How often can you solve one problem after another?

Today is June 13 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often can you solve one problem after another?” Austrian-born British philosopher Sir Karl Popper stated, "all life is problem solving." Experiencing problems while traveling along the path of life is to be expected. Therefore, problem solving is a critical skill to develop over time.

Explorer Ernest Henry Shackleton decided to be the first man to cross the continent of Antarctica by boat; possible during the summer months. Unfortunately, the crew of Shackleton’s Endurance ran out of summer, and their ship became permanently frozen in the polar ice. Though the crew was able to wait out most of the winter, the Endurance did not and sank leaving the crew stranded on an ice floe.

Shackleton packed his crew into three lifeboats as the ice under them began to melt and got them safely to Elephant Island. Although Elephant Island was solid ground, it was still uninhabited and far from trade routes. Shackleton then set off for a whaling station 800 miles away.

The boat reached South Georgia but landed on the side opposite the whaling station. The water was too dangerous, so Shackleton took two of his men and made a 36-hour trek over a snowy mountain range to the whaling station. From there he organized the rescue of all his men, without a single fatality among his crew.

Researcher Nancy Koehn “was struck by Shackleton’s ability to respond to constantly changing circumstances. When his expedition encountered serious trouble, he had to reinvent the team’s goals. He had begun the voyage with a mission of exploration, but it quickly became a mission of survival. This capacity is vital in our own time, when leaders must often change course midstream — jettisoning earlier standards of success and redefining their purposes and plans.”

In the movie The Martian, Matt Damon’s character Mark Whatney tells a class of astronauts “At some point, everything's gonna go south on you and you're going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That's all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem... and you solve the next one... and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

The spectrum of problem-solving approaches goes from the simplistic less is more approach to the non-conformist strategy. Knowing what strategy to use when attempting to solve a problem is an ongoing struggle for anyone navigating the chaos.


Sometimes in life all you need in a band-aid to solve a problem as best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference:

A critic looking at these tightly focused, targeted interventions might dismiss them as Band-Aid solutions. But that phrase should not be considered a term of disparagement. The Band-Aid is an inexpensive, convenient, and remarkably versatile solution to an astonishing array of problems. In their history, Band-Aids have probably allowed millions of people to keep working or playing tennis or cooking or walking when they would otherwise have had to stop. The Band-Aid solution is actually the best kind of solution because it involves solving a problem with the minimum amount of effort and time and cost.”

Other times, however, the problem is so complex that a solution is required from outside of the norm, also known as outside-the box thinking. But such non-conformist thinking is rare and always has been. In 1859 English philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote:

“In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.”

When resolving problems what techniques do you use? Have you used the band-aid approach? Are you comfortable being a non-conformist in your thinking? And can you solve one problem after another until the issue is resolved?