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‘Just Get Over It’-The Problem With Problem Thinking

You may recall Mick Mulvaney, then President Trump’s Chief of Staff, telling us all to ‘just get over it,’ when he addressed quid pro quo as just the way foreign policy negotiations are done- recall that piece of ancient history from early 2020? (https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/10/mulvaney-ukraine-get-over-it.html).


And you may have seen his recent tweet decrying the length of time it took his son’s Covid test results to come back. I had to bite my tongue. I wanted to say ‘Mick, just get over it.’ What better example of a person telling you to deal with The World As I Want It To Be and now having to face the World As It Is. (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/07/13/mick-mulvaney-says-covid-testing-issues-inexcusable/5429248002/)


What I want to ask Mick, and the rest of us, is what next.


As we saw in the last blog post (https://www.freethebrain.com/post/pandemic-and-protests), the events around the pandemic and the protests have created a fertile ground for change to flourish. The recipe to take us there is encapsulated in the story of the Montreal Protocol ( Introduction)- the science, a catalyst and R&D- the catalyst needed to grab one’s attention, something that makes it clear now is the time and there is no going back. But what to go forward to takes R&D- and its first step, a shared outcome- an effort everyone must make to figure out how to survive in the new world order.


For that catalyst to attract and be effective, the mind needs a simple story, one that explains the issue in clearcut terms with a straightforward solution. Otherwise the issue seems too much to deal with- too complicated, too complex, too much chance to fail in addressing it, too much energy required to even embark on this path. The brain needs problem thinking to decide it’s worth it.


But for a substantive change that is sustainable, all the voices need to be part. Even those that are discordant and dissonant have to be at the table, most especially the conflicted ones in your own head. That takes a mind shift from problem thinking to dilemma thinking-from a simple framing and an easy answer to a balancing act among valuable yet competing factors. The mind has to embrace the reality that there is no going back to the way it was, meaning the story no longer works -the story each person tells themself, the story that up until then was good enough to guide decisions and choices, the story that others may see differently, the story that no longer seems good enough- the story that is no longer the most likely narrative to deliver success and survival. Dilemma thinking is neither straightforward nor clearcut. And it takes commitment and energy. Thinking you have a problem and struggling to find a solution when what you really face is a dilemma is a recipe for frustration and futility, because a dilemma has no solution, only a path forward.


The question for Mick and the rest of us is how to make this transition, how to not get stuck in problem thinking; how to avoid Einsteins Insanity trap- you know, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result; and how to embrace the dilemma and embark on the mindshift that the brain is so capable of, once it sees the necessity to participate in the R&D as the path to substantive, sustainable change.


The brain prefers to think of everything as a problem with a solution and uses its ‘rational’ functions like a press secretary to pursue its own R&D-by justifying, rationalizing and defending its solution even in the face of facts that call that approach into question and ignoring, dismissing or underweighting the significance of data that might cast doubt on the story. ( Chapter 7: Don’t Shoot The Messenger )


With the pandemic, we have seen lots of problem thinking- ‘the virus will just go away magically.’ ‘ A vaccine will solve everything.’ ‘Let’s forget the virus, we have to open up.’ ‘The cures worse than the disease.’ The only magic here is the magical thinking that to succeed and survive in the new world order is a problem to be solved. And we all have seen how well that has gone.


You can identify problem thinking when this is what you hear:

  1. Everything is right or wrong; black and white-

“We are ‘good’/ they are ‘bad.’’

Stereotypes abound here.


2. Exaggeration for effect--

‘They all lie.’ ‘All cops are bad.’ They are all far left anarchists’

‘Our streets are all being taken over’ ‘The government can’t do anything right.’

‘The mob will take over.’

False equivalencies abound here.

3. And its opposite: Rationalize to minimize-

‘Only old people die.’ ‘I’m young; it won’t kill me.’

‘The death rate is only 0.1%’ (nevermind 0.1% of 300 million people is 300,000.)

‘It’s just a few bad apples’ (but conveniently forgetting the rest of the phrase:

‘that spoil the barrel’)

4. Overestimating impact; the domino theory-

‘They take away one right and soon they will all be gone.’

This is a cousin of exaggeration for effect.

5. Conspiracy theories-

just enough reality, then filling in the blanks to support one’s preconceptions.

6. The solution is contained in the way the problem is stated.

‘The problem is we don’t have any Law and Order;’ therefore, the only solution is

more Law and Order.

‘There is too many police;’ therefore the only solution is less police.

The problem implies the obvious solution.

And one I’m sure you have heard in your organization: ‘the problem is we don’t

have enough staff.’


