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Solutions Work When They Are Yours

30 January 2012

The Head of one of the Singapore Universities asked me recently “As a Mentor, what do people mostly come to you for?” My unhesitating answer was “Solutions”. “And do they get them?” he continued. “Yes but from themselves, not from me,” was my reply. The question is an important one, especially in relation to Singapore and to universities here. We have needed to be a very solutions-based society for the past fifty years. Without solutions quickly decided, quickly implemented, Singapore would have been left behind.

Needs change and the city-state that grew by discipline and order through an era of almost non-stop prosperity now has to find its place in a world bereft of moral, financial and social leadership and handling out of date capitalist, political and behavioural systems. The credos so confidently taught – including the religious ones – are up for doubt and discussion. If we believe in democracy we must behave accordingly and contribute to those discussions. Not to do so is to deny our rights and responsibilities. The other person’s solution is seldom the best for us.

What informs discussion about the future direction of a person, a company, a social group or a country? Making an effort to forecast is top of the list. We are not clairvoyants; we cannot predict what is to happen. However, all the evidence points to the fact that those who forecast, even when they get a lot of their forecasts wrong, do better than those who don’t. That is especially true in matters of money and social order.

The reason for forecasting is so that we can draw up a plan. Muddling through life may make good comedy movies; it makes for painful and deprived reality. Nobody expects their forecasts to be right all the time; nobody thinks their plans will materialise exactly the way they were written. Without either forecast or plan they can count on chaos – see how the Arab Awakening has drifted for want of a clear plan, to the point where it is beginning to look failed.

So what is our society most in need of now? Good thinking. But what is good thinking and how do you get it?

Good thinking may involve criticism of the existing or old order but without something to put in its place it is neither good nor constructive. Good thinking is not about the failures of the fathers but about the needs of the children. It is about sustaining a technologically brilliant world with standards that make it bearable to live in and sensitivities that delight the spirit. The billionaire who cannot enjoy a sunset or who does not appreciate a piece of beautiful music has lost more from life than his money.

How do we get good thinking? By challenge and creativity. We need to challenge all assumptions, all the time. That requires questions and these come best from other people - just as their questions come best from us. You can look at yourself in the mirror and ask questions and that does work but real stimulus comes from competition with anther brain. My father taught me a good rule: Play chess only with people you cannot beat; that way you learn.

The art of asking questions can be learnt. It is not as easy as people think – but it is not as difficult, either. Once leant and practiced it is a lifetime gift and one that is a better selling tool than any other. “Good question” is one of the biggest compliments you can be paid.

So where does creativity come in? If all our experience learning was purely lineal – a direct copy of what we have already experienced – we would be poorly equipped to deal with life. Much as experience is a valuable asset if accompanied by intelligence, it is how we apply it to similar but not identical situations that matters. “The ability to perceive relationships” is the best definition of creativity that I know.

Combine it with coherent questions and you have a tool for good thinking like none other.

John Bittleston writes and records The Daily Paradox each day Monday to Friday. You can receive free daily alerts to the URL or weekly updates of all the articles / voicemails published to date. Ask him at

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