excerpt from DESIGN FOR LIFE
copyright Joel Fox
Life is full of obstacles that crop up as we all try to satisfy our various needs. Those obstacles are what most people call problems. In this book, I put everyday problem solving on a more scientific footing, using adaptations of techniques that have been proven for decades in high technology industries. By following this method, you will open your mind to new possibilities. In contrast to techniques like meditation in which you try to release yourself from structure, you will learn to create a structure that serves as a ladder toward your goals.
The last century has seen enormous technological progress. Engineers have taken the basic information generated by scientists and accomplished marvels ranging from suspension bridges to automobiles to nuclear reactors to MRI scanners to space flight. Beneath the complexities of these machines lies a methodology that is common to all branches of engineering, because all engineering is problem solving. All engineering is scientfic and logical decision making. We can also say that all of everyday life is problem solving and decision making, only it’s too often neither logical nor scientific.
For the past 30 years I've taught engineering to many young people. I've also been an academic advisor to a hundreds of students during that time. These students often need help in making decisions about what to do when they're uncertain about their future plans. Some students don’t do well because of troubled relationships with boyfriends or girlfriends or parents.
In trying to help students work their way through difficulties, I've noticed that certain engineering techniques could be adapted to human problems as opposed to just physical problems. What I call "life engineering" is about applying methods we have developed for the creative design of everything from computers to space stations, to the ordinary problems and needs of your daily life.
Chapter 1. Hyperspace and Your Genius
In Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary we find this definition:
JINNI: a magic spirit believed to take human form and serve the person who calls it.
ge*nius (noun), plural ge*nius*es or ge*nii
Solution Space contains the answers to all of our problems. It is a “hyperspace”, a space of more than three dimensions, where both practical and impractical solutions spring into place whenever a problem appears before us. It is a hyperspace of the mind that is hidden from us until we explore it with the probe we call “consciousness.” [You have a hint of the existence of solution hyperspace when you awake in the morning suddenly knowing the answer to a problem that seemed insolvable the night before. You did not create the solution in your sleep. The solution already existed somewhere in your mind, but your consciousness could not find it. Your consciousness had been mired in all the fruitless solutions you had explored the night before. You awake with an unfocused mind and the instant you begin thinking about the problem you find yourself in a new area of mental hyperspace where other possibilities exist.]
In this little manual you will learn to converse with your hyperspace genie and pilot the consciousness probe. You will learn how to steer it and guide it through the hyperspace in your own mind. You will learn to create a map of your travels and to read the road signs that point the way to the solutions that best satisfy your needs.
Before the mind can create a solution hyperspace, there must be a problem to be solved. The mind needs and reacts well to this kind of stimulation. The human brain loves to solve problems, but can be temperamental. In the ancient story, the owner of the Magic Lamp asked the Genie for all the wealth of the world. The mischievous Genie surrounded his master with piles of gold bullion hundreds of feet high and as thick as the walls of a medieval fortress. His master's initial joy over limitless wealth gave way to the realization that the walls of gold made him just as much of a prisoner as the poorest wretch in the royal dungeon. The genie had once again tricked his master into wasting a wish.
Just as the owner of a magic lamp must be very careful in making a request of the genie, so the owner of a human brain must be careful in posing a problem to the mind. It is the question itself which triggers the creation of Solution Hyperspace. No matter how much knowledge may be stored in a brain, if the request for an answer is improperly posed, the chances are that a Solution Hyperspace will be created by our genius which will frustrate us as we probe it with our consciousness.
Another way to picture this is as a set of streets with a traffic light at each corner. The question we ask ourselves produces a key of a certain shape which depends on the wording of the question. That key when inserted in the traffic control box turns some of the lights to green and leaves the rest red. We are then able to explore the town in a way which depends on which streets are open to us and how adept we are at driving. Asking the wrong question opens only a few sreets to us. No matter how skillful a driver you may be, you are limited by the streets that are open. On the other hand, even if you pose the question in a way that makes your genius open a large number of streets, If you drive around in circles or keep crashing into obstacles you’re not going to get very far.
