Episode 10: Problem Solving

Perhaps the most striking difference between those who have an entrepreneurial mindset and those who don’t is how they approach the problems—whether in business or personal life—that everyone faces.

The conventional thinker immediately looks to see if there are known solutions, on the Internet, in books, among friends, etc.  If not, he or she concludes they can't proceed any further and looks to do something else.

The person with an entrepreneurial mind almost instinctively sees every problem as an opportunity.  Rahm Emanuel, former chief of staff to President Obama, is famous for saying, “Never waste a crisis”.  He was talking about politics, but the same is often true in life and business.

In business, the fact that something is not working and someone, or a lot of people, need it to work, perhaps desperately, means that whoever can solve the problem has the potential to create a new product or a new business.  And the lovely truth is that there is probably no problem—except perhaps death itself, and some would disagree about that—that can’t be solved. 

Long before I was born, every document was written by hand.  Then Guttenberg invented the printing press with movable type and, quite literally, changed the world by making knowledge available to everyone.

When I was a kid, if you wanted copies of a document, you put in multiple sheets of carbon paper—and heaven help you if you made a mistake.  You had to correct it on each and every copy.  Then Xerox developed the copier and once you had a perfect original, you could make as many copies as you wanted.   

Then others created the computer driven word processor and making a typing mistake was trivial.  The computer even corrected your mistakes for you—often with the wrong word, but that is another story.

If I may get personal for a moment, let me tell you a true story.  When I was in high school I needed to take the SATs to get into a good college. I had studied Latin for 4 years because that was essentially the only language course my high school offered.  Either I was a very bad student or the teacher wasn’t very good, or both, but when I got to college I found I couldn’t even translate the Latin inscription over the gates.

But before that, I had to take the SATs.  The test consisted of a long passage from Caesar’s Gaulic Wars, and I couldn’t read it—a phrase here and there perhaps, but I simply couldn’t get past “Omnia Gaulia in tres partes divisi est.”  I could have just quit, but I, fortunately, even then, I had a mind that was wired to look for solutions.

So I read the questions, which were in English, and discovered that if I used the few phrases I could translate, I could eliminate some obviously wrong answers.  Then I realized that some of the questions depended on answers covered in earlier questions.  From that, I could begin to tell what the story was about and that gave me the answers to even more questions—without ever knowing the Latin at all.

I handed in the test, convinced I had failed in spite of my clever attempt, only to find out later that, not only had I passed (they never told you your actual scores in those days), but I had scored so high that I was exempt from further language requirements at a very prestigious Ivy League college—and I still couldn’t read the inscription over the college gate.

I tell that story, not because I am proud of my genius.  Anyone with a willingness to look for alternative solutions could have done the same—and certainly not because it says anything good about the SAT testing of those days—but because it illustrates the difference between the mindset that automatically assumes that if the answer can’t be found in books or the classroom it does not exist and the mindset that says, “there has to be a way to do this; how can I find it?” 

I was lucky in that I seem to have been born with that instinct.  But it is one that I absolutely know can be learned.

A problem is only a problem if you fail to see it as the opportunity it really is.