Problem-Solvers: Father Greg Boyle

Father_Greg_Boyle_and_Dennis_Sanchez

 Father Greg Boyle and Dennis Sanchez
licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Father Greg Boyle is a Jesuit priest who found himself in East Lost Angeles 20 years ago trying to find a way to serve its people.  What Father Greg came to do is to establish one of the most effective gang intervention programs in the country:  Homeboy Industries, which offers job training, counseling, tattoo removal, and a myriad of other services.  His organization has served 120,000 gang members, and Los Angeles Police Commission Chairman, Steve Soboroff, is on record stating that Homeboy Industries is a key part of the reason crime rates are down.

I recently read a transcript of an American Public Media interview with Father Greg.  He describes how Homeboy Industries came into being:

 . . . that was born as we began as sort of a job employment referral center, trying to find felony-friendly employers [laughter] and that wasn’t so forthcoming. So by ’92, we had to start our own. We really — so we couldn’t wait.  The demand was so huge and gang members kept saying if only we had jobs.  So we started Homeboy Bakery in 1992 and, a month later, we started Homeboy Tortillas in the Grand Central Market, a historic kind of area in LA.  Once we had two . . . 

“We couldn’t wait.”  “The demand was so huge.”
— Greg Boyle, Problem-Solver.

What problem can’t wait for you to solve?

Problem-Solvers: DJ Patil

800px-Peter_Brantley,_Karen_Gifford,_DJ_Patil_and_Tim_O'Reilly

Peter Brantley, Karen Gifford, DJ Patil and Tim O’Reilly
Photo by Jōichi Itō
licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

DJ Patil was named as one of the world’s seven most powerful data scientists in Tim O’Reilly’s Forbes article of November, 2011.  He, in fact, co-coined the term “data scientist.” Most recently, he was named as a World Economic Forum 2014 Young Global Leader. What I particularly like about Dr. DJ Patil is his enthusiasm and promotion for projects that use big data to make the world a better place. In an article he published on LinkedIn today, he outlined some of the organizations other 2014 Young Global Leaders have started that capitalize on big data, including a company that harnesses the talents of data scientists to assist non-profits and a crisis text line for distressed teenagers that reaches them through their primary mode of communication. He also named government and health projects that will likely have beneficial impacts for millions.  

In a time when much of mainstream media focuses on data breaches, government spying, social media privacy issues, and use of data to target your political vote (all important topics!), it’s great to read and understand how we can use big data to help us, not just control us. There is much debate yet to be had about the acceptable uses of data, but we certainly can’t be fully informed if we only focus on the negative. DJ Patil reminds us that there are talented people who are both passionate about data and making the world a better place.

a question-filled hiatus

Hello, Dedicated Readers!

How lovely to be back here again. A year’s break from writing was never imagined when I wrote that last post just over a year ago. But, I have been on such a journey this past year, a journey that may find its way in and out of these next months’ posts, because there were certainly many big and little, tangled and clear, simple and complex problems. Many questions were asked, pondered, and answered; some solutions were fashioned. And then the question, “Just what is keeping you from getting back to writing about ‘working well in the modern world’?” kept presenting itself evermore insistently. Answers were given, ad hoc testing was attempted, and finally we arrive at the answer of simply sitting down at the keyboard and floating these thoughts out to you.

Problems are questions. Questions are problems. Our ability to see and elucidate the questions and more questions and more and more is our never-ending search for understanding, meaning, love, the alleviation of suffering, the creation of abundance. We are blinded at each moment by many facets, the fact of our human self and our mind’s constructs being primary, and so we turn the problem this way and that, probing here, probing there; it is a lifelong task, indeed the never-ending task of humanity. If we are wise, we live the questions themselves, as the poet says. We find both our sorrow and our joy in the questions, our passion and our determination — in the questions. If we wait for answers before we began to live, we miss much of life altogether. And, then, when we are living the questions, in sorrow, joy, passion, determination, sometimes the answers, the resolution, the way comes to us and sits in our lap, quietly lights on our shoulder, wakes us suddenly in the middle of the night, or shows itself plainly under our microscope or in our notebooks because some blind spot has been finally adjusted. Passionate problem-solving is passionate questing and questioning, passionately living the problems themselves. How do we visualize a problem? We paint masterpieces that strike others in the human race over 100 years later with the agony of the human condition. We tell stories that are passed through the generations. We share drawings and thoughts and passions. Sadness and frustration. Discovery and abundance. This is passionate problem-solving. This is glorious life.