Why Hyperspace? Ordinary space has three dimensions. Everything we see in this world can be located with respect to a set of three spatial coordinates. Up-down, forward-backward and side-to-side would be one set of three coordinate axes. Another set of three directions describing location might be north-south, east-west, and elevation-depth. We can specify a position in ordinary space using these coordinates and inquire as to what is at that particular location. Theoretically, we could even do such a thing for the human mind; "What piece of information is located at a position in the brain specified by: 3 inches in, 2 inches to the left and 1 inch up measured from the mole on my forehead as a starting point." Although that "three-space" description might have some usefulness to an evil, science-fiction surgeon bent on removing a memory from your mind with a stainless steel probe, it is not very helpful when we are searching our own brains with the “probe of consciousness.” Our probe must be directed by other descriptive coordinates which might include color, temperature, time, location, expense, or any of the other variables under which we file information within our minds. That’s why I use the term mental hyperspace; a cabinet full of information filed in no particular physical order, but with neural links leading from each folder to many, many other folders. A search in such a filing system is a challenge, but also offers the possibility of marvelous surprises. Mastery of this multi-dimensional filing system is called creativity and the surprises are called bright ideas.
Detours in Mental Hyperspace
The other day I happened to be watching television when a man by the name of Yandle was being interviewed. Although his face was not familiar, the name seemed to ring a bell. I was sure I knew someone with that name, which is certainly not a common one, but I couldn’t make the connection to anything else stored in my memory. I gave up the search after a few minutes, since it was of absolutely no consequence. Several days later, I was listening to a radio program during which a couple was being interviewed on the subject of "polyamora marriage"; a menage à trois, quatre or more. Suddenly, I remembered why the name Yandle was familiar. About fifteen years before, someone of that name had run a “swinging couples” club in the penthouse above my apartment and the building management had expended quite a bit of effort stopping the parties which carried on noisily to all hours of the morning.
Let’s be clear about what happened here. I had first carried out a casual mental search for the significance of a name and had consciously abandoned the search. A somewhat related subject had triggered a successful conclusion to the search weeks later. Somehow the polygamous couples being interviewed on television had connected with my “abandoned” search. One traditional way of interpreting this type of experience is that the mind operates on two levels. The fact that I was, on a conscious level, no longer looking for the significance of the name Yandle did not stop my unconscious mind from continuing the search. The conscious mind had given up the search, but the unconscious mind had not. It continued the effort until the issue was resolved and the goal achieved. The trouble with this view is that it gives rise to an almost mystical image of the brain. A part of the brain goes off and does its own thing independent of our control, almost magically providing us with answers we couldn’t find. It that view there is an autonomous and uncontrollable part of our brain that can be praised or blamed for our accomplishments.
A better view, closer to the way we know that nerve tissue in the brain functions, is that the incomplete search caused a chemical “loose-end” like an itch or irritation. The focus of our attention and consciousness shifted, because we decided that the problem was too trivial to pursue, but the chemical loose-end kept attracting the thinking process. These loose-ends, and there may be many, attract our attention so that any new incoming data can be tested to see if it has any connection to the loose-end. If so, we start to think about the problem again. If not, we pass on to other things. This second view of “sudden inspiration” means we really have no hidden thinking process. All real thinking is conscious and is under our control. Answers from “out of the blue” are more related to scratching an mental itch than being inspired by a muse. Unfortunately, the brain does not distinguish between loose-ends which are crucial and those which are trivial. Our minds can become cluttered with loose-ends that slow down our thinking process and hamper our problem solving ability. We will discuss unwanted neural loose-ends and how to clear them out of mental hyperspace in a later chapter.
Swirling Black Holes in Hyperspace
Years ago Michel Legrand wrote a song with the words; "like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel, never ending or beginning on a ever-spinning reel...pictures hanging in a hallway and a fragment of a song, half-remembered names and faces but to whom do they belong?" The imagery of mental confusion and the problems we encounter when we search Mental Hyperspace are beautiful and revealing. The feeling of going in circles when thinking is common to most people. In computer programming, this type of going-in-circles is termed being caught in an "infinite loop" and generally spells disaster. How do we avoid getting caught in a loop; a black hole from which nothing emerges? How do we avoid disastrous and quixotic collisions with the “windmills of your mind”? Simple; we have to be able to steer your genie by learning to navigate in mental hyperspace. (see chapter 2)
Chapter 2. Navigating in Mental Hyperspace
One of the first things an engineer learns is to document, document and document. In industry this serves many functions. For one, it provides legal evidence concerning the development of a new product in case of litigation. For another, it serves as an invaluable aid if someone else needs to take over a task. However, we are concerned with some other uses of documentation that bear more directly on the problem solving process. The human mind appears to us to think serially. For example, we speak of the "stream" of consciousness or “train” of thought. In other words, we have a linear thought pattern from "thought A" to "thought B" to "thought C". We can't seem to hold two thoughts simultaneously or follow two streams at the same time. There may be many thoughts occurring subconsciously, but we can only be aware of one thought at a time. On the other hand, our eyes are built to gather many pieces of information at once. By putting our ideas down on paper in the right way we can view them simultaneously. We can see them “in parallel.” The great thing about that is the synergy or interaction that can occur when we see thoughts A, B and C all together simultaneously. If we write a narrative about these thoughts describing how thought A leads to B which leads us to C, we're probably not going to see them in parallel unless speed reading is one of our talents. Our thoughts have to be put down on paper in the form of symbols which can be readily taken in by the eye and quickly grasped by the mind. They have to be allowed the freedom to associate in any direction on the visual page. Pencil and paper are the way we steer the probe of consciousness around our mental hyperspace.
