One of the most common skills you’ll find on many job postings is the requirement to solve problems. As an Employment Counsellor, I notice the relative ease with which many people happily add the ability to solve problems to their resumes. Ah, but when faced with problems that I observe, they are sorely lacking in this area.
It would seem that many people don’t think about their problem solving skills outside of the workplaces they are trying to get employed with. It’s as if they are saying, “I have to get a job before I can show you my problem solving skills.” Really? Uh, no that’s not true.
We all have problems; some are small, some large and some are truly huge which we have to work on over a long period of time. All problems however have certain characteristics in common and the process for eliminating them is similar.
Problems by their nature threaten our goals. When we identify what we want to achieve, we then determine if things stand in our way be they small, medium or large and then we have to evaluate whether those things, (let’s call them barriers or challenges) are worth the effort to overcome or not. If we determine our end goals are important enough, we set out to tackle the barriers. If the barriers themselves are too massive to overcome and we aren’t willing to put in the effort to move past them, the goals we want aren’t important enough to us and we might as well stop ‘wanting’ the end goal. We’re setting ourselves up for failure; well at least until achieving the end goal takes on greater importance to us than the work it will take to eliminate the barriers standing in our way.
Simply put, make sure your goals are bigger than your biggest problems.
Suppose you’ve looked at what you want to do career-wise, and you’ve determined that a return to school is absolutely critical in order to get the academic qualifications necessary to compete for that dream job. You’re looking at 2-3 years of College or University. This means you’re also going to have to take on 2-3 years of debt and you’ll be 3-4 years older when you graduate and ready to compete with others for your end goal. Depending on a number of factors such as your age, how much you really want that career and your perception of debt vs. an investment in yourself, you either have to pass up the end goal because going to school is standing in your way or you enrol and invest money and time in yourself.
Or perhaps you find the job you really want is in another neighbouring city and it’s going to take you 1.5 hours to get there and another 1.5 hours to return each day by transit. You know you COULD move closer, but you’ve got your child in school and at 8 years old they’d have to change schools and you’ve got family just down the street for emotional support. One person will choose to stay put choosing unemployment for the present and the status quo while another will choose to pick up and relocate, rationalizing that the child is only 8 and kids make new friends in no time; what’s the big deal?
The thing about problems or challenges is that they always come with choices. The good problem solvers know that the first step to solving problems is to see them for what they actually are not what they imagine them to be. They weigh the importance of their end goals against the problems standing in their way and then brainstorm the various options they have to eliminate the problems. One thing they also do is ask other people for input; after all, other people might present options they themselves haven’t considered.
Smaller scale problems that crop up are solved the same way. You wake up and there are salt stains on your favourite pair of pants; pants you were planning on wearing. One person might just toss them in the laundry and pull out a second pair while another person might let that small problem paralyze them entirely; throwing off their mood, upsetting their plans and they just don’t go to work or that big interview because they have, ‘nothing to wear’. (It’s true actually; I’ve heard this one many times.)
When you tackle a small problem and succeed, two things happen. First of all the immediate problem is overcome and you’re closer to achieving your goal. Secondly you build some confidence in your ability to solve problems, and that confidence gives you the courage to tackle other problems. Start to solve a few problems and you feel you can apply the same thought process and actions to tackle even bigger issues, and soon you’ve got a track record of solving your issues. Now you can truly say you are good at solving problems AND you’ll have examples to cite when asked in an interview as proof rather than a baseless claim.
So when faced with a problem, stack it up against your end goal. See the problem for what it actually is. Brainstorm your options. Get ideas from others. Take action if the end goal is important enough to you and if it isn’t, ditch the goal you’ve got in mind. Remember, if your problems are bigger than your goals, nothing happens unless you change the value of the end goal.