In her remarkable essay, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies,” Simone Weil references what she says is the first legend of the Holy Grail: the mythical cup of Christ believed to hold miraculous powers. She writes that the long sought-after cup would go to the first person who asked the guardian of the cup, a king racked with paralysis and unspeakable pain, “What are you going through?”

What an astounding story: who of us would have the presence of mind—and really the audacity—to ask such a question? Wouldn’t we be more likely to take action, to feel we know exactly what to do and rush in to help? 

To Weil, this is an example of the type of attention that truly engages others in their dignity. We resist the temptation to put labels on others, to impose our wills even with the best of intentions. As Weil describes this restraint: “The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth.”

This article is a follow up to my recent post about the nature of, or really the anthropology behind, creative problem solving. After explaining the dynamics involved in allowing the tacit dimension of our consciousness to come up with creative, out of the box solutions, I acknowledge the need to discuss how we all need to “cultivate and nurture this practice in ourselves and among our teams.”

We are all naturally creative problem solvers.

I’ve talked about creative problem solving in countless workshops and saw many attendees walk away disappointed. What they often wanted was a set of easy steps or quick fixes that would quickly make them super creative problem solvers. 

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The web is replete with countless quick fixes to all our problems, as if we were simple machines, needing only a few, painless corrections to enjoy true happiness and success.

True, there are some quick tips I provide for developing our creative problem solving skills: get more sleep, unplug when we can, allow our minds to wander, absorb as much divergent information and experiences as possible, and, my favorite, look up at the stars in wonder every once in a while.  

All of these are great practices but will be for nought if we don’t strive for what I think are the two main virtues of creative problem solving: courage and humility

It may seem odd to talk about virtues with creative problem solving, but as the great English philosopher and writer, Iris Murdoch said “to contemplate and delineate nature with a clear eye…demands moral discipline.”

Not that you should take Murdoch’s words as gospel, but she does point to the fact that there is an inherent, and internal, struggle involved with seeing the world with a “clear eye” and, by extension, being a creative problem solver.

I would argue that we are all naturally creative problem solvers, but too often we allow business, stress, and—let’s admit it—the way we often teach in schools, to prioritize quick, ready-made solutions and routines. We go from wonderful, creative problem solvers, to some kind of mindless bureaucratic character in a Terry Gilliam film.

And here we come to the first, and I would say most obvious, existential hurdle to the path of reawakening and developing our creative problem solving skills: the comfort of predictability. A predictable world is a safe world. It’s a world where we feel we have assurance of the success and safety of what we cherish: our kids will be successful and happy; we’ll succeed and advance at work; everything will work out just fine.

The last thing we need are obstacles, challenges and conundrums that jeopardize our future. We lose control so we need to rush in with our pre-packaged solutions to vanquish the unknown. We may regain some sense of safety but we’re no candidates for the grail.

And eventually, the world we want becomes a dull, rote place and not anything like the real world—a world admittedly filled with challenges, obstacles, and conundrums but also a world filled with wonder, possibilities, growth and excitement. This world, though, is anything but safe, and the willingness to embrace that uncertainty requires courage, the first virtue of creative problem solving. 

We need the inner fortitude, the strength, to live with discomfort. Who of us, if we were before the protector of the grail, would have the courage to be open to the uncertainty of the king’s response and imagine the scorn we probably would endure if there was a crowd with us for asking such a stupid question, for delaying what actually needed to be done. I can’t help but think of Jesus with the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda. Instead of healing the man straight away, Jesus asks the man if he wants to be healed. Can you imagine the collective disgust from the others at the pool at the insensitivity of asking such a question?

The second virtue needed for creative problem solving is humility. While going against the grain requires courage, to receive from another requires that we lay down all our preconceptions, let go of what we think has to be the case, all our right answers, and open ourselves up to the situation, context and others. We have to admit we don’t readily know the answer, and wait. That is, to ask: “What are you going through?”

We have to admit we don’t readily know the answer, and wait.

I believe this is what Simone Weil means when she says that the soul “empties itself” in order to “receive into itself the being it is looking all his truth.” There is a literal letting go or detachment, as Murdoch puts it, where we release not just of our preconceptions and ready made solutions, but the pride and selfishness that make us believe we already have the right answers.

So, this humility shouldn’t be seen as mere self-effacement; instead it is a “selfless respect for reality,” an openness to the unknown, to reality that is always greater than our perceptions.

But, this is no easy task. It is extremely hard and requires the self-awareness, the self-control and collectedness, and the determination to pause and open ourselves to reality. 

That is why Murdoch calls this type of humility “one of the most difficult and central of all virtues,” and was probably why she and even Michael Polanyi, both staunch atheists, showed at least an intellectual respect for mystics. Polanyi describes “ecstatic vision” as “the most radical manifestation of [the] urge to break through all fixed conceptual frameworks.” He goes on to talk about how “losing ourselves in contemplation” is the means by which we dissolve the screens of these frameworks that keep us from unfiltered experience and our way to be immersed in experience. 

Now, I’m not saying we need to become mystics—Iris Murdoch and Michael Polanyi certainly didn’t feel the need! Nevertheless, the mystic provides a model that is worth noting and even emulating. If we see the need to break out of our own conceptual frameworks from an inner need for a greater sense of reality or if the world itself shows the inadequacy of our perspectives, then we need to consider seriously looking within ourselves to find the courage and humility to become the creative problem solvers we were meant to be.