Avoiding Problem Paralysis


Paralysis by Depression

My first real experience with depression occurred when I was 25. I had recently separated from my ex-wife, and our divorce was pending. For months, I shut myself in a bedroom at my parent’s house where I slept through the day and night crying. Questions raced through my mind — I wondered about why she did what she did, how our relationship devolved, and the way our personalities changed. I didn’t socialize and didn’t want to be bothered by anyone. The only times I left the room was to eat and use the bathroom. This was depression, and it was a lonely place.

My ex-wife had a tumultuous upbringing — her mother walked out on the family when she was eight, and her father died when she was 19, leaving her effectively the head of her household which included two younger brothers. She was at a time of great need, and we decided to get married because we were deeply in love, and I wanted to contribute to her stability. As the years progressed, it became apparent that marriages require more than just deep love and the desire for stability. At the start of the separation, she withdrew everything she could from our checking account. This was shortly after I discovered she racked up over $60,000 in credit card debt opened under my name. I personally contributed to the debt during my time dealing with depression by not working. By the time I stopped the bleeding, what I owed amounted over $70,000. This was an inordinate sum of consumer debt for a young person.

As I recounted the scenario to my friend Will, who is co-writing The Crux with me, he asked how I was not paralyzed by the debt and why I didn’t just declare bankruptcy given that I didn’t personally run up the debt. I spent a moment thinking about this and explained that the shame of bankruptcy would be something I’d carry for a long time and that although many people would not understand it, I’d feel as though my ex-wife got away with everything if I discharged the debt completely.

So, as I sat in my bedroom listening to music something in my mind flipped, I knew I needed to get out of the rut somehow. The first thing I did was gather all of the credit card bills and segmented them out based on interest rate and balance. I did this as a way to “come clean” and to get a clear assessment of where I stood and to see what my path forward would look like. I called every creditor and explained to them my situation, and I negotiated for some reduction on the debt. Afterward, I reached out to businesses that needed design work done. I used every job board and applied to everything — never underestimate the gig and jobs sections on craigslist. Through these listings and referrals, I landed a design contract that involved working on a site for an A-list actor, you may know him as someone who played Jack in Titanic. My portfolio and skillset improved, and I found myself employed at a large and hot fashion retailer within the year. I worked relentlessly, and using the money I earned, I tackled my bills I had segmented earlier.

Upon reflection, how I was able to avoid complete paralysis in trying to clear my debt and get out of the depression was through the process of breaking the entire problem or issue down into small and manageable chunks. In other words, by reducing a seemingly monolithic problem into smaller sub-problems. I saw that the debt was a big part of my depression and that taking inventory of my bills however painful was the most actionable first step I could take in moving forward. Figuring out the most effective and impactful manner to pay the bills became a sub-problem. I’ve used this technique to solve other problems and to tackle other goals before without even being cognizant about it — I did this with complex skateboarding tricks that involved the combining multiple steps when I was younger. This technique actually has a name, it’s called the analytical approach, or analytical thinking.

Analytical Thinking and Formal Analysis

Analytical thinking involves reducing a problem down into smaller easier ones so that they can be solved individually. This is in contrast to an intuitive approach where problems are tackled first by formulating specific conclusions. Take a hypothetical problem or goal of losing weight. One taking an intuitive approach would quickly state that the solution is to eat less and to exercise more. Although this is not technically incorrect, it shuts out alternative solutions and fails to examine the sub-issues at hand, such as, whether the person eats processed foods, if they cook for themselves, or if something prevents them from living an active lifestyle. This is withstanding all of the psychological issues involved in overeating. Coming up with the solution intuitively often means settling on the first satisfactory solution, which may not be optimal.

Interestingly, analytical thinking is much like performing formal analysis, which is done when analyzing artwork. Instead of taking the historical or cultural significance of a piece, one objectively focuses on the lines, shape and form, color, space, and texture to better understand the artwork. One distance themselves away from what's at hand to see the whole as components. If you perform formal analysis on a climbing route, you can understand exactly why something is difficult. It takes focus and discipline to analyze the different components of anything, but doing it is rewarding, and can yield better results in understanding the whole of the subject, or in the case of a challenge, better solutions to solve it.

For an illustration on how to do formal analysis in art, check out the following video.

Analytical Thinking In Climbing

Climbers sending easier routes can do it without seeing it as sub-problems, or sub-projects. They can even on-sight a route (complete the route without receiving beta from other climbers) by assessing the moves as they come. However, once the projects become more nuanced, you can start seeing segments as sub-problems that require different solutions. Instead of just going up, you’re making traversals, doing bat hangs, flagging, and smearing.

Consider the project Hot Tuna at Stoney Point Park in Los Angeles. I've been working on it for over a year, and it embodies what I consider to be a big enough problem that deserves reduction into subproblems. In the following video, I’ve divided the route into subsections -- each part has its own challenges and solutions.

The subsections of this route deserve individual study. Once you've done this enough times, you'd start seeing patterns and lines emerge, and you can even visualize the types of moves you need to do and how it feels on your body. Your connection to the rock also transcends a visual one, and you can see its beauty differently -- one that is beyond how it looks.

A result of analytical thinking isn’t just a solution to a problem. It’s also a method to increase the chance of success, as you’re less likely to be overwhelmed or paralyzed by it. The next time you encounter something that is a good candidate for analytical thinking, give it a try.