The significant problems we face cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.
~Albert Einstein

Try saying “I’m feeling pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune.” Boring. Now say schadenfreude. Feels much more like the real thing, doesn’t it? The translation does not do justice to the sound or the impact of the word itself. Though we might not publicly acknowledge having indulged in schadenfreude, eventually everyone ‘fesses up. And once you hear the word, it sticks.

Another German word, Einstellung, translates as ‘attitude, recruitment, setting, cessation,’ yet, like schadenfreude, its impact is greater than its translations. How does it apply? Faced with a new problem, we fall back on a previously successful approach and energetically try to stuff the novel situation into an old box. In this time of turbulence and anxiety, we need to be very careful not to fall into the trap of Einstellung.

The water jar experiment

In 1942, Abraham Luchins charged a group of people with a challenge to mix and pour water from/into various-sized containers until they had a certain amount of water. This involved a fairly complex computation. Then they were given another problem that had some of the same qualities but which actually had a much simpler solution. The group applied the same technique as the first time, even though it made the problem much harder to solve. Folks who had not been given the first problem, only the second, solved it in moments because they were not boxed in by the boundaries of previous success.

It seems we notice a similarity in a current situation to a previous one and apply our approach to the new situation based on what led to success before. The upside of that is efficiency – we don’t have to start from scratch. The downside falls into two traps. First, the results of the re-applied solution may not be the most effective. Second, we miss the opportunity to generate a new insight and miss exploring possibilities: “If the only tool you know how to use is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

Shaking things up (or having them shaken)

Now I wasn’t present at the time, but I’m told that until about 1415, artists did not realize they could bring perspective into their painting. The idea of creating the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface was blocked by habit. You’ve probably seen paintings that predate that revolution – the people in the background and the people in the foreground are all the same size. It’s especially entertaining when the people in the background are in a castle or on a boat, so they’re all giants.

In the pandemic’s monumental shakeup, a whole package of Einstellung is showing up: How we communicate.  What ‘going to work’ looks like. School and learning. Community. Chains of authority. Focus on self  v. supporting the community.

I’m not smart enough to have answers about all of this, yet I have noticed that I am better able to cope and move forward if I question my own assumptions and habits. “Don’t fix it if it’s not broken” and “Let’s not re-invent the wheel” may not be adequate when some things clearly are broken and the tire’s flat.

Like the pre/post-1415 divide, we’re caught between eras, but more importantly, we are caught between perspectives. In this fog of uncertainty (and anxiety), we can move into a better way forward by examining and discarding our assumptions that may have felt adequate and comfortable before, but no longer serve us—or the people we love—well. As much as we might want to get ‘back to normal,’ we can no more do that than we can bring back our adolescence or innocence.

Here are a few that have shown up in my new life:

I’ve changed my perspective about virtual teaching and learning. Some folks I know who do what I do simply take what they were doing (like lecturing and reading slides) and post it in an LMS (Learning Management System). It was boring before and it’s hideous online. So I’ve learned to find avenues in the platform that engage, challenge, and necessitate accountability for everybody, myself included.

I’ve welcomed a new cadence in my work and life. The rhythms are different and I’m more focused on working through conversation than through direction. That’s not about time, it’s about energy. I see and hear a strong need for community as a new model for work, so rather than just listening for (or giving) direction, we work out our goal and then find a very useful balance between working alone and collaboratively. Embracing the platform of virtuality gives us that flexibility.

Finally, I’ve developed a sense of patience and acceptance like never before. We’re all in this lifeboat together, and some of us have never handled an oar. We’re raising ourselves, as if we’re our own parents as we make mistakes, discover humility, and encourage rather than demand.  None of us knows this brave new world well enough to be an authority, so let’s stop pretending there’s a solution and start embracing ambiguity as a place for learning and shared growth.


Mac Bogert
Mac Bogert
I fell in love with learning, language, and leadership through the intervention of two professors—I had actually achieved a negative GPA—who kicked my butt for drifting through my first couple of semesters at Washington and Lee University. After graduate school at U. Va., I started teaching English at a large high school in northern Virginia. A terrific principal lit my fire, a terrible one extinguished it. I left after five years (the national average, as it turns out, maybe the only time I did something normal) and started an original folk/blues/rock band. That went well for a time until the record company sponsoring us folded. I toured for some years as an acoustic blues musician, primarily as an opening act for bands like the Muddy Waters Band, Doc, and Merle Watson and such remarkable talent. As that market dried up (disco), I earned my Coast Guard Masters License and worked for the next decade as a charter and delivery captain and sailing instructor. At the same time, I was working part-time as an actor and voice-over artist, selling inflatable boats and encyclopedias, and working as a puppeteer. Itchy feet, I suppose. I came back into the system in 1987 as a teacher specialist in health and drug education in my county school system, also part-time as Education Coordinator (and faculty member) for Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. I ‘departed’ both jobs in 1994 (therein lie more stories than 350 words could hold) and started my own business. AzaLearning is the career I’d been dodging for decades. I serve 200 clients around the country, helping with all kinds of coaching, planning, transforming conflict, creative problem-solving, communication, and mediation (I also trained and worked as a community mediator somewhere during sailing and teaching): learning, language, and leadership. In 2016 I published Learning Chaos: How Disorder Can Save Education and actively contribute to a couple of online education magazines as well as publish a newsletter, a blog, and the learning chaos podcast.

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  1. Mac — My German is almost non-existent, but I know enough to say “Das ist toll!” (OK, OK, I had to use a translation program for part of it.)

    This passage says a lot about US education and our approach to problem solving.

    “Some folks I know who do what I do simply take what they were doing (like lecturing and reading slides) and post it in an LMS (Learning Management System). It was boring before and it’s hideous online.”

    1. People approach teaching that way because they’re focused on the wrong thing: content acquisition vs the learner’s needs. As you point out, trying to solve a problem with an old approach.

    2. And it points to one of the most egregious aspects of bad problem solving: not taking the time to figure out what you’re trying to solve for. As Einstein said “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

    A great message, Mac. Great writing, too.