How To Solve Problems

I just Googled the definition for “problem.” Here’s what came up:

A state of difficulty that needs to be resolved.

In my book, the bold portion is the only part of the definition worth focusing on. Why spend time whining about the state of difficulty when you can just resolve the damn thing?

I used to think everyone thought that way.

Once I got into high school, though, I quickly saw that I was in the minority. For every problem-solver like me, there were a dozen “problem-worshipers” who seemed totally content to rot in misery. The most common examples were people in miserable relationships. They would bitch and moan to anyone willing to listen about how terrible their relationships were. But as soon as you suggested they end the bad relationship, thereby eliminating the cause of their misery, they acted like you were speaking Greek. “No way, I can’t do that! That’s out of the question. There has to be another way.”

It was like they enjoyed being miserable in some sick, perverse way. They seemed to actually like their problems. But whatever the case, one thing was clear: these people were focusing way too much on the “state of difficulty” part and not enough on the “needs to be resolved” part.

But then a thought occurred to me. Maybe some non-problem solvers would like to become problem-solvers, only they don’t know how. Maybe I was taking my problem-solving instincts for granted and ignoring the fact that not everyone was raised the way I was. Fair enough. So the question then becomes: how can a non-problem solver beat the learning curve and discover what I and other problem-solvers already know?

Well, I wrote a journal entry last year explaining the basics. My goal was to capture, in a quick couple of paragraphs, the attitude that helps me overcome obstacles in my own life. So I want to show you that entry now (below) and then explain the thought process behind it. Pay attention, because this approach will save your ass if you are smart enough to use it.

Too often, people allow minor speed bumps to become brick walls. Last night I stumbled upon another example.

My friend was complaining about how she couldn’t sleep because girls in the dorm next door were loud and obnoxious all night. She said it’s a constant problem. Apparently, the Resident Advisor in charge is a friend of the noisy girls and refuses to correct the problem. But instead of figuring out a way to shut these girls up that doesn’t involve the RA, my friend has pretty much decided to “just deal with it.”

Meanwhile, I had at least three possible solutions in a matter of seconds. If the RA is corrupt and the girls wont quiet down out of basic courtesy, raise the stakes. Wait for the next night of unbearable noise and rudeness. Put on your headphones and some of your favorite music and sit down at your laptop. Create an official-looking document that looks like your school’s letterhead. All it has to say is something to the effect of, “We’ve received a tremendous number of complaints about the noise level in your dorm. The school’s housing department is actively investigating whether or not to take disciplinary action. You have been put on notice.” Include the dorm number and the obnoxious girls’ names so there’s no mistake about who this was being sent to. Then just slide the note under their door next time they’re gone. That will spook 75% of rowdy but otherwise sane people into shutting up.

If not, get someone to call their dorm, posing as the school, saying the exact same things. Some people respond better to verbal confrontation than written. If these ideas aren’t your cup of tea, no problem. Get a cheap video camera or microphone and just record how ridiculous the people are at night. And screw the corrupt RA. Go straight to someone at the top with video recorded evidence. Bring a copy of the dorm’s “Quiet Hours” policy for good measure.

My point is that there will always be a wall of opposition between you and the things you need to be happy or successful. What matters is whether you choose to “just deal with it” or use your head and do something about it. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. 9 times out of 10 you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you can do.

When I first published that, a few people said “you’d get in trouble if they caught you impersonating the school.” Maybe, but that’s not the point. The point is the solve-the-damn-problem-and-move-the-hell-on philosophy I used to think of that advice. Let’s explore that in more detail starting with what didn’t help generate that advice:

  1. Wasting time dwelling on the problem.
  2. Thinking about how unfair the problem is.
  3. Daydreaming about how great it would be if the circumstances that created the problem were not happening.

John T. Reed says people who do any of those things are finding excuses to lose instead of finding ways to win. Well put.

Instead, only focus on the best and quickest way to solve the problem. Usually that starts with figuring out why the problem is happening. What conditions are allowing this problem to exist? In my friend’s case, the problem-creating conditions were that those girls believed they could get away with being obnoxious. They saw no reason to stop. So my first thought was, “how can I create a reason for them to stop?”

Note that I did not limit myself to the typical, obsequious “I’ll try the conventional way and if that doesn’t work, oh well” approach that most people limit themselves to. The conventional way often does not work. Remember my friend’s problem: the RA was corrupt. If my friend gave up once the corrupt RA refused to help her, the problem would never be solved. And that’s exactly what happened. She gave up, and the obnoxious girls caused her countless nights of interrupted sleep and studying.

