Monthly Archives: June 2014

The 84th Problem

IMG_0078June 25, 2014

There’s a story about a man who sought out the Buddha for help.  He was unhappy with his life.  There was nothing overwhelmingly terrible about his life, but it seemed full of an endless succession of little disappointments, struggles and complaints.

He was a farmer, and a good one.  He enjoyed farming.  But sometimes it didn’t rain enough, or it rained too much, or the summers were too hot or too cold, and so his harvests were not as good as he hoped.

He had a wife.  And she was a good wife whom he loved.  But sometimes she nagged him too often or too much.  And sometimes he got tired of her.

And he had children.  And they were good children.  He enjoyed them a lot.  But sometimes…

The Buddha listened patiently to the man’s story until he finally finished.  He looked at the Buddha expectantly, waiting for some word that would fix everything.  Then the Buddha said, “I can’t help you.”

The man was startled, then disappointed, then angry.  He said, “I thought you were a great teacher.  I thought you could help me.”

Everybody’s got problems,” said the Buddha.  ”In fact, we always have eighty-three problems, each one of us, and there’s nothing we can do about it.  If you manage to solve one problem, it’s immediately replaced by another.  You’ll always have eighty-three problems.  You’re going to die, for example.  For you, that’s a problem, and it’s one you’ll not escape.  There’s nothing you nor I nor anyone else can do about it.  We all have problems like these, and they don’t go away.”

The man was furious.  ”Then what good is your teaching?” he demanded.

“Well,” said the Buddha, “it might help you with the eighty-fourth problem.”

“The eighty-fourth problem?” said the man.  ”What’s the eighty-fourth problem?”

“You don’t want any problems,”  said the Buddha.

Run Away, Deny, or Face Up?

We all have problems. And we always will.  Why?  It’s not complicated. The world refuses to operate according to our personal plan; people are often thoughtless and unkind; things happen; mistakes are made; dissatisfaction is rampant; we want more than we have.  And so problems appear.  When we try to avoid them by denying that they exist, or refusing to accept that they are part of our lives, or  blaming others for our troubles, we become like the farmer in the story:  frustrated and dissatisfied.   And then, as the Buddha taught, rather than having our allotment of eighty-three, we end up with eighty-four.

“The problem is not that there are problems,” writes American psychiatrist Theodore Rubin.  ”The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.”

Denying that there are problems, or failing to face up to them and take them on, leads to a predictable outcome:  they get worse.  ”Problems do not go away,” writes psychiatrist M. Scott Peck in his book, The Road Less Traveled.  ”They must be worked through or else they remain forever a barrier to the growth and development of the spirit.”

It could even be worse .  Denying that we have problems, or refusing to deal with them,  Peck believes,  are the sources of one of the most devastating of human problems:  ”The tendency to avoid problems,” he says, “…is the primary basis of all human mental illness.”.

There is another way to understand the Buddha’s teachings that we all have eighty-three problems: Having problems and grappling with them need not be problem, it could be a blessing.  Here is Peck again:

“ is in this whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has its meaning.  Problems are the cutting edge that distinguishes between success and failure.  Problems call forth our courage and wisdom.  It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually.”

Accepting that we have problems and working our we way through them can yield huge dividends:  mental and spiritual growth, success rather than failure, the achievement of meaning and purpose.  And there is more.  Psychologists are in agreement that the  presence of problems at the center of our emotional and cognitive experiences offers us important benefits :

  • Problems exist because we care about what is happening;
  • Our emotional lives are attached to the problems we grapple with;
  • We only think when we are confronted with problems;
  • There is no perception per se, but only perception in relationship to problems;
  • Learning does not occur in a vacuum, but always about ways to solve problems;
  • The choices we make, and then the actions we take in order to implement our choices, are aways about problems.

Clearly, problems are important in our lives, even essential:  growth, success, emotional vitality, courage, wisdom, thinking, perceiving and experiencing, learning, choosing and acting, are all associated with problem situations.

