Sunday, December 8, 2019

Gumption

From cradle to grave, in season and out of season, we solve problems. That is our lot. Life throws many at us but often we do a fairly good job of digging ourselves into holes.

At birth, babies bring both joy and mild chaos into their parents' lives. Toddlers are little broncos that must be tamed for their own sake. Adolescents and teenagers can develop into well-adjusted souls or choose to become human flame-throwers. Under the veneer of maturity, adults excel at creating disorder despite their best intentions. Habitually, young people blame their parents for all the world’s problems but, unerringly, the cycle repeats itself generation after generation. All told, human stewardship has neither produced a utopia or a state of total dystopia. Each age, each year, each minute throws up its own web of interlocking curveballs that leave us wheezing and sometimes breathless.

Contemporary human development indices show that the arc of economic progress has widened, but at what cost? On the big issues such as social injustice, religious conflicts, water and food security, immigration and demographic trends, and climate change, has it been a case of two steps forward, and one step back? To be fair, when problems loom large and appear intractable, people feel helpless and instinctively shift the responsibility to governments and multilateral institutions like the United Nations.

When faced witpersonal complications and life’s infinite imponderables, it is much harder to pass the buck. Left to our devices, it is very easy to coast through life by plying the path of least resistance. And unless pushed to the wall, most of us toss and turn within our comfort zone, and are prone to procrastination in stressful situations. However, a purposeful life entails occasionally setting stretch goals that test the limits of our capabilities. At our best, we are capable of amazing exploits, as reflected in our ability to solve very complex problems. It is therefore not surprising that we would develop a generic framework for creative problem-solving, defined as the cognitive process of seeking an original or novel solution to a problem.”

Quite wrongly, the creative terrain is often assumed to be the exclusive preserve of gifted individuals. However, the great American inventor, Thomas Edison, asserted that “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” In other words, nothing exceptional comes easy but rather requires sustained effort to accomplish. All of us have it in us to pursue lofty goals, and to exceed all expectations, if we learn to solve problems imaginatively.  

In a hypothetical scenario in which a random selection of people recounted the toughest challenge they ever faced, expectedly their responses will mirror their personal circumstances. However, imagine if we designed an experiment whereby the same group, on a journey of self-discovery and character-building, was asked to: “Locate the heaviest burden within reach and carry it.”  

To help them along, let us equate the “heaviest burden” to the maximum weight each participant can lift relative to their body weight. The objective is not to turn them into professional weightlifters but, by a sleight of hand, to illustrate a structured and creative approach to problem-solving.

First, be clear what the problem is and rephrase it, if necessary, for optimum clarity. Next, research and analyse the problem, then evaluate alternative solutions. Having done so, the most common error is to select an immediate solution. In this case, proceed by learning the basics of weightlifting such as maintaining the right posture to avoid the risk of injury. When bending the knees or squatting, the back must be kept straight, while the head and spine also must be in a straight line. It is important to train relevant muscle groups in a slow and methodical manner so as to stimulate the muscles for growth and adaptation. It cannot be overemphasised that a warm-up exercise at the beginning of a routine helps to prevent injury caused by cold muscles.   

At the outset, it is wise not to rush but to attempt a light load before progressing to increasingly heavier weights. Novices tend to hold their breath continuously, rather than breathing out when lifting, and breathing in when lowering the weights. In any creative process, the feedback loop may be the most salient device available to us. This involves a series of conscious and non-conscious mental activities that oscillate between an individual’s thought process and the sensory signals being received. Within the context of a weightlifting process, pay attention to any sign of acute pain transmitted by the central nervous system. Also, having a role model can serve as a form of inspiration during rough patches.

Over time, tracking incremental progress ensures that “what gets measured gets improved,” until the objective is fulfilled. In summary, teaching points include: | be well-informed | avoid procrastination but do not rush | develop resilience | be intuitive and have a positive attitude | leverage feedback | whatever you do, stay safe (don't break your back!).

