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  • Maureen K. McCarthy, Co-Founder

There’s a Problem with Problem-Solution Thinking. The Solution: Stop Using It

Updated: Feb 25, 2022

by Maureen K. McCarthy, Co-Founder, The Center for Collaborative Awareness

I have a problem on my mind right now. It’s running around in my head like a virtual roulette wheel waiting for the ball to drop. I’m torn over how to fix it, and I swing from caring too much to shoving the thoughts to the bottom of the proverbial dustbin. And here’s the rub, I have a rare, genetic lung disease with 10% lung capacity. Stress of this sort constricts my lungs, and the pain in my chest feels like fire.

As a longtime champion of mindfulness, I puzzle over why these problem-focused ruminations grip me. Stress, in its many forms, alerts me to the uneven balance of resources and needs. My body is telling me I have a problem, and it demands that I tune in.

It makes perfect sense. Our world was built using problem-solution thinking. It encourages the brain to focus on problems, in exchange for the dopamine hit of certainty when we find a solution. We are taught from a young age to view life as a series of never-ending problems to solve—what to make for dinner, how to pay the bills, or how to entice someone to love us. Being a good problem-solver is a highly praised and sought after skill. So if problem solving is the holy grail, why can it wreak such havoc on my mind and body?

The Problem-Solution Model is the Architecture of our Civilization

Name any area of our lives, and we find a large part of our time and energy attending to problems. We created hierarchy, roles, standards, and expectations based on the ever-present worldview of getting over, under, or through things.

We spend our lives swimming in the water of protection from problems. In fact our legal, political, and medical systems, to name a few, are built on this very architecture. They were diligently constructed to help us define the problem (threats to safety, liberty, health); label the source of the problem (felon, opposition, cancer); and then determine the method to solve the problem (prison, laws, medication). Problem-solution thinking is so ubiquitous that we don’t notice how often we use it's language: What’s wrong?, You need to fix this, or The problem is…

As an experiment, I decided to keep track of the number of times I used problem-solution words or phrases for one week. I made a note in my phone every time I did so. It was surprising to find that I swim much deeper in those waters than I imagined. It is definitely a “can’t see the forest for the trees” experience. Funny enough, the phrase can’t see the forest for the trees is defined as “someone who is too involved in the details of a problem to look at the situation as a whole.

A Brilliant Framework

Problem-solution thinking is a necessary and brilliant framework. It has generated remarkable progress over the course of human history. It is exactly what was required to advance to this stage. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to our cumulative problem-solving endeavors. Yet problem-solution thinking alone may not be robust enough to support us in our far more complex, fast-paced future. It continues to work brilliantly when applied to software code or my toaster. It is not as elegant when used in regards to people, which are at the center of most of our current challenges. When defining a problem includes people, rather than an analytical process like fixing your car, one-third of the brain shuts down from fear of judgment. People are rarely energized to do better when approached as a problem to solve.

A New Model for Collaboration: Desire-Innovation Thinking

Today’s changing landscape requires a new model of engaging humanity. It’s called Desire-Innovation Thinking. It is continual creation and adaptation, constructed from what we collectively deem valuable.

Every day you wake up as the creator of your life, irrespective of anything that happened yesterday—whether it was good, bad, right or wrong. As the creator, there’s a landscape in front of you. You could approach the landscape from the perspective of where the problems lie. The running list of things to tackle, strategies to get out the door, or what needs to be managed. It is the equivalent of a storm tracking device. The very nature of a problem-solution oriented world says storms are always on the horizon. Be vigilant. It helped us devise a myriad of ways to avoid or minimize fallout from the storm.

Our default mode of storm tracking is one way to approach the landscape, yet it is not the only way. When you wake up as the creator of your life, you can take stock of the landscape—which could even look like World War III—and determine what it is you desire. From there you can engage your co-creative energy to design what you are looking to create. This enables you to envision what the landscape makes possible, rather than focusing on fixing what’s broken. The two approaches, scanning for problems or scanning for desires, light up very different neural networks in the human brain.