Rather than deny or distort or evade or run away from our problems,  what if we turned toward them instead, and faced up to them.  In their book Hard Facts, Dangerous Truths and Total Nonsense,  Stanford professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton go further.  Writing primarily to leaders in business and organizations, they make a strong suggestion that applies as well to all of us: Embrace the Mess!

They explain what they mean by Embracing the Mess  this way:

Accept that there will always be errors, setbacks, miscommunication, frayed nerves, and frightening rumors…Treat glitches as a normal part of the …program, learn from them, assume that everyone has the best intentions, and focus upon how to fix the problem instead of whom to blame.  Point at solutions instead of each other.

While it may seem to be paradoxical, having problems is the best way, and perhaps the only way, to become who and what we want to be.  If we are to get somewhere in our lives, we need our problems to help us along, which is why being skilled at dealing with them is so important.

This is not to say that problems are always pleasant experiences.  While working on some problems may fill us with excitement and exhilaration, others can push us to our limits and beyond. Grappling with them can keep us awake at night, worrying over what may happen, fretting that what we plan to do will not help.  Yet there is always the promise that afterwards, when we have done our best, we will be smarter, wiser, and more capable of taking on the next challenge.  The only way to get better at working with problems is to work with problems.

But eighty-three problems is enough.  No one should burden themselves with the eighty-fourth!



“Wicked:” A Thinking and Acting Tool

IMG_0129May 30, 2014

“Sour grapes”  you say as you discuss with a friend the recent behavior of a mutual friend.  When you say “sour grapes,”  you both understand that you are not commenting upon the way the grapes taste, but about your friend’s actions.  With this pithy remark – one of a class of words that help us think about what’s going on – you and your friend gain ground in understanding what has happened and why.

The same holds true when a friend, nowhere near a basketball court, says,  ”It’s a slam dunk!”

“Ah,” you answer.  ”Right!”

These phrases are examples of what philosopher Daniel Dennett has called “abstract thinking tools.”  All words are to some degree tools for thinking, suggests Dennett, but some are more important than others.  The best ones are those that “make…it easier to formulate hypotheses to test…recognize unnoticed patterns in the world, [and] help…the user look for important similarities” or differences.

In his book, I am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter offers a list of his favorite thinking tools:

  • wild goose chase
  • tackiness
  • dirty tricks
  • elbow grease
  • feet of clay
  • loose cannon
  • crackpots
  • lip service
  • feedback

You undoubtedly have your own list.  When you use one in a conversation – “loose cannon” for example – you and your friend are able to narrow the understanding gap that exists between you without extensive, even excessive, explanations, and move on with what you want to say about the issue.

“Wicked” is a Useful, Even Necessary, Thinking Tool

The Idea of Wicked Problems is an extremely useful “abstract thinking tool” for understanding and working on problems.  You say “this is a wicked one,”  and if your spouse,  friend, or  colleagues understand what you mean and agree with you,  you can save hours of rancorous and often fruitless arguments about the nature of the problem and what to do about it; you are able to move on to the “real thing!”

Here are a few of the many advantages that are gained  when everyone involved  understands that the problem you are concerned with is a wicked one:

