I hated sports as a kid - for three main reasons:
1) I was terrified of the ball. It could hit me. I was so afraid that I would lose all confidence as it hurled towards me, and eventually, I lost my ability to control the movement of my body, convulsing, shaking and flailing until the ball made its inevitable contact. I’ll never forget that pitch, Joey Lochner.
2) I didn’t like comparing myself to others. I showed potential intelligence, and the kids who struggled made fun of me for it. Instead of being proud of my brain power, I felt embarrassed to be different. Actually, I embraced being different because of my red hair, while at the same time vehemently criticizing kids who made fun of differences. I was complex at the age of 8.
3) It seemed counterintuitive to put all that effort into winning a game that I knew my physical limitations would never let me win.
Ultimately, it comes to no surprise that I was less jock, and much more geek-leaning than most kids. What can I say? I enjoyed solving problems.
I believe that I’m driven at my core to solve problems because I’m slightly dyslexic. I see letters transposed sometimes if I glance at a page before my brain has time to recalculate and translate it back to the correct order. I realize I’m not qualified to diagnose myself, but I feel dyslexic, and that’s enough proof for me. Since I’ve spent my life solving the problem of rearranging letters, my brain has become uniquely tempered to solve bigger problems by looking at them differently than most others.
These problem-solving skills were further honed by spending time with my slightly dysfunctional family. My parents tend to enjoy a level of frustration in their simple exchanges, like who left the milk out, for example. It’s a logistical question that can usually be answered by a simple process of elimination. Ask each person in the room. The person who left it out will identify his/herself. End of process. But, they have a special skill to add unnecessary frustration and anxiety to the question. It becomes a very serious debate. To this day, they are still having similar exchanges like this one I documented in this tweet from June 22, 2012:
This exchange raises many questions. Why is my dad upset that there’s jello in there? Why does my mom escalate his frustration by giving him a sarcastic answer? And curiously, why does my dad interpret from her sarcasm that he was referring to the wrong jello? But, most importantly, why are they arguing about it?
As a child, I wanted to solve these little mysteries to relive the tension before escalation. It never escalated, by the way. As a kid, it felt like it was on the verge of escalation, but if you ask them in the heat of the moment why they are arguing, they actually don’t believe that they are arguing. I guess it’s just how THEY TALK, OKAY?!
So, I became a problem solver. Instead of fighting the bully, I would ask him why he was so intent on beating me up. I would try to understand the core issue and propose solutions, even as the blows rained down. Logic! Instead of listening to whatever crap they put on the radio, I built my own tape deck for the car, by taking my tape recorder and jimmy-rigging some record player speakers on the back dash. It was bulky, but effective. Innovation! And, instead of cutting one neighbor’s lawn, and then moving to the next neighbor’s lawn, I would just cut across both yards at once, reducing my turns by at least 40%. Efficiency!
Naturally, I enjoyed the challenge of solving math problems. When I started solving algebra equations, I was thrilled to see math problems with letters, not numbers. It was like reading a new language. From an initial perspective, it seemed impossible to solve such a problem. But, I found a connection with the process, and I found a flow in solving those problems. Before too long, it clicked. I noticed patterns and made connections. And then I couldn’t wait for the next level of complexity. Each level of math gave the same experience. It started as a puzzle swimming in my head and eventually became very clear. I made it all the way to complex variables (equations and theories based on the square root of negative 1).
By the way, I never made it beyond that level, but I imagine quantum physics to work the same way. That’s how they found the god-particle. Some scientists studied the smallest particles ever seen, and said, “I bet I can find something smaller inside there. And it could be a building block for every particle in the universe…” – and after he was done laughing maniacally, that scientist joined together with a bunch of other scientists to crack it by smashing an atom in tunnels. I didn’t really research this topic, because I didn’t want to go down that rabbit hole. So, forgive my simplistic explanation of the most complex discovery of the modern age. I’m sure it’s probably not anywhere close to accurate. But, it’s fun to oversimplify complexities of complexities. In fact, I suspect that some day, some corporation will own the god particle and find a way to make money off of it. And some ad agency will need to come up with a tag line for selling the product. Like “The god particle: it’s everything!”
If solving a problem is your main goal, then you want to use all the tools possible to solve that problem. You say, “There must be a way.” You ask yourself, “Why not?” You find other people who want to solve the same problem, and you join forces. You find out what they know, share discoveries, and efficiently reach your common goal together. You collaborate.
The accomplishment of NASA to get Curiosity successfully to Mars demonstrates the power of collaboration. I know we’ve been to Mars in the past. But, this was a completely new level of capability we sent to our neighboring planet. And, it was only possible because a bunch of scientists had a common goal and worked together.
Compare that with the Olympics. We had many successful young American athletes that worked tirelessly over years to perfect their specific physical skills to be the best in the world. They should be proud of their accomplishment. I don’t want to diminish their success. But, so what? It’s not a practical skill that will advance the human race. It’s an opportunity to celebrate our national pride while coming together with the rest of the world, which is certainly a valid pursuit. But, in the arena of contributing to humanity and our place in the universe, NASA wins – hands down.
Obviously, problem solving and competition are not mutually exclusive. Competition inspires companies to hire problem-solvers all the time. When I graduated from college, I joined Andersen Consulting to use my skills. They built their entire business on solving problems for other companies. I quickly discovered that they wanted me to solve problems, not for good, but for evil!!!! Actually, that might be a bit of an exaggeration. There was nothing evil about improving the database access time for Victoria’s Secrets payroll (although the underwear hanging in the conference room was a bit naughty). Nor was there anything evil about routing emails faster within their internal email network. Hmm. I guess I should revise my characterization of my time as a computer consultant. It’s more accurate to say that I left consulting because I wanted to use my problem solving skills for fun instead of boredom.
I will always question what we gain as Americans from competition in the market place. Look at the battles between Coke and Pepsi. Some people prefer one brand over the other, but they are very close to the same product. Competition doesn’t make either product better. The Coke / Pepsi competition is more about convincing people to drink more of one or the other using sex, excitement, even sex. Meanwhile, many people are drinking way more sugar each day than they should. And the country is more obese on average than ever. So, what does that model of capitalistic competition show us? The resulting benefit to society is about as empty as the nutritional value inside each sweet, refreshing, heavenly bottle.
I propose our world would improve tremendously if we could build our system on collaboration instead of competition. A system of collaboration would be driven by goals of improving our world, instead of the current system of competition driven by the one-track-minded goal of making money. How would it work? I don’t know, but I’m sure if we applied moon-race ingenuity to developing and testing such a system, we would succeed. We could tackle all sorts of social problems. Then, we would have all kinds of by-products, like the social equivalent of Velcro and Tang.
For example, what if we could provide every child with the minimum level of support required for proper development of empathy, confidence and an inner sense of self? What if everyone could get a quality education? What if everyone could receive a free 3-week stay at your choice of a dessert spa or Disney World? (Yes, I spelled that correctly. Massages and cake go well together.)
Is it possible? Social scientists, and everyone else for that matter, must ask “Why not?” if we really want to make this world a better place. Collaboration is such a powerful engine. It’s a no-brainer that a problem solver would choose collaboration over competition for the sake of efficiency. The real quandary: how do we convince the anti-problem-solvers that competition is holding us back?