Problem Definition Requires Open Minds

Continuing the series on Unhappy Simple yet simple solutions, we find ourselves at post #2:

  1. (Part 1) Blame is not a solution
  2. (This post) Problem definition requires open minds
  3. Problems and causality tend to repeat (learn your lessons well)
  4. Solutions that restrict freedom create oppression
  5. Happiness, Justice, and peace result from well solved problem

When saying that problem definitions (and solutions) require open minds, I mean our minds must be recognizing that humans are inherently subjective and biased by the lenses through which we see ourselves, others, and the world.  We are limited by our worldviews, and solutions may not fit within that confined space, that complex bounding perimeter, often called a box.

Out of the Box

We have names for this kind of thinking, perhaps “out of the box” or “visionary”, but objectivity in problem solving is more demanding because our path towards truth and solution space must needs include frank and candid observations about our own faulty reasoning.   This is the path to wisdom, and why ancient literature tell us “Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but one who rejects a rebuke goes astray.” (Proverbs 10:17 NRS)  We learn from past mistakes; we must embrace them, not be ashamed of them: Shame is for future failures, not for the past.

The other necessity in open minded problem solving is the consideration of holistic solutions to problems.  The finger in the dike may save the day, but it is not a long term solution.   Our short term and simple minded solutions have created poor results from which we still refuse to learn.  A good example of this is our failure to correct the issues created by the enslavement of human beings.  Let’s briefly touch on this topic.


One of the largest failures in the history of the United States, is our failure to remedy the results of the enslavement of persons.  Yes, a horrible war was fought, yes, the thirteenth amendment was passed.  Yes, the Jim Crow laws were overturned.  But these new citizens of the United States were kept in segregation, were denied education, were taken advantage of, and still are.  Our societal failure to pivot towards the enslaved and embrace them with love, to admit our errors (and our guilt), and to work hard to help these people reach the educational and social acclimatization of the society in their country has resulted in a persistent mistrust, a stain, and perhaps a toxic atmosphere from which there seems to be no end.  We honor those from the community of the African American who have risen to great achievement because it is still an exceptional feat albeit it should be the norm.

This same willful ignorance of incorrect solutions in the past as regards women, native Americans, LGBTQ persons, and others, continues to stain our solution space because in not recognizing past failures, and owning them, we continue to propagate, however unintentionally, the same mistakes in different forms.  Systems that force the promotion or hiring of individuals that lack qualifications for jobs are an example of this poor solution space – we want to fix the problem with hiring whereas the basic problem is much more complex inasmuch as educational opportunities, funding for those opportunities, and the basic ability to cope in a society that is rejecting, perhaps tolerant but still not accepting, must be repaired before the problem solution can occur.  In the mean time, anger grows among those effectively disenfranchised from the American dream.   And they should be angry.  The problem is the we should be angry but are not, we should be determined but are not.

Our failures seldom confront us a directly as a rocket that falls over and explodes when it launches.  The damage is more severe than that of the rocket failure, but the root cause is more illusive and requires many steps.  Indeed, if were were to embrace the Twelve Steps, it would require at least steps 4, 5, 8, 9 and 10 if we have no faith in religion, and steps 3 through 10 if we have such faith.  It’s hard, very hard, to come to grips with past failures and learn from them.  I know, you see.  In a much smaller scale, that’s what a production chief engineer does, and the number of times that I’ve found my signature on something that turns out to be a very bad mistake is humbling.

And the kicker is that you have to learn to praise the people that find these mistakes, that lead to the truth, that help you.  You have to learn to love rebuke – just as was written thousands of years ago.

Paper Bags

As we age, we should learn.  I’ve learned a lot in 57 years, and the hardest part is seeing myself and others take up causes that are ill contrived and, in the end, very harmful.  One cause I did not take up in my youth was that of the paper bag.  You see, everything came in brown paper bags in my youth.  Groceries, things in the convenience store, everything.  Except of course for confections and donuts, those came in white paper bags.

Then came a movement to decrease our demand on trees for paper.  In modern times, this seems absurd given the virtual demise of the printed newspaper and the use of e-books and the like, but sustainable forestry for paper was a concern, and a big one.  And, of course, God forbid we should be concerned about the use of timber in construction.

The solution for tree killing paper bags was the now ubiquitous plastic bag.  And they were cheaper than the paper bags in the first place, never mind the fact that the stupid things are immortal, clog up the sewers and drains, collect in the oceans, and generally create the most enduring monuments to man that we will leave behind.

And, as if this wasn’t enough, we then promoted to plastic, an impenetrable packaging for just about everything.  Perhaps it is a conspiracy hatched by the scissor industry.

Yes, the plastic makes a nice display and keeps the good in good shape, but my God in heaven at what price to the environment, not to mention arthritic fingers trying to get into one of these packages.   The entire solution is horrible, increases our use of petrochemicals, creates horrible results in landfills, and, if burned at too low a temperature, creates toxic gasses even in combustion.  Yet, we are reluctant to change as though there are no solutions.  There were glass bottles before plastic ones, there were aluminum cans, paper milk cartons, waxed paper cartons and packing, paper packing materials.  There were even waxed paper straws in paper wrappers.  Go figure.

Another finger in the dike.  The young lad has grown thin and perished, his body still stands by the dike with water coming in now that his finger is but a bone.  And, in time, that water will cause more and more of the dike to fail but we do not act – he’s still down there.

Good Solutions

So, what then are good solutions?  Good solutions are those that solve a problem but anticipate that they will be improved upon, even cast aside, in the future.  They consider the problem past, present, and future and how it, or similar problems, have been resolved as well as the level to which prior solutions are enduring.  A famous, and inexpensive, winery once touted that they would sell no wine before its time.  That’s how solutions work, they cannot be adopted until the participants are made ready for the solution and the disruption that it causes.

One bit of wisdom that my father passed on in salient to this notion.  Frustrated, I complained to him that no matter what I did, I was screwing up.  To that he responded “that’s okay, son.  If you’re not screwing up, you’re not trying hard enough.”  When society is more afraid of making a mistake than it is of leaving a bad situation to fester, solutions are either impossible or disruptive, even violent.  This also occurs when the elite in society refuse to share the benefits of the products of that society, and to allow the common person to have their say.  Livy writes of this in Ancient Rome, we see it in the Bible, it is as old as mankind.  Both of these problems are as old as mankind, it’s how we’re made.

The best solutions are ones that we try, try, and try again.

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