October 30, 2017
Problems come into existence in one of two ways: Either they make their presence known by disrupting our lives to such a degree that, unless we choose to deny what is happening, we have no choice but to deal with them.
The second way is that we go looking for them. Sometimes we are bored, or curious, or sensitized to a particular issue, or we just stumble on to something that seems worth exploring more deeply. And then we redirect our attention, lean in, and drill down into things that seemed either settled or commonplace but now have become problematic.
Moving toward problems begins in earnest when we are surprised or thrown off stride. Something doesn’t make sense: something is off-kilter or slightly skewed, a realization usually triggered by discrepancies, anomalies, contradictions, or paradoxes. And as we explore these gaps between what we expect and what we experience, we arrive at a decision point: Either we conclude that what we are noticing is merely interesting and not worth exploring further or we look more closely and decide that there is something here worth learning more about.
It Matters That Some Problems Are Tame and Other Are Wicked
Even though our daily experiences are profoundly different, as human beings we have one thing in common: Every day we all face problems of one kind or another. And we will be expected, and at times even required, to solve them. Most of the time we are not surprised by this. As we mature, we inevitably learn that a large part of our lives is an endless struggle with problems, some simple, some complicated, and others beyond our abilities to understand. Some of us are more fortunate that others: we are able to take most of our problems in stride. And many of us – the most fortunate – have the resources to solve our daily problems and make them disappear, at least until they reappear once again.
Most of our work with problems is done on autopilot. When we run into a problem, we first recognize it (or think we do), then believing we know what needs to be done, we fall back upon previously-tried remedies and set about implementing them. Only rarely do we go beyond the current problem and think about what we are doing or wonder about the nature of problems themselves. And why should we? After all, during our lives we have solved hundreds and hundreds of problems. We take one look and decide that, “I know what this is – it’s a problem.” And we activate the autopilot.
Once in a while, however, we are surprised and then puzzled. No matter what we do, this problem doesn’t get solved nor does it go away. This experience may be the first step toward an important awareness: all problems are not alike. If this happens often enough we begin to see a pattern: some problems can be solved while others can only be worked on. And some take one more step forward when they learn there are names attached to these two different kinds of problems: tame and wicked.
This understanding is a entirely new way of seeing problems and deciding what to do about them. People who gain this perspective experience what is often called a “raised consciousness.” Adding “wicked” to the mix that makes up their world of problems makes grappling with problems more difficult and challenging, yet at the same time more interesting. Gaining a different perspective about the nature of problems – that some are wicked – and adding to that an awareness of what this means turns out to be among the most important things we can learn.
“I’m Speaking Prose”
An example of seeing things from a different perspective is at the center of Moliere’s play, The Bourgeois Gentleman, first performed in France in 1670. The Bourgeois Gentleman is a satire about a member of the middle-class who desperately wishes to leave his bourgeois position in life, behind, rise up in society, and become an aristocrat. The title of the play is actually an oxymoron, and offers us a hint that what Moliere’s protagonist, Monsieur Jourdain is after is a fool’s errand: In 17th century France a “gentleman” was always nobly-born and therefore could never come from the bourgeoisie.
Monsieur Jourdain decides that the way to become an aristocrat is to learn the ways of the nobility, and so he applies himself to the gentlemanly arts of fencing, dancing, music, and philosophy. At the end of a philosophy lesson, he informs his teacher that he is in love with a lady and requests help in writing a note that he plans to discreetly drop at her feet.
When the philosopher asks if Monsieur Jourdain would prefer the note be a poem, Jourdain rejects the idea: “No, no, no verse for me.”
“So, you want prose?” asks the philosophy master.
“No, neither,” says Jourdain.
“Well,” responds the philosopher, ” it’s either one or the other.” (In the verse adaptation of the play by Timothy Mooney, the philosopher says, “To make the point most terse/What isn’t verse is prose and what’s not prose is verse.”)
Confused by what he is hearing, Jourdain asks the philosopher to tell him what they have been speaking during their conversation.
“Prose,” is the answer.
“It’s prose? I’ve been speaking prose?” asks Jourdain.
“Decidedly,” answers the philosopher.
“And when I say: ‘Nicole, bring me my slippers and fetch my nightcap,’ is this prose?”
