Problem Solving 101 Summary

Categories ChallengesPosted on

 Problem Solving 101 is a universal, four-step template for overcoming challenges in life, based on a traditional method Japanese school children learn early on.

I recently co-authored a piece gathering 303 life lessons we all eventually learn, but often forget. The list reminded me of all the important subjects we never study in school: human behavior, work habits, creativity, relationships, communication, love, and personal finance, for example. The skill Ken Watanabe explains in this book ranks highly on that list: problem solving.

Having a methodical approach to how you deal with problems, as opposed to just going by gut and feelings, can make a big difference in how successful you are in overcoming your obstacles. What’s interesting is where Watanabe found this approach: in school. While the Japanese education system has long had a leg up on its Western counterpart, this surprised me. Apparently, most Japanese children learn a very basic, universal problem-solving template in their first years of school.

After growing up in Japan, then studying in the US, it is exactly this template that Ken Watanabe decided to share in Problem Solving 101. Here are the 3 underlying activities you need to use it:

  • Instead jumping straight from finding a problem to attempting to solve it, break it down first.
  • Gather data to analyze all potential root causes and solutions.
  • Formulate hypotheses and methodically test them to find what works.

If you often find yourself jumping head first into solutions that don’t really fix your problems, this one’s for you! Welcome to Problem Solving 101!

Lesson 1: The first step of properly tackling any problem is to break it down.

Let’s say you and your partner want to move in together and start a family. You’ve both entered the working world a couple years ago and are now looking to buy a home. However, once you look at your salaries and expenses, you realize you can’t afford the kind of home you want your future kids to grow up in. What could you do?

In this situation, most people would either resign to waiting for their next promotion or force themselves to randomly cut back on a big spending point. However, the trick to solving such a seemingly complex problem elegantly is to not jump at the above question in the first place. Instead, break down the problem into various aspects. In this example, “not enough money to pay mortgage for desired house” can be divided into “too little income,” “too high expenses,” and “expectations of future house.”

Once you have categories, it’s very easy to continue digging. Watanabe recommends decision trees. For example, you could now list causes for the “too little income” category, like “my company pays less than the industry average,” or “I was passed over for a promotion.” When going along these sub branches, you can mark each one with yes or no, to determine whether it’s actually part of the problem.

With a proper breakdown in hand, it’s much easier to analyze the causes and potential solutions of your problem.

Lesson 2: Make sure you analyze all potential root problems and solutions by gathering data and reflecting.

Of course it’s impossible to be 100% objective when judging what lead to your problem, but that’s where analysis comes in. For each root cause that you marked with a yes in your decision tree, ask what data you need to verify your answer. For example, to see if your salary is below industry average, you can use Google to compare it to several statistics. And to figure out if you really were passed during the last promotion round, ask coworkers when they were last promoted and come up with your own, company-internal data.

The point of analysis is to never accept statements at face value, including your own. It gets you to pause and reflect before moving on, which is what makes it so valuable.

That’s why it also applies to all potential solutions you subsequently brainstorm. If you want to confront your boss with the below average salary claim, you better bring lots of data from good sources to back it up. At the same time, if you find it’s easier to collect data for other solutions, like cutting your expenses on monthly subscriptions, because you still have all your receipts, analysis also helps you determine which solutions have the best cost-to-benefit ratio.

Lesson 3: When trying to find a solution, formulate multiple hypotheses, then test them one by one.

Analysis helps you separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to the sources of your problem, as well as your options to get rid of it. However, the pool of choices you’re left with is still just a set of ideas. There are no guarantees that you’ve identified the correct causes or that executing a chosen solution will actually bring relief.

That’s why you should think of your selection as hypotheses. A hypothesis is defined as a currently accepted statement that could be proven wrong later. What’s great about approaching your plans this way is that you’ll stay flexible. Maybe confronting your boss won’t work. If it doesn’t, what matters is that you can quickly switch to a different path of action, rather than circling back to your initial hopelessness.

Whenever you feel lost or don’t know what to do, take an intermediary step of analysis. Get more data, reflect on new information, then change course. With an approach like this, you’ll never really get stuck. Even if problems won’t disappear over night, you’ll always have some sense of what to do next.

My personal take-aways

Breakdown, analysis, hypothesis, execution. What Watanabe has described here is the scientific method, except he did it in a way everyone can understand. Teaching children this from a young age helps them think on their feet decades later, when they enter the working world, where problems are often complex and confusing. If I ever do come up with a school of life, there’ll definitely be a class called Problem Solving 101.

Option B Summary

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Option B shares the stories of people who’ve had to deal with a traumatizing event, most notably Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, to help you face adversity, become more resilient and find joy again after life punches you in the face.

