How many times are you willing to try solving a problem before you give up?
Human beings are incredibly intelligent, compared to most other animals. We’re used to solving a problem on the first try. We see a problem, a solution leaps into our mind, and we take action. I watch my 5-year-old daughter effortlessly solve problems every day. Electronic tablet on dad’s dresser, out of reach? Get chair. Problem solved.
From a little kid’s perspective, problems are either easy to solve, or impossible. If a solution doesn’t instantly spring to mind (or success doesn’t happen on the first try), most kids will quickly jump to “I can’t do that.” A parent’s job, of course, is to instill the sense of a possible solution in a child’s mind. Try again. Think about it. Try ten times if you need to. Try a different approach. Be stubborn (persistent). Be clever (creative).
Persistence and creative problem solving determine success and life satisfaction to a large extent. But neither come naturally. Almost all children, and most adults, get discouraged and give up after a few tries. Or even a single try.
So how do you teach persistence? And not just persistence, but creative, varied approaches to problem solving? Because it’s not enough to just pound away at a problem with the same inefficient, poorly planned approach. Stubbornness alone won’t get you very far. If you want to your child to have a rich, satisfying adulthood, you want to to encourage both stubbornness and cleverness. Of course, this will make your job as the parent difficult, especially during the teenage years. Who wants a stubborn, wily teenager? Sounds like a nightmare. But those same personality traits may serve them well in adulthood.
Creative Problem Solving — Using All The Tools in the Box
Right now I’ve got a few difficult problems in my life. One family member is recovering from a psychotic episode, and experiencing cognitive difficulties; he is unable to keep track of time, money, and material objects. Another family member has negligible income, has run out of savings, and is recovering from a major illness. These problems are complex and shifting; when they are “solved” they don’t stay solved. At times I feel overwhelmed and frustrated by these “emergencies in slow motion.”
But another, more dispassionate, part of my mind, sees things differently. The problems have more variables, but that doesn’t mean they’re not solvable. If one approach doesn’t yield results, a different strategy might work better. For example, a problem might be approached in one or more of the following ways:
Empiricism: What approaches have worked before, for other families?
Rationalism: Using my ability to reason, what approaches can I imagine that should work?
Subjectivism: How do my own thoughts and attitudes influence the problem (and what exactly am I perceiving as a problem)?
Intuition: What’s my gut feeling about the best way to proceed?
Network analysis: What role is everyone playing, and how do we influence each other, and how can we help each other and improve our communication?
Massive iterations with feedback: Just keep trying stuff, and adjusting behavior based on the results of each failed attempt, until something works.
(I’ve written in detail about each approach in posts such as this one.)
These are just some of the tools we have in our cognitive tool kits. In practice I don’t formally attempt each approach separately. I just keep asking myself questions, trying to trigger new lines of thought.
As a family, we’re supporting each other and doing pretty well. And people are getting the help they need. There are lights at the ends of the tunnels.
How To Teach Persistence and Creative Problem Solving
Stubbornness and cleverness might be genetic. I don’t think there’s anything my parents could have done to not have a stubborn child. But persistence (a more evolved form of stubbornness) can be taught. How? Praising effort, instead of success. Rejecting “I can’t do that.” Emphasizing that 10 or even 100 failed attempts is not embarrassing, but normal. Breaking down problems into smaller, more approachable chunks.
Being a good role model is maybe even more important. How do I approach the problems in my own life? How does the family solve problems together?
The silver lining of any problem is that in facing it we become stronger, more resilient, and more resourceful (both individually and collectively). Not in a “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger” sense (strokes left Nietzche paralyzed on the left side, and much weaker), but in the sense that confronting difficulty is good exercise. We don’t choose what knocks us down, but to some extent we can choose when and how to get up. Often, we may find ourselves better positioned than before.