Welcome to the first edition of Problem Solving Inc., my newsletter that will explore everything problem solving.
What is problem solving? Why is it an important field of study? What can you benefit by learning about problem solving? What are some great problem-solving techniques? All good questions that will be answered in future newsletters.
But first, I want to present an introduction to problem solving, by referencing one of my favorite films of all time: Groundhog Day, released in 1993. The film is beloved by many and seriously analyzed for both its religious and philosophical content. This introduction will hopefully motivate not only interest in why problem solving is a very worthwhile subject to study, but also interest in why Groundhog Day is such a fantastic movie. If you somehow not seen it, please check it out. There is a lot to learn about how to solve some of life’s problems; furthermore, it is a very enjoyable film.
Spoiler Alert: Major plot points of the movie will be revealed below and in following newsletters…
Phil Connors (the protagonist of Groundhog Day) is a grouch. Professionally, he is a TV weatherman. Arrogant, entitled, narcissistic all describe him well. The movie is framed around Phil and his crew travelling to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for the annual Groundhog Day festivities. Played by the brilliant Bill Murray, in a wonderful comedic performance (in a lifetime of Oscar worthy performances), Phil is the definition of self-satisfied and bored. He is stuck in his life, both metaphorically, and in reality. This is a problem he is aware of in a sense, but events later in the movie will bring that problem front and center.
After going through the motions of doing his job reporting about the festivities on February 2nd (Groundhog Day), with a few plot-driven complications thrown in, Phil awakens the “next day” to find that he is reliving the events of the prior day all over again, almost exactly in the same way, except for his own actions and the reactions they cause (a key point). Deeply confused by all this at first, Phil seeks a quick initial answer to his problem: it’s just déjà vu (the feeling that you have experienced a current event before). This cursory examination and “easy” explanation of his situation does not even allow him to see, much less consider, his real problem.
Often, we are driven to quick answers to troubling questions, readily packaged solutions to thorny problems. These early solution attempts often prevent us from fully understanding the real problem, by distracting our attention away from accurate problem formulation and understanding.
After several unsuccessful attempts to escape, Phil comes to the realization that he is stuck in some sort of time circuit, each day repeated, with subtle variations in every day caused by his actions and behaviors, which can and do affect others and his current reality.
At this point in the film, Phil is confronted with a deeply profound problem: What is he to do to get out of the loop and return to a normal world? Now that's a real problem, one that takes him on a journey of self-discovery and profound personal growth. The difficulty for Phil is that he is unaware of whether a solution even exists (progressing to the next day) that is ever attainable (read later newsletters to follow on the P vs NP problem in computer science and math). Did Phil, as a movie-based character, consciously think about his problem this way in the film? Probably not, although we really don't know, since the movie is a comedy, and not a lecture (or is it?); additionally, we don't have direct access (or all that much revealing dialogue) into Phil's mind.
Problems crop up in every aspect of daily life (not as profound maybe as Phil's problem, but important to us nonetheless). Whether trying to solve a difficult math problem, solve a tricky Sudoku, or figure out how to save an important friendship, we are confronted every day by problems, both small and big, that we are required or want to try to solve.
Problems can also appear overwhelming at first, but at least some of these problems will become more solvable as more clever and insightful techniques or methods are employed or developed.
Problems (and many times their solutions) can lead to other problems, creating a seemingly never-ending cycle, as subsequent developments create more or new challenges. Solutions to one problem, it has been said, often create or lead to new problems. Answers create more questions. Luckily, many life problems are not so complex, and may yield to a creative solution under the right conditions.
Phil’s solution to his main problem requires the equivalent of arguably many years of experience to accomplish (there are fans that attempt to calculate the exact number of years that Phil is trapped in the time circuit - answers vary).
Phil’s solutions are somewhat ingenious but need repeated (hundreds to thousands of) applications to work successfully. His initial assumptions substantially hamper his progress, another aspect of problem solving I will discuss later.
What you believe about the nature of a problem often determines the direction you take to solve it.
So, the problem-solving process he uses is neither direct, nor efficient. But he is successful in the end, though maybe not as he exactly planned. Again, I ask: Is Phil aware of his problem-solving process? He does eventually follow a direct method, sloppily at first, but more focused later.
The conclusion I have reached is that he is aware that a problem exists, and that the only way to solve it is to follow certain logical steps towards a solution. By definition, he is a problem solver. He finds his solution, accomplishes his goal(s), and is freed from his time prison.
Along the way to the solution to his main problem, he additionally solves numerous other problems; however, he discovers to his dismay that some problems have no solutions (one subplot in particular contains an extremely poignant scene that highlights the futility of repeated desperate efforts to solve an unsolvable problem). This particular sequence of scenes also contradicts Phil's distorted notion that he is a sort of all-powerful deity. Sometimes no matter what we do, a problem can't be solved to our satisfaction. Even worse, some problems just can't be solved. Such is the nature of both problems and life...
Could Phil have solved his problems quicker had he been an expert problem solver? The movie has an embedded affirmative answer (more on that later).
While Groundhog Day is quite clearly a comedy, it also contains many philosophical elements, and has a lot to say (in both a direct and indirect way) about the necessity to have problem-solving prowess. Absent this, Phil would have been stuck forever where he was, condemned to repeat his miserable existence over and over again.
In the next few newsletters, I will look more deeply at the problem-solving methods Phil uses, and begin to discuss how these solution tools relate to the everyday problems we all face in so many varied areas and aspects of life.
Thank you for being a part of my inaugural newsletter! I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. My sincere hope is that I can share my enthusiasm about problem solving with as many people as possible, while also providing both informative and useful content to those that want to learn more about how to become a problem-solving expert in every aspect of life!
Happy Problem Solving!
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What a great 1st newsletter and one I’ll look forward to reading with each new letter-chapter. Great writing with such insight. Will look forward to the next.
I really liked this. Very interesting read. Looking forward to more.