Why? Because she stopped short of what it took to actually solve the problem.

The corrupt RA offers a valuable problem-solving lesson. Most other people will not be as motivated as you are to solve your problems. In those cases you need to think outside the box and take the situation into your own hands. Ask questions others are afraid to ask. Challenge people others are afraid to challenge. Try things others say you would be stupid to try.

This is how we problem-solvers think. It is as natural and effortless to us as excuse-making, rationalizations, and victimhood are to non-problem solvers. But this is actually a good thing! Both ways of thinking are habits. Habits can be changed. The only hard part is the beginning where you discipline yourself to do the thing in question differently than you did before. Personal example:

In high school I was the worst student you ever saw. I had zero ambition, saw no real point in being there and therefore took a totally lazy approach with me into the classroom. It was no surprise that I got D’s and F’s and dropped out. (I’m pretty sure my GPA was actually below 1. It was that bad.) But about a year into college I decided enough was enough. I was fed up with failure and promised myself that no matter what it took, this semester was going to be different. And it was.

There was no trick to it. All I had to do was A) go to class, B) pay attention, and C) do the work. Was that hard at first? Of course it was. I had spent the last 12 years slacking off. My old habits were always whispering in my ear about how much easier it would be to slack off. But I ignored them. I knew I couldn’t make up for 12 years of mediocrity all at once, so I didn’t try to. I took it one test, one paper, one homework assignment, one project at a time, using one A to motivate me for the next. When the semester ended I had 3 A’s, one B, and made my school’s Dean’s List.

The following semester I increased my workload to 5 classes, earning 4 A’s and one B which got me another Dean’s List mention. I’m about to finish this semester with A’s in 6 classes, including a biology lab, good for 19 credits and another Dean’s List award.

(I also figured out what my overall purpose/goal in life was before that first semester. That was hugely important, but I’ll address it in a separate post.)

Anyway, I now have a 3.7 GPA, belong to an international honors society, and regularly get letters from colleges saying things like “We recognize that you have many options because of your academic excellence.” One of them came from Ivy League Cornell University. Not bad.

Again: all I really needed to do was change my mental attitude toward school. That’s another huge problem-solving obstacle for many people. They want different results without changing their old, ineffective, bad-results-producing attitude or behavior. Doesn’t work that way. Remember:

“Garbage in, garbage out.”

That old saying just means the outcome will not be different unless you do something different. It’s excellent advice. Don’t forget it.

My best friend Chris Carlino has a similar philosophy to mine. His is even simpler.

  1. Identify the problem.
  2. Think of a few possible solutions.
  3. Carry the best one out.

Anytime you are stuck with a problem, you should ask yourself “am I taking any of these steps?” If not, why not? If you really want to solve your problems (instead of just bitch about them) that’s the only question worth asking.

Good luck!

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3 Comments on “How To Solve Problems”

  1. Mr WordPress Says:

    Hi, this is a comment.
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  2. Christopher Carlino Says:

    Jay, I just wanted to kick off the comments with a piece of thought for you to chew on.

    When it comes to women who are in abusive relationships, there a couple of very real factors that could keep them from easily leaving. The part of the Brain that decides whether we like someone or not is actually different from the part of your brain that forms an attachment to someone. This is why you often see old couples that clearly hate each other but are still together for 30+ years.

    All female batterers are sociopaths, and in the first phase of a sociopathic relationship, the sociopath engages in “wooing” in which he makes himself out to be the man of her dreams. He will learn from her what she wants in her perfect man and will then go above and beyond that, leading to very fast emotional and mental attachment. They even go to the length of overly impressing the girls entire family so that when he begins his control game, the woman’s family will have a hard time believing her.

    Then, somewhere around 6 months to a year later, the true colors come out, and by that point the woman may be so mentally attached that she begins to think she cannot leave because this is the man of her dreams and she just has to deal with it. Many times even when she eventually realizes she needs to leave, she cannot because he has control over ever part of her life including financial, housing, transportation, children, etc.

    However we rarely hear of the prince charming he once was, we only hear the woman lament about the monster he currently is. These people are monsters, the worst kind that exist.

  3. jaypcross Says:


    I agree. I have a friend who seems to be a sociopath magnet, as she always winds up with them. Her situations are much like you said. I think the key for those people is to somehow see a counselor or therapist. They need to be told by an impartial outsider how harmful and self-destructive their relationships are.

    The saddest thing is that the years wasted on a sociopath are irreplaceable. Same is true of many problems that people wait too long to solve or never solve. That’s why it’s best to establish this type of mindset early in hopes that sociopaths or other problematic people won’t be able to “woo” you in.

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