Connection and Protection

Our brains have two main functions that have emerged through millions of years of evolution—to connect us for growth, and to keep us safe. Both are needed to survive and thrive as a species. We call these two neural networks the Connected Brain and the Safety Brain. In any given moment, we sit somewhere on the continuum between the two. The development of our society has made the Safety Brain our first and main mode of interaction. It is the foundation of the problem-solution oriented world in which we swim. In keeping the Connected Brain as a secondary mode, we inadvertently restrict our creativity, productivity, and resiliency. We are busy keeping an eye out for storms.

Calming my mind over the years has drastically reduced my stress, and has helped me live longer than my doctors’ thought possible. I’ve been able to move from living in the eye of the storm to the equivalent of watching a storm two miles off the coast. We are culturally encouraged to strengthen that storm tracker on a daily basis. It’s a continual cycle. This awareness started me on a path to look for the root beneath the root of my stress. I suspect it is our problem-solution architecture that has been tamping down the impact of my stress management efforts. I was using mindfulness to solve a problem!

In the Desire-Innovation Model, rather than stress alerting me to a problem, I now see stress as my body‘s way of telling me there is a message for me. I am not suggesting people should deny the stress on the landscape. In fact it is the exact opposite. I actively embrace the stress in my system and use it to invent or design what really matters to me. It allows my Connected Brain to drive my behavior.

The First Step is Awareness

Because we are inadvertently swimming in problem-solution thinking, I invite you to start by simply growing your awareness of when you engage it. There is no need to change anything. Just notice.

Try this 7-day experiment:

  • Take 3 minutes to write down words and phrases that invoke or indicate problem-solution thinking. Examples, “Oh no, what are we going to do?, I know there’s a solution somewhere, If he/she would only do X, everything would be fixed, The problem is…

  • Get a small notebook, or use your phone, to tally the number of times you notice yourself using the words: problem, solution, fix, broken or saying one of the phrases you wrote down.

  • Make it a game with friends or family to see how often you use problems. Be playful with it. It’s actually humorous.

  • After the seven days, reflect on what it was like when you engaged problem-solution thinking. Was it tied to stressful thinking? Did it raise or lower your energy? Would you like to continue the experiment?

Remember that in the awareness phase, you are not trying to change your behavior. That would be making yourself a problem. You want to notice, so it will be easier to make a mindful choice in the future.

What We Value Brings Us Together

When we pause to focus on what matters, and invite others to join us in inventing or designing what we desire, we are more able to strengthen our connections. Scanning the landscape for what we desire is life-giving because it points to what we care about. What we value is what brings us together, what we fear is what breaks us apart. I don’t happen to live in a body that can afford to break apart from others. I need meaningful connections with the people in my life in order to thrive, which is why I actively practice pausing when I label others as problems. Over the years I have created several tools that move me from problem-solution to Desire-Innovation Thinking. These practices help me see the forest and the trees.

When I started this article, I mentioned that a problem was running around in my head in real time. I was making someone else a problem. That happens periodically because I live in a problem-solution world with a brain that is on high alert. I paused the roulette wheel to determine what I desire in that situation, and it helped calm my nervous system and open my heart and mind. Looking for what matters most is like taking a deep, cleansing breath. When I think about what I desire, I don’t need to make anyone else bad or wrong. Whole neural networks light up that were previously dampened, and my creativity and compassion come back online. And that is a much better look on me.

Maureen K. McCarthy

Maureen K. McCarthy is the Co-Founder of the Center for Collaborative Awareness and Co-creator of The Blueprint of We, a collaboration design document used by organizations and communities in 100+ countries. As a social scientist, Maureen has worked with organizations from Dropbox to the World Relief Organization. She uses the neural circuitry of social connection to harness group stress and builds trust in fast-paced environments.

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