Drawing "thought trees" are a good way of representing our ideas. The process consists of expressing your primary thought or starting point in a few words or a symbol enclosed in a rectangle representing a tree trunk at the center of our piece of paper. We then draw a branch attached to the trunk and a “leaf” which might be drawn as a circle. Inside the leaf we write a few words which symbolize our first thought on the subject. If this leads to another thought we draw a continuation of the branch and another leaf. Continue this way until your train of thought ends. Return to the trunk to start a new train of thought on the main subject, drawing a new branch and appropriate leaves. If a new direction of thought is triggered by one of the leaves, attach an offshoot branch at the point at which the thought occurs. You might label it, but do not pursue that line of thought or offshoot until you have finished the one you started. Creating the tree in this way keeps us from being distracted, but preserves our offshoot ideas for later consideration. This is a great help to people who just seem to spin their wheels, inundated by their genie with so many creative ideas that they are incapable of pursuing any train of thought to the bitter (or sweet) end.
(Insert image of a thought tree)
Let's go back and look at the thought tree for my notions about my son driving at age 15. My first branch involves my gut feeling that this situation is wrong and that I am angry that the State and the parents of my son's friends who have placed me in an uncomfortable position. The function of this tree branch is to express my emotions; my anger and frustration, so that it leaves my consciousness probe free to go on to other thoughts. In this way my emotions don’t block my exploration of mental hyperspace.
An offshoot indicates that a solution to my problem might be to get the legislature to repeal the law. Another offshoot suggests that I might remove the peer group pressure by convincing the other parents to revoke their permission. By expressing this train of thought as a branch and its sideshoots, I can carry each offshoot to its natural conclusion or “terminating leaf.” In this example, the termination indicates that it will take more effort or more time than I have available. This train of thought will not solve my problem in the length of time I have available. The fact that I have committed all these thoughts to paper allows me to drop that line of thought and safely take up a new one without fear of losing it. My anger has effectively been set aside so that I can take a fresh look at the problem without cluttering my thinking with thoughts that have now been demonstrated to lead nowhere. My mind’s natural hesitancy to release a thought until it receives a closure signal has been satisfied and I clear my mind for further probing.
My next branch of thought contains leaves which represent a deeper insight into the primitive problem which is my fear for my son's safety. I note that even if he doesn't drive, he will be unsafe if his friends drive. This allows me to refocus my attention from my anger to my fear, which of course is a totally different matter.
What would it take to allay the fear if it is irrational, or remove the hazard if there is a real risk? I note that the hazard lies in the possibility of irresponsible behavior of my son and his friends. My initial goal, which was to prevent my son from driving may in fact be counter-productive if his friends are less responsible than he is. The fact that my permission is required leads me to hope that I can impose rules about driving behavior and to recognize that I won't have that leverage when he is seventeen and no longer needs my permission to drive. I am therefore in a better position to establish good driving habits at fifteen then I will be at seventeen.
Now I start a new train of thought which involves an optional path to safety for my son and all his friends by getting the cooperation of his friends' parents which involves a mutual safety code and mutual responsibility for enforcement. I can even bring in my first train of thought by getting the legislature to recognize that a parent's legal permission to drive should be revocable.
Parents have for many years tried to get lawmakers to raise the driving age. Other groups of parents whose teenagers drive to school or to work oppose such legislation. Why not amend the current law by requiring notification of the parent in the case of any driving infraction and allowing the license to be rescinded upon request of the parent. This would satisfy both groups of parents and furthermore empower them to improve teen driving behavior.