Monday, June 10, 2013

Thinking Obliquely

I have been fortunate to have some formative professional experiences with creative thinkers who understand how to work with their subconscious minds in order to solve complex problems. I think it's possible to ape their behavior in order to achieve similar results, and so I think their stories are worth sharing. I refer to their analytical style as "thinking obliquely," for lack of a better term. 

My first encounter with this style of thinking was in the person of Jim Eiss, my boss of the last (gulp) 12 years. I've never met anyone who mulls things over more than he does, and it's the thing I love about him. It's why he is one of the most brilliant immigration attorneys. He is well aware of the fact that his subconscious brain contains a spark of genius and he knows how to work WITH it, even though he doesn't know how exactly it works. It's like a mysterious machine that he knows how to operate. So Jim gets a call from a client with a difficult case and he has the vague shape of a solution in his brain. He has a way of satisfying the client that he will figure out their case even though he hasn't nailed down the solution yet (another art form that will no doubt result in a future blog entry). Then his next step is to read absolutely everything he can find about the subject. Often he then comes to me to discuss it. We bounce the idea back and forth and flesh it out a little more. Then he sleeps on it. It's like he's sowed a seed and just has to wait for it to sprout. And then he doesn't talk about it until he's ready. He's like a grandma with something in the oven who magically knows when it's ready to come out. And then a day later, maybe 3 days later, maybe a week, he will just pop out some ingenious solution to the complex problem. 

My second encounter with the notion of oblique thinking was with this writing professor in law school, Janet Lindgren. She accepted me for an independent research project for a semester. I had decided to write proposed regulations on AC21 (an immigration law from 2001 that still hasn't been regulated to this day), and I was slogging my way through it for several weeks. About halfway through the semester she told me she thought that she was getting to the bottom of what my writing problem was and that she needed to approach it in another way, so she had me quit working on the regulations and asked me to bring in a brief I was working on at work. So I did. She helped me to rewrite that brief for a very difficult permanent resident application into one of the best things I'd ever written, and I think it was because of that that the client became a permanent resident. 

I thought that switching tracks at that point was rather odd, but she seemed to have a plan so I didn't question her methods. I intrigued by them, though, and after the fact tried to get her to explain why she'd diverted me into another project. (We did eventually get back to hammering out the regulations). Her only explanation was something about it being like needing to use her peripheral vision to hone in on what was right in front of her. She needed to see a completely different writing sample from me- something that would point in a different way at what was the flaw in my approach. In the end, she nailed it perfectly: she said I needed to take my hands off the reader's neck. It sounds so obvious and simple but it's revolutionized the way that I think and write. I never trusted the reader before that to understand the point I was making and so I would over-explain it to the point of insulting the reader.

Both Jim and Professor Lindgren have a similar approach to solving complex problems. They study the problem in depth, until they understand it inside and out, and then they back away from it and allow their subconscious minds to process it. They trust some part of themselves to work out the problem away from their conscious gaze. It's something I try to emulate. I think that just being aware that the brain is capable of functioning in this way can revolutionize one's approach to problem solving. 

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