Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ode to Problems

In his exposition on Sir George Ripley's Epistle to King Edward IV printed in 1677, Eirenaeus Philalethes opens with a beautiful phrase describing alchemy as a "whole secret…artificially veiled."  He goes on to state that the purpose for his explication on the alchemical mysteries - mysteries, mind you, that were voraciously consumed by Sir Isaac Newton and later by famed economist John Maynard Keynes - was to demystify any form of communication which would "conceal the Art."  Undoubtedly, influenced by Newton's love for the works of Eirenaeus Philalethes, Keynes is quoted as stating that:

"The day is not far off when the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied or reoccupied, by our real problems – the problems of life and of human relations, of creation and behavior and religion."  -  First Annual Report of the Arts Council (1945-1946)

Somewhere around the end of the Dark Ages in Europe, we invented PROBLEMS.  Not surprisingly either.  I suppose if I was walking down a muddy street in London and somebody dumped a plague-invested corpse or a basin of sewage out on my unsuspecting head, I would have done my level best to invent the word probleme which, apropos to my analogy was originally used to refer to an obstacle.  It takes a bit of imagination and a basic familiarity with geometry to understand why we'd use the Greek concept of a parabola (not a straight line) to describe the circumnavigation of an obstacle.  And thus, on my muddy, plague and rat invested hypothetical street, voilĂ , a problem!

I, for one, am sick of our obsession with problems.  We have economic problems, problems of life, political problems, problems of isolation, problems of crime - everywhere you look, someone's ready at hand with a problem.  Which leads me to the irony of Sir George Ripley and King Edward IV.  In a world not awash in problems, the focus of the learned scholars and monarchs was formulae and solutions sans problems!  Real problems?  Sorry JMK but where we're going, we don't need problems.  

One of the great lessons from the Testimony of the Philosophers, a collection of writings that set forth all that was knowable and known about the cosmic terrestrial dance of the ancients was the recognition that nothing was intractable.  While solutions may be concealed by the fickleness of Diana, Mercury, or any of the other cosmic players, wisdom knew that through deep study, interdisciplinary collaboration and inquiry, and consumption of perspectives from all societies of learning, the solution was merely occult - never non-existent.  And the impulse to "solve" a problem - another one of our modern ontological myths that reinforces the same god-complex we deploy when we predict future behavior from regressing past observations - unfortunately blinds us to the realization that our obstacle is one of perspective.  Without shifts in perspective, we can quite readily convince ourselves that there is a "problem" and then expend untold wasted hours, days, months, and years trying to "solve" something that others have already discerned in other contexts.  

In our business, we deal with patents among other things.  For over two decades, I have defied anyone to show me an act of absolute invention - a "stroke of genius" - that cannot be attributed directly to the mere recontextualization of solutions from other spheres.  Two decades later, I have never been met with a single example!  I get into impassioned debates (and, yes, I flatter myself as these are really rather sophomoric arguments) over whether "creativity" exists AT ALL.  Isn't it really the case that what we call CREATIVE is merely an artifact emerging in a context which we recognize as compelling and out of monotonous context?  Is the old Budweiser frog commercial played during past Super Bowls (YouTube it if you don't know what I'm talking about) creative or is it funny because we see stuporous humans caricatured in amphibians?  In other words, did someone create the notion of drunken sensory impairment, frogs, and swamps or did they put it into a context in which they lampooned a social blight in a comic fashion?

I was on Capitol Hill again this week working with a number of lawmakers and regulators to address the Tier 1 Capital shortfalls of our nation's leading banks.  Time and time, I was confronted with the incredulity of a SOLUTION that was not solving a PROBLEM.  It was just a SOLUTION.  Just that.  Then I spent time with some of my most awakened colleagues across the globe and saw them confronting PROBLEMS.  How do I raise money if I think that money is part of a system that needs to change?  How do I build collaboration if I don't have people define the PROBLEMS they're confronting?  How do I effect large-scale social engagement for the unemployed if I don't understand the PROBLEMS they face?

Here's a thought.  When was the last time you saw something done efficiently or in a lasting fashion when the impulse to act was the PROBLEM?  And before you jump down the easy rabbit hole of the out-pouring of aid in times of environmental disaster or war, not so fast.  When we all had sympathy belatedly for Haiti after it was rocked by the earthquake a few years ago, were we responding to a PROBLEM or were we actually being reminded of neglect that was an obstacle to humanity long in development?  And, after the urgency of problem thinking dies away - conveniently being forgotten by the next problem - how many of us are persisting in our commitment to the people of Haiti?  We're not because we've got new problems.

Solution thinking doesn't NOT require problems.  The duality that we impose on the world of our triggers to action keep us from staying in solution mode.  Yes, what I'm saying is that we're less in tune with the world than our alchemist friends half a millennium ago.  For genuine transformative change, we don't need the bad guy.  We don't need the victim.  We don't need the cause.  We don't need the effect.  The wisdom of the remote past invites us to expand our lives and our actions by realizing that everything that is occult to us is an invitation to deepen our understanding and change our perspective.  And when we move out of our perspective in which obstacles are looming, we may see a path less taken.  And that, my friends, will make all the difference.  

1 comment:

Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave