Solving problems

My first column for the Village News – back in the summer of ‘04 – was an experiment.  If it hadn’t gone well, I doubt you’d be reading this today.

The subject of that particular piece was the weekly challenge of finding a copy of the Sunday New York Times in Enon.  Today, that challenge continues here in Staunton.

My addiction to the Sunday Times dates back two decades.  Early in my acting career, I spent a summer at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, in Allentown.  The Times was readily available there, and – once I discovered its abundance – I was hooked.  

Even today, if I don’t get hold of a copy of the Sunday Times, the whole day seems rather pointless.  

While most daily newspapers have long since shrunk to insignificance, the Sunday Times is massive – a week’s worth of reading material.  There’s an entire section devoted to opinion – most of it highly informative.  Another whole section is the Book Review, which – over the course of a year – will present the average, serious reader with more worthwhile options than our brief mortality will admit.

There’s a section on fashion, which I cannot take seriously – and a section on theatre and the arts, which I can.  There’s an excellent sports section, though – in my judgment – it pays too much attention to New York teams, and too little to the Green Bay Packers and St. Louis Cardinals.

But the section that sends me forth in quest of the Times – Sunday after Sunday, in all weathers – the magazine, with its puzzle pages.   The Sunday crossword is a weekly Everest.  I usually solve it, but – ever since I read that Bill Clinton often solves it in thirty minutes – the bar has been set much higher.

There are also two KenKen puzzles – one a daunting seven-square.  And there’s an additional puzzle, usually a quote acrostic.  All in all, a good two hours of vigorous mental exercise.

If anyone wants to understand the way I think, this clue will offer a key insight.  I love puzzles, because I love solving things.  That’s the way my mind works.

For thirty years now, according to repeated versions of the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, I’m always either and ENTJ or an INTJ – a problem-solver.

As an undergraduate at UVA, I took a Psychology course which involved a term-long role-playing game – a “simulated society.”  Before the game started, each player chose a secret personal agenda.  Weeks later, at the end of the game, we guessed each other’s agendas.

Most of my fellow players guessed that I had chosen power.  I’d chosen the success of the group – the problem solver’s goal.  My interest in power, which they had detected, wasn’t an end in itself – it was a means of achieving solutions to our “society’s” problems.

The problem-solving mind is perpetually engaged in a quest for different perspectives.  It attempts to examine a problem from every possible angle, seeking the angle that will yield the most elegant solution.

Poor problem-solving almost always results from seeing the world from a limited perspective.  It’s like the old saying about the man with only a hammer in his tool box.   He saw everything as a nail.

A man with more tools in his toolbox could look at a problem from more perspectives – and have a better chance of finding a solution.

The sort of mind that examines life from all angles is, of course, not much disposed to creeds or ideologies.

The problem-solver realizes that not every spiritual problem will yield to a particular religious perspective.  Not every societal problem will yield to an economic, sociological or legalistic solution.  Not every personal problem will yield to psychotherapy, vegetarianism, or meditation.

Of course, not every problem will yield to problem-solving, either – but then, a true problem-solver would expect that.  

At the Fishersville library, near the public computers, there’s a table which always holds an unfinished, thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle for the patrons to piece together.  Lately, I’ve started spending a few minutes a day making my contribution.  

A friend once told me of an older couple she knew who were having marital problems.  One year, their daughter gave them a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle for Christmas, and the couple started working on it.  They got hooked.  

Over the years, this couple came to spend a part of most evenings sitting quietly together, working at their latest jigsaw puzzle.  As they spent more time together, things gradually improved for their marriage.

I’m not sure if there’s a moral in all this, but perhaps there’s this lesson:

People who enjoy solving problems tend to solve more problems.  The problem-solving mindset leads to all sorts of little discoveries – and sometimes, to big ones.  

The problem-solving habit of mind leads to creativity, cooperation, empowerment, and optimism.  

We could all benefit from a bit more problem-solving in our daily lives.

Comments

Puzzles, Extraversion and Introversion

I enjoyed reading your article and especially like the idea of spending a few minutes working on a jigsaw puzzle at the library. It’s kind of a metaphor for contributing to solve societies problems in small pieces when we can.

Also, as you probably know, Extraversion and Introversion is about whether you are more energized by being with people and objects or more energized being alone. We all get some energy from both but soon get tired with our non-preference. This helps us to determine which types of environment most support our creativity for problem solving.

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