“Show Your Work!”

When “solving problems” in addition to good “issue identification”, “diagnosis” (or whatever), it’s really important to examine methods/means to diminish or solve these problems, and have those methods be principled.  As Huxley opined:

“We are so anxious to achieve some particular end that we never pay attention to the psycho-physical means whereby that end is to be gained. So far as we are concerned, any old means is good enough. But the nature of the universe is such that ends can never justify the means. On the contrary, the means always determine the end.”

But even principled means don’t go far enough.  I have been discussing with a couple of clients and friends in the last week about getting from “point A” to “point B” as relates to The Work.  With these discussions in my head, have also come across a couple of psychology related blogs addressing resolution of specific problems.  What these conversations and blogs have in common, is my friends/clients complaining that when they’ve mentioned a problem to someone (anxiety, impulse control issues, depression, for example), and when given advice by some folk about how to resolve them, we have found essentially that at worst the suggestion amounted to “stop being __________ (anxious, impulsive, depressed)”, or simply suggesting that the opposite behavior/idea be employed.  Even from professionals.

Of course, the “middle part” here is really important.  There should be attention to the steps taken in the middle.  Those steps should specifically address the issue at hand, not simply be something rationalized as “good” or needed or healthy.  As some of my heroes have suggested, these ideas often amount to “activity instead of action”.

For instance, exercise arguably helps depression, anxiety and the like, but seems that in many cases does not specifically address the concerns identified that might be causing such in the first place (loss, abuse, etc).  In addition to that, the steps taken from anxiety to “calm” or “groundedness”, sadness/depression to happiness/serenity/gratitude (or somesuch) etc should be principled.  Meaning, they should be rooted in ideas that are repeatable, work for different kinds of problems, and preferably don’t create new ones in their wake.

Much of this is intuitive, but what keeps coming to me about these ideas is when observing “problem solving” from the outside, it’s often difficult to point to the work that is done.  Just like we’re encouraged in most math classes, we should be able to “show our work”.  When dealing with issues/problems/concerns, problem identification is really important.  So are means of problem solving- but what seems a good test of the effectiveness or value of such is the ability to point at the work done that specifically addresses the problem at hand.

As a simple example… telling someone to “calm down” rarely helps them behave differently, let alone feel differently.  There’s no steps to show, it’s difficult to see any principles this idea of “calming down” is based on.  While problem-solving emotional or relationship problems and the like it’s tempting to simply give advice and/or lean on philosophy, but there’s a lot of value in making such practical- something we can “point at”.

In our martial arts training group, if one of us has or is taught an idea/principle, we test that idea out in real time with a resisting opponent.  We also try to “break the idea”- see what conditions or problems it will not work with.  In some circles this is referred to as “pressure-testing the material”.  The same ideas might apply when solving other real world problems.  Clearly identifying the issue/context, having a principled means of intervention or “problem solving”, having a practical (empirical) means of determining the usefulness of the idea… showing our work and evaluating its utility.

Am advocating here for critical thinking when it comes to the utility of tools or ideas for problem-solving.  It seems that one of the places this utility is revealed is in whether or not we can show our work- make use of an idea in a way that is repeatable and observable (what we say/don’t say, do/don’t do).  As a therapist, I really endeavor (and hope other professionals) to give ideas that can be used by anyone, ideas that are practical enough to show the work that specifically addresses an identified problem, not something that simply gives us the feeling that we are doing something.

You can find out more about Petar at: April30th.org

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