Problem Solving Re: Groundhog Day (1993) - Part II
How Phil Connors solves a most difficult problem - again and again
Welcome back! Thank you to all those who have read this newsletter and given me their encouragement!
For those who are new here, please read Part I of this newsletter for background information and exposition. Also, you might check out my post Why Subscribe to Problem Solving Inc.?
To recap: Phil Connors, the protagonist of the movie Groundhog Day, is trapped in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, experiencing the events of the same day, February 2 (Groundhog Day), over and over, with slight variations in the day based on the choices he makes, and how other people respond to him. Phil’s actions (and behaviors) directly produce reactions in others, in a kind of feedback loop, that drives him to calibrate his actions to achieve even more favorable results (at first, for him only, but later, more generously and selflessly for others). Phil's actions are almost always calculated, almost always manipulative, almost always purposeful.
As stated in my previous post, there is no doubt that Phil is inherently a problem solver: his actions are goal-based (implicitly at first towards getting him out of his metaphorical hell, then on to his purgatory, and finally on to his heaven). I will not discuss the many layered implications of Phil’s journey as it relates to philosophy and religion (there is much discussion of that elsewhere), but clearly there is a progression and movement towards a goal state.
Phil is facing a big main problem (he’s trapped and needs to get out), and to solve that problem he must overcome a multitude of other tricky problems that only contribute partial solutions to the main problem. Of course, his challenges are never portrayed in such a dry, procedural way, or explicitly stated as problems; it is a comedy after all, but the truth is, he is facing a metaphysical problem of epic proportions. With that background, let me provide some information, detail, and explanation on what a problem really is…
One definition of a problem:
A situation, event, condition, or question that exists, the circumstances of which causes one to believe or consider the possibility that a better outcome, state of affairs, or answer is possible (at least theoretically) than what currently exists. This difference between what is and what could be may cause distress, dissatisfaction, displeasure and may lead to a desire to seek a better outcome (often referred to as a solution).
This is not the only definition of a problem, of course, but it conveys enough to get us started. A general definition though it may be, it captures the essence of any problem, even technical ones. One is not where one wants to be - something is lacking: There is a better way to do something, improved circumstances, a more favorable outcome. A problem never exists in a vacuum. There are always conditions, boundaries, limits, degrees of freedom of movement that frame a problem. A problem exists as a unsatisfactory potential; therefore, problems also relate to the idea of goals, the attainment of some satisfaction with a partial or complete solution that is better than what existed before, a better answer to a question.
So, Phil is literally NOT where he wants to be (in both space and time), and figuratively (he is unhappy, miserable, lonely). The conditions he finds himself in, and the main problem (or should I say set of problems, because there are both interconnected and interrelated) set the stage for the rest of the movie.
What does Phil do about his problem? What problem-solving methods does he use or not use? What dysfunctional problem-solving strategies does he employ? How do we know that Phil is not just acting randomly? I'm going to answer those questions below.
At first, much like his personality, Phil approaches his deepening recognition that something is terribly wrong with sarcasm. For the most part, initially he doesn't acknowledge that a problem even really exists. He knows that he's in a very weird situation, but in a way he's in denial about what his problem really is and why he might be where he's at – stuck. Of course, in the beginning the people that he shares his problem with are both incredulous and doubtful of Phil's sanity. His denial that a deeper problem exists is one issue that is very common with people who face problems of uncertain nature, scope, and background. Often we may see an obvious problem right in front of us, but miss the underlying layers that compose that problem. Not seeing the true structure of a problem will invariably lead us down a fruitless path towards a solution. That's exactly what happens to Phil.
As the movie progresses, he begins to take another problem-solving approach that also undercuts a more direct solution: that of arrogance, avoidance, and over-certainty. One may ask: Are these problem-solving strategies? Of course they are - one can always employ poor, inefficient, resource depleting strategies to solve problems. Avoiding awful problem-solving techniques is just as important as knowing which ones to use. Phil begins to believe that even though he can't explain where he is at or why, his ability to predict the future is evidence of some godlike ability. Often people approach problems of which there are complicated solutions with a type of arrogance that the problem is actually not a problem at all. Phil's disbelief and concomitant belief in his superiority leads to hubris, and then to a period of deep suffering.
One of the problem-solving methods that Phil begins to use later in the movie is that of trial and error. His repeated attempts at getting the object of his desire, Rita (played perfectly by the actress Andie MacDowell), to take him seriously and pay attention to him points to a deliberate and planned attack. Phil works through this “Rita” problem throughout the movie by refinement: with each attempted solution he gets nearer and nearer the goal state, that of persuading Rita that he is worthy of her affection. Phil's "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again" method is actually very common one in science. Look at great inventors like Edison, for example. It's not a sophisticated strategy, of course, but it often works, because each time you fail you learn a little more, you gain more information, you tweak and turn the knobs, inching closer and closer to a solution. I think it's clear that almost from the very beginning Phil is not acting randomly. Interestingly, there is much literature to suggest that, especially in mathematics, a random approach may actually be beneficial and produce surprising results. Often a random approach to solving a problem may lead to a very creative solution. That is not to suggest that just trying any random action, or applying a random technique, may be the most efficient method. The real benefit may be that we get out of a rut, avoid overly complex techniques, and try new approaches.
I am aware that some of what I'm discussing in relation to Phil's problem-solving strategies may at first seem inapplicable to everyday problem solving, or the kind of problem solving used in math and science. I'm going to seek to make this connection clearer in following newsletters, and furthermore, why at its heart, Groundhog Day is really a movie that, like most great movies, focuses on a character with a big problem that needs to be solved.
In the following newsletters I'm going to get more specific about which problem-solving methods Phil uses that are the most beneficial to him, and discuss implications of how Phil's approach to his problems can be of benefit to us all.
Happy Problem Solving!