie-cutter such as this is not a useful tool, when you have a hankering for cookies. But when you want nothing other than cookies, and have an obsessive tendency to turn everything that comes your way into a cookie? That is a bit kooky, perhaps?

The Problem Child

“I have a problem," she says. “O Solution, Solution, wherefore art thou Solution?" she might add, if her sense of tragedy includes Shakespearean overtones. It doesn't matter where she is, or what she is doing. Problems are everywhere. In everything! Life essentially becomes an endless series of “problems" and the continual search for “solutions" to those problems.

Different techniques are employed in problem solving, with entire books devoted to this dark art. One approach is the cultivation of a tool-kit of general patterns of problem-solution pairs. This would allow us to rifle through this carefully nurtured resource to find the best fit from the generic problem-solution pairs to solve some specific problem of interest. “If the disease is X," we say, “take medicine Y". Our doctors do this of course. But so do the rest of us. You say that your mind is restless, filled with anxiety and stress? There is a “technique" for that! Or, better yet, a Guru, who is famed far and wide to bring the elusive peace of mind you so desperately seek. Problem? Solution! Solved!! Or not.

Our computers, too, have been doing this kind of thing – not surprising, since they are programmed by us. We have created these silicon creatures in our own image, breathing our indoctrinated style of thinking in if-then-else patterns into our machines. And, as we spend more and more time with these machines, we perhaps lose track of who the creator is, and who the created is. We see computer metaphors feed back into human language in the form of expressions such as “I am not able to process that" or “I don't have enough bandwidth". The programmer becomes more like the thing he or she programmed. Horrors! I have become it! Or, maybe, I become even more like me than I used to be, as my machines and I swirl furiously together like binary stars, becoming a new entity that feeds upon itself. I am truly a problem child! I create problems and seek solutions.

Outsourcing your problems

It is not just about the computers we create to solve problems. People among us rise up too, to “solve" the myriads of “problems" that permeate the very air we breathe. In a world, in which we are so interconnected and interdependent, it is unclear where I end, and you begin. I am part of a larger group that collaboratively creates problems and solutions as well as patterns of problem-solution pairs. In some cases, this seems to work reasonably well. You need me to mow your lawn? Sure! I can probably do a reasonable enough job and solve what seems to be a relatively simple problem. In this case, you have a problem, and I am your means to a solution, or in shorthand: I am your solution.

This kind of outsourcing of problem-defining and solution-creation is a bit addictive though, and doesn't scale up to life's “problems". We end up allowing all kinds of problems to be defined, and solutions to be crafted, when neither problem nor solution is practical or life-enriching. And, more often than desirable, not even real! For, when you hear a lie a thousand times, it becomes indistinguishable from the truth.

Outsourcing providers are in the business of creating solutions that can be sold into problems. So it is reasonable to expect them to create “problems" that are either not really problems at all, or are not problems that are practical to solve. Also, it is not because these providers operate with malice. If you keep thinking about something from a certain angle, you will likely see things in a certain way. So a pharmaceutical company or a doctor will see things in a certain way, as will a lawyer or a statistician. Looking at a more mundane example, when a car mechanic asserts that you need to have that oil change done every 3 months or 3000 miles, is it because of concern for your vehicle, or is it because that is how the mechanic is motivated or habituated to think? What it comes down to is that if you go with the way the wind – powered by doctors, lawyers, mechanics and gurus – blows, your answers might be blowing in the wind, as Bob Dylan might have said.

Dissolve your problems!

Perhaps the best way to solve a problem is not to have a problem at all! However, that's not easy when you have been indoctrinated into thinking about everything as a problem, and exalting the problem-solving mindset as a virtue to be put on a pedestal.

To get rid of this problem-solving mindset may require nothing short of a kind of exorcism. Maybe there are certain kinds of problems that are really problems that can be solved, and that are worth solving? For example, math problems. And then there are other kinds of “problems" that are pervasive and overpowering, but which may not be solvable problems at all – things such as “peace of mind". Mysteriously when you apply yourself to problems of the first kind – like math – those of the second kind blur into your surroundings. You effectively dissolve your problems, and avoid them, altogether.

May you have only math and similar problems! And may they be your own problems. Not outsourced.

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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 balaji.prasad@newcranium.com