Stopping short of calling him a role model, a surprisingly creative problem-solver was the enigmatic but highly resourceful Forrest Gump. Weighed down by life, Gump had the decks stacked against him at birth, and was not expected to amount to much. A wry twist on Gump’s favourite put-down of his detractors was “smart is as smart does,” implying that we should be judged based on our actions and not by appearance. Blessed with an indomitable fighting spirit, he prevailed in life partly due to his calm but tenacious disposition

In many ways, Gump made his own luck - hightailing it when danger lurked, upending the shrimp industry, demonstrating Bubba-sized integrity, investing in a "fruit" company (Apple) to taking a punt on love and fatherhood. Whenever he received negative feedback, he recalibrated and had the gumption to get right back up. Forrest Gump may have appeared ham-fisted, but he was not a quitter and would always carry the heaviest load he could find with equanimity.

Season's Greetings!

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Antsy

Work-life balance has been a controversial water-cooler topic of discussion since the 1980s. Prior to that decade, the impact of work-family conflict had been studied for over a hundred years. What caused the change in semantics and, more broadly, how have we adapted to the dichotomy between toil and leisure?

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Crestfallen

Lauded as the King of Beasts and King of Birds, respectively, lions and eagles are fearsome alpha predators atop the food chain. Both are living proof of the savagery and, paradoxically, the intrinsic beauty in creation. Watching a maned lion strut across the savannah at dusk or an eagle soar effortlessly out of sight can take the breath away. So regal, awe-inspiring, and oblivious of external validation are they, that humans have extolled them for ages. 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Hubris

In No Country for Old Men, retired Lt. Col. Carson Wells was hired to hunt down a homicidal maniac, Anton Chigurh. Incidentally, both men were Vietnam War veterans, and Wells knew how utterly depraved Chigurh was. Nevertheless, he took the job because he needed the money, and misguidedly believed that he was smarter than Chigurh. He was not.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Play On

A recent edition of The Economist ran an article captioned The Strange Revival of Vinyl Records. In all probability, few millennials would have any idea what a vinyl record sounds like. But for an older generation, it is hard to believe that it’s been over three decades since cassettes and compact discs (CD) supplanted vinyl, after its century-long domination of the music industry.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Elementary

No one knows what goes on in the mind of a designer. Maybe not even the designer does from one moment to the next. That is because we are all furtive organisers who, habitually, feel obliged to order and rearrange our lives, living rooms, right down to our smartphone user interface. Subconsciously, we strive for simplicity and are conditioned to find workarounds within poorly designed habitats. Professionally, there are design practitioners - the most familiar category being industrial product designers - who solve real-life problems and earn a living by creating products and services that compete for our attention. But at a pragmatic level, design is everyone’s business.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

S.T.E.A.M.

On the fly, can you tell the difference between a nerd and a geek? Until recently, these two words were terms of derision. But, to get on the same page, what do they actually mean?

Although they are virtually synonymous, a sliver of differentiation harks back to their original usage. Nerd, or geek, refers to someone who may be “obsessively studious, offbeat, bashful, or socially awkward.” But nowadays, nerd confers a degree of pride in single-minded expertise, while geek retains its old derogatory reference to eccentric carnival performers. Indeed, the term computer geek sums up the contemporary perception of arguably the most high-functioning band of technical performers that exist in the world today.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Cuckoo’s Nest

Every human being possesses one or more talents that vary across a broad spectrum. Deploying our primary senses, we interface with the world through our vision, auditory perception, touch, and other faculties. But while the majority of people perceive nature simply and unvarnished, there are outliers who instinctively search for patterns with their eyes either open or wide shut, indicative of how their brains are wired. Using symbols, logic and pure imagination, gifted mathematicians have the capacity to study the shape and motion of physical objects, and to delineate space in abstraction. As far as the average person is concerned, these brainiacs might as well exist in a parallel universe.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Tainted Glass

Ignorance can be bliss but, sometimes and depending on the circumstances, ignorance could be debilitating. Earlier this year, a television documentary explored the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. Survey results revealed that a third of respondents in seven countries were unaware of the death camps strewn across German-occupied Europe three-quarters of a century ago. In the US, they discovered that two-thirds of American students were clueless about the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Out of Sight

How tiny is tiny? Or how thin is thin? A pharaoh ant or a strand of hair, perhaps? Sounds like a specious response to a silly quiz. In fact, human cognition allows us to perceive nature at, and beyond, eye-level resolution while innate curiosity leads us to explore our environment in all its complexity. Unprompted, we are constantly seeking to make sense of our place in a universe containing objects both great and small.

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