Back tomorrow.

Problem-Solvers: C. Everett Koop, M.D., Surgeon General

Dr. C. Everett Koop, the nation’s 13th Surgeon General, died on Monday at the age of 96. He held the position of Surgeon General from 1982 to 1989, after his appointment by President Ronald Regan. While AIDS had just been discovered in the United States in 1981, its spread, as we know, moved rapidly throughout the country and became an epidemic.

Dr. Koop, serving in a previously low-profile position, used his power as Surgeon General to provide to all Americans the power to stop the spread of AIDS: the power of knowledge. He authored a 7-page brochure, “Understanding AIDS,” explaining in explicit detail what was then known about how HIV was transmitted. The brochure was mailed to all 107 million households in the country in 1988! Dr. Koop’s educational outreach is remarkable not only because of its scale, but because he was able to view the scientific evidence before him and communicate scientific, medical information, without accompanying political propaganda, that saved lives — even, as the Washington Post notes, “when almost nobody in the Reagan administration would even utter the word ‘AIDS’.”

Dr. Koop was personally opposed to premarital sex and homosexual sexual relations, but his devotion to professional excellence would not allow him to stand by as people died because of lack of information. Not only was he able to clearly explain the varied methods of transmission known at the time, but he explained that everyone was at some risk: it was not a “gay men’s disease.” HIV transmission and AIDS are still a problem (you can read the most up-to-date information on the National Institute of Health’s website), but Dr. Koop’s professional, thoughtful, science-based, and bold action moved the nation forward. Thank you, Dr. Koop. Rest in peace.

Wednesday’s Toolbox: visual thinking, sequestration

Apologies to my readers for the week’s absence, and thank you for sticking with me.

I have been continuing to read about visual thinking, visualization, and modeling of problems, and I will report on my explorations in future posts. One of the things I am sorting through is the difference between great infographics (which I am finding an abundance of!) and great visualizations or models of problems. While the concise and effective presentation of information is a talent to be lauded — and I will bring you future examples — the visualization of a problem is a different beast. It struck me, on my ride home on the bus in our Chicago snowstorm yesterday, that there is a very talented group of people who visualize abstract problems most effectively: political cartoonists. For starters, check out Political Cartoons Every American Should See.

I confess I am in awe of political cartoonists and their talent. I cringe at every abstract word I choose in an intense game of Pictionary with my family! A quick search finds that there are many lesson plan resources for teachers wanting to use political cartoons and visualization to teach critical thinking skills. Following that lead backwards, what can we learn from political cartoons about visual thinking?

On another problem-solving topic, do you use sequestration, or something like it, in your own life to solve a problem? A problem of indecisiveness, or a problem of lack of consensus? Have you ever been not able to arrive at a decision, so take a little of this and a little of that and end up with nothing that works? Have you ever had an argument with your spouse, a friend, or a colleague, where you cannot agree on the best option, so you agree to take a “cut” out of both of the pieces/projects in which you are invested? Who wins? Is it fair? Does it move the issue forward? Does it “solve” the problem? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

it’s too big

You are an active participant in your own life. You work hard, pay attention, and contribute to reaching and exceeding goals. You improve your skills, build your character, and try to understand issues from many sides. You are patient. You don’t whine. You get help. You talk it out with friends and speak to the experts. You try so hard, and maybe even make some progress.

