Most People Believe They Solve Problems by Trial and Error

But do you really solve the problem?  If you are like most people you would answer, “yes I do.  I solve problems every day.”

And although it may be true, more likely you take your problems to the nearest elevator.  After promptly pushing the penthouse floor, you push the problem in the elevator and send it up the food chain.

Others prefer a shovel.  Add some soil.  A little elbow grease and you found yourself a solution.  Bury the problem.

If you can slide it in a file folder or pile some books on top, you won’t need to see that nagging bill, and whalla, “where’s the problem”?  Solved.

But if by some means you are the type of individual who wants to solve problems, today, I am talking to you.

Trial and Error – Our Default Problem Solving Method

Good friends often tease me when I decide to purchase from an online retailer.  This is especially true when I am buying something that requires assembly.

It’s wired into my brain to give it a go.

“Maybe try this.  Perhaps it’s upside-down. Now, why aren’t there enough screws?”   And on and on I rattle.

Sometimes I get the job done.  But often, as was recently the case, I think I solved the problem, only to have my guest land squarely on their bottom side when my stool collapsed. Ouch.

For all our estimated 50,000 thoughts a day, sometimes we think a thought that changes the problem.  Often though, we rely on patterns.

The Pattern Conditioning Behind Trial and Error

Patterns from the past tend to influence every decision we make.

When it comes to solving problems, we rely heavily on what we know.  What we know may have caused our problem!

Humans develop patterns of thought and behavior from a daily rinse and repeat of the 50,000 thoughts.  Unbelievably, the neuroscience experts tell us that out of the 50,000 thoughts a day very few are unique. We worry about the same things. We tell ourselves the same stories and think repetitive thoughts because of symbols we look at many times a day. And we use that brain flutter to haphazardly fix situations or solve problems.

Every problem that arises receives our standard trial and error problem-solving solutions.

Typical Pattern Problem Solving

Think of it this way:

You have misplaced your keys Your sweetheart says,” Did you look on the dresser?”  

“Yes, I did”, you reply.

“How about in your pocket?  Have you checked in your inside coat pocket?”

“Yes, I did”, you reply.

“They could be next to the coffee pot? You left them there last week.”

At this point, they may, by trial and error have helped you find your keys.

But they may not be aware of the events that took place while they were shopping this morning.  And without that information, their trial and error method may not work.  Unbeknown to sweetie, the neighbor came by and asked for your help to boost her battery.  You responded of course.  It was easy as your cars stand parallel to one another and all you had to do was hook up the cable and start your engine.  Once her engine started, your job finished.  Leaning over you let down the hood of your vehicle and squatted to pet their friendly puppy. Just then, you heard the phone ringing back in the house.  So, with a quick “see ya later”, you dashed back into the house to catch the phone.

And the keys are…in the car ignition, right where you left them.

We look for simple solutions – Occam’s razor

Looking for and implementing a simple solution is smart.  Why waste time?

There is a well-known problem-solving principle called Occam’s Razor.  It says: “Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.”  Another way of describing it could be, “keep it simple stupid.”   It’s meant to suggest that by keeping the solution the easiest and most accessible, you minimize confusion and maximize time.  This is often true.

But if you are dealing with problems that keep recurring, a problem that involves many departments or appears critical, the simplest solution may be short-sighted. The typical trial and error approach may inadvertently bypass critical elements that you need to address.

In his eye-opening book, How We Know What Isn’t So, Cornell Professor Thomas Gilovich calls our rationality flawed in the sense that we default to certain instincts and “unconscious tendencies of the human mind.”

Our trial and error methods are largely governed by our unconscious mind and reasonings. It’s silent sabotage that we keep trying to remedy.

Oftentimes I find that with a more open and creative approach, we find out that the problem we are trying to solve is not the problem at all.

False conclusions that foster more problems

“Intellectuals solve problems; geniuses prevent them.”  Albert Einstein

By learning how to problem solve from a creative openness we show courageous faith.  Faith in ourselves to go beyond the simple solutions to challenging problems and into an innovative posture that synergistically solves more than the problem at hand. We need tools, and modern education shares a pity few.

“There is always an easy solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong.” – H.L. Mencken (1880 – 1956)




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