Posted by: Mike Ferruggia | August 1, 2009

Heuristics and Taoist Problem Solving

I came across a term the other day that I had heard in the few weeks I was in graduate school. I had no clue what my professor was talking about then, as he was relating it to literature, specifically Dante’s Divine Comedy. As it is commonly used today, it applies more to computer algorhythms designed to solve problems when you don’t have all the information you need to make a completely logical decision, when it can’t be proven that it works, but it works most of the time, and when time is of the essence. Heuristic models have also been discussed in psychology to explain how humans make decisions.

The pitfalls of heuristic problem solving are that it can be biased, anecdotal, and sometimes really not work at all.

The other concept of an heuristic is that it is a model of something that we don’t know, kind of like how the universe works, or what is the nature of our world and how does it work. We can’t know the answer because we don’t have all the facts, but, for example, someone like Dante can create a working model to give us an idea. Humans use metaphors and similes to describe something that is indescribable.

I’m going to add some links here so I don’t have to quote them directly and you can read up on the meanings of heuristics yourself, and then I’ll continue.
What is heuristic
webster definition
edge smart heuristics

In taoism and tai chi, in the contemplative life, in zen, in meditation, we develop an intuitive ability to adapt to situations, make our way, and solve problems using common sense, rules of thumb, and our senses. The taoist heuristic is the tao itself, evolving into the tai chi symbol, which gives rise to the bagua or pakua, or eight things that arise from the interaction of yin and yang. From that, we get the 64 things of the i ching, and from that the ten thousand things, and from this model of the universe, we are able to make decisions and solve problems. The added nugget of synchronicity adds some spice to the readings of the i ching for advice in a given circumstance. In the end, tai chi and taoism leaves it up to you to connect the dots with some basic truisms leading the way–soft overcomes hard, yielding, etc.

The model works and is very effective, and is a model of something we do not know or understand or have all the facts to. The developed sense of awareness, of general rules of thumb, of the wisdom of adaptability, of trusting your intuition to make decisions quickly and effectively are all part of the tai chi training.

In fact, in tai chi, a simple but effective rule of thumb is to use or trace the tai chi symbol in combat(this is easier said than understood, but it is the real secret among several others that makes tai chi such an effective combat technique).

The other rule of thumb in tai chi and taoism, and zen, is to allow problems to resolve themselves. It is amazing how this works. It is the true art of wu wei, the art of non-doing. There is a mastery to this, and the practitioner exercises more control over the situation than one might think. People often mistake the art of non doing or wu wei with the idea that the person isn’t doing anything. But it is often the case that the better way to resolve a situation is in fact to not do anything and allow it to resolve itself rather than trying to force a solution to a problem that often times makes things worse or creates a lot of nonsense busy work. Makes sense?(Another one of those corporate speak phrases!)

Another important point to be made here is that often times, in problem solving and coming to solutions, an intuitive thinker will often make the “wrong” decision, but a lot of times, making the wrong decision is an essential part of the process, and actually helps get you to the right decision quicker than if you had not made the wrong decision in the first place. Any scientist who uses trial and error to find a solution is a good example of this. So, don’t let people get you down for making a boobbo now and then. It’s probably the right thing to do. (Exceptions obviously apply here, for example, in a martial context, a wrong decision or inexperienced decision can get you knocked out, fight over).

I am fascinated by these concepts of heuristics, models, problem solving, how people think. One of my strengths as a manager is my ability to make decisions quickly, without all the facts, when time is of the essence. What bogs others down is a dependence on fact gathering and being immobilized, unable to think on the fly, unable to just let it happen. I like what Gerd Gigerenzer says in Edge: Smart Heuristics, about making decisions in uncertainty, about knowing when to ignore information in order to optimize the solution making process. The art of managing by non-managing, for example, really is an art, and takes great skill. It can be fraught with pitfalls, but I enjoy working at it. It can be frustrating working for someone or some entity that requires you to back up your decision making process with facts and logic when you just know what the right solution is. Trying to teach this to others, I guess is the subject of several books and websites, and maybe something I can offer as I develop it more in my own head.

Comments are especially welcome here.



  1. I’ll see your rules of thumb and raise you a Cookie Monster. Yes, Cookie Monster. I used to watch Sesame Street a lot as a kid, and Ernie and Kermit were probably my two favorite Muppets back then, but lately I’ve started to realize that Cookie is a Zen master with a Taoist’s appetite. I’m serious.

    First, just look at him– he’s a big furry blue mass, all but shapeless except for two arms sticking out, a gaping mouth, and two googly eyes. His hands and fingers are barely visible due to all the fur on them. This carpet of fur appears to be of uniform color, density, and length all over his body. The fur around his eyes, over his hands, and on his back are all exactly identical.

    Second, listen to him. His strong voice is rough and poorly articulated. He has trouble with articles. His sentences are blunt, simple, and to the point.

    This lack of distinction on the outside parallels a profound simplicity on the inside. Cookie Monster is not a creature of details, he wants only one thing. Beautifully, he knows exactly what that one thing is. His will is focused to an absolute degree, and he becomes unstoppable whenever near his goal. As he has sometimes said, “Me do anything for cookie.”

    So, I liked Ernie and Kermit as a kid, but as an adult I have realized that it is Cookie Monster who was the real role model. He is a lesson in how to manage one’s appetites. And how does he do it? He draws his identity from his appetites, that’s how. He shows no interest in wealth, fame, popularity, or anything but cookies. He is perfectly happy to share and cooperate with others because why not? All he wants are the cookies. No two people’s needs are identical, and so when one is as perfectly single-minded as Cookie Monster, sharing is easy. The Count counts the cookies, Cookie Monster eats the cookies, and everybody wins.

    So, Cookie Monster is a Zen master. He knows who he is and what his needs are and he possesses perfect focus.

    Now, does Cookie Monster employ rules of thumb? No. Not at all. Though intelligent, he barely ever even bothers to think. Look up Kermit, Cookie Monster, and the mystery box on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. He could think if he wanted too, but thinking would be a distraction from his irresistable drive for cookies. And that is the lesson of Zen– thinking distracts. Don’t do it. Don’t think, be. To pull this off in one’s day-to-day life requires a profound level of mastery, but it can be done. Cookie Monster, of all people, has shown us the way.

    How you could apply this to the selling of shoes, I have no idea…

  2. You might be interested in some of the links I gather at (a project originally inspired by reading Gerd Gigerenzer’s works).

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