In a world of confusing complexity it is quite natural that we try to boil our problems down to a single and simple solution. NY Times columnist David Brooks addresses this topic in today’s column “The Danger of a Single Story.” Brooks, in part, is addressing the propensity of politicians to reduce many complex human issues to a single explanation. He writes,
“They reduce pretty much all issues to the same single story: the alien invader story.”
The tendency to oversimplify human problems is found on many fronts.
“Become a vegetarian” – the solution to everything from obesity to cancer
“Just say no” – the solution to drug addiction.
When we lived in Mexico, many people North of the border saw Mexico only as the land of illegal immigrants and drug lords.
Are these approaches simple or simplistic?
For instance, a person addicted to drugs cannot “just say no”. They take the drug that eventually takes them. You cannot “will” your way out of an addiction.
What about the fact that Mexico is a culturally rich country with many sophisticated people and has much to teach other nations like the value of family and community?
In all instances a pony with one trick, practitioner with one solution, or researcher with one pet theory, may have part of the solution to the problem for some people some of the time. Or he/she may be dead wrong.
Ultimately a single solution approach can be dangerous to our health, reduce us to simplistic thinking, demean our humanity, and does not comprehensively solve the challenge we face in our lives or business.
So beware of people who tell you “all you need is!”
Learning a more comprehensive approach to our solutions implies that we,
- Recognize the depth of our addiction to quick answers in every realm of life. I call this the “bumper sticker” syndrome. Just examine any of the social media outlets that are filled with such slogans.
- Realize that there are evidence-based solutions to many of life’s thorniest problems. For instance research on the science of happiness indicates that making a meaningful contribution to the common good and having healthy social networks are the chief contributors to human happiness.
- Acknowledge the complexity of most of the challenges we face. For example, healthy living comes from more than just jogging and eating well. Nor is health just based on case studies from the longevity of a few outliers like Jack LaLanne.
- Learn to tolerate ambiguity that comes with living the questions rather than having the answers. A sign of maturity is the capacity to live gracefully in the face of ambiguity. Let’s face it. Most of life falls into the gray zone.
- Pay the price of bucking the “one solution” system. One does not win popularity contests or enhance one’s marketing campaign by subscribing to points 1-4. Imagine telling your boss that the quick answer she wants is not immediately available but you need time for a deeper root cause analysis.
- Balance your rapid analytic thinking with slower more deliberate thought that includes unconscious processes as sometimes revealed in dreams. Note also how many problems find solutions when you are not working on them or while you are jogging. So slow down to move ahead.
- Adopt a multi-modal diverse approach to dealing with challenges. Broadening your horizons in your search for knowledge must include philosophy, theology, literature, the arts, the quiet of nature, exposure to other cultures, and other disciplines/positions outside of your own. Be willing to change your position in the light of new and more compelling data.
Instead of having a pony that only manages to pull off one trick, expand the range of capabilities that go outside of your as well as the pony’s comfort zone.