Is there a problem here?

Solving a problem that you know has a solution may require knowledge, but it is knowledge that already exists. Unfortunately – or, if you prefer, fortunately – many of the problems that are worth solving, that need to be solved, don’t come with that level of certainty.

In his book, How Life Imitates Chess (which, by the way, I highly recommend), Garry Kasparov has this to say about uncertainty:

Knowing a solution is at hand is a huge advantage; it’s like not having a “none of the above” option. Anyone with reasonable competence and adequate resources can solve a puzzle when it is presented as something to be solved. We can skip the subtle evaluations and move directly to plugging in possible solutions until we hit upon a promising one. Uncertainty is far more challenging. Instead of immediately looking for solutions to the crisis, we have to maintain a constant state of asking, “Is there a crisis* forming?”

 

The Art of Learning

Last summer I picked up Chessmaster The Art of Learning for the PSP to take with me on my frequent business trips.  One of the things that adds extra value to this game is the involvement of Josh Waitzkin.  (You may remember Josh as the subject of book, and film, Searching For Bobby Fischer.)

On my trip out to Arizona last week I read Josh’s book The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance.  It is a quick read, so I had finished by the end of the day, but soaking it all in will take a little longer.  Over the past few days I’ve been re-reading sections, marking up the margins, jotting down notes to myself in my notebook about the many insights that Waitzkin provides. I have the feeling that this book will end up with a permanent slot on the bookshelf above my desk; this is where I keep those books I turn back to over and over.

In some ways, The Art of Learning is like George Leonard’s Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment and The Way of Aikido: Life Lessons from an American Sensei (both of which are on that aforementioned shelf). But where Leonard tells the story of a middle-aged man who sets out on a path of mastery later in life, Waitkin’s story is one of reflection on a life of a child and young adult who essentially started life on the path, lost his way, and then found his way back.

For myself I found his insights valuable, if not obvious in the sense that all good ideas are obvious when someone else gives them voice.  As the parent of two very talented and hard working teenagers, Waitzkin’s insights are invaluable.

A(nother) description of knowledge work

I am just about finished reading Garry Kasparov‘s 2007 book, How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves – from the Board to the Boardroom, and have been holding off on posting anything about the book until I do get to the end. But the following passage, starting on page 183, caught my eye as an interesting way to look at and possibly define knowledge work:

Knowing a solution is at hand is a huge advantage; it’s like not having a “none of the above” option. Anyone with reasonable competence and adequate resources can solve a puzzle when it is presented as something to be solved. We can skip the subtle evaluations and move directly to plugging in possible solutions until we hit upon a promising one. Uncertainty is far more challenging. Instead of immediately looking for solutions to the crisis, we have to maintain a constant state of asking, “Is there a crisis* forming?”

Solving a puzzle that you know has a solution may require knowledge, but it is knowledge that already exists. Figuring out if there is a solution to a problem, or even if there is a problem at all, requires the manipulation of existing knowledge, the gathering of new knowledge / information, and the creation of something new.

See my earlier post, A conversation on the nature of knowledge work, and the links in that post for more discussion on those ideas.

* In this context, Kasparov explains, “crisis” is not a disaster, as the word is commonly used, but rather a “turning point, a critical moment when the stakes are high and the outcome uncertain.”

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