When she was 45 years old, Facebook COO and mother of two,Sheryl Sandberg, found her husband collapsed on the floor of the gym. He never woke again. Sheryl was devastated.

What did she do? Why her? For what reason him? Why so young?

Two weeks later, as she prepared for what would have been a father-child activity, she cried in front of a friend: “I want Dave!” Her friend replied: “I’m sorry Sheryl, but Option A is not available. But I promise you, I will help you make the most of Option B.”

Sooner or later, we all lose Option A in our lives. This book is about learning to thrive with Option B. Co-authored by Sandberg and Wharton’s top professor Adam Grant, bestselling author of Originals and Give and Take, it’ll help you deal with adversity in your own life and findhappiness after a traumatic event like the death of a loved one.

Here are my 3 main takeaways:

  • Trauma leads to three P’s you have to deal with.
  • Grounded hope speeds up the healing process, which you canfind by spending time with others.
  • Be a panic button for grieving friends and offer specific help.

I don’t know what Option B will look like in your life, but we’ll all experience it one day. I hope this will help you deal with it when it comes. Here goes!

Lesson 1: You’ll have to deal with three P’s after a traumatic event.

When Sheryl’s husband died, the first medical report stated an injury sustained from his fall to the ground as the cause. As a result, Sheryl blamed herself for not paying attention to her husband more.

Her brother, a neurosurgeon, was suspicious, because the fall’s height could never have been fatal. The second autopsy showed cardiacarrhythmia due to an undiagnosed disease as the real cause. But instead of accepting that it was outside of her control, she then felt guilty for not pushing him to change his diet more.

Even after the Jewish seven-day period of morning, shiva, Sheryl stayed close to a nervous breakdown at work all the time. The weight on her shoulders felt too heavy and like it would never be lifted again.

Pioneer happiness researcher Martin Seligman describes the three-P model Sheryl clearly went through:

Personalization. Contrary to all evidence, Sheryl kept blaming herself for a terrible event she could do nothing about.

Pervasiveness. Naturally, the sadness infected every aspect of her life, even work.

Permanence. After being stuck in this vicious cycle for a while, it became impossible for Sheryl to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

These are what make trauma tough to get past, and they’re remarkably similar to a pessimist view of the world. But all hope is not lost.

Lesson 2: Spend time in groups to develop grounded hope, which helps you move on.

Usually, we assume grieving people want to be left alone, but most often, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The isolation causes more despair than fresh air, so being among friends, while counterintuitive, is helpful. Sheryl talked a lot with friends 1-on-1, but spending time in groups is beneficial too, especially when it leads to something called grounded hope.

In 1972, the Uruguayan rugby team’s plane crashed in theAndes. Of the 33 people on board, 16 survived, thanks to being a group, not alone. They were stuck in the freezing mountains for 72 days, facing starvation, freezing temperatures and avalanches.

These individuals had resilience within them for sure, but also between them. When their broken radio received a message that the search was called off, they shared their dreams of what they’d do when they get back to civilization, keeping hope alive. On top of this psychological boost, they took practical next steps to improve their immediate future.

These included locating the tail-end of the plane to sleepin, sending small groups to get food and even eating the frozen meat of their dead companions to stay alive. This is grounded hope in action and while it hopefully will never have to be as extreme as this, it can help you turn trauma into triumph.

Lesson 3: Offer specific ways of helping to grieving friends to act as a panic button they can rely on.

Luckily, most of the time it’s not our turn to grieve. But it might be our turn to help. If isolation isn’t good for struggling friends, then an obvious first step you can take to make them feel better is to offer to be there. However, “let me know if you need anything” isn’t the best way to put it.

In a 1971 study about urban stress from noise and social stressors, researchers gave people tasks to complete in a noisy, distracting environment. They found if they gave people a panic button to turn off the noises, their stress levels and number of mistakes dropped – even though they didn’t use it.

Offering help to a grieving friend is not about being a firefighter for emergencies, it’s about giving them the feeling that help is within reach, should they ever need it.

Similarly, Adam Grant now always puts his phone number on the blackboard, letting students know he’s available if the workload becomes too much, after one student he knew committed suicide.

The more specific the panic button you offer, the better.Say “I’ll help you get groceries” or “we can go looking for job positions together” and you’ll signal that your attempt to help is genuine and that you really care.

My personal take-aways

Putting your nose in a book when you grieve is one of the best things you can do. This one is a good start, but I have one additional recommendation: lose yourself in a good fiction book too. Sometimes, fantasy offers more hope than reality ever could and that’s okay.

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