Developing a Toolkit of Problem-Solving Techniques

Yesterday I was visiting a fellow Toastmaster, and we watched a DVD called Magic Moments II. This is a video that analyzes 30 clips from the 2001-2003 International World Championship of Public Speaking Competition in order to study some of the best practices. I saw this same presentation live at the 2004 Toastmasters International Convention this past summer (given by 1990 World Champion of Public Speaking, David Brooks), but it was certainly helpful to see it again. What’s interesting about this video is that it doesn’t just analyze the winning speeches. It takes the approach that every speaker does something right. 9 finalists compete in this contest each year, so that’s 27 people to study.

I like the concept behind this video: in addition to modeling the absolute best people in your field, you can also learn a great deal by studying the other high performers, since even though they may not be #1 in their field, it’s likely they do at least one thing better than anyone else. In the case of public speaking, skills include use of humor, facial expressions, gestures, use of props, command of the stage, use of pauses and silence, story telling, vocal variety, blocking (purposefully moving around the stage), speech content, use of metaphors, etc. So while many people are inclined to study the winners of such a contest, I really like the idea of studying every contestant too.

The main benefit of this broader range of study is that it allows the creation of a bigger collection of problem-solving tools.

It’s been said that when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Having been studying personal development for most of my adult life, one thing that I didn’t expect when I started on this path was just how many “tools” there are for solving the human problems we encounter such as procrastination, laziness, fuzzy goals, difficult relationships, etc. When you know 100 different methods for overcoming procrastination, I think you have a far greater chance of conquering unique variations of the problem whenever it occurs.

A novice carpenter may start with just a hammer and a screwdriver, while an expert carpenter could have 100 different tools for solving a wide variety of carpentry problems. Now it may be that the hammer and screwdriver can handle 80% of the tasks that those 100 tools will address, but with such a refined set of tools, the expert carpenter will be more precise, and there are certain problems that the novice simply cannot solve at all, not from a lack of skill but rather due to a lack of proper tools.

This is a metaphor for working on your own personal growth. For example, if you have trouble with procrastination, and you’ve been trying to solve this problem in your life a few different ways, try listing all the different “tools” you’ve been using to tackle it. If you can only list 5 or 10 (or fewer), then maybe procrastination itself isn’t the real problem. Perhaps you simply don’t have enough tools to address all the possible variations of procrastination. So depending on the precise details, you may find that sometimes you can overcome the procrastination problem while other times it remains untenable.

Think like that expert carpenter with those 100 tools. Now when he goes to buy tool #101, it’s probably going to be something very esoteric that he’ll hardly ever use. But when a specific carpentry problem comes up that this tool is designed for, even if it only happens once every two years and the tool costs $50, he’ll be glad to have it. Each tool is an investment that increases the number of problems he can solve efficiently.

Are you investing enough in the tools of life? Do you have problems that occur every week that you don’t feel you’ve fully conquered yet? Are you trying to solve everything with just a hammer and a screwdriver?

For example, if procrastination is a problem for you, what were the last 10 books you read about overcoming procrastination? 10 books should give you at least 50-100 tools for overcoming procrastination. Most people don’t even read one book on this subject though, so all they have is that hammer and screwdriver.

If your car breaks, will you take it to a mechanic that only owns a wrench and a tire pump? If you go in for open heart surgery, do you want it to be performed by a surgeon whose only tools are a needle and a plastic tube? If you go out to dinner, do you want your dinner prepared by a chef who only uses spatula and a knife? Hmmm, on that last one, Benihana seems to do OK actually…. 🙂

Although we can rely on tool-rich experts when we need to fix our car, our dinner, or even our blood-pumping hearts, where do we turn when our very lives need fixing? I think that’s an area where we need to assume personal responsibility and develop our own toolkits that are as rich as possible. We must remain personally responsible for learning how to solve the tricky problems of being human, such as setting and achieving our own goals, getting ourselves to take action in spite of fear, discovering our values and living with integrity, building empowering relationships with others, parenting, maintaining our health and energy, developing our personal philosophy of life, maturing into the best humans we can be, etc. A hammer and a screwdriver just won’t cut it — even for Benihana’s chefs.

So where do we develop this toolkit for life? One of the simplest ways is to start vigorously borrowing the best tools from other people around us. Although you may have a problem in one area, chances are there’s someone you know who doesn’t seem to have this same problem. Go up to that person and ask them for advice. Borrow the tool and add it to your own toolkit. The nice thing about borrowing human-living tools is that you don’t have to return them.

A second method is to devour information in the area where you need better tools. Don’t just read one book on the subject. Read 10 books by 10 different authors. Even if you find that some of the books are lousy, if they give you one good tool you didn’t have yet, that’s great. I’ve read a lot of terrible, badly written books that still gave me one useful idea. And every once in a while, I stumble upon a really great book that gives me a few dozen new ideas.

So just as you’d expect a carpenter, a surgeon, a mechanic, or a fine chef to have a rich collection of tools for solving problems within their domain, take the same approach towards your own life. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t seem to solve a long-term problem like losing weight. Get curious instead. See if you can learn at least 100 different new techniques you haven’t encountered yet.

Why is a rich toolkit so important here? Because every human situation you’ll encounter is unique. If you need to lose weight, your physiology is slightly different from everyone else’s. So no one tool is likely to be a perfect fit for your particular situation. You’re almost certainly going to need a hybrid solution that combines multiple tools. It’s just like the carpenter, surgeon, mechanic, or chef who will use a variety of tools in a very specific order to solve a specific problem, but the exact usage of the tools may be unique for any given situation. If you only have 5 tools available, you’re going to be very limited in your ability to successfully develop your own hybrid solution. But if you have 100 tools, many of which are subtle variations on each other, you’ll be able to tackle unique human problems with far greater variety and precision. And you’ll also avoid the problem of overgeneralizing, where you try to use a hammer on everything.

I’ve used this approach myself with great success. For example, in the area of spiritual beliefs, I’ve spent half of my life studying different religions and philosophies, immersing myself in several of them. None of the existing formal belief systems suited me perfectly, yet each of them contained at least one element that resonated with me. I wanted to develop a belief system that was fully congruent my evolving knowledge base, my direct experiences, my logic, my common sense, and my emotions. I just couldn’t practice spirituality in a way that seemed disingenuous to me. But by borrowing ideas from other belief systems and thereby forming a rich set of philosophical tools, I was able to develop a personal hybrid spiritual belief system that suits me, even though it almost paradoxically sews together elements from seemingly conflicting philosophies. Although I lose the convenience of a common label, what I gain is a philosophy that is uniquely me, incorporating everything I’ve experienced up to this point. I also gain access to all the “spiritual development tools” of every philosophy I’ve studied. So while one particular religion might emphasize the power of prayer, while another focuses on meditation, and still another relies primarily on dream interpretation, my belief system allows me to understand the strengths and weaknesses of all of these practices and to use them together in a very unique and personal way.

I’m well aware that the previous paragraph begins to address a potentially sensitive subject matter, so please understand that while I aim to address such topics with maturity and respect for everyone’s spiritual beliefs, I cannot consider the subject of spirituality itself taboo for this blog, the simple reason being that covering certain important aspects of personal growth ultimately requires addressing one’s underlying philosophy of life.