I was very fortunate to receive an excellent education. I was home-schooled, and the curriculum came from Calvert, a top-notch private school in Baltimore. When I went to college, I realized that I was better-prepared than most of my peers. In large part, this is because Calvert's curriculum was focused largely on teaching critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Instead of teaching us what to think, Calvert taught us how to think for ourselves. And that's a skill that I noticed was sorely lacking in public school for the few years I did attend (three years of high school -- I graduated early).
Anyway. Lack of critical thinking skills doesn't mean you're stupid. It just means that you haven't been taught how to do it. So I'm going to share some of the wisdom I have on the topic every week, hopefully, and maybe it'll make a difference in somebody's life.
Problem Solving Skills (As Taught By My Mother)
One of the very first things my mom taught me was how to approach problems logically and calmly. I don't remember when we first learned this particular skill, but I was quite young -- so young that I hadn't yet learned the scientific method, which made it particularly delightful when I later discovered that the two processes were very similar.
- Step One: Whose Problem is it? This is a crucial first step. Before you get worked up over something, ask yourself, "Is this my problem? Is this something I can affect?" If it's not -- if the problem is something that only someone else can solve or that doesn't actually affect you, don't even waste your time worrying about it. For example: Your friend is having an argument with her boyfriend. It's not your job to solve that problem. You may want to offer a supportive ear, a couch to sleep on, or some advice -- but solving the problem is not actually your responsibility, and you shouldn't waste time trying to do so because you will only get frustrated. Let it go.
- Step Two: What, exactly, IS the problem? Think through this carefully. Write it down if you have to. Figure out exactly what the issue is and why it's bothering you. Dig beneath the surface. Your emotional response to something may not be logical, but a logical event may be underlying it. For example: Your husband fails to take out the trash in time for trash collection, and you get angry. Are you angry because you now have smelly trash in your garage for another week? Or are you angry because you asked him to do it and he didn't, so you feel disrespected? Is it both?
- Step Three: Brainstorm possible solutions to the problem. Think up as many solutions as you can. Some of them will be ridiculous, but that's fine. It helps to write them all down. If you're upset because the trash is in the garage, there are some solutions: Take the trash to the dump yourself; put the trash somewhere you can't smell it; buy an odor-locking trash can; clandestinely dump the trash in someone else's dumpster. If you're feeling hurt because your husband disrespected you: Talk to your husband about your feelings; ignore him until you stop being angry; punish him in some way.
- Step Four: Choose the appropriate solution. After you've brainstormed all of your solutions, figure out which one is the best. Maybe you just don't go into the garage this week, or maybe you send dear hubby out to the dump to get rid of the offending trash. Whatever seems like the most reasonable, simple solution -- go with that one.
- Step Five: Assemble any necessary materials to implement the solution. Sometimes solving a problem seems insurmountable because you don't have the tools necessary to handle it. Taking the trash to the dump can seem impossible if you don't have a car -- but do you have a friend who could take you? Could you bribe them with beer and cookies? Talking to your husband can seem impossible if you don't know what to say -- but would it be easier if you wrote it out first? Maybe you could email him all of the points you want to make so he'll have a primer before you start talking.
- Step Six: Implement your solution. Now that you have the materials you need and a plan for solving your problem, solve the problem. Dispose of the trash. Talk to your husband.
- Step Seven: Did that solve the problem? Look at the situation and see if you are satisfied with the solution. If you only threw away the trash but didn't confront your husband, do you still feel angry? Maybe the problem has multiple aspects that all need to be dealt with. Repeat steps 1-6 as many times as necessary until your problem has been solved.
- Step Eight: Plan for the future. After you've solved the problem, brainstorm some ways to prevent it from happening again. Put sticky notes on your husband's computer, or make him buy a whiteboard so he can keep track of his chores. Store your trash in a way that won't be disastrous if it doesn't get picked up. Start taking the trash out yourself. Hire a neighbor kid to take your trash out for you. Dump your husband and marry a trash collector. Whatever -- it doesn't matter. The important thing is that you take an active role in preventing the problem from happening again.
And there you are, kids. An eight-step problem-solving strategy. As you gain more experience, you will be able to implement these steps without having to think too much about them -- they'll become second nature. The important part is to remove your emotional response from the logical aspect. Recognize that, yes, you're upset, and that's OK. But being upset won't solve the problem. Let yourself feel it, then let it go -- and work on fixing your problems.