  • You begin with the knowledge that what you are worrying about may not be a problem at all, but a “mess!”  ”Mess” is a technical term for an array of problems bundled together into a complicated, dynamic, confusing, ambiguous collection  of issues, situations, and events.   Effective government is a mess, as is excellence in education, adequate health care, functional families, drug addiction, inflation, a “bad” marriage, unemployment, global warming, corruption, and so on.
  • “Managers [and leaders, parents, and friends] do not solve problems,” said organizational theorist Russell Ackoff,  ”they manage messes.”  ”Managing messes” is a very different challenge than solving problems.
  • “Messes”  do not get solved; they cannot even be worked on productively.  ”Messes” are too complex, nebulous, dynamic, confusing, and especially too political for any productive work to occur.
  • How do people “manage messes?”  By formulating problems that they can work on.  Problems are formulated – brought into existence – when they are extracted from messes by people deciding what part of the mess they want to work on.(More discussion of “messes” will follow in later post.)
  • The newly formulated problem will probably be a “wicked” one, though it may not be, and so you both understand there is no “correct” solution, or “true” answer to the wicked problem.
  • What you are after instead of the “correct” solution (since there isn’t one) is the best one you can come up with.
  • You all are aware that there are no experts or gurus who know what the best “solution” is for this problem.
  • Since there are no experts to turn to, and in the beginning no one in the room has the answer, you have to Figure It Out (FIO) for yourselves.  You are the ones you have been waiting for!
  • Figuring It Out will be most successful when there is in the room a great and wide variety of experiences, viewpoints, and perspectives.  The more diversity the better.
  • You agree that the best way to understand the problem is to define it as a Gap between the present Here and Now and a future There and Then.
  • Once the problem is defined as a gap between the present state and a future one, you next task is to define the obstacles that stand in the way of moving from Here to There.
  • Dealing with obstacles that block movement is the work that needs to be done.
  • Let Chaos Reign is the term Andy Grove uses in Only the Paranoid Survive for the beginning of the process in order to identify as many directions and alternatives as possible.  It is a Divergent process, one that goes out in all directions.
  • Rein in Chaos is what follows, a Convergent process of winnowing  out the bad ideas and keeping the good ones.
  • Divergence is easy:  anything goes!  Convergence upon the best ideas is a difficult test, requiring openness, honesty, risk-taking, conflict, confrontation, creativity, straight talk, and finally, consensus.
  • You all understand that everyone in the room will have some useful opinions and suggestions and some that are not helpful.  In the beginning, however, no one knows what they are and who has them.  An early challenge is to listen for understanding to everyone before moving to support one idea or another.
  • When you are convinced that someone’s idea is better that yours, you go with him or her.
  • What you mean by “solution” is this:  you end up with an “actionable plan,” one that allows you to communicate widely what needs to be done, that leads to the allocation of resources, the mobilization of efforts, and to the organization of efforts and the assignment of responsibilities .
  • Even with an “actionable plan” in place,  you understand that you have not arrived at a permanent fix or solution.  Whatever plan you devise and implement does not solve the problem.  All “solutions” to wicked problems are temporary arrangements that must be revisited as times, people and conditions change.
  • You resist taking any actions until you have a shared and agreed upon understand of what the problem is.
  • Because your problem is wicked, you know that it will never be fully over.  As the Nike ad says, “There is no finish line.”  You finish when you have done the best you can do under the circumstances, or when you run out of time or resources.
  • Execution of the “actionable plan” is essential.  Otherwise, you have been engaged in nothing more than an intellectual exercise.
  • Execution of an actionable plan is itself a wicked problem.
  • When you are involved in the execution of the action plan, you are also activating the Law of Unintended Consequences.  In addition to your goals and objectives, you are also putting in place “solutions” that you did not plan on or expect.  The consequences of your actions that may make things worse.  A continuing part of your work is to look for the unintended consequences of doing “good” and find and address those results and outcomes  that may make things “bad.”   

Understanding from the beginning that you are about to work on a wicked problem gives you a huge advantage.  You are able to bypass much of the confusion and controversy that is typical of  beginning attempts to work on complicated problems.  Even before getting to the actual problem, many people get bogged down in one misunderstanding after another which, after much emotional pain and frustration, yield very little.  They often founder in the shallows before ever getting to the deep water.  Starting with the realization that what you have before you is a wicked problem is an effective and productive shortcut.

Philip Roth’s book, Portnoy’s Complaint, is one continuous monologue of over 300 pages as Alexander Portnoy explains to his psychiatrist, Dr. Spielvogel,  all the complaints and complications of his life.  Finally, at the end of the novel,  understanding at last the nature of Portnoy’s complaint, Dr. Spielvogel  utters his first and only words:  ”Now, vee may perhaps to begin, Yes?”

When you come to the table with a wicked problem, and everyone understands what this means, you don’t have to spend the equivalent of 300 pages trying to understand what it is you are faced with.  You are able “to cut to the chase,” and say as did Dr. Spielvogel:  ”Now, vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”  And go to work.