Problem solving, with the mind and with the gut

Inigo Montoya

In the incomparable movie The Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya, after praying to the spirit of his murdered father for guidance, follows his sword to the entrance to the dungeon—hidden in a large tree trunk—where his last hope The Man in Black is held prisoner. Inigo had trained for twenty years to revenge his father’s murder by the wicked Count Rugen, but with the villain finally slipping away, he desperately depends on faith—in his father’s immortal spirit and a mysterious swashbuckler—to achieve success.

Inigo’s technical preparation (mastery of fencing, dogged pursuit of Count Rugen for 20 years) was not enough to reach his goal. But neither would wishful thinking (prayer, longshots) have brought about a happy conclusion. The combination, on the hand, delivered miraculous results.

Most of the projects I’ve been involved in have been similar adventures. We realized successful solutions by combining thorough research and experimentation with well-chosen leaps of faith. I think most successful creative endeavors, whether undertaken by individuals or teams, follow this pattern to some degree. You can’t program art, but splattering paint randomly doesn’t make you Jackson Pollock either.

How does one master this? The good news for most of us: getting older helps. More words written. More hours of practice. More chances to refine your ideas, but also more time to collect new ideas. This improves the pattern recognition, and expands the frame of your worldview, which also becomes sharper in resolution.

How does this translate to a way of working? I think complex creative challenges require a push-pull approach. Pushing is the work of research, defining the goals and solution criteria, and diligently exploring potential solutions. It requires discipline and training. Pulling is the cultivation of a vision of the desired outcome—learning how to see what’s not there, recognizing it when it appears before you, and reaching for it. In this way, you can guard against analysis paralysis, and develop solutions that meet objective requirements while also inspiring surprise and delight.

I remember attending a client meeting with one of my mentors, who was addressing the group. He was being asked some rather challenging questions, and one in particular was a zinger. Though he could not have anticipated that question exactly, he was not rattled. He was like Neo in the Matrix, seeing the cascading code behind reality and engaging it with utter calm. This performance arose from decades of hard work, and conscientious cultivation of inner vision. Like the calligraphy master, he made it look easy, and that wasn’t easy.

Above all, one should approach the work with a genuine spirit of curiosity and wonder. This will reward the sometimes tedious “push” work of iterating alternatives, and it will give the “pull” work a sense of purpose. In this way, you don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees—and, like Inigo, you will discover which trees are more special than others.

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