Problem thinking is seductive, because the story is easily grasped and provides the answer. This is exactly what your brain is looking for- a nice neat package with a nice neat answer with minimal energy expended.


To be fair, the ‘solution’ will solve that problem, unless the problem as stated is not really what’s happening. Problem thinking enables a person to be right and correct and have THE answer. Having the answer demonstrates how successful a person is. ‘See I’m no failure.’ ‘And how good I am at navigating this world.’


It is the inner press secretary’s role to defend, justify, and rationalize the World As I Want It To Be. And do not underestimate how effective it is……until the reality of World As It Is creeps in enough to make it clear the World As I Want It To Be may no longer be the best version of the story for me not to fail. Problem thinking is safe, until it isn’t. Just get over it!


And as the discrepancy grows and widens, the inner press secretary has a harder and harder time holding onto its story. At some point, it must make a choice. Either it recognizes the party line is no longer worth defending - there is just no longer a way to rationalize even for itself in the face of a more complete accounting of the details and a fuller consideration of all the risks to itself and to others- or it must push on despite the difficulty.


When the brain can no longer employ the facts to hold onto its story, it must look elsewhere. A corollary to Einsteins Insanity Trap surfaces (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/einstein-s-parable-of-quantum-insanity/). Rather than doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, it is thinking the same thing over and over and expecting the desired result. So it no longer focuses on the message, but rather on the messenger.


By discrediting the source, the discordant message can be dismissed outright because why would a person believe something that comes from someone who is not to be trusted. And if that doesn’t work, then outright intimidation is applied to silence the messenger and the message.


And when that is not enough, the press secretary adopts the mindset of a victim- blame, justify, complain- absolving itself of any responsibility. The failure of the World As I Want It To Be to deliver against the World As It Is cannot be its fault, so it must be someone else’s fault. It’s just easier to believe there’s nothing wrong with ‘me,’ meaning changing ‘me’ won’t change a thing. ‘The way I see the world is still correct. That’s not the problem; they are. I know what is the best choice; I know what the answer is.’ Who I am and what I stand for cannot be what’s causing the problem. To ‘think’ otherwise is just too hard to face. It would require ‘re-thinking’ one’s entire worldview. Rather than do that, the press secretary opts to cling harder to The World As I Want It To Be.


Perhaps, this is why change can be so hard. In a problem thinking view, change challenges self image and self worth. That is no easy confrontation. No wonder the brain is not so keen to invest its energy to utilize its analyst role unless the prospect of a better chance for success and survival accompanies the change.


Dilemma thinking acknowledges the path forward is not contained in a solution. It requires value judgements, choices that best balance the multiple yet often competing factors to find the most satisfactory next step forward. It takes trusting that step will reveal the next. It takes an openness to something yet to be learned, and that something may well change the best choice and, possibly, the person making the choice.


Framing the issue in its proper light requires learning just what the issue is. That requires challenging the existing story with the possibility of a new story that might be an even better version then the current version which may no longer be serving me as well as I believed.


Dilemma thinking sounds like this:

What do you see happening? What is at risk and what are the concerns? What are you afraid will happen? What am I missing? What are we trying to achieve?


This signals a search for a shared outcome and a new story we can all live with and support, the first step on the path of R&D. Once there, the conversation revolves around the next step to take in that direction.


Let’s face it- Being open, honest, truthful, and transparent is scary! Its much easier to come with the idea you want to launch through others. Dilemma thinking means it’s ok not to have the answer. It’s ok to be who you are- a person who doesn’t have to know in order to proceed and succeed. It’s ok not to be correct or right. It’s ok to be curious; It’s ok to feel vulnerable. Stepping into a space that doesn’t feel safe is the way to be safe.


If change takes facts that illuminate the issue and a catalyst that calls the status quo/ the current version enough into question, the crux is the transition from problem thinking to Dilemma thinking. It takes a catalyst to be open and willing to venture forth from a world of apparent certainty to a world of uncertainty. From a story that ‘works’ to acknowledging it no longer works so well. From being ‘in control,’ even if you aren’t, to feeling vulnerable as the path to stability. To trust there is no other choice but to give up something in order to have the space to fill with something new and better.


Here is something to ponder:

Problem thinking creates ‘A' solution with only two possible outcomes; it works or it doesn’t; success or failure.


Dilemma thinking also has only two possible outcomes: it works out as planned or you learn something that enables the next attempt to work better. Failure is not part of the equation. There is just a next step. It’s not a matter of self image or self worth.

Success or Success.


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