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.


The Weight of Things.

The Scarf of a Beating!

During the holidays, a lot of my female friends are writing about body image, weight gain, etc. While it’s not exactly the same thing, it reminds me of Marjane Satrapi in Persepolis 2, writing about the experience of taking on the veil in Iran:

“The regime had understood that one person leaving her house while asking herself: ‘Are my trousers long enough?’ ‘Is my veil in place?’ ‘Can my makeup be seen?’ ‘Are they going to whip me?”

No longer asks herself: ‘Where is my freedom of thought?’ ‘ Where is my freedom of speech?’ ‘My life, is it livable?’ ‘What’s going on in the political prisons?”
What if we women took all the energy we spend thinking about how much we suck, and put it into getting fair wages? Reducing discrimination? Acquiring affordable daycare? Reducing poverty?

You only have so much time. How do you want to spend it?

Marketing & Charisma: Beth Grant

As I’ve mentioned before, we often trust a leader, follow advice, or buy a product based more on who we want to be than on what we want to do. In other words, we pay for useless diet advice from someone who was born with an extremely fast metabolism, rather than taking the advice of our average-sized friend who lost 30 pounds through real, reproducible steps.

The role of natural charisma in the stories of “self-made” success stories always irritates me, because it’s generally unstated in the public narrative. For that reason, I tend to feel a lot more comfortable when persons in the public eye acknowledge how much their beauty and charisma accelerated their success. (Here’s two examples: Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, and Barbara Corcoran, the real estate mogul.)

So, we’ve established that super-hot and/or charming people can sell ice to Eskimos. The Eskimos don’t need the ice; what they need is to be near those people.

But, there are other ways to lead, market, promote, and be successful. After all, Michael Bloomberg did not become a billionaire businessman with movie-star looks and charm.

Beth Grant has some interesting things to say about this subject. Here’s a summary of some of her online talks:

Everyone has a different style of personality, and a different ability to influence and engage others. For example:

Charismatic – People buy from you because they want to be near you

Conversational – People buy from you because you’re a good speaker and they want to talk with and listen to you

Content – People buy from you because they want your content

In addition, every person has a natural “persuasion power.” They may be a Guru/Star, a Wisdom Guide (think: therapist, life coach), or a Connector/ Supporter.

Beth Grant says that most advice on sales and marketing is written by and for Charismatic Guru-Stars. So, if your personal style is something else, like a Conversational Wisdom Guide, when you try to use a hard-sell “Charismatic” technique, it will not seem authentic to your audience. Your audience will be turned off by your pitch, because they won’t want to buy from someone who’s fake.  According to Ms. Grant, in order to succeed at sales and promotion, you need to use a sales technique that is in alignment with your influence style and personality.

What kind of sales techniques work for the other style and personality combinations? I have no idea, as that’s the info she has behind the paywall. Still, it’s an interesting jumping-off point.

In our own lives, we can surely think of folks who work in helping professions and do a great job, but are barely able to keep the electricity on. And then there are other people, also very caring, also with a goal of helping others, but whose businesses are prospering. What are they doing differently? Looking at the differences in their approaches may be instructive for our own pursuits.

How to Be a Grownup: Getting Rid of Stuff

If my experiences growing up with two packrats have been useful in any way, it’s that I have learned, internalized, and then unlearned a whole bunch of excuses for holding onto crap.

If you’ve ever thought, “Hrmm, I appear to be living in squalor“. . . some of these excuse-busters may be useful.

1. But it’s an Heirloom! 

No, sweetie. An “heirloom” is something that is kept by several generations and cherished. You’ll know it’s an heirloom because you love it, you use it, and you want to show it off.

That horrible, heavy old piece of furniture? The one with the smell? The one that’s stuck in the basement because you don’t want it around? That’s called a “burden.” 

Keep the heirlooms. Lose the burdens.

2. Aunt Gladys gave this ugly thing to me, and now she’s dead! So I have to keep it forever!

No. No, you don’t.

Aunt Gladys probably gave you many things throughout your life. Really nice things like that sweet 16 necklace, and really forgettable things, like weird fruitcake tins. And then she died and you thought, “I can never get rid of these fruitcake tins because AUNT GLADYS DIED and if I get rid of them it’s like I’m Killing her Again! AAAUGGGHHH!!!”…then you hide the tins in a drawer and feel weird about them.

Did your Aunt love you? Do you think her last wish for you was, “I hope she keeps those fruitcake tins….Forever! May They Haunt Her Dreams! Bwah haha hah aha ha!” 

Probably not.

The trick is: “Keep the memories, Lose the stuff.” If you find it hard, you can take a picture to remember it by. You’ll never look at that picture again, of course, because you don’t want to.

3. But Invisible People Will Judge Me!

For years, I carted around loads of books I didn’t like and hadn’t read, because I was afraid some mysterious judge would pop out of the woodwork at any moment:

“You only kept the copies of that series that you like? How dare you break up the set!”

“You got rid of your Algebra II textbook?! But what if there’s an emergency, and you have to factor a polynomial?!?”**

“How can you possibly think of getting rid of your copy of Godel, Escher, Bach? Even though no one you know has ever made it through the whole thing, you just won’t be intellectual without a copy silently glaring at you from the bookcase!”

