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Don't Just Sit There. Quit Something.

Bob Goldman on

You don't get to be the editor of the "Smarter Living" section of The New York Times without a great resume and a lot of talent. (You also don't get to be editor with a sketchy resume and a smidgen of talent. I tried and look where I wound up.)

It's a surprise to read that the current editor, Tim Herrera, boasts that one of his "proudest professional accomplishments" was not trying to solve a persistent problem and then nailing it: It was trying to solve a persistent problem and then giving up.

Yet, that's exactly the confession he makes in a recent article, "Why Giving Up Is Sometimes the Best Way to Solve a Problem."

For people like thee and me, this is not exactly a news flash. For us, giving up is not only the best way to solve a problem, but it's the only way. In fact, when a problem first rears its ugly head, we run in the other direction. Fast.

Our refusal to try is not limited to problems, either. We also run away from opportunities, possibilities and, scariest of all, anything that looks like a solution to a problem.

In Herrera's case, his decision to bolt did not come quickly or easily. Describing a recent experience in problem-solving with his staff, he writes, "We must have run through a half-dozen solutions, each more convoluted than the last, essentially trying to figure out how to fit a square peg into a round hole."

 

(I must interrupt this column to right a wrong. As professional square pegs, you and I are all too aware of the anti-peg prejudice we face. What's so wrong with square pegs? What's so great about round holes? Why aren't round holes castigated for not being square holes into which, I must point out, we square pegs could fit perfectly? Think about it. I now return you to your column, already in progress.)

Whatever problem the Times people were trying to solve -- and since they are Times people, I assume the problem had something to do with over-chilling the chardonnay in the snack room wine vault -- Herrera realized that the best solution was to stop trying to find one and just move on.

Accomplishing this breakthrough required "metacognition." This is the scientific term for "thinking about thinking." Or, maybe, thinking about thinking about thinking, which is not the same thing when you think about it.

According to social scientists, metacognition requires self-awareness, which, it turns out, is a very rare quality. Harvard researchers found that "only 10 percent to 15 percent of the people we studied actually fit the criteria." (And, I suspect, 100% of these self-aware people are not hanging out at Harvard.)

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