Sunday, March 30, 2014

Motivational Pearl: Work the problem.

In Chapter 28 of Pearls from Sand: How Small Encounters Lead to Powerful Lessons I mentioned that I never acquired the commendable personal characteristics of tenacity and perseverance. Historically, when I became frustrated dealing with a difficult problem, I would prefer to move on to a different activity instead of pushing through the challenge to a solution. It feels so good when you stop beating your head against the wall. However, these days I try to keep another, more motivating message in mind when I feel stuck on a problem.

Perhaps you remember the 1995 movie Apollo 13. It tells the harrowing tale of an Apollo lunar-landing mission in 1970 that suffered a near catastrophe on the way to the moon. An explosion in an oxygen tank severely damaged the spacecraft. As carbon dioxide levels in the capsule rose dangerously high, the NASA engineers back on Earth had to quickly jury-rig a carbon dioxide scrubbing mechanism from whatever components were available on board. In the movie, the engineers look overwhelmed by the pressure of trying to save the lives of the astronauts under incredible time and materials constraints. Flight Director Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris) tells them, “Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.”

“Work the problem” has now become my internal catchphrase when I confront a difficult obstacle. Whether it’s an error I can’t figure out on my computer, a home-repair challenge, or a tough Sudoku puzzle, I now remind myself to “work the problem” when frustration begins to set in. I still can’t solve every puzzle I try, but this strategy usually works.

Recently my wife showed me a necklace whose four strands of beads had become hopelessly entangled. It was a real Gordian Knot, an inch-thick wadded mass of fine silver chains. Untangling it seemed impossible. But I realized that untangling was just a matter of methodically trying to undo the actions that had led to the wad in the first place. “Work the problem,” I kept telling myself, as I carefully teased the entwined strands apart. It took more than an hour of tedious manipulation, but I got there. I just kept working the problem, one knot at a time.

Okay, so untangling a necklace isn’t as dramatic as saving the lives of three imperiled astronauts. But this small victory was still gratifying to me because I didn’t get irritated or despair of finding a solution like I would have in the past. If you’re like me and you get frustrated easily, don’t give up. You’re smart: you can probably work your way through the challenge if you take your time. Think carefully, don’t panic, and just work the problem.

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