Perspectives in Problem Solving

As an idealist, I used to believe that all problems had solutions, and that it was pretty much my responsibility to try to address any problem that managed to penetrate the barrier between my attention and the world. 

And while I did solve my fair share successful problem solving, there were many that I failed to solve. Over the years, here are some things I failed at: 

  • To feed my kids healthy and nutritional meals six days a week
  • To get my husband to stop playing World of Warcraft 50 hours a week
  • To protect my kids from anaphylactic food reactions
  • To fix my over-sensitivity
  • To eliminate my daughter’s eczema
  • To organize the basement
  • and so on.

And the cumulative weight of these (and countless more) “failures” contributed to the fog of melancholy, anxiety, and paralysis that sometimes crept over me.

A few years ago I stumbled upon  “Designing Your Life” (Amazon affiliate link) by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, and it radically changed my perspective about problem solving. The book takes an engineering perspective on designing your life and solving problems.

They categorize problems into types: gravity problems, poet problems, and actionable problems. Spoiler alert: the only one of these worth your energy is the actionable problem. But plot twist: some gravity problems and poet problems can be reframed into actionable problems.

Gravity Problems

Gravity problems are essentially unchangeable and irreversible, like a law of nature. The faster you face and accept them the sooner you can focus your attention on the problems that you actually have control over. 

For example, the Wright brothers didn’t spend time gnashing their teeth about how horrible the law of gravity was and trying to change it. They accepted gravity as a fact of life, an unchanging constraint they had to design their flight machines around.

Any problem that involves changing someone else is essentially a gravity problem, because we cannot forcibly bend others to our will.

Poet Problems

A poet problem is actionable, but it is such a long shot for success it is rarely worth prioritizing. Burnett and Evans use an example about trying to solve the problem of poets having a low median income.

In order to solve that problem, you’d need to alter the market for poetry and get more people to buy poetry, or get people to pay more for it. There are lots of things you could do that might have that impact, for example, you could write letters to the editor praising poets or knock on doors to get people out to poetry night at the local coffeeshop and so on.

However, even though you can technically work on this problem, your likelihood of success as an individual is so small it is probably not the best use of your time. 

This is not to say that you shouldn’t dream big, or that you shouldn’t do your part to promote the values that are important to you. Go ahead and sign that petition or volunteer or buy green products. All those little drops in a bucket add up. 

But responsibility for solving a poet problem is not all on you, and you do not want a poet problem to suck up all of your time and energy and to distract you from building a better world in ways that you might actually succeed. 

Problem Solving with Reframing

Reframing Problems: My Sensitivity

When faced with gravity and poet problems, Burnett and Evans suggest asking yourself reframing questions such as, are you actually trying to solve the right problem?

Sometimes a problem can look like a gravity problem, but a reframing question such as “Could this be an opportunity more than a problem?” might help you hone in on a real, actionable problem.

For example, let’s try this problem solving tactic on my “problem” of being too sensitive. At first glance, this appears to be a gravity problem – my nature. But with a few reframing questions, more actionable ideas come up.

Am I really too sensitive, or do other people just tell me that because it’s easier to dismiss me than listen to me? Is being sensitive actually a liability, or is it an asset because it is linked to empathy? Is the real problem a communication problem, such as me not asking for what I need? Or is the real problem that I need to establish better boundaries when interacting with certain people? And if I am too sensitive, is it actually a gravity problem, or is there someone who could help me gain skills to manage my sensitivity?

Once you start examining your assumptions and biases, you open up new solution spaces.

Reframing Problems: My Family’s Nutrition

If I had learned these principles a few decades ago, I think it would have benefited me tremendously. Let’s look over another problem on my list, the fact my kids weren’t eating particularly healthy meals six days a week.

My stubborn vision of what a healthy and nutritional meal consisted of (fresh, healthy foods prepared by me) doomed this goal to failure.

What if I had been more curious and open-minded? There are so many ways to be healthy and nutritional.

If I couldn’t put fresh farmers market food on the table, what about quick and easy recipes that used frozen vegetables? Or cooking in bulk and freezing meals for later?

What does “healthy and nutritional” mean exactly? Did I want to be more specific? Less sugar? More vegetables?

Could I get my husband to cook a meal or two?  Was there an allergy-friendly take-out place we could order from?

Thinking about this problem from a more open-ended perspective would have been tremendously valuable.

Problem Solving and Prototyping 

Another wonderful idea from “Designing Your Life” (Amazon affiliate link) is the idea of prototyping solutions to problems.

Engineers are all about taking action and building things. They don’t solve problems from an esoteric, intellectual armchair perspective. They are curious, they look at their resources and their constraints and apply them to the problem at hand to see what they come up with.

They understand that a problem may have many solutions, but that they only need one that works. They build prototypes to test their problem solving ideas in a small way before going all-in on a solution. They don’t seek perfection right out of the gate — in fact it’s a given that a prototype won’t be perfect. It’s a starting point, something they can test and learn from and refine.

Every prototype, regardless of whether it works or not, adds value and is an opportunity for learning and growth and refinement of your solution set.

Bottom Line

It is really difficult to unlearn decades of poor problem solving behavior. This book definitely gave me a starting point for a paradigm shift. And it ties in so well to the work I’ve done in recent years to embrace my humanity (ie, imperfections) and learn from my mistakes, to view life with more curiosity, and to challenge my assumptions. 

One of the most interesting things about this journey of exploration I’ve been on these past few years is discovering how interconnected so many things are (like engineering being connected to well-being), the way certain truths and certain themes repeat themselves over and over again when you least expect it. It’s a beautiful and reassuring thing.

For a transcript of an excellent interview of Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, check out this post on Psychology Today

Photo Credits: Angele Kamp and Pine Watt.


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