Recently, I presented work on the topic of “unlearning,” which addressed many issues, including our fixation with “problem-solving.”

After my presentation, an educator defended problem-solving as an important skill for students. The discussion was similar to others I’ve had with educators who regard problem-solving as critical preparation for students.

I commented that expanding our perceptions beyond current assumptions requires letting go of our dependence on problem-solving.

I’ve come to see the pervasiveness of the problem-solving mentality and its implications on us as learners, thinkers, and creators.

Addressing the implications of this mindset is a primary focus with students who attend our courses in leadership development. Students (as well as clients) have been so programmed to seek out and solve problems. They fixate on “correct” answers, seek out immediate solutions, and avoid any risk-taking with questions they deem as silly.

Extensive training has students expecting answers to their questions. When we suggest that they “discover for themselves” in their lives, they become both unsettled and intrigued.

Limits of Problem-Solving

The concept of problem-solving has been idealized to mean just about anything. I see it as both a process of finding solutions to difficult or complex issues and a method for continuing to examine many possible root causes for any identified problem.

Strengths: Problem-solving has a singular focus on creating a solution from known or predictable pathways. There’s some creativity to this process, as it can also involve seeking out different root causes.

Great examples include a business process that produces inefficiencies, a financial system that fails to predict outcomes, or any malfunctioning object or product, from a broken toilet to a faulty network server.

Limits: Problem-solving works well within external situations from fixed views and rational perspectives. When issues involve deep thinking or a change in context or perspective, problem-solving constrains us to our current knowledge and assumptions. This forces premature or predictable diagnoses and resolutions.

From a systems-thinking perspective, the maxim goes, “The quickest way out of a problem leads you right back in.” And yet we react, with quick fixes, often to some external stimuli or some internal fear. So pervasive, problem-solving is now our default thought process. 

Method or Mentality

As a method, problem-solving can focus on creating positive solutions. But when embodied as a mentality, we become fixated problem-seekers: discovering solutions to make something unwanted go away.

This normative and rational mentality prescribes a reality without any “unwanted” problems.

This same view informs our medicalized (and psychological) model, which often pathologizes variances and informs our educational pedagogy by rewarding immediate answers over unsolvable questions.

Once trained in this mentality, we become fixers, we wait for answers, and we stop questioning. Seduced by quick fixes and lulled by immediate results, we seek out solutions to our perceived problems.

We normalize reflexive thinking with snap judgments about what’s right or wrong, good or bad, true or false, about what wins or loses, or succeeds or fails—all to render quick fixes for instant satisfaction.

Moving beyond the problem-solving mindset requires distinguishing between its power as a method (how we act on issues) and dissolving its hold as a mentality (how we view issues).

It also requires appreciating these differences:

  • Problem-solving discovers solutions to make something unwanted go away.
  • Creativity reveals new methods and approaches to bring things into being or to fashion novel solutions.
  • Imagination cultivates ideas beyond what exists or what currently seems conceivable.

Education and Learning

Unfortunately, the evolution of education has slowly beaten down the imagination required to combat a problem-solving mentality. Consider the legacy of this last half-century:

— We’ve forgotten how to inspire curiosity and cultivate intuition, instead proclaiming rational problem-solving (that emphasizes binary thought) as the epitome of human potential.

— We have defunded educational art and music programs, which cultivate the imagination that transports us to other lands.

— We have diminished the very humanities Steve Jobs wedded with science to generate elegant ecosystems of technological design. Jobs summarized it this way: “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough; it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

— We’ve so derided literature and history that connects us to the human condition that we lack the moral imagination to envision the concerns of others so different from ourselves.

— We are all becoming trained in formulaic thinking, whether through STEM, business education, or the coding mania.

Our education system is now steeped in a problem-solving mentality, as crystallized in STEM. I once asked another educator about the lack of creativity in STEM and was told that engineering provides sufficient space for creativity and imagination.

Sufficient for what? For whom? Problem-solving is the grammar of engineering.

Learning scholar, researcher, and engineer Peter Senge (Fifth Discipline, Presence) from MIT states it well:

The reactive stance in management is evident in the fixation on problem-solving. Many managers think that management is problem-solving. But problem-solving is fundamentally different from creating. The problem solver tries to make something go away. A creator tries to bring something new into being.

The impetus for change in problem-solving lies outside—in some undesired external condition we seek to eliminate. The impetus for change in the creating mode comes from within.

Reactive Thinking

The outcome of our fixation on problem-solving—as trained in school, reinforced via technology, and rewarded through business—is a reactiveness that is subtle yet narrow in imagination.

With Pavlovian fervor, we solve problems identified by others, read what is assigned, and write what is required to cultivate a sense of “rightness.” Being accepted (or right) becomes more important than being ourselves.

Problem-solving trains us in formulaic assumptions with expectations to resolve, fix, avoid, or dismiss any perceived problems. We automatically view mistakes and failures—the very essence of learning and discovery—as problems.

  • We deem anything that doesn’t meet our expectations a problem.
  • Any issue deemed a problem is unwanted, either to avoid or immediately resolve.
  • We move on after resolving, avoiding, or fixing problems to seek out new problems.
  • We do not waste time dwelling on problems to better understand them.

