Looking for Trouble



Social scientists in the 1960’s wanted to do some research into creative problem solving. They decided that every problem could be classified according to six criteria (put in the forms of questions):

  1. Has this dilemma been realized before by the person faced with it?
  2. How about somebody else?
  3. Does the person faced with the crisis know a method to find a solution?
  4. Does anybody else?
  5. Does the person bravely facing adversity know the actual answer to the problem?
  6. (Say it with me:) Does anybody else?

These same scientists (one of whom later wrote that beloved tome Flow) decided that when the answer to all six questions is “no”, that’s the environment for creativity. In fact, they say

…these are only potential problems, since they do not exist until someone formulates them as such. Thus…the central question becomes “How are new problems discovered?” rather than the more usual question “How are existing problems solved?”

The first step in creative activity involves the discovery, or formulation, of the problem itself.

The Creativity Question, Rothenberg & Hausman

Did you catch that? The key to creativity is not about getting good at solving problems that already exist. Creativity is rather being able to discover entirely new problems that nobody noticed.

What If You Threw a Problem & Nobody Came?

This puts me in mind of what I say during every Open Space introduction. I’m encouraging people to talk about things they are passionate about, but there’s always that dread fear in the back of a lot of brains: What if no one else is interested in what I have to say? Here is what I tell them:

If you propose a session and you’re the only one who shows up, that could mean a few things. It could mean that this is an issue that other people care about, but this is not the moment that they are most passionate about it. Remember that time is what keeps everything from happening at once, and it’s possible that they have something else that is more urgent.

It could also mean that you are the vanguard, that this is the right issue, the right time, and you are simply the first person to identify it! Think of the awesome responsibility! Without you, this may go unexplored, underdeveloped, and neglected for who knows how long! You are the belwether leading the way for the rest of us!

Or, it could mean that it’s not such a good idea after all. That’s always a possibility.

Often I believe we are reluctant to identify or address issues simply because we don’t want to be the only one dealing with it. Not that we’re the sole cause of any problems (we never are, no matter how much we’d like to be) but it sometimes feels that way. And if it’s a problem or issue that involves other people, we are especially reluctant to deal with it, because they might confuse us as not the problem-finder or the problem-solver or even as the problem-causer, but as the problem itself.

Who wants that? Much better to either keep on doing whatever we were doing before that distracted from the problem. If you ignore it long enough, maybe it’ll go away. Or someone else can find it. Or some other problem more pressing will come up – that’s always a good way to keep from having to deal!

The Happy Destiny of the Problem Finders

Except, actually, based on this particular study, that’s not how it works.

First, they had about thirty or so art students come into a room and use objects on a table to compose tableaus which they would then sketch as still-lifes. They paid very close attention to how the students went about setting up their little subjects:

…the first group was trying to solve a problem: How can I produce a good drawing? The second was trying to find a problem: What good drawing can I produce?

After the drawings were done, the two scientists had art experts evaluate the resulting drawings. In terms of skill, the drawings were all over the map, so to speak. But when it came to judging the most creative and most interesting works, the ones from the second group – the ones who created more difficult arrangements – were ranked far higher.

It gets more interesting. They checked in with the students ten years later, and found that about half had dropped out of the field of art entirely. The other half, who had turned pro? “Almost entirely composed of problem-finders.” And ten years after that? That group was “…significantly more successful — by the standards of the artistic community — than their peers.”

There’s a lot more to take away from this study, and from the book where I learned about it: Daniel Pink’s To Sell is Human (via Brainpickings). But I’ve not read the whole book; you can check out the book trailer from Thnkr if you’re interested in what else he has to say. Hint: it’s not a business book, unless you’re talking about the business of life.

But I’d rather simply encourage you to make a practice, this week, of extrapolating the question of which group you’re going to fall into:

Are you going to try and figure out how to make your life better? Or are you going to figure out what kind of better life you can make?


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