In short, I feared some friend, acquiantance, or family member would come and insult my book collection if I pared it down only to the books I truly loved and used. But after I pared it down, no one came over to my place to get on my case about getting rid of Coriolanus.***

Oh, and libraries have been invented. So that helps.  


** We all felt foolish during The Great Polynomial Apocalypse.

*** Or Titus Andronicus. That is one weird-ass play.

Agatha Christie, Psychologist

I’ve been reading Agatha Christie novels for the first time, and what surprises me is how shrewd an observer she is of human nature.  I’ve decided that she’s like Jane Austen, with a body count.

For example, here’s a great exchange between two young heiresses, from Death on the Nile. Heiress 1 is about to visit with a friend of hers, who’s fallen on hard times, and she’s talking about her unfortunate friend with Heiress 2:

 “Darling…won’t that be rather tiresome? If any misfortunes happen to my friends I always drop them at once! It sounds heartless, but it saves such a lot of trouble later! They always want to borrow money off you, or else they start a dressmaking business and you have to get the most terrible clothes from them. Or they paint lampshades, or do batik scarves.”

“So, if I lost all my money, you’d drop me tomorrow?”

“Yes, darling, I would. You can’t say I’m not honest about it! I only like sucessful people. And you’ll find that’s true of nearly everybody — only most people won’t admit it. They just say that really they can’t put up with Mary or Emily or Pamela anymore! ‘Her troubles have made her so bitter and peculiar, poor dear!’ “

“How beastly you are, Joanna!”

“I’m only on the make, like everyone else!”

I’m not on the make!”

“For obvious reasons! You don’t have to be sordid when good-looking, middle-aged American trustees pay you over a vast allowance every quarter.”

I love this exchange for so many reasons. First, the descriptions of people who’ve fallen on hard times selling dreadful, tacky items . . . it is an exact analogue to today, when fallen C-list celebrities launch their own lines of mediocre handbags.

My favorite part is her canny description of how we justify dropping people once they fail. That was revelatory – so clear, concise, and true. We really are just the same today, only with the advent of that great blame-the-victim trend The Secret, our disdain is sprinkled with such comments as, “I just don’t know why she keeps attracting such bad things into her life.”

And finally, the comment that you don’t have be sordid when you have a trust fund. How often the wealthy complain that their inferiors seem to talk a lot about money. Yes? And asthmatics always seem to be talking a lot about breathing, for some reason. I can’t imagine why.

On Corporate Doublespeak

I just received a letter from our internet provider that irritated the crap out of me.

Here are the pertinent parts:

“We hope you’ve been enjoying your special monthly promotional rate {note: in other words, the normal rate we signed up with and have had for one full year}.

Currently, you pay a total of $65.98 per month, which includes your promotion . . . As this promotion is set to end soon, your next bill would reflect the current standard rate of $90.98 per month.

As a thank you for your continued business, we’d like to extend you another special offer on your services.

When your promotional rate comes to an end . . . you’ll keep enjoying the services you love for a total of $75.98 per month — that’s still a savings of $15.00 per month off the standard rate . . .

No action is required — this great new rate will begin automatically with your next bill.”

Ok. There are several things here that are just incredibly irritating:

1. The way corporations now say things like, “Well, the real rate for this is x, but for now we’re going to give you a lower rate” is ridiculous. In reality, everyone is getting the lower rate. But when they start off with this gambit, they think somehow you are fooled into thinking that a rate hike is not a rate hike, but rather a “discount” off the “real rate.”

2. Can’t people just use simple verbs? Instead of saying, “your service will continue” they have to say stuff like, “you’ll keep enjoying the services you love.” Really? I enjoy this service? I love this service? You mean, like, love love?

3. They think that if they call something “bad” by the name “good” enough times, you will believe them. “This great new rate” — really? Sounds like a “higher” rate to me. You’re not fooling anyone with the whole, “Mmmm, rate increases are wonderful! Actually, if you look at this rate increase from a completely asinine point of view, it’s actually a rate decrease!

It’s insulting, not only to a customer’s sensibilities, but also to a customer’s ability to perform basic math. Grumble.

The Death of Illusions

The Illusion isn't always Correct.

The Illusion isn’t always Correct

[Cross-posted in Applied Grace]

Over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that the death of our illusions is one of the hardest kinds of death. And so, even when our stories do not work, we cling to them anyways. We may avoid providing the help to alleviate suffering, because the type of help does not fit neatly enough into our understanding of the world.

I remember years ago, when I lived in New York, there was a pilot program in which welfare recipients were given better supports. They were allowed to go to school, and still collect benefits. They had regular counseling to help them find, interview for, and keep jobs. After they found jobs, they were allowed to keep collecting benefits for a time, to help them with transition costs. They received regular monitoring in all aspects of their lives.