Reactiveness is so pervasive in shaping business and learning cultures that it has become a strategic imperative. We’ve normalized hourly news cycles with little quality information, shorter product life cycles to lift up balance sheets, and short-termism — derided as “quarterly capitalism” — to satisfy corporate boardrooms.

Perfected and measured during the 20th century, R&D efforts have focused more on myopic, short-term thinking that stimulates our productivity and pleasure zones rather than our imagination.

Over the last two generations, our imagination has been so stifled that we cannot even conceive of vehicles that achieve 500 mpg, mass-produced fossil-free vehicles, space travel beyond the moon, or flying vehicles; nor can we see an end to climate change, cancer or structural racism.

We’ve shrunk our imagination just enough to fit into 140 characters on Twitter—compared to a time 50 years ago when we dreamt big about the possibilities of space travel.

Never Solved, Only Outgrown

Perhaps the most punishing outcome of the problem-solving mentality is how it has recalibrated our understanding of humans and the expectations of humanity.

Consider how we jump on what may initially appear to be a “difficult situation” as a problem to avoid or fix. Yet, such difficulties may be an opportunity to examine ourselves or our understanding, or to challenge our perspective and grow, as suggested by Carl Jung:

The greatest and most important problems of life are all in a certain sense insoluble … They can never be solved, but only outgrown … This consists of a new level of consciousness.

Adopting a problem-solving view and expectations limit the very imagination required to achieve Jung’s “new level of consciousness.”

Imagine that someone just broke up with their partner and they wish to share the details with us.

As they share the details, we listen and notice ideas coming to us. We perk up as we see insights, patterns, even possible ways to support our friend. It becomes so clear to us what’s going on.

So naturally, we begin to share what we see.

After all, why would they come to us with this problem if they didn’t value our insights or views? So of course, we offer them.

At that moment, we have issued ideas for a problem we diagnosed with solutions we discovered.

We did all of this.

What is it we have actually offered our friend?

Prescriptions or Possibilities

As coaches and educators involved in expanding human potential, how can we shift our identity as problem-solvers to become creators? This begins with embracing a philosophical-insight view of life.

  • The problem-solving mentality cultivates reactivity, to avoid unwanted problems or diagnose and fix them.
  • The philosophical-insight model expects problems as universal and inevitable in the face of change.

From a philosophical inquiry, we are concerned not with what’s right or wrong but with what’s so or what’s missing.

And what’s so can be to allow space for our friend who requires our listening. Or what’s so can be what’s missing—what does not yet exist that is essential for a designated possibility to become a reality.

This last point is subtle and complex. What’s missing is not the same as what’s wrong.

The latter operates from a conclusion with a prescription, the former from an inquiry rooted in possibility.

More significantly, the philosophical insight model has a different relationship to “problems.” It views them as evidence of breaks in predictable patterns or of limited views that when questioned, can support the creation of an emerging possibility. Importantly, these observations influence how we listen (noted in the chart above).

  1. Problem Paradigm. Observing problems through a normative lens, we listen to diagnose and solve. We observe what works, what’s wrong, and how to fix it. We expect normative ideals to precede problems that should not exist, so we listen for and offer prescriptions.
  2. Possibility Paradigm. Observing problems with philosophical insight, from the context of freedom, we listen for what’s missing or essential for a declared possibility or commitment. We view “problems” as inevitable and universal to venturing into the unknown, so we listen for and create possibilities.

Space beyond Problems

Dissolving the problem-solving mentality will likely leave us vulnerable.

Without relying on solutions, quick fixes, and immediate resolutions, we do not recognize ourselves. We may experience some guilt, doubt, or even a sense of failure.

Yet, allowing for the unknown invites new space for questions, new struggles with imagination, and new levels of awareness. Our willingness to struggle will determine our capacity for growth. This is our call to become creators—to employ creative thinking.

Our need for immediate solutions will dissolve into a deeper understanding. Instead of seeking answers, we metabolize questions that lead to inquiries and insights.

Einstein once claimed that his discoveries were not because he was smarter than others but rather because he was willing to stay with the questions longer.

He also understood the power of imagination as “more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”

Discoveries and Possibilities

Perceiving possibility is much more challenging than prescribing problems, as it seeks out questions instead of answers.

  • Problem Paradigm involves managing content as resolved by expanding solutions.
  • Possibility Paradigm requires creating a context for inquiry that expands discovery.

Discovery is the bedrock of creative thinking, actual science, and deeper understanding of the human condition that can reveal any new or emerging context. It is the very thinking that supports our current needs.

Knowledge today is dynamic. Ironically, problems from one perspective often represent guideposts from another, guiding our discovery into the unknown.

This reminds me of the Zen parable of the Chinese farmer, shared here by Alan Watts.

Watts wisely claims that, because of the interdependent and complex nature of reality, we shall never “know what happens is good or bad; because we never know what will be the consequences of the misfortune, or the consequences of good fortune.”

This brings me back to my educator friend.

While solid as a method, problem-solving as a mindset diminishes us as learners, thinkers, and creators. Problem-solving reinforces reactiveness and normative ideals, which clutch fixed views in our interdependent, changing, and complex world.

These times require engaging our full human potential. Beyond habits of problem-solving, untapped imagination exists to cultivate creative thinking and openness for unpredictable thoughts, ideas, and possibilities.

Reading Time: 9-min, Digest Time: 12.5-min

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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.