Sunday, December 8, 2019


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!

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