Expand the Problem

by Tom Swift

I have been drawn of late to the remarks and writings of certain politically conservative intellectuals — contemporary critics guided by principles rather than power or policy agendas. People who do or did identify as Republicans all of their lives but who at this critical time are willing to speak truth even if it means blowback in the form mean tweets — people who don’t change or hide their values because their political party would have them do so. If the president is ineffective and/or unstable, they say so. Data and science are important. Intelligence matters.

David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush and current writer-editor at Atlantic magazine, is one of my favorite examples. When he is on, I tend to watch. When he writes an essay, I tend to read. And so when he was a recent guest on the Daily Stoic podcast, which is otherwise hit-or-miss for me, I made a point to listen. The topic of the interview was that of political courage. Quick review: it’s worth the time.

Among the reasons why I am drawn to thinkers like Frum is that he is, well, really bright. He has the fearlessness of security that comes from earned intelligence: he has read the books. He doesn’t try to shock, he doesn’t try to be provocative — even when he is doing and being exactly that. When you are secure in yourself you don’t worry much what others think. Frum also has a gift for words; he turns a good phrase. He is an independent thinker and often his takes are unique. Read his essays and it’s not hard to tell he was a speechwriter for the highest office in the country.

Most of all, what I appreciate even more than the flourish of his words is the economy of same. So often when I listen to people who have viewpoints with whom I generally agree — political pundits or opinion journalists, even legal minds with high profiles — my reaction is to scratch my head. They use too many words. Sometimes so many words that the point is lost — forest for the trees.

I wonder if there is something to be said here about the downside of empathy, sensitivity — that when your tentacles are acute you tend to pick up too much. You try too hard to be inclusive. It’s good to see all sides, of course, that is part of intelligence, but, to be effective, conversation must be clear. While nuance matters, and few matters in life are black and white, if you only have sixty seconds to speak — if you only have 1,500 words of space — you don’t get to say everything. And to try is to often say nothing at all.

Frum seldom fails to say something and one line from the aforementioned podcast interview has stuck with me a few days after I listened to it: “Expand the problem,” he said.

The conversation at that point was about the number of significant problems our country currently faces and will continue to face in the decade to come. Pandemic. Health care. Climate change. Jobs. Rather than tackle one or the other of these problems, he said — and he acknowledged this was not an original thought; he said it’s been attributed to Dwight Eisenhower — expand the problem. Meaning, look for a solution that addresses all or many of these challenges at the same time.

Leaving aside public policy — as much as I would like to, it’s not my goal to solve the pandemic, health care, climate change right here in this post — I find the idea personally useful. How often do I see a problem, or a series of problems, as isolated issues to be addressed until I can get on with the real business of life — the so-called “important” parts, the ones that matter to me most? And how often is it the case that as soon as I engage the problem I lose a sense of perspective — that these matters are part of my larger purpose? Expand the problem. When I connect to something larger in me, the small things stay small. They may still take time and attention, sure. But they don’t weigh me down as much as they would if I made them my focus with blinders on.

I am talking, of course, of purpose. When we look at life as one to-list item after another it starts to feel like we are always working at a job that doesn’t mean much to us — and doesn’t pay well. Flip those same tasks around — paying bills, the chores of maintaining a home, even in some cases the jobs we do for monetary pay — and they can be seen as part of a larger life purpose. When moments have meaning we have energy for life in those moments.

On my to-do list write now are a few stale items: a thank you note that is overdue, a purchase I want to make, a short task I want to learn how to do. On one hand, I think of these things as mundane matters that at one point I thought I should do. I can also think of them as part of my larger purpose — that by doing them they speak to my reason for being, that not by not doing them they are holding me back from that same reason.

The analogy is breaking down here some, a clear thinker like Frum would likely point out. I may also have lost any readers who wanted to stay with me. I’m OK with the imperfect analogy, and I apologize if I am at all not clear on how that analogy is useful to me. I suspect my thinking will sharpen in response to this post. The key at this point is to introduce the idea to the psyche so that the psyche can add it to the mix when I am on autopilot.

To expand a problem is, by definition, a way to expand one’s thinking. Hopefully, I will do so in my mind as concisely as Frum articulates his political points in the public square.