Wicked smarts for a complex life

We are all faced with a series of great opportunities–brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.

John W. Gardner

Do you ever get tired of health experts? You know, those know-it-all pundits who appear in major media with simple solutions to difficult health and lifestyle problems? Did you ever get the impression that these commentators live in an artificial wonderland of unlimited time, money and resources?

Maybe you’re right to be suspicious. After all, matters of health and lifestyle can be maddeningly difficult. Modern life is a balancing act filled with tough, even impossible choices; our lives are messy, dynamic and often out of control.

Take your typical out-of-town business trip. These days, it’s a body-hostile, jet-lagged, sedentary, stress-saturated experience, fueled by edible-food-like-substances, tainted water, caffeine and cortisol. On your return, you’re light-deprived, sleep-deprived, movement-deprived, nature-deprived, family-deprived, cranky and grouchy. You need to sleep, exercise, prepare good food, get outdoors, meditate and spend quality time with your friends and family, but there’s not enough time for any of it, much less all of it. At this point, the expert advice is not only worthless, it’s ridiculous.

It’s not so much that the experts are wrong or misinformed, it’s that we’re failing to appreciate the nature and magnitude of today’s challenges. That is, modern lifestyle is not a linear, one-dimensional problem that can be solved with a spreadsheet and a checklist. Instead, it’s an immensely complex, multi-dimensional challenge of shifting, overlapping dilemmas and excruciating choices. In other words, our modern lifestyle and public health challenge is not just a difficult problem, it’s actually a wicked problem.

wicked witch
wicked witch

This phrase first came to my attention in a book called This Will Make You Smarter, edited by John Brockman. According to Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University, wicked problems have these features:

“It’s hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly, or to tell where it starts and stops. There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. The way it’s framed will change what the solution appears to be. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem, and that someone will not be wrong. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. The problem is interconnected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible… It gets worse. Every wicked problem is unique, so in a sense there is no prior art, and solving one won’t help you with the others.”

Does this sound like a spot-on description of your own life? Of course it does. Every day is a balancing act of competing demands, shifting priorities and razor-thin judgment calls. There are hundreds of ways to look at food, exercise, and most especially, stress. Is your evening meal a source of biochemical fuel or is it a cultural celebration of earth and community? Is today’s workout an efficient way to burn calories and lose weight or is it a spiritual gesture of animal exuberance? Is this traffic jam a major threat to my career path or is it simply a trivial annoyance in my quest to live in the moment?

And if personal health is a wicked problem, public health can only be described as hyper-wicked. Obesity, diabetes and industrial agriculture bring us face-to-face with dilemmas of free will, public good, social class, equity and responsibility. For every assertion, there’s a valid counter-argument. For every proposed solution, a downside. For every side, a flip-side.

Even worse, our 21st century presents us with an avalanche of wicked problems: education, environment, human relations, child rearing, technology and criminal justice to name a few. Increasing complexity, ripple effects and dynamic relationships are everywhere; we are embedded in a world of wicked problems, wrapped up in other wicked problems.

Unfortunately, few of us are trained in the art of recognizing or dealing with wickedness. Standardized curriculums are built on the fantasy assumption that problems are linear and solvable with straight-ahead smarts and, if necessary, brute-force calculation. But today, this knee-jerk style of linear analysis is out-dated and ineffective. When a problem is truly wicked, conventional “solutions” make us blind to complexity. Using the wrong tools only makes things worse.

Einstein was well aware of this challenge. As he put it, “You can’t solve a problem at the same level it was created.” In other words, we can’t solve wicked problems with linear, analytical ideas or tools. Instead, wicked problems call for wicked intelligence.

wicked smarts

But what would such an aptitude look and feel like? Well, let’s fit the aptitude to the challenge. The way I see it, wicked problems call for an intelligence that’s holistic, systems-oriented and ecological. It’s not enough to be a master of biochemistry, biomechanics or any individual discipline. Rather, we need to become adept at multi-disciplinary studies and keep a comprehensive view of our bodies and lives in context.

Second, wicked intelligence would not operate in the head as some sort of neuro-calculator. Rather, it would be fully embodied and highly physical. The entire body, we now know, participates in sensing habitat, people, emotion and meaning. The skin, the heart and the gut all contribute to our total intelligence. In this sense, our bodies are our brains.

Wicked intelligence would be organic and mimic the qualities of nature. It would branch and flow, lie still like a mountain and then blossom forth in an explosion of exuberant growth. It would be cyclic and seasonal, waxing and waning with the rhythms of habitat.

Wicked intelligence would not reside in the experience of isolated individuals. Rather, it would be intrinsically social. The diversity inherent in teams and mixed groups is vital to finding wicked solutions. Likewise, wicked intelligence is conversational, both explicitly and implicitly. It is always engaged in dialogue with diverse stakeholders and philosophies.

Naturally, wicked intelligence would be creative, playful and innovative. It reaches beyond conventional, single-plane approaches and prefers lateral movement and multi-plane solutions. It is curious about novel recombinations, especially those that cross traditional categories and disciplines. It relishes humor and is tolerant of risk, ambiguity and insecurity. It is willing to live in the midst of messy uncertainty without impulsively reaching for quick “solutions. In this process, aesthetics are vital.

wicked culture

Of course, our intelligence–wicked or otherwise–is powerfully linked to culture. And when we take a broader look at human history, we see that this thing we’re calling wicked intelligence sounds a whole lot like Paleo cognition. That is, native peoples in Africa, Australia and North America have all used their primal intelligence in a similar way: organic, holistic, relational, habitat-based, social and physical. In fact, this kind of wicked intelligence actually seems to be the norm in human history. It is only in the last several hundred years that Western culture has diverged from holistic intelligence, creating a unique form of cognition that is powerful but also deeply flawed. Today, our conventional intelligence is mechanical, technical, reductionistic, disembodied and completely divorced from habitat. It solves some problems handily, but fails in the face of complex, wicked challenges.

wicked practice

As for the nature and nurture of wicked intelligence, it’s hard to say where it all begins. Undoubtedly, some people are born with a holistic sensibility and inclination towards organic creativity. But for most of us, some sort of practice is necessary to develop our wicked proficiency. This aptitude, like any artistic training, must be developed through experience and training.

We begin with the fundamentals in a single discipline, but this is simply a starting point for our journey into complexity. We learn the basics, but as we build our competence, we prepare ourselves for our encounter with the messy insecurities and ambiguity of wickedness.

This is where the art begins. Instead of defending ourselves against the uncertainty and chaos of wicked problems, we do better when we immerse ourselves in the insecurities that they offer. Instead of relying on the power of calculating machines, spreadsheets and the advice of experts, we dive into the dynamism of our lives. As we accept and embrace the messy insecurity of our experience, our wicked intelligence begins to express itself. The more we live in ambiguity, the better our skills at dancing with it.

So forget the boilerplate formulas and the rote lifestyle prescriptions. Instead, start dancing, juggling and exercising your whole-body judgment. Inhabit your predicament. Take the craziness, not as a problem, but as the raw material for your craft. Feast on the ambiguity and turn it into a work of art. Seek a harmony of elements and relationships between them. How does your food, movement, sleep, work and social relationship hang together? Is there a balance? Can you make it beautiful, even in the midst of wickedness?