How to Solve Life's Many Problems
I have very loving parents who took care of our every need when we were young. Just as with all my other siblings, my dad always reminded me, "Your job is to focus on your studies. You don't have to bother about anything else." No, I am not from a rich family... far from it, but life was very happy then, as my sisters and I fondly recall those younger days.
In Life, There Will Always Be Problems
In 1974, when I left home for the first time in my life to attend a university, some 670 km away, I was totally lost. To compound my woes, I got entangled in an unrequited "love" affliction. My world collapsed. Hence began a period of deep distress that let me to a search for that elusive utopia where life has no problems.
In my search, I began to read widely. Needless to say, I never found that utopia that I was seeking... if anything, I found Ethiopia. One day, I bumped into Norman Vincent Peale's book, The Power of Positive Thinking, in which he told of a guy who was just like me. The guy wanted to know where in the world he could find a place where there's no problem. Peale told him that he knew of such a place: "Do you want me to take you there?" The man said "yes". Peale brought him to a cemetery and said, "There you are! The people here have no problems." That story hit me like a bolt. It finally dawned on me that in life, there will always be problems. I then resigned myself to the fact that as long as I am alive, problems are inevitable and that I have either to learn how to live and cope with them or else lead a life of perpetual misery.
Life Is Not About Avoiding Problems, But About How To Improve Your Problem-Solving Abilities...
Many years later, I was driving my car when my rear tire punctured. I was excitedly worried. Fortunately, I had a friend in the car. He told me, "Just a small thing, don't worry. Where's your jack?" I told him it was in the boot and he replaced the tire in a whiffy. He didn't even sweat, nor talk about it after the tire was replaced. It was like a mundane chore to him. That set me thinking... I should learn how to change my own tire so that I don't have to worry if the tire punctures again. And that was how I came to the conclusion that to lead a happy, worry-free life, I have to learn how to improve my problem-solving abilities. Avoiding problems is not the solution because in life, we are bound to have problems, and many problems at that. Problems are "problems" only if we cannot solve them and thus, the greater our problem-solving ability, the lesser the number of "problems" we will encounter each day in our life.
A Problem-Solving And Decision-Making Tool
The thing that I have learnt is that whenever you have a problem that you find difficult to solve, ALWAYS write it down. It's easier to find the answer to 37 x 46 by writing it on a piece of paper than to do it mentally. The same also applies to life's many problems. Having said that, a problem-solving tool also helps tremendously in providing a structure to solve our problems in a systematic manner. I have read many problem-solving models but the below 5-step model is one of the best that I have found:
- Identify what your problem is. Many a times, we find ourselves trying to solve a problem without being able to pinpoint exactly what our problem really is. If you don't know what your problem is, you can't solve it... it's as simple as that. That's why it has often being said, "A problem clearly stated is a problem half solved". Problems, however, often exist as a hierarchy where one problem causes another. To identify a problem, you must ensure that the "problem" is not caused by something else. If it is caused by something else, then your actual problem is that "something else", and not the "problem" that you have identified (technically called "the symptom of your real problem", or "secondary problem", NOT the primary problem. If you attempt to solve the secondary problem, whatever "problem"/difficulty you are encountering will still remain with you).
- Determine what your criteria are. What are your "must have" and what are your wants (i.e. things that are not absolutely necessarily but if you have it, so much the better). To me, this is the most beautiful part of the decision-making model. Oftentimes, we come out with so many criteria, confusing our "must have" with our "wants", such that we work ourselves into a corner, unable to find a solution. "Must have" are absolutes. A possible "solution" either meets a "MUST HAVE" criterion or it fails the criterion entirely... there's no two ways or half-way about it. For the "WANTS", assign relative weights to them, as not all WANTS are equally important to you. (For those who are not mathematically-inclined, you can use words such as "Important", "So-so", "Not so important", etc.)
- Brainstorm and come out with as many solutions to the problem as possible, without prejudging whether these options are good or otherwise. (Judging is done in Step 4.) Always remember that maintaining the status quo (i.e. to do nothing) is always one of the options that you must consider.
- Evaluate your possible solutions generated in Step 3 against your criteria set in Step 2. Do I have to evaluate every alternative? The answer is no. Just omit those that are obviously out of this world, so that you don't have to waste time.
- Select the best alternative available to you.
Does it mean that with this decision-making model, I can solve each and every of my life's problems? The answer, unfortunately, is no. Whenever we encounter a difficulty, we call it a "problem" in layman's language. In the field of problem-solving, however, "problems" are distinguished from "constraints". A constraint, by definition, is a difficulty that is beyond your available resources to solve, e.g. you do not have the authority in your company to take a course of action, if the person with authority refuses to solve the problem. To avoid banging your head against the wall, therefore, it is imperative that you distinguish as early as possible whether your difficulty is indeed a "problem" or a mere "constraint".
1. Identify what your problem is.
Supposing you want to move to a new housing area... To limit the length of this example, let's assume that you have already decided on which housing area you want and the only problem that remains to be solved is which house to purchase, out of 3 possible alternatives.
2. Determine what your criteria are. What are your "must have" and what are your wants (i.e. things that are not absolutely necessarily but if you have it, so much the better.)
List down all the criteria you have in mind. If you have a budget of $300,000 (inclusive of a housing loan), then this forms one of your criteria and a very important one at that because, even if you like a house very much but it cost more than $300,000, you would not be able to afford it. Another criterion could be a minimum of 3 bedrooms, but if you only want 3 bedrooms and nothing more, just specify your criterion accordingly. Of course you would like your house to be as near to your workplace, your children's schools, and the shopping complexes, as possible. List all of them down.
3. Generate as many alternatives as possible.
As mentioned earlier, we have shortlisted our options to 3 houses, after your housing search.
4. Evaluate your alternatives against your criteria.
Here is where you evaluate your alternatives against the criteria you have set in Step (2). Criteria are divided into 2 types: (1) MUST; and (2) WANTS.
Draw a chart like the below. Discard the houses that fail to meet your MUST criteria. Then for the remaining houses, give weighted points to those that meet your wants, as not all houses will meet your wants fully.
What are weighted points? Not all criteria would be equally important to you, so assign different weightage for each criteria, based on its importance to you. The weightage for all your "wants" must add up to 100%.
How do I assign points to each "wants"? Take the best house for the criterion and assign it full marks. Then for the other houses, prorate the points accordingly, based on your best house option. But what if the criterion is "neighborhood conditions", something subjective? Well, do the same thing. Assign full marks to the house that has the best neighborhood environment and give relative marks to the other houses.
5. Select the best alternative available to you.
After you have done Step (4), you will end up with a table like the one below and the solution becomes crystal clear. Choose the house that has the highest points.
P/S: I hope you will find this model helpful in solving your life's many other problems, e.g. choosing the right car or a job. (Now, of course, if you don't have at least 2 options, you have no choice and there's nothing to decide.) Lastly, if you are unsure of how to use this model when encountering a problem, you can leave a comment below and I will try my level best to help you solve it.