You Can Solve Complex Challenges. Here's How.
Two takeaways from this post:
Have you ever asked yourself: “what is my purpose?” or “who am I?” or even “can I be a person in a normal world?” Have you struggled to answer them? If so, you are not alone. These questions are complex.
What are complex questions vs complicated questions?
Complex questions are those that cannot be solved by in a linear or technical manner. Their counter point is the complicated question which can be solved using math, science, or other discrete means. A complicated question is “Can we create a colony on the moon?”. A complex one is “should we?”.
Many times in our lives, we have to figure out complicated questions. Think about trying to balance household expenses when a new baby comes into the picture, or how to build a new prototype and launch a new business. You can solve for those problems with the right books, the right mentors, the right spreadsheets, and the right roadmap.
But, what if the question is more foundational and you are struggling to understand if you should be a person who has a child or if you are really the type of person who should become an entrepreneur? This is more complex, if you are trying to answer those questions as the same time and they are interdependent: Is having a child and being an entrepreneur what I want or is this desire only my response to a cultural narrative that shows children and entrepreneurship as notable accomplishments? That is a complex question.
When confronted with a complex question, we are sometimes paralyzed and unsure of even where to start. More so, we may often feel alone. There is no for complexity.
In 2019, I found myself trying to answer a complex question. I had fallen twenty feet onto my head, sustained a severe injury, was shoulder deep in nursing a broken heart, felt like I could no longer trust my intuition, and generally, did not know what I wanted to do with my life and where it was going. At the base of it all was a big, huge question: who am I? How do I want to be seen? What does it mean for me to be human?
The questions were so big that I didn’t know where to start answering them. But, little by little, I found myself not only answering the questions but being able to radically innovate and transform my life. (More on that in later posts). And, while I was happy that I was figuring it out, I couldn’t tell anyone how I was able to do so.
But, I wanted to. Because, people asked. Especially people who had suffered through traumatic brain injuries, people who had suffered career missteps, and people who were struggling to figure out how to live in the face of increasing complexity everywhere they turned.
I started to attempt to answer how I underwent my transformation by writing down my own complicated story. I wrote a memoir of the years from when I fell on my head, and cracked my brain open, to when I started the Floral Heart Project and helped to create a National COVID Memorial Day. In the process, I was able to analyze why I did the seemingly crazy, strange or weird activities, I did in my two-year recovery. I talked to people who watched the process from afar and those who sat with me daily. I re-read a lot of texts and Instagram DMs. I scrolled through endless photos. And, then I pitched an essay to Oprah magazine about what I had learned.
While writing the essay for them, I was struggling for a word to describe how I “knew” answers and “felt” my way to conclusions as I was working through this journey. The essay editor and my close writing friends kept telling me that the word was intuition. But, I pushed back. Maybe it was just a knowing. Probably, it was just me being all over the place. “No,” said a friend over email. “This is intuition.” But, it didn’t feel like intuition was supposed to feel: divine, spiritual, woo-woo. It felt obvious. Computational.
What is the role of intuition in complex decision making?
It was only weeks later as I struggled with the idea of intuition that I stumbled on work by Dr. Lois Isenman (PhD, Berkeley) who explained that intuition is the result of a cognitive process. And, that famous scientists, people you may have heard of like, ahem, Einstein, use intuition as a core aspect their investigative process. They feel out an answer and then they go back and prove it.
The process she and others describe for how we process information and arrive at an intuitive understanding is relatively simple and can be broken down into five key steps:
· We listen for and learn to ask a question.
· We circumambulate and gather data.
· We peer review and apply our learnings.
· We make a prediction, or feel an intuition, that drives us towards to innovate.
· We challenge the new belief structure.
The frame she applied perfectly matched the period of change and growth I had recently undertaken. I was awed.
It turns out that complex questions are answered through a combination of information gathering, peer review and intuition. And, in this way, our intuition acts very similarly to an algorithm: data in, data testing, prediction of a path forward. And, the good thing about algorithms was that I knew from my years in machine learning is that they can be honed and improved upon. And, those improvements would ultimately help lead to innovative ideas and predictions. I had seen this in just the two years of my post-injury process. I had taken a question, utilized a lot of experiences filled with data, and innovated a new way to mourn with the Floral Heart Project but also innovated a new way to be myself.
Can intuitive decision making processes help us understanding complex decision making?
I wanted to know more. Was there really a process to solving complex problems and innovating? And, did other people go about solving for complex questions in the same way? To answer this, I hypothesized that people seemed to solve complex questions in one specific and easy to research microcosm: the sabbatical.
Sabbaticals have been on the rise in the past five years and seen a 3x increase in 2022 versus pre-pandemic. Every single person who I interviewed for this project, who has taken a sabbatical, has found it to be the single most impactful thing they’ve ever done to solve, answer for, or engage with a complex and challenging question. In fact, those questions that I opened this post with are directly culled from my interviews.
What is even more surprising, though, is that everyone who went through a sabbatical process also mimicked the process used for intuitive decision-making. From question, to data gathering, to peer testing, to intuitive conclusion, and then testing of that intuition. My early research was showing a very clear pattern. When we need to answer hard questions, we employ our unconscious mind. Our intuition is the flag when we translate a new “knowing” to our conscious mind and then translate it into analytical and rational ideas for other people. Just like I’m doing right now.
Can we hone our complex decision making practices?
“So, if there is a process our brain goes through to manage complex decision-making, can we refine it?” I wondered after speaking with numerous cognitive scientists. “Yes,” said Dr. Robert Root-Bernstein. “It’s possible to refine it all.”
Over the course of the next… ever so often… I will share my learnings on this topic here, and with those who are interested. Finding words for this process, understanding that there is a process, and learning from others who are working to solve their own complex challenges has brought me a sense of relief. When, I share my learnings with others, they say it has helped them too. But every person I speak with sheds a little more light on a new way to circumambulate, their process for peer review feedback, or what intuition feels like in their body. I keep learning too.
We can help each other. And, it’s not just our personal complex challenges we can solve. We can use this same system, and these same personal techniques within our companies. But, that is a concept for a future post.