Problem Solving: Always More Than One Approach

Problem solving in chess
6+4 equals 10. But Guess What? So does 8+2, 7+3, and 5+5

Every problem has a solution, whether you know it or not, according to author Grenville Kleiser.

However, when problem solving, how we arrive at our solutions can hold many key variables. A lot of us tend to take these variables for granted.  When a problem presents itself, we tend to rely on a number of learned shortcuts to help save time and solve our conundrum with minimum distress.

Only one right way to do anything?

Take thirst as an example. Hardly anyone would fret about how to solve this problem.

They might simply just get up, walk into the kitchen, grab a glass, fill it with water, and gulp it down. Thirst quenched. Problem solved. We barely stop to think about the number of steps it takes to arrive at this decision. Or – even more mind boggling – the variables we have to negotiate to arrive at our conclusion. We literally have hundreds, if not thousands, of various combinations to pick through to solve our initial problem. Juice…milk…soda… from a glass, a cup, a mug or a jug- the sheer number of choices might paralyze someone into indecision.

But what if the lesson taught and learned was thirst can only be quenched by filling a glass of water from the sink with exactly two ice cubes. This certainly would be easier on the brain. The more we strip away variables the less we have to contemplate them. However, we risk trading efficiency for stagnation. Certainly, if we are taught only one way to perform a task, we will eventually, through sheer repetition, become proficient at executing this one task this one way. This would be fine if people were robots. But life is not easy, and the hard truth of the matter is there is never just one right way to do anything.

Never varying your strategy

I have worked hard to try and remain open to the feeling that every person I meet has the potential to teach me something new, and I will never disregard an idea simply because it was not my idea to begin with. I am often leery of people who become so stuck in their ways they can no longer see an alternative means to an end.

I learned this at an early age, when I first started playing chess. It took me a long time to understand why I kept losing to stronger players. But it was because my strategy never changed. I kept plugging away with one idea, hoping to outmaneuver players who were able to vary their game.

When I finally learned how to open myself up to different possibilities of play, my game improved and I slowly got more wins than losses. I also learned that variations in problem solving  was also beneficial in other aspects of life. I intuitively began to start looking at different perspectives in order to arrive at the same conclusion. The puzzle wasn’t in finding the answer, but in finding a creative path to finding the answer.

Creative problem solving in action

When I was 12, my father expected me to mow the large front lawn in front of our house. For performing this chore, I was given an allowance of $10 a week. Now, when it came to chores, mowing the lawn was my least favorite. It really didn’t take me long to come up with a quick solution. My neighbor was a 13-year-old boy I went to school with, and I hired him at $5 a week to perform this duty.

I saw a problem and theorized alternative solutions.

I was surprised when my father became upset when he saw our neighbor mowing the lawn. He confronted me for an explanation. My first instinct was to be glib and say, “However it’s getting done, the lawn is being mowed.” But, knowing my father, being glib at this point in time was not the way to go. I stood up, full of unearned moxie, and repeated something I had heard someone say while I was playing chess: “You see things as they are. And I see things as they could be.”

Luckily, my father was receptive to this line of thinking. And, while I still had to fire my neighbor and perform my own chores, he appreciated that I had the ability to think outside the box.

In order to learn new things, you have to be open to the possibility that the way you are currently performing or teaching something might possibly be improved on. I’ve been a paramedic for close to 20 years, with the last two as an instructor at St. Petersburg College in the Emergency Medical Services department. It’s a position I take great pride in. But this pride is tempered with a healthy dose of humility. I am up front with my students, letting them know I am by no means the smartest person who’s ever taught EMS. I simply have, through years of experience, acquired a skill set I’d be happy to impart to them.

My style of teaching has always been, I’ll show you what the problem is, I’ll show you what my expected outcome is, and I’ll even show you how I would get to said solution. If you’ve got a better or different means of getting there, well then, I’m all ears! In fact, if my students can teach me something, it neither diminishes my status as a mentor or as a teacher; it simply means I now have another perspective to how I view my role as an instructor. I’ve been blessed to be in a position where I’ve been able to learn from a great number of different teachers, students, and patients, each with their own unique perspective of how they look upon the same situation. With so many different perspectives, I hopefully have learned the most important lesson I can impart:

Life is chess, not checkers. If you’re only able to see one answer for any given problem, you’re facing an even bigger problem than you think.

Paul Serino is an 18-year Nationally Registered Paramedic and a faculty member with the St. Petersburg College EMS Program. If you have any questions or would like further information about the program,  please contact him at: serino.paul@spcollege.edu

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