Monday, January 17, 2011

The difference between solving ordinary problems & solving the big ones

Over the weekend I had an intriguing weekend with a group of friends working on a problem which may or may not prove insurmountable but certainly looks very large. Everyone there was smart and skilled and everyone wanted the best for everyone else. We were in an wonderfully warm, safe, and very beautiful setting.

Here's what I noticed. Most of the people in the room were used to solving problems that have solutions. They had excellent skills for applying to people who are trying to do things that they (the people in the room) believe to be solvable. Their various approaches and techniques work brilliantly almost all the time, because almost all the time they are working in situations where they congruently believe a solution to be possible.

However, we were working with a different kind of problem - a paradigm shifter, a creative problem or maybe we were tilting at windmills. No one in the room was sure that problem could be solved. And here's what I noticed. Everyone began to push - at each other (gently, kindly, but to push) and everyone began to intensify their usual efforts. Like the parents at the edges of the big game, the people gathered with us began to call out "try harder."

"Try harder" works with problems with known solutions. If you've done it before, putting your back into it will yield results, even if the process is sticking a little.

If you're exploring a problem you don't know how to solve, "try harder" kills creativity. This is not my opinion - it's the result of huge bodies of research. If you want to know more (written from a slightly different perspective) begin with Dan Pink's new book, Drive. It also explains why asking for (and getting) huge sums of money for your work is a dangerous game.

Here is what people who have created ground-breaking work have told us about the appropriate state for solving unsolvable problems (which is, I think, a good definition of genius). John Keats spoke about "Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." George Bernard Shaw said "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." And Einstein said he solved one of the world's biggest puzzles by imagining himself riding on a beam of light.

To approach the problems which might not have a solution, you need a willing suspension of disbelief: a disciplined and often difficult effort to create a space in which the solution might be possible and in which failure to solve the problem is tolerable. You need that relaxed and very focused state that others have called flow.

There is nothing more different than "try harder" and "flow." The difficult question is how do we hold a space where flow is possible so that other people can separate themselves from anxiety and personality and think thoughts that no one has ever thought before?

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