it’s too big

You are an active participant in your own life. You work hard, pay attention, and contribute to reaching and exceeding goals. You improve your skills, build your character, and try to understand issues from many sides. You are patient. You don’t whine. You get help. You talk it out with friends and speak to the experts. You try so hard, and maybe even make some progress.

But the problem persists. It doesn’t go away, even with you trying to chip away at it every day. It happens to all of us: the problem is simply bigger and more complex than we are. And sometimes we just can’t solve it. We can’t beat it. It gets us.

As a citizen of the United States, a country built on the principles and culture of self-reliance and going it alone, living in what’s frequently touted as the greatest country in the world, filled with opportunity for all, we are told, there can be a marked tendency to believe that success is available just around the corner if we’re doing all the right things. The truth is, sometimes it just isn’t. And our problem does not have to do with how hard we are working, our positive outlook, or how much we want it. The problem is simply too big for us. We don’t have control.

Yesterday, my email from Daily Worth arrived in my mailbox with Caitlin Kelly’s introduction to Pound Foolish: Exploring the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry by Forbes columnist Helaine Olen. The nature of Ms. Olen’s work resonated with me, as I’ve spent hours with a friend listening to her excellent and dogged research of how the economic disasters of the past several years have impacted the lives of humans, often with tsunami-like force and resulting devastation. Some of us are managing, and some of us are devastated, and much of it has to do with uncontrollable, destroying force that indiscriminately chooses its victims. Terminal illness. Financial bankruptcy. A failing marriage. Sometimes we can’t stop it, we can’t solve it.

Olen’s work reminds us that no matter how many gurus tell us they have the answer if you only do this or this or this, the problem, the circumstances, the solution may not be in our control. Self-help experts abound; indeed, we are exploring professional and personal growth here.

Keep perspective, my friends. Broaden and keep perspective.

the nature of problem-solving

This weekend, I was doing something I don’t really like to do: home repair. My facility with tools is about a 4 out of 10. My knowledge of home repair is about a 2 out of 10. My interest in home repair is about a 3 out of 10. You get the idea. Luckily, my LIFELINE is a 10 out of 10!

When I realized I was trying to fit a 5/16 inch drill bit in a 1/4 inch electric drill . . . well, I had no idea where to go from there. The trusted lifeline — my brother (who is incredulous that anyone would pay $80/hour for the “simplest” of home repair tasks (which I have often done, with much gratitude to the service provider)) — came to the rescue. He told me that my 1/4 inch drill bit could, if carefully manipulated, create a hole large enough for a 5/16″ plastic anchor to be pushed into. It sounds so simple, but my knowledge and experience are so limited. Could I have come to that solution on my own? Maybe, in 3 years, if left to my own devices . . . there is much that is already known, however, and having someone who can share that knowledge is a God-send.

I was dealing with a known problem, and the circumstances and facts were not that unusual. While we can always learn from accumulated knowledge and should do so when there, unique circumstances, conditions, personalities, and lives present problems that are novel. Indeed, the “utopia” in which all foreseeable problems are solved and the solution recorded is a unreliable, undesirable (and frightening! . . . more in a future post), and unlikely, scenario. The need for ongoing problem-solving will be with us for eternity (I hope).

What is problem-solving, anyway? Problem-solving seems to fall into two major domains: 1) mathematics and 2) problem-solving where some difficulty or obstacle is encountered where one needs to overcome the obstacle to get from the current state to the desired state. Even though those types of problem-solving are often considered separate, there can often be overlap and knowledge gained from the mathematics discipline to other disciplines.

Consider George Polya’s classic book, How to Solve It. Polya was a teacher of mathematics and wrote How to Solve It to provide teachers a way of assisting their students in learning to solve problems, and students a direct means of discovering the same. It is considered “one of the most successful mathematics books ever written” (Forward by John H. Conway), but many readers through the past decade have found it “of help in attacking any problem that can be ‘reasoned’ out — from building a bridge to winning a game of anagrams.” (From reviews of the original edition.)

