How to Be a Grownup: Problem-Solving

(cross-posted on Applied Grace)


One of the most important principles of problem-solving is that changing the definition of the problem can help you come up with a solution. To illustrate this, I’m going to use a children’s story I read in grade school:

A hero goes to steal a valuable treasure from a king. The king is protective of his treasure, and keeps adding more and more locks to the door of his vault. But the hero is able to open the door and make a clean getaway. How? He takes the door off its hinges.

In other words, the hero re-frames the problem, reducing the problem down to its most basic components. He changes the problem from:

I need to find a way to unlock all of these locks


I need to find a way to open this door

By simplifying the definition of the problem, he removes assumptions that might have kept him from seeing a solution.

Here’s another example: a Brazilian mechanic, Alfredo Moser, came up with a way to light indoor spaces during the day. His town had frequent blackouts, so instead of relying on electric bulbs, he filled some plastic bottles with water and stuck them in the ceiling. Due to the refractory properties of water, each plastic bottle gave off the same amount of light as a 60-watt bulb.

So, when he re-framed the problem, he changed it from a hard-to-solve question:

How can our town get a more steady supply of electricity so that I can turn on my lights?


How can I have better light indoors?

. . . . .

What can we take from this? When problem-solving, it’s best to start by challenging your basic assumptions. Then re-define your problem away from “what you think you need” to “what you actually need.”

Here’s an example of how this might work in daily life, in a conversation about a problem with housing:

Person A: I need an apartment.

Person B: You need a place to live? Because you might be able to rent a room . . .

Person A: No, I can’t deal with roommates. I need to live alone.

Person B: So, you need a place to live, where you can live by yourself.

Person A: Yeah. The problem is, I can’t really afford the rent on a one-bedroom by myself, and this town doesn’t have any studios for rent.

Person B: Well, what about a house-sitting gig? I just saw an ad for a summer housesitter.

Person A: Hunh. I never thought of that.

Person B: You’d be able to live alone, and it would be rent free.

Person A: Yeah, that might work! And if I didn’t have to pay rent for the summer, I could save up enough for a security deposit for my own place in the fall!

So, by unpacking this situation, and separating out what the person thinks he needs (“an apartment”) from what he actually needs (“a place to live by myself”), a solution becomes apparent that addresses both short- and long-term needs.

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