Problem solving. Without problems, we can’t learn, find happiness or acquire wisdom. The very process of solving our problems gives life its meaning. Yet far too many prefer to live a problem-free existence by pretending they don’t exist or hoping they’ll eventually disappear. Some do but most get bigger. And some aren’t really ours to solve, but as good souls we often think they are. Some are a consequence of the disconnect between the way things are and the way we think they ought to be. Then there are those for which we simply don’t have the answers – because life doesn’t come with an instruction manual for overcoming every annoying challenge we encounter.
Rare are those who actually seek out and embrace contentious problems. But they do exist and they possess a unique talent. They are the ones who know what they can and cannot do. They draw “maps” for getting from where they are to where they want to end up. They are consumed with the need to revise and refine their maps from the lessons learned from failure as much as enquiry. They’re constantly redefining their understanding of how the world actually works. And they understand that knowing is the enemy of learning. As someone once said, you can tell a clever man by his answers and a wise man by his questions. So they ask a lot of really good questions.
Problem solvers are readers and listeners. Neither pride nor ego interfere with their desire to discover more. They seek advice and feedback from anyone willing to offer it. They’re dedicated to the relentless search to find a better way. They’re receptive to honest, realistic self-assessment and willingly engage in dialogue with those with whom they disagree. They expose their ideas and plans to the criticism of others in the relentless search for even better answers or suggestions. They consider discomfort and confusion as the stepping stones in search of the holy grail – clarity and truth. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, what hurts us instructs us. Goethe said, “Everything is hard before it gets easy.” And a Hawaiian proverb tells us that no cliff is so tall it cannot be climbed. This is the mantra of those who I admire – the genuine problem solvers.
Introductions. On first meeting others, we have less than ten seconds to make a positive impression. A lot of people try to establish instant likeability with pretty standard, but dumb, questions such as “So, what do you do?” I advise against this approach. Never ask nor respond by talking about your work because that makes you a commodity. The objective should be to come across as someone really interesting to know. Which means you’re different. Being better is temporary; being different is forever. Tell them who you are, not what you do. Pique their interest by saying something like “I solve problems for people.” The objective in engaging others is to get them to ask better questions, such as “Can you tell me more?” or “What does that mean?” Now you’re having a conversation rather than a perfunctory swapping of business credentials. Sooner or later, the discussion will come around to what each of you does for a living.
Begin your introduction with a non-work-related question that stimulates an opportunity to discover common interests. That’s the essence of ‘shmoozing’– a Yiddish term that means a heart-to-heart exchange. Here’s a few questions you might start with: Where did you go to school? What do you do for fun (or when you’re really bored)? What’s your biggest challenge right now? What’s the best thing that happened to you this week? Note the focus of these questions is on them, not on you. Regardless of which question you choose or invent to fit the individual, the important thing is to ask one so open-ended and so unexpected that it enables the other to respond in a more intriguing, non-work related way. Building relationships beyond what you each do for a living is deeper, richer and longer lasting. It’s an antidote to the awkwardness felt in meeting those with whom we want to leave a good initial impression.
Perfectionism. The pursuit of perfection is not a notable strength. While some see it as striving for excellence, it’s also linked to emotional distress, relationship dysfunction and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Rather than a recipe for success, perfectionism is the blueprint for self-defeat. Perfectionists set impossibly high, invariably unattainable, standards and then severely criticize themselves for failing to achieve them. Ultimately, they’re afraid of failure, motivated by a strong sense of obligation (rather than enthusiasm for healthy challenges) and preoccupied with the notion that others will disapprove of them. In their quest to avoid mistakes, they stifle their creativity and avoid risk taking.
There’s no such thing as flawless performance. We only get better by failing and recalibrating. A perfectionist is a tough person to coach – in my work, I’ve met a few – because he doesn’t reveal areas of weakness in need of attention. Without a sense of curiosity, inquiry and risk intelligence about what went wrong and a willingness to experiment, a coach’s tools of affirmation, validation and encouragement are useless. If there might be an avenue for mitigating a perfectionist’s self-imposed and self-critical expectations, it’s would be to demonstrate with hard evidence that the quality of one’s effort does not hinge on the amount of time spent on it. And that progress is always achievable, while perfection is not.