I will be bringing more of Polya’s wisdom to you in future posts, but today, I offer you a link to a summary of Polya’s “list,” by Richard Neufeld of California Polytechnic State University.

What do you think?

a Sunday puzzler

If you appreciate the brilliant beauty of National Geographic photographs and found the jigsaw puzzle from last week a fun way to stimulate your brain on the weekend, here is a link to a bigger challenge: Choose a National Geographic photo of your choice and generate a jigsaw on the fly: an almost pure white snow scene – for those of you who are expert jigsaw puzzlers! – or a photo filled with a thousand colors for an easier solution. Be sure to look at the picture closely and intently before you start. Happy Sunday!

Books: Creating Time

Last Friday, I shared that I am reading Creating Time by Marney K. Makridakis. So, this week, I read the first three chapters.

This is a fun book with a good mix of fascinating facts and information (did you know that one second equals 9,192,631,770 oscillations of the undisturbed cesium atom?) and solid coaching on how to examine and change our relationship with time. In Chapter One, there are suggestions for time-keeping alternatives: instead of measuring 60 minutes, how about measuring how much joy you feel or how relaxed you feel? I have yet to complete my assignment from the first chapter, making a box decorated in a time motif that will hold my beliefs about time, but I am hoping to show it to you soon!

Chapter Two goes on to help the reader explore his or her relationship with time. I love this:

One of the most common desires is to have time that is “managed”: time that is efficient and productive. In addition to efficient time, we also need other types of time, including . . Dream time . . . Concentrated time . . . Self-care time . . Private time . . Planning/preparation time . . .

Ms. Makridakis explores how we would be if we didn’t worry about time (See “Exploring Your Time Anxiety”!) and how we can learn to trust and befriend time. She reintroduces us to the concept of divine timing and its gifts.

Chapter Three brought to my attention, once again, my serious lack of science education and knowledge, as it delves into some of the implications of Einstein’s theory of special relativity (did you know that Einstein had two theories of relativity, special and general??). However, Ms. Makridakis is most kind, explaining time and relativity gently and practically. She shows us “how easily our perception of time is altered, simply by the location of the mind’s focus” and introduces her “Theory of Wellativity.”

Ms. Makridakis’ wonderful Theory of Wellativity is a practical approach to consciously controlling time by adjusting inner relativity. Her specific formula looks like this:


which means Fulfillment = Time + Imagination(squared)

What I love about this book is that it is creative and imaginative and substantive. Every page I turn has real prompts for changing my relationship with time. While the material is a pleasure to read, it can benefit from deeper engagement. This weekend I intend to circle back through the first three chapters, rereading each and completing the art assignments to fully engage in the material. I’ll keep you posted!

Some Self-Assessment

Today, we’re going to do a self-assessment of our problem-solving skills via Mind Tools. I have found Mind Tools a good resource for helping me look at areas in which I need to grow to forward my work. Today, I encourage you to take a few minutes to take its quiz: How Good Are You at Solving Problems?

I confess that my results were that I am a little “hit and miss” when it comes to problem-solving, based on this quiz and Mind Tools’ problem-solving methods. What is your score? More importantly, what problem-solving ideas proposed by Mind Tools do you find most intriguing? Easiest to see yourself adopting? Most unreasonable?

We will be exploring more problem-solving methods, including Polya’s classic work, How To Solve It, in future posts.

And finally, Happy Saint Valentine’s Day! The love and romance quizzes out there are too numerous to mention. I leave you simply with this: let us love one another.

Wednesday’s Toolbox: technological competence

Technology is a common language of our time, and if we don’t “speak” it, we are not going to be part of everyday conversation. No one can afford to ignore technology because they’re not “that type” or it’s “too complicated.” Learn to talk or be left out.

It’s not as hard as you think. The resources are everywhere. Start by not ignoring the technology news, by asking friends about their favorite technology and what it does for them, and checking out web resources to add to your technology skill set. Here is a great one for today: ALISON’s Digital Literacy & IT Skills. There are over 137 free courses available!

