What do I mean by ‘Story’?
Story – Facts woven together in a coherent narrative by assumptions.
Problem – Occurs when we are confronted with facts about our reality that defer from the stories we have created about our reality.
When we talk about solving problems the task is to assess how closely our underlying assumptions match with the present reality. Using the traffic example again: If you encounter unexpected construction on the way to work you may be able to take an alternative route. Easy problem.
Facts – You need to be at work by a certain time and a certain route has reliably worked in getting there for as long as you’ve had the job.
Assumption – You can get up at your normal time and take your normal route to work. Based on previous experiences (facts) this is a reasonable assumption.
New Facts (Version 1) – There’s road construction this morning so you take an alternative route. (Easy Problem)
New Facts (Version 2) – There’s road construction every morning for the next year and now everyone is taking that alternative route. This leads to a much longer commute time which has affects on home life in various ways. (Complex Problem)
Everyday we approach life with a certain thesis, a certain perspective, a certain set of prior experiences, a certain paradigm for life, a certain set of ideas, a certain mentality, a certain outlook, a certain narrative… a certain story for how life should work. Everyday we encounter realities that have the potential to deviate from that story. Sometimes the deviation is small, like a slight route change in driving to work. Of course, sometimes the deviation is huge, like a global pandemic, or marital infidelity, or a mid-life crisis… somebody out there is experiencing these things all at once.
Reality can contradict our stories in a massively positive way. That’s ‘The Gift from God’ or ‘The Lucky Break’. However, when reality contradicts our stories in a massively negative way, this is where I believe pain comes from. Pain is the biggest challenge when solving problems because pain can distort our ability to look at situations rationally and use the same problem solving skills that we used to solve the traffic problem. Something like the infidelity of a partner is so earth shattering because it is a drastic deviation from the story we’ve created around that partner (remember, stories have characters):
“I never thought they would cheat on me…”
“I never thought I’d be living with my parents again…”
“I never thought I would lose that job…”
“I never thought a storm could wipe us out…”
“I never imagined losing one of my children…”
“I never thought I would have to file for bankruptcy…”
“I never imagined life could be this hard…”
Any of these statements sound familiar?
The Problem Solving happens in the space between recognizing that your story is wrong and updating your story with reasonalbe assumptions based on an objective view of facts. In the middle is the emotional pain that creates mental fog and the temptation to be irrational:
- Willful Ignorance
Immediate Action Drill
The ability to metabolize the pain with increasing speed over time allows us to get on with possible solutions, faster. Hopefully with a story that is humbly and wisely, expanded. Rather than one that is stubbornly rigid or cynically contracted.
To help us understand this more let’s use a military analogy. Immediate action drills were strategies we used to clear a weapon if it jammed while in use. With the M-4 Rifle we used the acronym SPORTS:
- S – Slap the bottom of the Magazine to insure it’s properly seated
- P – Pull the Charging handle back
- O – Observe the chamber for the round to eject
- R – Release the charging handle to push a new round forward
- T – Tap the forward assist
- S – Shoot (It was implied that you reacquire your target)
We drilled this probably thousands of times before I got to Afghanistan. We had similar acronyms for machine guns as well. In a gun fight in Afghanistan, my team and I had a machine gun malfunction. This particular gun never gave us problems during tests or training and now, in the middle of fighting for our lives, it was jamming. Imagine hearing bullets fly by your head and seeing Rocket Propelled Grenade Rounds (RPG’s) going off around you. My heart was pumping and adrenaline surging. But I remembered our immediate action drills and I climbed up on our truck and went through trying to clear the jam. Didn’t work. But I knew we had a back up machine gun in the truck. I went to it, got it in operation, and went to work. Simple drills we practiced over and over again throughout my time in training.
Think of the racing heart and surging adrenaline like the emotional fog that we experience when our story get’s challenged in a major way. The problem solving loop is our SPORTS drill in these scenarios. It’s natural and we do it everyday. The key is not grand insight. The secret is the ability to look at the truth, let the old story go, and act on a new one.
Where do stories come from?
You’ve hit a problem and now you’ve got to establish what your story is:
Society – Social Media, Television, Work, School, Radio, Newspaper, Magazines, Advertisements, Friends, Family… Everyday we’re processing so many pieces of information and if not actively aware of what we are taking in we may begin to form stories that simply aren’t true. Common behavior is taken as social/cultural norms. For instance, working in the city and living in the suburbs has been a long standing trend since the 50’s. However, what if a traffic problem begins to eat at the fabric of this suburban commuter story? Is living in the suburbs the best option? If I live close to work do I have to have a Car? Do I need to go to the office to do my job well?
When we think about a problem we are trying to solve we have to find the ideas in our story that come from the norms of society. Just because lots of people do a thing doesn’t make it a law or a requirement for living. Find the cultural assumptions and ask yourself: Is that true?
Family/Home of Origin
Family and/or Home of Origin – As children there is very little that we control in terms of cultivating the messages that are pervasive in our environments. We’re like sponges soaking up the information in our surroundings. It seems to be that we pick up on behavior much more so than words.
What if you’re a man and with your wife you decide that she can support the entire family with her salary? You both decide it would work if you stayed home and took care of the kids until they are school aged. After all, your wife notices your mood has gradually declined as your commute into the city has gotten longer and longer. You want to go ahead and go through with leaving the working world for a couple years but your dad went to work everyday at the same company for 30 years. His commute was an hour each way. Your father and mother often lauded each other’s role in the family. ‘A good man goes to work everyday’ and ‘A good woman makes sure the home is cared for’. You think to yourself, “What will my parents say about this? They won’t approve…” The traffic problem has turned into a problem of where we receive validation. Now we have to think about how our story influences our self worth. Is it true that you are now lazy/irresponsible because you don’t want to do what your parents did?
Really it could be said simply that our stories come strictly from us. All the information that we get from society and our upbringing has to be synthesized into something coherent by us. It’s you who creates your story. It’s you who choses your attitude toward a situation. It’s you who has the ultimate solution to your problem.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.Viktor Frankl, Nuerologist/Psychiatrist/Holocaust Survivor
The fundamental challenge here is to take time to notice your thoughts and ask yourself, “Is that true?” If it’s not true then it’s not helping us find real solutions. It’s a simple question but the emotional ties that we create with our stories can be so powerful that when challenged, we only have the mental space to process simple questions.
Let’s say you have always sought and appreciated your parents validation. You tell your dad you’re going to stay home for a couple years to care for the kids. You and your wife have rested upon this solution with confidence. With a tone of disapproval your dad says, “What kind of man stays at home with the kids while his wife works?”
You feel your hair stand up and your stomach turn slightly. This man whose opinion you value so much has just slighted you in a major way. But you’ve been practicing your immediate action drill. You know what’s true about you and your wife. You know what’s true about what you want and you know that opinion is not reality. You reply to your dad with some trepidation, “This kind of man.” And you move on with life…
Courage Under Fire
When you’re getting shot at, you can’t remember all the intricate workings of a gun. You can remember SPORTS (if you’ve been practicing). When your story for life is falling apart it’s tough to think through complex psychological methods but you can remember to ask yourself what’s true and work your way back into the fight from there.
Our stories come from three places: society, family/home of origin, and the self. Spend some time brainstorming and write down some common stories you heard growing up. How did you interpret those stories and how has that impacted your life?