The Solution To Your Latest Problem

Problems in life may be inevitable but solutions are not. You know how frustrating it can be when solutions do not arrive. Yet the way we go about finding solutions is often the least likely to produce any!

When a new problem appears on the horizon, at first it seems obvious what to do. After all, we are educated from a young age to solve problems. Think back to school days – there we are taught to analyze problems so we can select the correct method from our arsenal and apply it as prescribed. The solution should drop out at the end of the process.

But there are snags with this approach, as I found recently when a friend set me this puzzle. During his holiday on Tenerife, he had visited a bar where three lights – red, blue and green – were projected onto a wall. The colours combined to make white light on the wall but, musing over his beer, he noticed that a bar stool was casting a red shadow. What, he asked, caused the red shadow?

The solution may be obvious to you but it’s a long time since I studied physics! I cudgelled my brain to remember. This marks the first weakness in our problem-solving method – as I proved, we cannot always recall relevant information.

There are other major limitations. The bigger problems in life are often novel and there is no tried-and-tested method to apply. Besides many problems are divergent – there is no single ‘right answer’.

Now, as I continued to analyse and ruminate over the red shadow, my thinking began to get drawn into a downward spiral. With any problem, it’s so easy to keep re-thinking the same old things. But a solution does not come from what you currently know (if it did you would already have the solution) but from what you don’t yet know.

So why does ‘analyse and ruminate’ remain the cultural norm? I believe the reason is because sometime afterwards a solution usually appears. The clue here is afterwards – rarely do we find a solution when immersed in the problem itself.

What generally happens, and certainly for me with the red shadow, is that the lack of solution causes negative feelings and the whole experience becomes unpleasant and unproductive. And this makes us give up. We stop thinking about the problem and, counter-intuitively, this takes us much nearer to a solution!

For over a week, the red shadow did not enter my thoughts. Then one morning, I woke to find the answer was waiting for me, clear in my mind. I was completely astonished – it was like the poet waking to a ready-made poem. I could see that if the bar stool blocked both blue and green light reaching the wall, the shadow would be red. 

Looking back, I wonder where the solution came from. It’s tempting to say that I knew the answer all along, that it bubbled up from my unconscious mind. But if that were true for all problems, it would mean that we somehow know all the answers already.

I find it much more convincing to take the view that we are able to tune into a wider intelligence. Call it collective-consciousness, universal mind or life energy, we humans have the natural ability to partner with it – in fact, we are part of it already.

When our own personal thinking quietens down, we can access that wider intelligence. This is how we can create ideas, perspectives and solutions that were previously unknown to us. This gives us a much more effective way of solving problems and it feels so much better while we are doing it!


The Solution To Your Latest Problem — 2 Comments

  1. Thanks once again Trevor. This weeks piece brought to mind the famous quote “you cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it” Hence our need I believe to talk to another and externalise our thoughts, questions and problems and seek to find an answer together. Of course speak to too many others and get many differing answers then it can get more confusing. So your example of the problem solving was not be adding more complexity and possibilities (or in your case light) but in fact to go the opposite way and take away things, strip away the layers and complexity and get to the core or in your case the single colour of light. Keep up the excellent work.

    • You are absolutely right Jon to warn about the danger of adding complexity. But certain kinds of conversations – generally those that do not offer advice – can help to clarify the mind so that a creative solution is able to emerge. As a coach, I’m thinking particularly about coaching conversations. Interestingly, there is also the traditional Quaker practice of the Clearness Committee which has the same aim.