Why The Way of the Problem Solver


I’m face-pressed into the concrete, lying on the floor, squinting under the stove. My five year old lost a piece of Lego. He runs to get a flashlight. It’s impossible to reach – his arms are too short, mine are too thick, to work our way deep under the heavy steel oven. We can see a layer of dust scum under the oven – the beast hasn’t moved since it was installed 8 years ago, because it is impossible to move. We scratch our heads for a minute.

It is important to me, has been important from the word go, that he sees these moments as opportunities, as problems to solve, instead of as endings, brick walls, cues to have a tantrum or a meltdown or a dummy spit. Mostly, because I hate the dummy spits. And like a good marketer, I’ve spun this as well as I can. “Well, let’s think of a solution. Hmm,” I say. “What can we do?” Even if I’m thinking, ferfuckssakes, I told you not to play with that under my feet in the kitchen. “Hmm, what ideas do you have?” It’s embedded enough, in our little home, that he initiates solutions now on his on. He runs for the flashlight. He ponders. He grabs the broomstick. It’s too unwieldy. “Momma, can you think of something that might help?” We grab the swiffer handle with the bendable arm. Now we’re cooking. We manoeuvre the piece of Lego back from beyond. The satisfaction is immense.

This is how I hope to plant a seed for him. In the face of the insurmountable, disappointment, a roadblock, start thinking. That’s when the fun begins.

I don’t know what the future holds. And I’m deeply afraid that it’s dark and terrifying. We’re on the cusp of the 6th Great Extinction. You know the litany of things that inject grim shadows into the crystal ball.

Photo by Angela Percival

But I am trying to arm him, with what he might need, to be part of the more beautiful version of the future. And one of the best things I endeavour to tend in him, in us both now, is a problem-solving mind. It demands creative grit – the stickwithitiveness that means he’s not defined by a fixed state of being (ie I am smart, I must protect the illusion of my smartness at all costs) but by a practical willingness to act, to stop, to pause, to iterate (ie I try hard. I don’t give up.) And it starts with having the courage to show up.

It is the most forward-thinking way of being I can conjure. It is how I stockpile for an uncertain future.

This is my bunker. A boy. And all around me, an army of problem-solvers. Not just engineers or boffins with 160+ IQs. But yarn-bombers and canners and farmers and kindergarten teachers and soccer coaches and filmmakers and architects and photographers and dads…. All of us.

I know a woman who was just celebrated as 2018’s Lawyer of the Year in Queensland Australia. In her acceptance speech, she blasted the legal system for its way of fetishizing the problems as opportunities to do battle. She explained that the way the law is practised invites lawyers to solve problems by first making them bigger and by then aggressively holding a position until a decision is imposed or a compromise based on brinkmanship is reached. She said this way of thinking doesn’t come naturally to her, but she’s been taught that that is how her job is done and she’s learned to excel at it. But she’s exhausted by it. And it dims her light. And what she wants, is for all her colleagues to rethink this, to evolve it, to work out “how to practice as a problem solver not a gladiator.”

The gladiator story, the David and Goliath struggle of a small brave hero up against a massive juggernaut of a problem, is how we tell stories too, stories about problem solvers.

But I think we need to start calling bullshit on this story.

I sure as heck don’t want to send my son out onto that battlefield, armed only with a slingshot and some delusional idea of stickwithitiveness, to stare down inhumanly large monsters and impossible odds.

Maybe, in the stories we begin to tell, we need to stop offering happy endings. We stop blowing the story’s problem up, as if it’s singular and disconnected from anything else. We stop looking for the one bad guy to pin it all on. We wade in. We look around. We realize it’s kind of messy. We ask questions. We stay humble. We prototype and iterate and collaborate. We counter our frustration with a commitment to showing up.

It’s real life. And we need to say it as it is. Because the formulae are broken. They promise happy endings that aren’t there, and resolutions that aren’t coming. Every solution will need revisiting, adapting, abandoning, refreshing. The process might need tweaking or finessing. But the thing that does remain constant is that we need to keep on showing up. The natural world begs it of us.

Problem solving and tool use is humanity’s genius, and downfall, all rolled into one.

I have had the remarkable opportunity, this past year, to work as part of a creative team at Arc’teryx, telling stories about Problem Solvers, building this idea that great design, today, is not about solving for a better zipper, but a better world. It’s not about fetishing technology, as the panacea and almighty solution;  is not about wandering in the woods of design process. It’s not about the product as proof. It’s not necessarily about brilliant inventors of who have solved problems with their genius.

Photo by Angela Percival

It’s about answering the call.

To show up.

With whatever you have to offer.

Your idiosyncratic gift. Your unique ability. Your humility. Your willingness to contribute.

To join an army of problem-solvers.

The series, The Problem Solvers, launches on www.arcteryx.com August 1, 2019.

Read the manifesto, The Way of the Problem-Solver, here.



2 Comments Add yours

  1. kriwhi says:

    Thank you for this optimistic account of human potential. Especially today in America, with a multitude of senseless lives lost, a ray of hope somehow abounds? Thanks for your reflective thoughts….😢

    1. Lisa Richardson says:

      Thank you, Kristen. I do think it requires a powerful effort to hold onto a positive perspective… to keep reminding ourselves that our capacity to do amazing positive things is in equal measure to our capacity to do shocking heart breaking senseless or destructive things… instead of letting the weight of the latter paralyze us, maybe it’s a force to galvanize us, to respond with equal creativity, love, positive intention. I think it would feel Pollyanna and silly, if it weren’t so genuinely challenging… but deeply satisfying, too. I really appreciate your comment, and your reading… xo

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