But the problem persists. It doesn’t go away, even with you trying to chip away at it every day. It happens to all of us: the problem is simply bigger and more complex than we are. And sometimes we just can’t solve it. We can’t beat it. It gets us.

As a citizen of the United States, a country built on the principles and culture of self-reliance and going it alone, living in what’s frequently touted as the greatest country in the world, filled with opportunity for all, we are told, there can be a marked tendency to believe that success is available just around the corner if we’re doing all the right things. The truth is, sometimes it just isn’t. And our problem does not have to do with how hard we are working, our positive outlook, or how much we want it. The problem is simply too big for us. We don’t have control.

Yesterday, my email from Daily Worth arrived in my mailbox with Caitlin Kelly’s introduction to Pound Foolish: Exploring the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry by Forbes columnist Helaine Olen. The nature of Ms. Olen’s work resonated with me, as I’ve spent hours with a friend listening to her excellent and dogged research of how the economic disasters of the past several years have impacted the lives of humans, often with tsunami-like force and resulting devastation. Some of us are managing, and some of us are devastated, and much of it has to do with uncontrollable, destroying force that indiscriminately chooses its victims. Terminal illness. Financial bankruptcy. A failing marriage. Sometimes we can’t stop it, we can’t solve it.

Olen’s work reminds us that no matter how many gurus tell us they have the answer if you only do this or this or this, the problem, the circumstances, the solution may not be in our control. Self-help experts abound; indeed, we are exploring professional and personal growth here.

Keep perspective, my friends. Broaden and keep perspective.

the nature of problem-solving

This weekend, I was doing something I don’t really like to do: home repair. My facility with tools is about a 4 out of 10. My knowledge of home repair is about a 2 out of 10. My interest in home repair is about a 3 out of 10. You get the idea. Luckily, my LIFELINE is a 10 out of 10!

When I realized I was trying to fit a 5/16 inch drill bit in a 1/4 inch electric drill . . . well, I had no idea where to go from there. The trusted lifeline — my brother (who is incredulous that anyone would pay $80/hour for the “simplest” of home repair tasks (which I have often done, with much gratitude to the service provider)) — came to the rescue. He told me that my 1/4 inch drill bit could, if carefully manipulated, create a hole large enough for a 5/16″ plastic anchor to be pushed into. It sounds so simple, but my knowledge and experience are so limited. Could I have come to that solution on my own? Maybe, in 3 years, if left to my own devices . . . there is much that is already known, however, and having someone who can share that knowledge is a God-send.

I was dealing with a known problem, and the circumstances and facts were not that unusual. While we can always learn from accumulated knowledge and should do so when there, unique circumstances, conditions, personalities, and lives present problems that are novel. Indeed, the “utopia” in which all foreseeable problems are solved and the solution recorded is a unreliable, undesirable (and frightening! . . . more in a future post), and unlikely, scenario. The need for ongoing problem-solving will be with us for eternity (I hope).

What is problem-solving, anyway? Problem-solving seems to fall into two major domains: 1) mathematics and 2) problem-solving where some difficulty or obstacle is encountered where one needs to overcome the obstacle to get from the current state to the desired state. Even though those types of problem-solving are often considered separate, there can often be overlap and knowledge gained from the mathematics discipline to other disciplines.

Consider George Polya’s classic book, How to Solve It. Polya was a teacher of mathematics and wrote How to Solve It to provide teachers a way of assisting their students in learning to solve problems, and students a direct means of discovering the same. It is considered “one of the most successful mathematics books ever written” (Forward by John H. Conway), but many readers through the past decade have found it “of help in attacking any problem that can be ‘reasoned’ out — from building a bridge to winning a game of anagrams.” (From reviews of the original edition.)

I will be bringing more of Polya’s wisdom to you in future posts, but today, I offer you a link to a summary of Polya’s “list,” by Richard Neufeld of California Polytechnic State University.

What do you think?