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Fifteen years ago, I sat at my drawing table in the studio preparing to draw the last element I had planned as part of an image for a lithograph. The drawing had gone well. Even I was pleased, which isn't always the case when looking at a finished product through tired eyes.
As often happened, a few flecks of wax from the crayon had found their way onto the pristine surface of the limestone, and were homesteading right where I intended to draw some surf lapping over a beach. Because the errant flecks of wax had attached to the fine grain of the stone's surface, they could not simply be blown or brushed away. They would have to be removed, but Oh so carefully! because any change in the stone's surface would show up in the printing of the image.
With a warning premonition pounding in my mind, I picked up an abrasive stick and attempted to remove the specks. The black disappeared, but the stone's surface was visibly marred.
Nancy, who is frequently called upon to provide a stabilizing influence in the midst of artistic crisis, stepped into the studio and sat down at the drawing table. My puppy-dog-countenance-and-I stood silently by, braced to hear the worst. With hardly a pause, she said that the area in which I had planned to draw surf would work at least as well if left blank, as though it were simply sand. In other words, the damaged region might be scraped clean with a knife and left blank.
I looked at the gestalt. Sure enough, the image was far stronger with the sandy beach exposed at low tide. I didn't have a problem after all! I only thought I had a problem. In fact, it wasn't a matter of making the best of a bad situation: What appeared to be a problem had actually kept me from ruining the drawing by adding the surf.
Problem solving is at the heart of analysis, design, and implementation. It is antecedent to everything we do and how we do it; to every problem we face and every solution that escapes us. Good tools, requisite skill, sufficient experience, and ample time spent learning from it are each important; nevertheless, the tool is not genius, skill is not artistry, nor is experience inherently apt to innovate. Our attitude about problems, the company we keep, our habits of inquiry, and other facets of the way we live and work constrain our capabilities and delimit possibilities before we even start searching for solutions.
I once participated in an informal self-evaluation in which I was asked to imagine myself in any setting of my choice. A picture came readily to mind of strolling under a canopy of trees in the relative tranquility of a vacant college campus. In this context, I was then presented with various circumstances and invited to describe my response.
The circumstances were thinly veiled representations of sundry kinds of experience. And when it came time for a problem to show up in my chosen setting, I was asked to report what I would do if a bear appeared.
I protested. There neither were nor could be bears anywhere even close to where I was. My objection was dismissed: A bear was most assuredly present! What would I do? As the interviewer demanded to know the nature of my reaction, I explained that I simply walked up to the bear and shook hands with it.
Nearly 40 years have come and gone since I shook hands with that imaginary bear. I still do my best to live and work in settings as far removed as possible from bears (figurative as well as real). I do not savor the appearance of bears in my life or work or anything, nor do I claim to be courageous in facing them. Even so, when circumstances like unemployment, leukemia, and other things have overruled my objections and demanded that I face the fact that a bear is present, at least two things have been important: Imagination, which has a way of changing the way we see things, and the help of Heaven – the indispensable thing that actually makes it possible for otherwise weak and frightened people, like me, to shake hands with the bear.
Like the specks of wax on my drawing, that opened the possibility for a better result than I had originally envisioned, problems often invite us to break the mold of our thinking and step beyond the habits of experience. And because we fuel our efforts from emotional wells of commitment, the appearance of an obstacle tends to meet with an emotional response because it interrupts the flow of energy that sustains our striving (that is, it's hard to stop a freight train on a dime). However, the sooner we can check momentum and keep emotions from clouding our response, the more likely we are to see new possibilities in problems and redirect effort accordingly – toward what usually turns out to be some kind of "higher ground."