Elite Problem-Solving

(Chris Pine, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh!) Ryan, an analyst, uses his savvy to solve CIA-level geopolitical problems.

Good evening and welcome back to the blog. In a previous post I touched on and defined problem solving, how I see it. Today, we’re taking it up a notch.

As a brief refresher, I defined “problem solving” very specifically – dealing with ambiguous situations in which you don’t even know how you’d go about finding the answer.

I suggested viewing “problem solving” as its own meta-skill that can be improved.

Now, we’re going to practice improving it. (And actually enjoying solving problems.)

Why? Because various problems (or “challenges”), big or small – are bound to come up in life, and rather than wish they didn’t exist, I suggest aiming for being the type of person who can handle them with ease.

(That’s a wish that’s actually within your sphere of control, because it’s about you and how you respond.)

Instead of having a problem-free life, I want you to become an elite-level problem solver.

That’s a crucial distinction. At the end of the day, most of us don’t truly want a totally problem free life, where everything is delivered, solved, blended, and fed to us – like the lifestyles of the characters in Wall-E.

(Disney Pixar, Wall-E. Directed by Andrew Stanton.) A life where every problem is solved for you, just sit back and consume!

Instead, we want to be the type of people who can handle whatever comes up (like Ethan Hunt from Mission Impossible, or Jack Ryan or James Bond. One gets the sense that they could handle – or figure out how to handle – pretty much anything, right?)

(Tom Cruise, Mission Impossible III – one of the better Mission Impossible movies, in my opinion, and directed by J.J. Abrams!) Ethan Hunt solves “impossible” problems and so can you!

Even if you don’t actually want to work for the CIA or MI6 and fight bad guys like these fictional characters, wouldn’t you at least like to have their problem-solving acumen? Yeah.

So how do you get there?

There are some tips and tricks (“best practices,” if you will) for problem-solving, that are quite useful to keep in mind when tackling difficult, ambiguous situations.

I’ll summarize them neatly at the end of this post (but I already touched on most of them here, so I’ll be brief).

However, I’ve come to believe that truly becoming an elite-level problem solver ultimately boils down to one key, major shift in mindset.

I believe this one shift in mindset/ piece of advice – when followed diligently – has powerful recursive, compounding effects.

Here it is:

Practice using all problems as training grounds to enjoy problems.

Get that? Practice using all problems you face – every little challenge – as opportunities to ENJOY the process of facing and solving problems.

In other words, associate pleasure with the challenge of problem-solving itself, and use each new problem as an opportunity to reinforce that association.

Or, restated one last time, think: challenge= pleasure

(And each new challenge/problem is an opportunity to reinforce this.)

If you actually ENJOY facing and solving ambiguous problems, you will do it more often, more effectively, and with a better attitude, and that will ultimately cause you to become better at it.

Yes, I get it – “problems” don’t initially present as “fun.” And most people, at first, don’t like the feeling of struggling with something they don’t have any answers for.

But by viewing problems as opportunities to become like _________* (*insert favorite fictional problem-solver here, such as Batman); by viewing problems as opportunities to strengthen your association between enjoyment and challenge, you’re setting yourself on a path to actually take some pleasure in the process, and become an elite problem-solver yourself.

And that may be worth your while.

Alright, quick sum-up:

As stated here, at the core of most every challenge lies “problem solving,” which is its own meta-skill that can be improved.

But at the core of improving problem solving lies linking enjoyment to the process itself, and using challenges as opportunities to strengthen that link.

(And a little inspiration from looking to movie characters can help with this association.)


Last, if you’re interested, I did promise a very quick summary of tips and tricks (or “best practices”/ “qualities to remember”) while solving difficult, ambiguous problems.

I’ve organized it into a nifty mnemonic, SPAR:

S Self-assurance in the face of ambiguity. Practice having self-assurance even when you don’t know what to do. This is one of the few places where the phrase “fake it till you make it” is actually quite helpful – at least try to act self-assured, because it’ll eventually help you feel self-assured when dealing with stressful ambiguity (a phenomenon I somewhat touch on when I discuss The As If Principle here).

P Pure – focus PURELY within your sphere of control going forward – don’t focus outside your sphere of control by casting blame or bemoaning what’s already happened; it’s wasted effort. Be warned, these behaviors are oddly quite tempting, so people tend to indulge in them a lot. Instead JUST focus purely on solving the problem. Just focus PURELY on what you can control.

A – Attitude, emotions, while in the thick of it. Practice actually enjoying the process, as we’ve discussed throughout this article. Eventually, you may find yourself with a calm smile and sense of humor even in the midst of “impossibly stressful” challenge.

R Risk tolerance. Practice gently expanding your risk tolerance over time, particularly by facing gradually increasing perceived risks that don’t actually pose a significant real risk (like public speaking, or making friends with someone new).

Congratulations – you’re now on the path to becoming an elite problem solver.

And next time you face some difficult challenge – say, missing your first of multiple connecting flights and having your bags get lost – you’ll think: “good.”

Good problem-solving practice.

Published by Dolan

Relentless self-optimizer, biohacker, traveler, reader.

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