By Theo Winter
"There is nothing like a good problem to spark the synapses, is there? To open the mind to new possibilities, new ways of seeing things. Of course, one must always confront self-doubt and fear. But that is a small price to pay for the... exhilaration of finding the perfect solution."
— Kurros, Star Trek: Voyager, Think Tank
Out of nowhere, a demonic problem lands in your lap, the likes of which you've never seen.
ARRRGH. WE’RE GOING TO DIE!!
Come on, brain. That’s not helping. I really need you on this. What should we do? Make a list? Phone a friend? Google something?
A-HAR. A-HAR. HAR.
Sobbing into a pizza box? Again, really? Darn it, brain. This needs to stop happening.
BUT I FEEL SO HELPLESS. NOM. NOM. NOM. WHAT CAN I DO IN THE FACE OF SUCH UNSTOPPABLE EVIL? NOM. NOM. NOM.
This article will attempt to answer that question... without any need for long, tearful nights of cheese and pepperoni-fuelled debauchery. (Hang in there, kiddo. Help is on the way.)
A wicked problem — or demonic problem, as I like to call it — is any large, complicated, messy, tricky, vexing, or ill-defined problem that verges on or into the emotional territory of overwhelm. Trying to save a business from bankruptcy, preparing for an important job interview, or undertaking your Master’s thesis may be examples of demonic problems.
Although the advice here is tailored to large problems, the same logic applies to most ordinary problems.
What you focus on, you give power. That’s not so much a spiritual sentence as it is psychological. A case once notably advanced by the greatest philosopher to ever write in the English language, David Hume, and as a large number of modern scientists will attest, reasoning is a servant to intuition (see motivated reasoning). The more you dwell on feelings of helplessness concerning the size and density of a challenge, the more you’ll become aware of evidence to support your emotional premise. If you start thinking it’s too big, it’s too hard, it’s impossible, well, guess what happens? Your brain will help you believe it's true. Inadvertently, you’ve created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not only that — you risk wiring negative thought habits, leading to victim mentality. But the self-sabotage runs deeper still because whining has another serious downside: it tells others that you’re not in control. Broadcasting your powerlessness to the world is about as smart as a goat walking by a pride of lions grumbling about its limp. (I don’t think they’re going to promote that goat.) Complaining kills success the way smoking kills lung tissue: it’s toxic tar. Cut down, or quit.
Most every article I’ve looked at on problem solving recommends breaking things down into smaller pieces, however, not all systems approaches are created equal. One of the better tools I've encountered for deconstructing 500-pound gorilla obstacles is design thinking. Tom Wujec, a global leader in visualisation strategy, advises clients against making drawings on a single sheet of paper. Instead, his research into teams finds that sticky notes or compact cards produce the best results. By mapping the problem on to notes, you’re better able to work with the two key parts involved in any system: the nodes (the specific events) and the links (the pathways between nodes) — thus giving you the ability to separate, rearrange, edit, and iterate with greater clarity and fluidity. This approach also allows you to easily show others your thought process and incorporate their feedback.
These days, I hear a lot of complaints about people being glued to their smartphones. If I look around a train carriage and don't see any earphones or scrolling screens, I think they're missing a golden opportunity. For example, my daily commute is 23 minutes each way. By doing nothing, that’s 280 hours per year down the drain that I could've used to absorb ideas and build up layers of skill sediment. According to author Josh Kauffman, you can obtain rudimentary competence in a complex skill, such as speaking a foreign language, coding software, or playing guitar, in just 20 hours. (That’s 2x 20-minute practice sessions a day for 1 month.) And if that doesn’t leave your mouth wide open salivating over possibilities, then either: 1) you’re skim reading, 2) you flunked math, or 3) I’m not doing a very good job as a communicator. Likely the latter. In any event, I would strongly recommend the talk How to Achieve Your Most Ambitious Goals. Don’t underestimate the dent you can make in your problem by committing to a tiny amount of learning each day. (Little) Effort x (Long) Time = (Legit) Power.
In 1991, when now-famous business icon Sheryl Sandberg was working for economics professor Lawrence Summers as a research assistant at the World Bank, a passing question was raised about whether a bailout in 1917 could have saved Russia from 17 years of Communism. “What most students would have done," Summers reported in The New Yorker, "is gone off to the library, skimmed some books on Russian history, and said they weren’t sure it was possible.” But not Sandberg. She decided to track down Richard Pipes — a leading historian — and took detailed notes over the phone for an hour. That year, Sandberg got the highest score on the midterm exam, proving that solving problems sometimes has less to do with what you know and more to do with who you are willing to know.
Scorpion, a TV show based on a real firm, follows a group of world-class experts led by a high IQ genius, who together solve wealthy clients' problems. I know what you're thinking: "I don’t have the resources to build a think tank. Are you crazy?!” Probably, but hear me out. Dedicating a few hours to learning the ins-and-outs of a site like Upwork (formerly Elance-oDesk) may be the best investment you ever make. There are thousands of freelancers — some very expensive and some very not so expensive. With a bit of work, you can piece together your first rickety research tank. Sometimes, it's smarter (and less stressful) in the long run to pay for group power to demolish part of a big task. And, if your problem is causing you enough pain, it may be worth considering a "Winston Wolf" type of professional to, you know, clean up the mess.*
*The author of this article does not condone murder or murder-related activity.