The ultimate problem-solving technique is right in front of you
My friend adored my shiny stovetop, which until a few days prior, had been caked with weeks of grease and grime build-up.
“Sprinkle baking soda, spritz some water, and wipe away,” I continued, “it works like magic.”
He looked at me with puzzled eyes.
“I thought baking soda was for, you know, baking?”
Baking soda can do a lot more than helping your bakes achieve a perfect rise. It has other use cases such as absorbing weird odors from the litter box, cleaning up grease, and making cool science experiments.
Baking soda isn’t alone in terms of unintended use cases.
Coca-Cola was originally a cure for morphine addiction. Viagra was created to lower blood pressure. And William Russell Frisbie never foresaw his pie tins being tossed around on college campuses.
Much like the unintended uses of notable products of today, we often ignore readily available problem-solving techniques for complicated and expensive solutions.
Inventing a new wheel seems way cooler than just finding a new way for it to roll.
My main focus for this article is not to ramble through the various use-cases of baking soda but rather uncover a methodology for using what’s already at our disposal to solve various life problems.
Whether you are struggling to settle into a career or having trouble keeping your finances in order, the solution to your problem isn’t overly complicated.
It might be right before your eyes.
Start With Simple Solutions
Malcolm Gladwell, somewhere towards the back of his brilliant book, The Tipping Point, said something I’ve taken to heart:
“The Band-Aid is an inexpensive, convenient, and remarkably versatile solution to an astonishing array of problems. In their history, Band-Aids have probably allowed millions of people to keep working or playing tennis or cooking or walking when they would otherwise have had to stop.
“The Band-Aid solution is actually the best kind of solution because it involves solving a problem with the minimum amount of effort and time and cost.”
Band-Aid solutions receive a bad rap as being cheap and temporary solutions to problems. But what if that’s all we really need?
For any problem, we typically hope to find an elegant solution that’s simple to implement. However, it is entirely possible to break down a problem into micro-problems and patch those individually.
Take for example being in debt. It may be tempting to call up your local debt consolidator and let them handle it. Or you can break it down into small problems, namely:
- Not living within your means
- Not bringing insufficient income
- Not understanding how your money is spent
- Not having a debt payoff plan in place
Each of those requires a different solution that’s a lot easier to handle than trying to eliminate your debt all at once.
Whatever your problem is, break it up and find the simplest solution for each part.
Play to Your Strengths But Know Your Blindspots
“Whether chemists, physicists, or political scientists, the most successful problem solvers spend mental energy figuring out what type of problem they are facing before matching a strategy to it, rather than jumping in with memorized procedures.”David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
Domain experts are great at solving specific and unique problems…in their domain.
You are the only person who knows the inner and outer workings of your life. In other words, you are the domain expert of You. However, this doesn’t always mean you are the best at solving your own problems. You have strengths, but you also have blind spots and it’s in these blind spots that potential solutions lie.
How do you uncover these blind spots? Two ways:
- Check your ego and use a bit of self-awareness
- Surround yourself with people of various skills and knowledge we aren’t afraid to speak honestly to you
I prefer the second option. I meet every Friday with three other guys who are also entrepreneurial in spirit but vary in terms of ability. I have my finance guy, my writing guy, and my marketing guy. All of them help to shed light on areas of myself and my business that I fail to see on my own.
Some problems don’t require you to dive deep into a specific knowledge base. They might, however, require a bit of lateral thinking. This is where having a supportive network is essential.
Outsource lateral thinking. You don’t know what you don’t know, but others might.
When All Else Fails, Fail
People aren’t ready to accept failure as a problem-solving tool, but it absolutely is. I’d even argue it’s more essential than success itself.
If you don’t know how to solve a problem, if you’ve implemented simple solutions to no avail, if you’ve run your network dry, just do something, anything, to glean bits of information about your situation.
Here is a real example to demonstrate this point.
After leaving my full-time job and diving into the world of freelance web design, I found myself burnt out and frustrated with my career trajectory. I had no idea what I wanted to do next. So I made a promise to myself: I’d do nothing.
Not nothing as in sitting around on the couch all day. Rather, nothing as in stop planning my future like it’s some complicated game of Risk. I’d simply try the next thing until I failed, then move on.
The first thing I tried was daily vlogging on YouTube. It was hard at first, but soon I learned the necessary skills to film, edit, and publish a 7-minute video every single day.
I lasted 280 consecutive days (during which my second kid was born) before finally deciding to quit. And it was that decision to quit that I learned a lot about myself.
I kept going. I tried different things. When they didn’t work out I didn’t fret, I packed away little lessons and grew to understand what I wanted out of my life and career.
Currently, I’m writing and dabbling in a few side projects. I let myself fail repeatedly and in doing so, I inch closer to my ideal career.
Fail fast and learn. You might not solve your problem, but it’s better than doing nothing at all.
Don’t Waste Your Time Kid
Sometimes novel and expensive solutions seem like the right way to go. They’re tempting and shiny. But before doing anything brash, put your wallet away and see what possible solutions lay in front of you.
Can you implement multiple simple solutions? Can you have someone poke around your blind spots? Can you fail and learn your way forward?
Like baking soda and the Frisbee, sometimes you just need to look at what’s available and see the potential.