Solving Problems Rationally a.k.a. Optimizing Dick Van Dyke with Fluid Dynamics

From 2006 to 2009 I worked for a company called Tektronix on the 9th floor of a curvilinear glass-and-concrete tower in Richardson, Texas. My division built network monitoring solutions for Fortune 100 companies like AT&T “that enable[d] network operators to more strategically and profitably operate their businesses”—which sounds like fairly memorable work, but more than anything, I remember the door.

I’d park my car in the underground parking garage and climb the two flights of concrete steps towards the ground floor lobby. And waiting for me daily at the top of the stairs was one of the most poignant lessons in design that I’ve ever received. It was a plain door, hinged outward, with a metal push plate. And six inches above the plate, the paint was worn off the door from years of pushing.

Hold for consideration.

The fundamental problem here is so obvious that I’m sure I don’t need to spell it out, but it’s in the follow-up questions that things get interesting: obviously the plate is in the wrong place, but why is it still there? Is it that no one cares that the paint is wearing off the door? In which case, why put a plate on the door at all? Is it an institutional problem, in which no one considers it their job to move the plate? Is it a question of pride, wherein the attacher refuses to accept their mistake? Or is it a problem of perception, and no one else has noticed the mistake?

If asked to mount a push plate on a door—and granted I have the lessons of hindsight—I’d put chalk on people’s hands and ask them to push open a plateless door. Then I’d see where the handprints accumulated and center the plate there. It seems to me that it’s in our moments of hubris that we decide our knowledge trumps reality. And then, inexplicably, we maintain this view even after we’re demonstrably wrong.

American Evangelical Christians are well known for their hard-line stance against pre-marital sex and their advocation of abstinence-only education. According to an NPR poll, “eighty-one percent of Evangelical or born-again Christians believe it is morally wrong for unmarried adults to engage in sexual intercourse”. But in 2009, a study conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy yielded some weighty results: not only were Evangelicals having sex, but a full 80 percent of unmarried Evangelical young adults (18 to 29) said that they have had sex. Subsequent research revealed that “increased religiosity in residents of states in the U.S. strongly predicted a higher teen birth rate” (Strayhorn), and that adolescents who regularly attend religious services are “less likely to have used an effective, medical method of contraception” (Studer). Put differently, when Evangelical teenagers end up having sex (as most teenagers do), they don’t seem to know how to effectively use birth control—possibly because education about sex was not made available to them. And when Evangelical teens end up getting pregnant, 30% of these pregnancies end in abortion.

By any conceivable evaluation criteria, this abstinence-only approach to sex “education” has been an utter failure. The reality is that teenagers are likely to have sex—Evangelical or no—and, as adults, our greatest tool in preventing unwanted pregnancies and transmission of disease is to educate teenagers on know how to be safe when they get there. To bet against nature, especially in the face of contradictory data, is shamefully arrogant. Even the mighty Titanic had lifeboats.

In the intro to the 1960s television sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show, the titular Dick comes home from work, opens the door, and promptly stumbles headlong over an ottoman. The implication, of course, is that he’s clumsy, and we’re reminded of this every single episode. But as a kid watching the show on Nick at Night, I always wondered why they didn’t just move the ottoman.

In the Chinese traditional art of feng shui, which deals with the arrangement of human environments (e.g. furniture), a central component is the flow of qi (气), a postulated moveable life force that flows through all places. The mystical aspects of feng shui do absolutely nothing for me, but the idea of analyzing one’s environment as if a viscous fluid ran through it, streaming and pooling against the walls and furniture, is an interesting one. Mostly because I suspect that if you traced the patterns that humans travel through spaces in a time-lapse fashion, you’d find these same kinds of “qi” flows. They could be examined, optimized, and the eddies (places where sharp turns and traffic jams impede the smooth arcs of natural movement) could be removed to create a more comfortable and functional environment.

So what is the real answer to the Dick Van Dyke question: is he just clumsy? Or is the ottoman obstructing “qi”? I’m not asking as a philosopher who wants to know whether the qualia of clumsiness is instantiated in Dick, or improper location in the ottoman, or perhaps some negativity in their interaction—I’m rather acting as the practitioner who asks “how can I achieve the best outcome?”