Jourdain, his eyes opened by this new revelation, is exuberant: “Well, well, what do you know about that! These forty years now I’ve been speaking in prose without knowing it.”
And then like many people who discover something new, Jourdain goes overboard. When greeting a lady of the aristocracy, he says in his best prose, “Madame, it is for me a great honor to have the good fortune to be so happy as to know the happiness to know you have deigned to condescend to grant me the kindness of doing me the honor of honoring me with the favor of your presence.”
“I’m Seeing Wicked”
When we become aware that many of our problems are wicked, we often have a reaction similar to Monsieur Jourdain’s: We are startled, and even amazed. Understanding that some problems can never be “solved” changes the way we see and think about them and forces us to rethink how to go about dealing with them. Here is a CEO of a major company reporting on his experience during a seminar about wicked problems:
After I learned that some problems are wicked and others are tame, I began to see wicked problems everywhere. Instead of seeing a problem and thinking, “How am I going to solve this?,” I would hold back from thinking “solve” and ask “Is this a wicked problem or is it tame?” If I decided that it was wicked, I would think,” “Well, I’m not going to get it solved, so now what?” and “Since I can’t figure this out by myself, who else should I get involved?”
The experience of seeing wicked problems everywhere is available to anyone who reads a daily newspaper. A cursory review of the October 26, 2017 edition of New York Times reveals there are five stories on the front page. A closer inspection makes clear that each story is about a problem. This should be no surprise. Publishing stories about problems is what newspapers do. Examining these stories though the lens of wicked problems, however, and it becomes clear that four of the five are about wicked problems. The one exception is the obituary of Antonine Dominique Domino, aka Fats Domino. It is probable that if Mr. Domino had died on a different day, his obituary would have been replaced by another wicked problem story.
We need “new eyes.”
Why is it that some people read the newspaper every day and never see that most of the problems they are reading about are wicked? An insight from the French novelist Marcel Proust offers a clue: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Those who cannot see that the problems reported in the papers are not ordinary, run-of-the-mill problems but wicked ones, are reading with “old eyes.” They have not acquired the concepts and principles that are needed in order to see the “wickedness.” They spend a good part of their day working diligently at solving their daily quota of problems, never aware that some of the problems they are grappling with are wicked, never to be solved, but only worked on. If they are to see the wicked problems in the newspapers and in their lives, they need “new eyes.”
Even those who have grasped that some problems are wicked and others are tame may miss seeing them simply because they fail to take the time to look. “Most of the world, most of the time, escapes us,” writes Garth Hallberg in The New York Times on October 1, 2017. “The present is somehow both too near at hand and too remote to see clearly. We pass over places we never quite inhabit, enroute to destinations we never quite reach.” While hurrying on our way to somewhere else and failing to pay attention to where we are, the pervasive presence of wicked problems eludes us.
Convergent vs. Divergent
Among the several characteristics of problems that determine whether problems are tame or wicked is that solving tame problems relies on a Convergent process, while working on wicked problems requires a Divergent one, at least in the beginning. With tame problems, the task of the problem solvers is to concentrate their efforts upon converging upon a true answer or correct solution. Here is an overly-simplified version of this process: First they choose problems they think they can solve. Then they propose a number of possible solutions, then examine each one by submitting it to critical examination or experimentation, and finally work to eliminate those that prove to be false. Eventually what is left standing is the correct solution.
“Good scientists,” says P. D Medawar, Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, “study the most important problems they can solve. It is, after all, their professional business to solve problems, not merely grapple with them. ” In fact, almost all the problems scientists address are ultimately tame since “good” scientists prefer to solve problems and not merely grapple with them.
But for the rest of us, grappling is what we must do. Grappling with problems is what is required for wicked problems, and effective grappling requires us to begin with a Divergent process. Step one is to imagine or invent as many possible answers or solutions as possible. Step two is to select from the list of possibilities the one that we judge to be the “best” of all the alternatives, and then step three is to turn this “best alternative” into an action plan that, when implemented, offers the most likely possibility of reducing the gap between where we are and where we want to be.
