Solving Problems I: The Dandelion Versus The Burning Building
Many people have a counterproductive yet common model for solving their problems. If you use it, you’re holding yourself back from a better life. There’s an alternative, however, which I’ll write about below too.
The Dandelion Model
I call it the “dandelion model” because it’s based on the idea that to get rid of a dandelion, you have to get to its roots. If you don’t, it will grow back. The dandelion model says that to handle a problem in your life, you have to understand the root of the problem. If you don’t, even if you think you’ve solved it, it will return and you’ll have to deal with it all over again. A consequence of the model is that you should understand a problem completely before acting on it.
For example, if you’re overweight and you think you overeat because of how your parents raised you, this model says you have to understand what happened that led to the behavior and address it. If you don’t, you’ll only temporarily solve the problem. Many people paralyze themselves with analysis — so-called analysis paralysis — as a result of this model.
Does that model sound plausible? It may if you never think about it critically or skeptically. It’s easy to remember, though, which I think leads people to use that model.
I find the dandelion model debilitating. It leads people to analyze but not act on problems they could solve. They delay acting, imagining a solution around the corner better than whatever else they might consider.
If you have no alternative model, you’re stuck with it.
The Burning Building Model
Here’s an alternative, which I call the “burning building model.” It’s based on the premise that if you’re in a burning building, you don’t have to know how the fire started to know you should leave the building. The burning building model says that to handle a problem in your life, if you know something that will help, acting on that thing helps.
For example, if you’re overweight and don’t want to be, you don’t have to know how you got that way to know that improving your diet and exercise will help you lose weight.
I find the burning building model tremendously liberating and empowering. It motivates you to act, not to dwell.
In practice, I don’t use only one model. For some problems or even different aspects of the same problems I use one model, for others I use the other. The point is not to be stuck in one. Blindly applying only one model rarely optimizes your behavior. (I also look for others when I think I can do better than what these models suggest. I’ve written earlier on the value of flexibility in how we model our worlds.)
It’s not obvious the burning building model is as effective as it is. Tomorrow I’ll look at potential shortcomings of it and how to improve on them.
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