Go grab some technology skills.

triumph of discovery

A great discovery solves a great problem but there is a grain of discovery in the solution of any problem. Your problem may be modest; but if it challenges your curiosity and brings into play your inventive faculties, and if you solve it by your own means, you may experience the tension and enjoy the triumph of discovery.

G. Polya
From the Preface to the First Printing
August 1, 1944
How to Solve It

skills for success: delayed gratification

In 1972, psychologist Walter Mischel led a now well-known experiment (the Stanford Marshmallow experiment) studying delayed gratification. Children aged three and a half years to five and a half years were each offered a marshmallow (or another sweet treat), to be eaten immediately — or two marshmallows, to be given after they had waited 15 minutes when the tester returned. The experimental researchers noted that a minority of the children ate the marshmallow right after the testers left, some children tried to wait to eat the treat but were unsuccessful, and some children were successful in waiting until the testers returned and were given a second marshmallow. The researchers analyzed how long each child was able to wait and then, years later, were able to correlate greater later success with longer delayed gratification. Success was measured in descriptions by the children’s parents as to competency and higher SAT scores. Dr. Mischel and his team concluded that greater self control led to more success in life. Their conclusions continue to be examined in further studies, as to other variables that may correlate with delayed gratification and success.

While the cognitive processes of delayed gratification will continue to be studied (which I hope to examine further here), society holds positively the skill of delaying gratification, also referred to as self-control or impulse control. Indeed, it is easy to rationally see that greater rewards often come from controlling our impulses and taking the long view — whether riding out a year or two of low monetary return for a higher return on investment, giving up the taste of chocolate cake for a fitter body, holding our tongue during a heated moment to discuss the conflict more reasonably at a later time, working with minimal reward for years in order to become an expert in a field, or skipping the third cocktail in order to have a clearer head the next day. Passing up short-term gains for long-term rewards can serve us well. We appreciate the rewards more, can responsibly manage our finances and health, and forgo the frustration of never receiving what we truly want in life — whether a fulfilling job, a happy marriage, internal peace, or a myriad other worthy goals.

Fortunately, impulse control and the ability to delay gratification for longer periods of time can be cultivated and practiced. The more we practice, the better we get and the more rewards will come. Try starting with just one impulse you’d like to control better and practice this week using some or all of the following techniques. Choose something for which some longer-term reward can be seen within a week or few weeks; let’s practice on the “easy” stuff first!


Here are some additional great ideas to help with impulse control from the folks at Many Years Young.

Zero Dark Thirty

Yesterday, I saw the movie Zero Dark Thirty which portrays the search for and killing of Osama Bin Laden, or as the protagonist CIA agent character referenced him in the movie, UBL. Actor Jessica Chastain plays the character of the real-life CIA agent who, as it appears in the film, followed up on a lead she would not let go of — whether through superior intelligence or intuition/hunch or a combination of science and art (the film suggests all three). She did much gritty, tedious, dedicated work to arrive at her convictions, and then, persistently pursued the next logical action. True or not, I love the scenes where the character writes a number in white-board marker on her boss’s window every day — the number of days no follow-up action had been taken after her finding of UBL’s location. 21, 48, 80, 100 days and on; she writes the number every day, pushing him to take the case to the decision-makers.

Hard, dedicated work. Sound convictions. Persistence. It’s certainly not a new formula, but one of which we need to remind ourselves. Chastain’s character spent ten years following and tracking one good lead, which she found after relentlessly reviewing interrogation tapes. It would be easy to say that she had a noble and grand purpose, that she had much more important work than we. But then we would be selling both short. Protection of life from harm is so that life may go on in its every-day-ness, its teaching and dusting and road-building and nursing and marketing, . . . and, and, and . . . Honest work in and of itself is good and noble. Don’t sell yourself — or those who work so hard to protect us and our work — short.

Are you doing honest work? Work hard. Find your convictions. Persist to their logical outcomes.