Albert Einstein was a man who deserved to be listened to. Fortunately for us, he left us some great teachings, such as this wise quote: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Follow this logic and ask yourself, what strategies do you use to solve your problems?
Among a huge number of possibilities, people tend to use two pretty reliable strategies, or so they think. First we’ll discuss strategic problem solving, and then we’ll talk about the paradox of the lost key. Will you come along for the ride?
What strategies should we use to solve problems?
Facing problems successfully will help you learn. They always say that failure is a great teacher, but doing things well is, too. If you find a solution, on top of the problem being solved, you’ll learn some valuable lessons along the way.
How to face problems using strategic problem solving
Strategic problem solving is a model that can be applied to any field and with different levels of difficulty. To put it into practice, first you have to know the three basic steps: definition, objective, and confrontation.
The first step is definition. Before you seek a solution, you have to know what exactly the problem you’re facing is. You need to know the nature of the problem.
One way to define a problem is to ask yourself what it consists of, where it is, when it appeared, who could be to blame, how and why it happened… In other words, it’s good to spend some time identifying each detail of the problem.
“‘If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”
Once the problem has been defined, you have to figure out what your objectives are. Instead of constantly complaining without looking for a way out, ask yourself what the result you want is. For example, if in 6 months you have a job interview and you know that they’re going to want you to know a certain amount of a foreign language, your goal would have to be the level that they’re asking for. Maybe later on, you discover that you like the language and want to learn more, but that would be the initial objective.
Take a look at your problems and visualize them as challenges instead of threats. Viewing it that way will be a source of motivation that produces much less stress and much more satisfaction.
Once you’re completely aware of the problem you have, it’s time to establish a strategy to solve it. You know your goal and the magnitude of the problem; now think about the method.
In other words, you’ll have to see which strategy is better to achieve your goal and overcome the problem. Here are a few techniques:
Push the problem to the limit. Sometimes things have to get worse before they improve. They say that there is always calm after a storm. Maybe pushing it to the limit and hitting rock bottom can be a way to gain momentum. For example, when there’s a fire, it’s often not worth it to salvage anything because the price you’d have to pay would be too high. You’d have to wait patiently for the firefighters to extinguish it and then throw everything away so you can start from zero.
Backward planning. Another strategy involves working backwards from the solution. That is, imagining that everything has been solved, and begin studying how you arrived at that point, and then the step before that, and so on. It’s like rewinding a VHS tape and watching the strategy unfold. For example, mathematicians use this strategy a lot when doing proofs: they start from the thing they’re trying to prove to see if they can arrive at what they’ve already demonstrated.
Look further than the problem. To do so, you have to visualize your ideal life and project it in your mind. That way, you’ll find the strength and motivation to overcome uncertainty and be free to see the best solution.
The Lost Key
This problem solving technique comes from a book titled The Situation Is Hopeless But Not Serious (The Pursuit of Unhappiness). With ingenuity and humor, Paul Watzlawick identifies certain mistakes that we all seem to make at some point.
In “The Lost Key,” the author tells the story of a drunk man who’s looking for his key under a streetlamp. A police officer sees him and helps him look for a while, but at some point he asks the man if he’s sure that’s where he lost his key. At that point, the drunk man says that no, it was further back, but it’s too dark over there.
When analyzing a problem, we should know whether we’re looking for the solution in the right spot. We often confuse ourselves by getting blinded by a “streetlamp.” Maybe one day it was useful and served us well, but that doesn’t mean it will be useful forever.
However, the brain works like that naturally. It searches through the mental archives for resources that were useful in the past. That’s why it’s important to try to go beyond simple problems, analyze them in the right way, and find the best solutions, because we don’t always know them or have them at hand, no matter how much experience we have.
Now you have new tools that you can use to face problems. But remember, a knife has no purpose if the person who has it doesn’t use it. It’s your turn to put it into practice by using your knowledge, cleverness, and positivity.