I facilitate conversations to solve problems. Before we can solve a problem, though, we have to know what the problem is: Is what you think is the problem really the problem? Problem-finding precedes problem-solving, but it’s a step we often rush past. I defer to Einstein on this topic, who said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” You may think, “Yeah, well, Einstein can say that, but solving a problem in the first 5 minutes is still pretty useful, even if it’s not the problem, right?”

No, not necessarily, and this time I defer to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist whose name I despair of ever spelling without checking it twice. Csikszentmihaly did a study where he asked art students to create something using some objects. A number of students got right down to it, first-five-minutes-style, while others fooled around with the objects—problem-finding—for a quite a while, 55-minutes-style, trying to figure out what they could do with these objects before producing something. When independent critics were asked to judge the final products of all these students, they found the superior results were from the 55-minute students who fooled around.

What you’re doing in those 55 minutes is going deeper. Earlier this week, I groused about some financial advice I find annoyingly useless, that every person by the age of 30 should have 3-6 months expenses, at least, in savings. First, who does that? Not me, when I was 30, not my kids, not most people I know. Second, what problem is it solving? Let’s do some problem-finding. That savings stash is supposed to be an emergency fund for if you’re laid off, get really really sick, your car or house need major repairs, or the end times come and you weren’t taken up by the Rapture and now you have to buy yourself some guns and a Hummer. The nature of human affairs is that they’re unpredictable, and you can’t be sure those things won’t happen to you. And that’s been true throughout history, and people have always tried to have a little cushion. An eternal problem, a five-minute solution that falls on the individual.

Let’s take some more time, though. It’s not just the problem of “life is uncertain,” it’s also “Why does our society/economy have precious few safety nets for you when a bad thing happens?” and “Why does the burden fall on the individual when often it’s the system—plant closings, e.g.—that led to the emergency?” Taking 55 minutes to find the problem gives us more to work with: a deeper understanding of why things are the way they are, and how they might be different.  

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