And it worked. The women in this pilot program got off welfare, found decent jobs, and stayed off welfare. While the up-front costs of the program were high, it ended up saving money over the long run, because it was so much more effective than traditional programs which only provided penalties, without help. So it was win-win, right? It worked and it saved money. But when the time came to expand the program, it was axed, because it was politically challenging to justify. In a world which wants black-and-white morality come election season, this investment in the poor could easily be twisted to appear like something else. So a program that worked could not get funding, while programs that don’t work — hello, abstinence-only education — can.

The solutions which work may not be the solutions we’re most comfortable with. At a certain point, our old moral filters only get in the way of real change. Certainty is a comfort, but it is also an illusion. As Dr. Pauline Chen says, “We have yet to deploy what could prove to be the most powerful weapon . . . our own humility.”

Madeleine L’Engle: Awesome or Annoying?

I just finished re-reading Meet the Austins by Madeleine L’Engle, and I definitely revisited some of the great, warm-fuzzy moments of L’Engle’s books. Like, there’s the kind, sage grandfather, who lives in a converted stable surrounded by books, with wonderful poems painted onto the walls. And the home life described is wonderfully rich, with Mother cooking something delicious, and Bach playing on the phonograph, and children being terribly interesting, and all of that.

But then, there’s the other side — the side I find hard to bear. At some point in every L’Engle book, one of the characters — usually a child, who is terribly mature, will turn and say, “Isn’t it wonderful that we have such a nice family? And isn’t Mother so wonderful? And how nice, that in our very special family, the young sensitive child is valued, and  we appreciate God and we sing hymns when the power goes out, and everything is so terribly real — not like in other families? Yes, isn’t it nice that we are all so much more cultured, individualistic, close to our humanity and so on than other people who weren’t lucky enough to have this wonderful family?” …and so on.

Yes, it’s that part I find a bit hard to bear. And over the years, I’ve found there’s a bit of a club — the smart girls who devoured L’Engle when they were children, but who just can’t quite like her now. As my friend J. once said of the characters in those books, “Yes, they’re all a bit too…special. A bit too smug.”

That’s it: smug.

You see, children want to feel loved and accepted and appreciated for their own special selves, and as the reader of one of these dramas you are, in effect, the unofficial sibling to all the characters in these books. So when the young children in the books say —  in a way I have never heard any actual child speak ever — “Aren’t we lucky to have this perfect family with pot roast in the oven and singing and a lovely mother who calls me Megatron?” then you, as a child, sigh and say, “Ah yes, I would like that.” Because children really like things to be nice and pleasant and functional, and they’re more attentive about the pot roast, less so about the exact method of pot-roast delivery, as it were.

But for adults, seeing an adult who is so very self-congratulatory about it all — especially if they are self-congratulatory about how very enlightened they are — well, it’s just like nails on a chalkboard.

That said, Madeleine L’Engle books were such a thorough part of my childhood that they’re now, for all intents and purposes, part of my DNA.

And so, in honor of the good things I’ve gotten from them, here is a lovely poem which I first read in the Austin series, and whose phrase, “replete with very Thee” has stuck with me (inaccurately) through the decades.

The internet has some discussion on the proper author, so I am just going to quote the poem:

If thou couldst empty all thyself of self,
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the Ocean shelf,
And say — “This is not dead,” —
And fill thee with Himself instead.

But thou art all replete with very thou,
And hast such shrewd activity,
That, when He comes, He says — “This is enow
Unto itself — ‘Twere better let it be:
It is so small and full, there is no room for Me.”

‘The Least of These’ Are Our True Teachers

The first step to healing our broken world is to find the teachers who will lead us. For too long, we have looked to the blessed to teach the unfortunate. It is the other way around.  The holders of privilege may be partners in this struggle if they choose. But they are not our teachers.

If we want to learn, we must turn to those who have something to say.

We must turn to the landless, the dispossessed. Those who have learned, over the course of generations, to weave the ties of their culture through song and story, rather than through land…

They are our teachers now.

We must turn to the sick, the powerless, and the weak — those who have always had to find their own success and happiness through means other than brute force…

They are our teachers now.

We must turn to the insane and the mentally ill — all those those who cherish as a gift any day in one’s right mind. All those who know first hand the truth; that there is no Heaven or Hell, but what the mind makes of it…

They are our teachers now.

We must turn to the women of the world, downtrodden for countless generations, yet still the first to give love, kindness, and compassion.

They are our teachers now.

We must turn to the children of the world, who see with clear eyes what is right, before the world teaches them to doubt…

They are our teachers now.

We must turn to the elders of the world, who can help us embrace the best of the new, while holding tight to the best of tradition…

They are our teachers now.

We must turn to the sensitive, those who have a damaged response to a damaged world. Like the canaries in the coal mine, they offer a warning that is important for us all, if we wish to survive…

They are our teachers now.

We must turn to the castoffs of the world – the throwaways – all who have been made to feel it would have been better if they had never been born. They know better than anyone the value of kindness and inclusion…

They are our teachers now.

For years, those with money and privilege have turned to the poor and said, Learn from us. But I say to the wealthy, humble yourselves before the poor, and learn from those whom you would cast aside. Let those who have gone before you in suffering help lead the way to the end of suffering. Let us all learn from those who, in the face of hardship, have somehow managed to keep their own small flames alive.