Are you better at solving your own problems or someone else’s problems?

Daniel Pink, the noted management consultant and author, reports on the research of psychologists who have  demonstrated that we are better at solving other people’s problems than our own.  In a variety of controlled experiments, university students were given a puzzle to solve (e.g. how to help someone escape from a tall tower who had only a short twine rope).  When the subjects imagined themselves as the one trapped, they were less likely to find a solution than when they imagined a friend was the “prisoner.”

Scientists have found that people are faster, more inventive, and more creative when they tackle a problem on behalf of someone else than for themselves.  The reason seems to be that, according to Daniel Pink, “when we think of situations or individuals that are distant – in space, time, or social connection – we think of them in the abstract. But when those things are close – near us physically, about to happen, or standing beside us – we think about them concretely…Social scientists have found that abstract thinking leads to greater creativity.”

Perhaps this helps explain an oddity in this week’s Torah reading when Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, offers the rather obvious suggestion to Moses that he appoint judges to assist him with the backlog of legal cases.  How is it that Moses couldn’t figure this out on his own?  Daniel Pink would answer that it wasn’t that Moses was too spiritual a man and therefore lacked management expertise (14th century classical commentator known as Ralbag).  Rather,  Yitro was more removed from the challenge, could think about it more in the abstract, and abstract thinking generates more creativity.  Moses lacked that distance.

The beauty of working in a school like TanenbaumCHAT where colleagues look out for each other and students do the same is that we can harness the power of peers.  When one person is stymied, he or she can give the problem to a peer. In exchange, when the peer is stuck, he or she can toss the dilemma to his or her friend.  This seems to be good advice not just for one’s personal life, but in one’s professional life too.  More breakthroughs and more innovation occurs when we understand that the  problems of others are usually more courageously and creatively solved than our own, which is one more reason to reach beyond ourselves in all we do.

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