Seeing Wicked Problems in Art
If we were not in such a hurry “enroute to destinations that we never quite reach” and pay attention, we might notice that there are many things that at first glance may seem to be irrelevant and mundane, but turn out to be interesting and even important. One of these is a realization that the Arts – literature, drama, poetry and the graphic arts – are almost always built upon problems. At times the problem emerges primarily from the artists’ own struggle with their personal demons. At other times the focus is upon a problem “out there” in the world that bothers or upsets them. In both cases, authors, poets and painters begin their work with a problem and then build an artistic scaffolding around it. If there were no problem, there would be no story, no play, no painting hardly worth hearing or seeing. The existence of the problem at the center of the artwork is the artists’ way of reminding us that life itself consists of struggling against obstacles.
Most of the problems at the center of works of art are wicked. They do not get solved in the story, the play, or the painting, but persist beyond the boundaries of the artistic expression and remind us that life can be difficult, awful, and wonderful all at once.
Creating Truth and Clarity
Often, there is confusion over what art means. People who look at a paining in a museum or a gallery often walk away shaking their heads in disbelief. “This is art?” they ask incredulously. Critics have been known to argue for years about the specific meaning of a painting, a poem or a story. The dramatic arts are different. Their primary objective is to convey the meaning of the play as clearly as possible. “Truth and clarity remained his paramount goals,” wrote Benedict Nightingale in an obituary of the renowned director, Peter Hall, published in The New York Times on September 13, 2017, “and achieving them on the stage after much hard work was his principle joy in life.”
For Mr. Hall, the most honored director of past decades, the hard work of searching for “truth and clarity” began and ended in the rehearsals that preceded the performances of a play. “They were, “wrote Mr. Nightingale, “voyages into the unexplored and the unexpected…” And in order to navigate these voyages, many different abilities and talents were required, all of which were supplied by Mr. Hall: He was, as Hall himself said, “guide, philosopher, friend, conspirator, psychiatrist, actor, scholar, musician, editor, guru, politician, and lover.”
Seeking to offer “truth and clarity” on stage presents the directors and actors with a wicked problem: in the beginning, no one knows what the meaning is, where it lies, or how to make it clear enough so that audiences can gain the benefit of being offered this new version.
Rehearsals Are Wicked
Ten actors and a director sit in a circle and begin the process of creating a play. Over the following weeks or even months, their task will be to bring into existence something that has never existed before. In order to achieve this, they will employ a divergent methodology. Working within the guidelines and settings bequeathed to them by the playwright, they will imagine and then explore an almost unlimited number of possibilities that they hope will lead them closer to “truth and clarity.” In the beginning of rehearsals, the actors and the director find themselves in a position similar to their characters when they appear on the stage: struggling with problems they don’t really understand and for which they are unprepared. Turning their memorized lines, at first empty and meaningless, into meaningful conversations, they begin to create a new version of the “truth and clarity” they hope to pass on to the audiences who will join them in the future.
Performances are Tame
Once the play is ready to be presented to an audience, the wicked problem of imagining the play and then giving it life recedes into the background. By the end of rehearsals, the play they have created has become set and the new challenge for the actors is to keep it that way. They are expected to say the words and make the movements that have been previously determined to be the best ways of conveying “clarity and truth.” Improvising or “deviating,” is unacceptable and only detracts from the goal of sharing with the audience what was created during the rehearsals. One version of an “excellent” performance by the actors is one that adheres as closely as possible to the predetermined actions and emotions that emerged and were selected during the rehearsal period. Performing a play so that it conforms to its final iteration may be demanding, but it is still a tame problem: deviations are errors, and the actors’ goal each night is to converge as closely as possible on what was previously decided.
When the curtain goes up on the first night, and for every night thereafter, the audience is usually seeing it for the first time. It is for them a new experience. They have no idea what to expect and are often surprised by what they see.
The actor’s experiences during the performances are just the opposite. The excitement of creation is over, and they are now required to repeat their lines and make their movements exactly as they were finalized at the end of the rehearsals. In addition, they face new challenges: First they must convince the audience that the lines they are saying are not memorized, but actual conversations between people; and second, what they do and say must be seen as “authentic.” They must persuade the audience that what they are seeing is not acting but “real.”
