Problem Solving – The Ultimate Meta Skill

Good morning, and welcome back to the blog – if you can master today’s skill, I believe you can succeed in just about anything.

That’s because, unlike specific skills – such as knowing how to change a tire, or do a deadlift – this meta skill applies to just about everything.

The skill is “problem solving,” but I have a very specific type of “problem solving” in mind; a very specific definition of the term:

Overcoming challenges which you don’t even know how to go about approaching.

(In school you’re often taught exactly how to solve very specific types of problems, then given exercise sheets to practice it. You don’t know the answer, but you know the process you’re supposed to use; how to get to the answer.

That’s not the kind of “problem solving” I’m talking about. Life is often much more ambiguous.)

It was only recently that I really started to think about this phenomenon with any sort of self-awareness.

I was playing a video game with my brother (he was watching and helping), when I got to a point in the game which I had no idea what to do. No idea how to go forward.

I didn’t even know how to go about learning how to go forward.

(Also, I don’t really play video games very often, so I felt totally lost.)

I looked to my brother, the veteran gamer, for guidance, and he smiled just said,
“well, time to go about doing some problem solving, Dolan.”


In other words:

“I’m gonna have to figure this out, even though I have no idea how to even go about figuring this out. That’s the point.”

And really, life is the same way.

Want to lose weight? Want to make more money? Have deeper relationships? Are you doing your taxes for the first time? Changing a tire? (Assuming you haven’t picked up that specific skill yet.)

You’re going to be faced with figuring it out, even if you may currently have no idea how to even go about figuring it out.

So how do you deal with this type of real-life ambiguous problem solving?

Well, I find it helps to think of “problem solving” or “ambiguous problem solving” as its own skill, that you can get better at as you do it more. And you can practice recognizing situations where you use this skill.

But I can also give you three tips when it comes to problem solving:

  • Practice being totally comfortable with not immediately knowing how you’re going to find the answer. Think “I’m going to do this, and I have no idea how I’m going to do this, but that’s okay.” Take a sip of tea. Relax and look at the ambiguity as if you’re viewing it from above, fascinated and amused. Might as well get comfortable.
  • Practice self-assurance. Realize that in the past, you’ve already done this over and over again with problems you had no idea how to solve. You’ve looked up at metaphorical mountains that, at the time, seemed impossibly tall. And yet, you’ve overcome them, and you’re still alive today. Sure, as you look back now, perspective might make your past accomplishments seem quite doable. Like learning subtraction. Or getting through high school. But at the time, looking forward, they seemed impossible. Remember? Be assured, any “impossible” tasks now are gonna appear just the same way when you look back later.
  • Focus purely within your sphere of control. What is within your sphere of control to do? Your sphere of control is actually probably much more limited and manageable than you might think. And to be honest, you’re likely wasting a lot of energy focusing on things outside your sphere of control. (Trying to change the past isn’t within your sphere of control, so while you can spend as long as you want wishing for things to be different, saying, “how I have not solved this already?! Who’s to blame for this?!”, none of that will actually help solve a problem.) Just focus on what you can do, going forward.

Okay – to summarize (and keep this short!), problem solving is its own meta-skill which you can improve, and self assurance, comfort with ambiguity, and – critically – focusing within your sphere of control are all trainable aspects which make for excellent problem solving.

Oh, and if you really want to train your problem solving skills, try an escape room – or maybe just sit down and play a good video game. 🙂

Published by Dolan

Relentless self-optimizer, biohacker, traveler, reader.

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