The Search for a Silver Bullet

Imagine a problem that faces you. Perhaps a cohort of your students don’t seem to be learning. Maybe averaged grades just don’t “add up” in your head. Maybe you get high scores at golf (which is not a good thing, by the way). Whatever the problem may be, we often approach the solution in the same way: we search for a silver bullet.

Off we go, on the search for that perfect fix. Maybe it’s a shiny program, the latest fad of an instructional strategy, a newly minted technology. We scour the web, we call on colleagues, we look everywhere for that singular solution that will make our problem disappear.

Pretty soon, we find something that we are sure will do the trick. “This is it,” we think as we unwrap the proverbial box. “This is what we have been looking for all this time.” And we try it. We start the new program, we unveil the new technology. We get it in everyone’s hands. We go all in. And we watch. And we wait.

And it doesn’t work. Even with the program in place, the problem is still there, staring us in the face.

Why doesn’t the silver bullet work? The whole premise of silver bullets goes back to stories of heroes defending themselves against scary monsters like werewolves and witches. The silver bullet is the werewolf’s solitary weakness, the one weapon that can vanquish it from existence. Everything and everyone has a weakness – I guess the thinking is that we can find the right tool, if we look hard enough for it. Right?

In the world of computing, folks like Fred Brooks argue that there are no silver bullets. They argue that that there is an essential level of complexity of some issues that cannot be tackled with simple solutions. Doing a Google search for “no silver bullet” reveals 600,000 stories that mirror the idea, from America’s tax reform to Bermuda’s energy supply to Australia’s aging workforce.

While I understand the argument being made, I don’t agree with the idiom being used to explain it, as it hasn’t helped to change behavior. The thing is, there are silver bullets. They exist. You can buy them from an ammunition shop if you were so inclined. The issue is that complex issues cannot be eliminated with silver bullets.

Why? Because complex issues are not werewolves. Because werewolves do not exist.

Werewolf

Werewolves – those creatures of lore, born from the full moon, roaming the day as men and the night as monsters – are but one in a legion of ghouls that have grown from our fear. A camper in the woods hears a loud nearby howl under a full moon? Must be a werewolf. A child laying in bed sees movement in the dark corner of the room? Has to be the Bogeyman. A night driver has a large, furry-looking “something-I’ve-never-seen-before” run in front of her car? Bigfoot, obviously.

They make for incredibly entertaining and suspenseful stories. Fortunately for us, they are stories of fiction. The myths of monsters can be traced back to an active imagination in those times where someone is confronted with something they were either too inexperienced, too afraid, or too intimidated to explore. Movement in the corner of the room? Likely a shadow. The big furry thing? Could have been anything – lots of variables at play when driving at night. That howl in the woods? Probably a regular old wolf.

And silver bullets are simply not the cure for these issues. Imagine taking a silver bullet to what you thought was a werewolf, but was actually a shadow. Shooting at a shadow makes holes in your walls, your windows, and potentially your neighbors! Silver bullets do not fix problems: they make problems. Instead of spending our time searching for silver bullets, we need to spend our time understanding the werewolf.

Silver bullets don’t work because they are misaligned to the issue at hand. We don’t need quick fix-it answers. What we need is to understand the problem, to explore the unknown and describe the issues we find as specifically as possible. See a movement in a dark corner? Don’t pull out a gun – pull out a flashlight. Look. Listen. Explore. Get more objective data about the state of things, and let that data help you identify your needs. Then let those specific needs help to define your next steps.

What often keeps us from exploring this unknown is fear, the same fear that invented the werewolf in the first place. What happens when we look under the bed – what if we see something we do not want to see? What will we need to do about what we find once we see it? This fear is what keeps us looking to fix problems from afar, and keeps us away from building solutions from within. It is far less intimidating to find a simpler and more distanced solution – like a silver bullet – that we can apply from afar.

The solution to all of this fear? Go learn. Turn on the light. Open the closet door. Look under the bed. Go into those places that you fear the most, and explore the unknown until you know exactly what needs to be done.

The other folks may be right in that there are no silver bullets, that nothing but hard work and dedicated focus can solve our problems. While I agree, I’ll also posit that it’s more impactful to recognize that there are no werewolves, and that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. And the silver bullet for overcoming fear? To face fear head on.

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