The Jolly Librarian Ponders Problem Solving (in 6 parts)

The Jolly Librarian doesn’t really have many problems to solve. Whenever a problem seems to be approaching, she calls one of her trusty assistants and says, “There is something that looks like a problem coming. Please handle it.” And her trusted assistants do just that.

Still, there are times when the trusted assistants can’t be found no matter how hard I look. And I am forced to solve a problem by myself. Then I use the following format:

Step 1:  Identify the problem.

It is my experience that most people spend way too little time on Step 1. Accurate problem identification is the key to solving any problem. Let me give you an example:

Years ago, when I lived in Alabama, I worked with Sarah. Sarah was a nice woman, but if you talked to her very long, you discovered that she was constantly unhappy about something and someone else was always to blame: her boss, her boss at her part-time job, her colleagues at both jobs, her husband who became her ex-husband, then her boyfriend. Finally, one day, her second boyfriend said, somewhat timidly, since Sarah could be a wee bit explosive, “I think you need to look at the common denominator here. It’s you.” Now to give her credit, Sarah listened and realized that while changing jobs and changing boyfriends might be necessary, it wasn’t going to solve her basic problem—her own dissatisfaction and her tendency to criticize instead of solve.

It is often human nature when faced with a problem to look outside of ourselves for the cause. But we have to make sure that we just don’t stop there, that we also investigate the internal and personal causes of the problem as well. It may be true that your colleague in the next-door cubicle drives you crazy with her gum-popping, but a closer investigation might reveal that if you liked your job, her habit might be adorably eccentric, not murder worthy.

This step is crucial no matter what kind of problem is being faced. As I walk into the library, I sometimes hear students say, “I’m failing math (or whatever subject) because my instructor sucks.” And I am tempted to respond, “Maybe that’s true. But do you do your homework each night? Are you paying attention in class or texting? Have you seen a tutor?”

Now I am not one of those hard-hearted people who say that folks bring on all their problems. I am simply saying that you can’t solve a problem until you clearly know what it is. And that sometimes takes a little more thought that most of us generally give it.

Next Friday, I’ll look at Step 2.

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