From Seattle and Vancouver on the west coast to Fon du Lac and Sheboygan in the north to more Atlantic coast cities than you want to list, hundreds of people engage in what observers might consider to be a bizarre New Years ritual that dates back to the early 20th century. Some do it for charity, others for a cheap memento. Many believe the act develops stamina, better health, even virility.
Whatever their motivation, scores of senior citizens, athletes, business professionals, and even young children greet the New Year by jumping into an ocean, the Missouri River, or one of the Great Lakes. The Coney Island Polar Bear Club claims to be the oldest established venue for this heart-stopping event, listing their first frigid plunge as early as 1903. For the annual event of 2008, some of the participants (those with operative brain cells) donned wet suits. A guy from Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin wore a new $30 Speedo bought for the occasion. A couple in Massachusetts jumped into the Atlantic wearing the wedding outfits they were married in the night before.
So how does this strange, even bizarre ritual relate to problem solving and critical thinking? Not a whole lot--but it does remind me that we are always surrounded by people making choices that, from our individual perspective seem unusual, illogical, or even bizarre. When we approach any problem-solving effort we need to remember that apart from acts of God/natural disasters, most problems are in some way linked to people and their choices. And normal, intelligent people often make choices you would never consider. An effort to isolate the cause of a problem that ignores or minimizes the relational and interpersonal dynamics surrounding the problem will usually result in a short-term, symptomatic fix that does not resolve the bigger or root issue.
I was amused to hear a general who had served in Iraq tell about his arriving in that country and suggesting that the best way to resolve some of the immediate problems with snipers, bombers, and other assorted jihadists would be to sit down with the leaders of these groups and ask them why they want to keep killing people. (He actually did that.) That leader recognized something many of us miss when trying to solve complex problems: when you attempt to isolate events and processes from relationships you overlook important contributors to the root cause of a problem.
You might not choose to greet a New Year by plunging into 39 degree water, but don't allow your reasoning to discount the logic that motivates people that do. All problems are the result of change--and most changes are the result of choices made by people.