Tag Archives: physics

Thinking like a dyslexic, metaphorical surgeon

math-problemsI’m dyslexic. Or at least I failed the exam to not be dyslexic. I can have a haphazard approach to thinking that is sometimes amazing, other times a bad way to approach problems. Thirty years ago I chose to study Maths and Physics at University. I couldn’t have chosen subjects I was less suited to. When I was recently diagnosed the specialist couldn’t believe I’d managed a Hard Science degree with my skills in symbol manipulation, speed and accuracy. I was in the bottom 1% for these skills. In the tests I thought I was killing it and I was doing what I was good at.

At University I was keen, and I thought everyone had to work super hard. I did feel a bit different and approach problems differently. I now know I was using well known dyslexic coping strategies.

Recently I’ve used Metaphor Modelling with Clean Language to understand how I work at my best, and the two are linked in a way that has helped me understand.

The Clean Question I asked myself were; (abridged, from memory & better asked by someone else)

“When you are working at your best, you are like what?”

“I’m like a surgeon, precise, measured, skillful. With knowledge, skills and a purpose.”

“Is there anything else about a surgeon?”

“A nice white coat. Wait, A surgeon works accurately, knows the purpose of his work, and has honed the skills to do it. As a surgeon I’d have all the tools I may need prepared in advance. I wouldn’t start work without knowing where the tools are and how they are used. A surgeon also may do exploration work to find things out, but this is also precise. There is a plan, but also an understanding of complexity and the need for feedback about things are going. Machines that go ping.”

“Is there anything else about that surgeon?”

A surgeon reads the patient notes, and would specialise in what he’s is good at. And a surgeon has a team to do all the things that need to be done, and they are just as organised, trained and professional. A surgeon cannot do it all.”

“Whereabouts is that surgeon”

“Physically, usually in an operating theatre, but could be anywhere in an emergency. Mentally in the zone, concentrating, and knowing that everything that could be thought of, has been thought of. Surgeon is a feeling in my chest, and in my head. It’s a special type of focus, and a special type of precision, and a flow of thinking, like running through a maze, but knowing instinctively where to go.”

“What happens before a surgeon”

“I can’t just turn it on. It either needs interest, and a problem to solve, or it needs pressure. A deadline, or some decision. Maybe something that I know hasn’t been thought through and will cause a problem. Or input from someone – new insights or perspectives.

Afterwards there is a feeling of closure or completeness, like something has been resolved, or understood in sufficient detail. ” 

How I studied before Clean Language

To contrast with the surgeon metaphor, how did I approach problems when studying Physics and Maths? It could be seen as a coping strategy, but at the time I didn’t anything required a  strategy. It was just what I did to get the right results. I wasn’t different. I was getting the same answers as everyone else.

Science and Thinking for Dyslexics

With science I needed to see the big picture, then the details, and then figure out what to do. I couldn’t memorise solutions or particular types of problem very well to just reproduce what I’d done before. This was partly what we were being taught to do.

For Science and Maths problems I’d;

  • Write down the full problem, copying the question including the context. Copying forces careful reading, and not skipping parts. I remember showing this technique to teachers and friends. They thought I was mad.
  • Copy out all the variables from the question, including units (they may be odd). Include both known variables, and unknown and implied variables.
  • Write down every formulae I can remember that has anything to do with the variables noted previously. I was bad at remembering formulae, but I’d just do a brain dump, and remember more as I wrote.
  • Include formulae where only partial information is known, we may need to combine partial knowledge to get where we need to go.
  • I’d often taken up half a page by now.
  • Now fill in the formulae to see what extra things we can find out. Stare at the formulae to see if I can get the value I need from the information I have.

Do the things above sound a bit “Surgeon”? A way of maintaining an orderly approach that means nothing gets forgotten, that I don’t misunderstand or misread. A way to be precise and accurate when my brain wanted to do the opposite.

I now understand that not everyone needed to do this. They didn’t just do it in their head, they remembered practise questions and answers. My symbol manipulation accuracy and speed skills are in the bottom 1%. But my figuring things out skills make up for it.

I used the practise questions to sharpen my ‘figuring out’ skills, not to remember how to do stuff.

Can I apply these ideas now?

So I’d like to improve my sometimes haphazard thinking. It’s often a bit more haphazard than I’d like, and having kids seems to have made it worse. Can I  be a bit more like a surgeon, or more like the young me, who didn’t notice he was different…

The following is a ‘be like a surgeon’  / ‘be like a dyslexic scientist’ approach to problems

  1. Name, date and title on all my work and diagrams.
  2. Review everything I know about a situation before I start. Write it down and use diagrams.
  3. Understand the options for looking for a solution
    1. These may not be just approaches, but looking for different perspectives. All the Systems Thinking stuff.
    2. This includes getting a 2nd and 3rd opinion.
    3. I need to create (and keep updating) an approach that I can use to make sure I’ve thought of everything. Like (somehow) being able to write down all the formualas I knew.
  4. Make sure I care about the problem. If I don’t it won’t work.
  5. Make sure there is pressure. This doesn’t always mean last minute, but it needs to be important to do this now.
  6. Have a team, and do what we’re each good at.

Maybe to keep in surgeon mode it could be useful to note that most successful surgeons don’t check Facebook during surgery.

I’m sure I can take this a lot further, and improve my approach using metaphors, and the way that I naturally seem to be able to figure out ways to look at things.

Any comments on other approaches that may work much appreciated.