Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Dilemma and Challenges of Exceptional Thinking Abilities

What Makes Some People Better Problem Solvers Than Others?

The Dilemma and Challenges of Exceptional Thinking Abilities

Simply getting the right answer isn’t always the best way to think about solving difficult problems. For some problems outside of the classroom and aside from questions of knowledge from within well established domains, there may not be a single right answer.

There may be additional alternatives to be considered that aren’t known yet or which don’t seem right at first but can be turned into better solutions. Needing to be right (getting the answer that others seem to think is right), or needing to think we’re right, or needing to be seen by others as being right, may mislead our thinking and blind us to better answers.

Thinking Too Much: Defying Common Sense

Wanting to be seen as clever or wanting to be seen as an expert often similarly restricts our thinking. We very often settle for the first guess that seems right or the way other people seem to be thinking. There are sometimes good reasons to stop thinking about a problem and settle for an answer, but most of the time we use shortcuts rather than stopping when we truly have the best answer available to us.

Shortcuts are natural to us and they are an important part of what makes us good thinkers. Shortcuts in thinking are part of our common sense. It doesn’t seem right to sit and reflect on something that has an obvious answer. It can seem like a peculiarity or a symptom of subscribing to some bizarre overly complex view of reality, or maybe even a character flaw.

The trouble is that our common sense that serves us so legitimately well in so many everyday situations turns out ot be poorly suited to many other kinds of complex and counter-intuitive situations. Our natural instincts for reasoning are significantly better adapted to some kinds of problems than others.

The shortcuts that serve us for biological needs like feeding ourselves and mating and getting along with other people in small groups tend to fail us when we think about things like cultures, corporations, markets, and nations or when we’re presented with a completely different kind of problem.

Importantly, the way we learn is not well suited to automatically recognizing which kinds of situations we are thinking poorly in. The shortcuts in our thinking work so well because we rely on them so naturally. We don’t necessarily get an alarm bell in our mind that we are thinking in the wrong way about a problem. We instead get responses from our natural learning systems that we experience as compelling feelings and intuitions that guide our thinking.

It is only by learning about the thinking process itself and how our own mind works that we begin to learn how to make best use of our natural learning systems to think clearly about problems that our natural abilities are not well optimized to solve, situations where our common sense and our intutions fail us. This learning also helps us reason through situations where we have to think across different domains of expertise without a sense of how well we have captured the meaningful patterns in each of those domains.

Sure, when there’s a right answer, we want to be able to figure out what it is. More generally though we want to think clearly about the problem. This means thinking in a way that leads to, if not an ultimate perfect answer, the best solution available, even if that means bringing more expertise and different perspectives into play and challenging our own intuitions.

How do we know when our shortcuts and intuitions are failing us and that the situation requires a different kind of thinking? I think it comes down to making it a priority to learn about our own thinking while we are learning other things. This means being strategic about thinking: knowing as much as possible about our own tools and resources, both their strengths and their weaknesses.

Identifying Our Strengths and Identifying Our Weaknesses

I’ve been a professional problem solver for decades and from time to time I have worked alongside other problem solvers whose abilities truly amazed me. Some people are able to look at a situation and see opportunities and possibilities that others cannot seem to appreciate until after they become real solutions, and sometimes not even then.

Some of those same remarkable problem solvers then even more remarkably sometimes make the worst mistakes in certain situations. They apply their knowledge and skills in ways that just don’t fit the situation, and sometimes the very qualities that often serve them so well in other situations now make them overconfident in their answers. This book is about learning from both their triumphs and their failures, as well as our own triumphs and failures. It’s about learning to think better.

I have devoted many years trying to understand what it is that is different about exceptional problem solvers, and to what degree their abilities can be duplicated and perhaps even improved upon to avoid the worst mistakes that they also tend to make.

This sets out two primary challenges for me:

--> What makes some people so much better problem solvers than others, especially across different kinds of problems?

--> What causes otherwise great problem solvers to make such awful mistakes so often?

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