While some actors are able to make the transition from the wicked problems of rehearsal to the tame ones of performance, others have found this to be intolerable. It is ironic that Marlin Brando, arguably the greatest American actor of the 20th century, was repulsed by performing. During the successful run of A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway, Brando told his co-actor Karl Malden that “checking in every night and pretending to be somebody you weren’t really wasn’t respectable for grown men.” In his memoir, Songs My Mother Taught Me, Brando describes the despair he felt when, night after night he had to repeat every action and every word exactly as it has been rehearsed:
“What I most remember about A Streetcar Named Desire was the emotional grind of acting it six nights and two afternoons a week. Try to imagine what is was like walking on stage at 8:3o every night, having to yell, scream, cry, break dishes, kick the furniture, pound the walls, and experience the same intense, wracking emotion night after night, trying to evoke in the audience the same emotions I felt. It was exhausting.”
Unable to tolerate it for long, and even though his teacher, Stella Adler, counseled against it, Brando fled from Broadway to Hollywood at the first opportunity. It wasn’t long again, however, that Brando couldn’t abide acting in Hollywood either.
What Brando hated was not the creative part of acting – the experimenting and the improvising that marked the rehearsals – but the deadly repetition of the same actions and the same emotions night after night in the performances. An incident that occurred in 1950 while Brando was preparing for his first starring role in Hollywood offers us a clue. In The Men, Brando was cast as a paralyzed veteran in a wheelchair. In order to prepare for his role, he spent a month in a wheelchair living with other paralyzed veterans in the Birmingham Veterans Hospital. During his time in the hospital, Brando spent his time building up his upper-body strength and learning to treat his legs as dead weight. The hospital staff did not know that he was not one of the paralyzed veterans, and so they treated him the same as all the other patients. And, according to Susan Mizruchi’s Brando’s Smile published in 2014, “He found the community’s’ dark humor – which included using hypodermic needles as water pistols – especially congenial.”
On an visit to a restaurant that Brando took the with other veterans, a Christian evangelist decided to preach to them about the healing powers of Jesus, telling them that if they only had enough faith, they could rise up from their wheelchairs and walk. Just as the preacher was calling the men to repentance, to leave their wicked ways, and to live by faith so they could be healed, Brando slowly and laboriously hoisted himself to his feet, took a few stumbling steps forward, then burst into a jig: “Hallelujah,” he shouted, Hallelujah!”
Dan Chiasson, in his review of Mizrchi’s book published in the New York Review of Books on January 8, 2015, asks us to imagine if Brando had “to repeat [the wheelchair moment] night after night, making small adjustments but fundamentally turning a moment of spontaneous joy into a joyless regimen.” Trading joy and spontaneity for the “joyless regimen” of performing is why, according to Chiasson, “Brando left the theatre, and it suggests why he all but left the movies.” When Brando slowly rose from his wheelchair and took his first halting steps, while he knew that he was an actor playing a part, he also knew that this was a special moment of creation, never to be repeated again.
Seeing and Speaking Wicked
When Peter Hall described rehearsals in the theatre as “Voyages into the unexplored and unexpected,” he was in effect talking about what it’s like to struggle with wicked problems. And Hall’s “voyages” into the unknown territory of rehearsals were also filled with something else that can often be found in the struggle with wicked problems: the spontaneous joy and exhilaration that Brando felt as he rose up from his wheelchair and shouted “Hallelujah!” “My definition of paradise,” Hall is quoted as saying, “is to be always rehearsing. A Shakespeare play followed by a Mozart opera.” By the time a play was ready to be performed, Hall had already left the hall, on his way to other theatre experiences that were more interesting, satisfying, and meaningful.
Wicked problems are to be found wherever human beings are making difficult decisions that involve values, resources and power. Emphasizing the differences between the wicked problems found in rehearsals and the tame ones that are the plays’ performances is a dramatic way of making clear that wicked problems can be found embedded in many if not most of our significant activities. And by taking advantage of a “Monsieur Jourdain” moment, we can become aware that it is possible “see and speak wicked,” and thereby avoid “passing over places we never quite inhabit on our way to destinations we never quite reach.” Seeing with “new eyes” makes it possible to go beyond our desires to make things better, and, collaborating with others, create new ways to actually make a difference.