Being Mentally Healthy – 14. Skill

From infancy we seek to understand. We do so first out of wonder, then out of curiosity, then for control.

Living is an unending stream of desires. The one constant is that we want things to go our way and will do what we will to make it so.

There are 2 seminal issues related to control. 1st is that control is a matter of self-control. Impulsiveness must be thwarted, and patience exercised, to accomplish goals.

A 2nd aspect of control is learning what we may, or should even try, to control beyond our own mind. It is a significant step to wisdom to practice external control judiciously. Trying to change what is beyond one’s ability to alter is a huge tar baby of attachment which invariably serves as a source of unending frustration.

The belief that one has more control than is actually possible is a common self-deception. American psychologist Suzanne Thompson: “Illusions of control are common even in purely chance situations. They are particularly likely to occur in settings that are characterized by personal involvement, familiarity, foreknowledge of the desired outcome, and a focus on success.”

Gambling would lose much of its appeal without a lingering illusion of control. For instance, people think they have more control when they throw the dice themselves than when someone else tosses them.

Optimism is essential to the illusion of control. Disbelievers tend to be more realistic than optimists, and so less likely to fall prey to an illusion of control.

An illusion of control can provide motivation for persistence at a task that might otherwise be abandoned. The flip side to this is commitment to a course of action doomed to fail. Much entrepreneurial effort has been powered by the illusion of control.

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However we may imaginatively project outcomes, we proceed based upon our skills. Because assumptions and generalizations are involved, skill is necessarily based on beliefs – but of the most essential kind, because we attempt nothing without some degree of confidence that we may succeed, or at least learn from the experience.

A study on superstition discovered its value in the game of golf. Putters who were convinced that they were using their lucky ball were a third more successful in sinking their putts than those striking an ordinary ball. Similar tests involving physical dexterity, task efficacy, memory recall, and awareness all had participants performing better when they thought luck was on their side. William James: “Belief creates the actual fact.”

Categorization facilitates skill because we have a ready idea of how an implement may be used or how an object may behave.

On the other hand, categorization can limit skill by diminishing creativity. Invention happens by defying convention – by breaking rote categorization and seeing a situation or object from a fresh perspective. English novelist David Mitchell: “All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so.”

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Problem-solving is always a philosophical exercise. By this I mean breaking down the identifiable components or dynamics and redefining them.

What I am suggesting here is, of course, the reductionist approach that defines the scientific method. The distinction is that the exercise here is problem-solving, not inductive reasoning. In problem-solving you are not looking for general principles. Instead, you are seeking the conceptual chasms that you need to cross to get to a solution.

Begin by being clear about the goal. Visualize what the object or process ideally should be.

Then, after definitional breakdown, imagine the distinctions – the gaps – between what exists and what is desired.

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As problems are solved in the mind, problem-solving is an exercise in planning.

Corvids – the family of birds that includes crows, jays, and ravens – are much better at process problem-solving than we are. Corvids can think through a multi-step procedure and then accomplish a task in a single go. Because of innate limits in procedural memory in the typical human mind, we are prone to trial and error.

My manipularity-intelligence hypothesis explains why some species are better than others at solving certain classes of problems. Basically, organisms which have lesser ability to change their environment must have more on the ball to survive. Because humans are highly mobile, with hands that offer tremendous dexterity, they don’t need to be very smart. By contrast, plants, which are rooted to the spot, and forced to interact with all other kinds of life, must have tremendous social and problem-solving savvy.

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3 heuristic approaches often prove helpful in solving problems: working backwards, apt analogy, and dissection.

Working backwards is helpful when the goal is clearly specified, such as mazes, or certain math problems.

Complex problems sometimes yield to a strategic analogy: finding similarities between the current problem and one previously encountered.

Big problems are best faced by dissection: breaking them down. Slicing a sizable situation into sub-goals, which are then tackled one at a time, is often the only way to accomplish large projects.

People sometimes get stuck because they latch onto an ineffective strategy and won’t let go. This can arise from a mental set: the tendency to approach a new, novel problem the same way as one encountered before. This is basically problem-solving from faith. Analogous problem-solving only goes so far.

Another inflexibility arises with functional fixedness: viewing familiar objects as having only specific uses. Failing to see that a coin may, at times, substitute for a flathead screwdriver, is an example of functional fixedness. English economist John Maynard Keynes: “The difficulty lies not in new ideas, but in escaping the old ones.”

Devising a strategy, collating information, and evaluating alternatives comprises a feedback loop that may even reach back to defining the problem. The well-skilled spend more time in the early planning stages – getting the big picture right – than novices, who worry more about details.

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The foregoing withstanding, bear in mind that you do not, nor cannot, solve problems consciously. In antiquity Indian guru Vasistha recognized that futility, saying “though appearing to be intelligent, thought is unable to comprehend anything really.”

Learning and problem-solving are skills that belong to coremind, which works subconsciously. Irish cognitive scientist Ruth Byrne: “The cognitive processes that underlie counterfactual imagination, and other sorts of creative thoughts, operate in an unconscious manner.”

The subconscious is a much more powerful, holistic river than the puny stream of conscious thought. Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung: “The unconscious mind sees correctly even when conscious reason is blind and impotent.” Indian physicist and politician Abdul Kalam: “Achievement comes out of our subconscious.”

To figure something out, have intention and then wait for the answer. You already use this subconscious problem-solving technique, though perhaps inadvertently. Sometimes we go to bed with some trouble on our mind, then wake up in the morning with a fresh perspective or answer.

If a solution is possible, coremind will let you know. Practice skepticism. Intend coremind to scout for hidden assumptions which may reveal a proposed solution is really a house of cards.

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Alas, the vast majority of the Collective suffer from their minds preying on them. The next lesson explains why.