If a problem happens consistently, predictably, how long can we go on pretending it’s the individuals who are broken rather than the system? If programmers aren’t filling out their TPS reports, let’s think about what can be done: Can the process be automated? Can the form be made shorter? Is the programmer the right person to be filling this out? Do the programmers have the information on hand that they need to fill out the form? (Why not?) Is this report serving a useful purpose? Could the same information be gathered in a different way? Could the programmers be rewarded for completing the report in a way that would make them want to complete it? Can we structure our problems to solve themselves?

I’m a big fan of the principles behind David Allan’s Getting Things Done, but I’ve fallen off the GTD wagon so many times I’m starting to develop a talent for getting back on it (viz. it requires rest, a declaration of bankruptcy, a mental sweep, and a reminder of the value the system brought to you in the first place). But the first (largely unproductive) step is nearly always self-flagellation. I’m so stupid! Why can’t I stick with this to-do list? It’s not hard! I just need to stop procrastinating so much! Argh.

We know enough about willpower now to understand that it’s a depleting resource (see ego depletion). The more we’ve had to deny ourselves in a given day, the harder it gets to continue doing so. So we come home from a hard day of holding our tongue or keeping our butt in our chair at work, and we’re dramatically more likely to yield to the temptation to eat a pack of cookies instead of a salad, or to snap at our loved ones instead of taking things in stride.

Knowing this can change our perspective on a situation. Understanding the ways we’re likely to fail, we build in failsafes. We don’t keep cookies in the house to avoid the temptation. We shift some of the burden of responding to failure from our own shoulders to the system.

The ancient Greeks had a wonderful word that elucidates this conversation: “akrasia” (ἀκρασία). Akrasia is the state of acting against our better judgement. For 2,400 years, philosophers have been asking the question, ‘if a man determines what is the best course of action, why should he ever do anything else?’ For instance, if I decide that I want to exercise three times a week, why do I sit on my couch and watch Dick Van Dyke reruns instead? If I really believe myself to be a rational actor—in keeping with a core (and incorrect) axiom of the Western intellectual traditional—I should never do such things. But we all know that we do do such things.

Akrasia is a powerful concept because it involves a shift in perspective from seeing oneself as an ideal, rational being under the complete control of the neocortex, to viewing oneself as a shrewd rider atop a mighty elephant of passion and instinct (to borrow a metaphor), or, perhaps, a triune brain. It encourages us to embrace a larger sense of self that includes not only the sensible parts of ourselves (which are easy to claim), but also the more tempestuous parts, which will also be with us tomorrow. After all, the fundamental fallacy of procrastination is the tacit belief that only the rational me will be in attendance tomorrow, and that the demons of distraction and passion will have gone away—so rarely is this the truth.

(By way of a practical tip, manage yourself as you’d manage another: not believing all promises made, pruning vectors of failure, building in buffer times, and imposing check-in dates for important milestones. We’re not as intentional as we think we are.)

Knowing about ego depletion or akrasia doesn’t mean we treat ourselves as blameless and helpless, adrift on a neurochemical cocktail—actually quite the opposite. Instead it gives us perspective on what we need to do (responsibly, capably) to deal with ourselves as we really are, moving away from the fragile world of “should”. People “should” push on a doorplate, Evangelicals teens “should” not be having sex, Dick Van Dyke “should” be able to circumnavigate an ottoman, and an adult “should” be able to stick to a diet or a to-do list—but the truth is we all have a choice to make: do we want to dabble in the fictionalized world of what ‘ought’ to be, or do we want to come down to the reality of what is?

I was standing in my kitchen this morning thinking about goals / planning / tracking and I decided to make a new rule for myself—that “I’ll try harder” will never count as a sufficient strategy for getting myself unstuck. Trying harder is often important and might be a component of what you need, but the reality is that if you failed the first time you’re probably going to fail again. You’ve already demonstrated your fallibility, and odds are you’re not fundamentally a different person from last time you tried the same thing. There needs to be something else. Some kind of a plan or process or change in direction.

I’m undoubtedly more prideful than most about dedication, self-control, and willpower. But you know what? I’d much rather achieve my goals via an honest, reality-facing system of failsafes and heuristics than to be proven ‘right’ in my ability to bully my neocortex into never straying from ’the plan’.

So, in planning, don’t deny human nature, and most of all don’t try to fight it. Respect the indicators. Don’t get caught up in the hubris of thinking you are your most rational thoughts—for the road to failure is paved with good intentions.