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3 ways to strengthen your problem solving muscle

Being better at problem-solving requires a lot of practice.

3 ways to strengthen your problem solving muscle
[Images: Pixabay; Wikimedia Commons]

When it comes to creative problem-solving, I’ve been my own worst enemy. There were times I would shoot for more attainable, less risky goals because I feared being in vulnerable situations. I focused too much on the outcome, rather than embraced the learning curve that I would experience in pursuit of that challenging goal.

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The thing is, I was holding myself back by worrying too much about what would happen. Fear-induced blinders have a way of making us overlook things. This was something I didn’t realize until a university requested that I write a graduate-level curriculum on personal development.

I’d never written at the academic level before, and I was ready to go into full-on stress-mode. But rather than letting the anxiety paralyze me, I decided to focus on finding ways to tackle the task without worrying about how it would all turn out. This pivot away from anxiety and toward a solution opened up new problem-solving approaches that I believe everyone can learn from. Here are some ways I learned to strengthen that muscle.

1. I focused on improving my underdeveloped tendencies

In order to become a conscientious problem solver, you need to work on areas that don’t come naturally. From what I’ve observed with my clients, people don’t always take the time to hone skills that don’t come naturally to them. As a result, when problems arise, their counterproductive habits are quick to surface.

In my case, I noticed that I had a natural tendency to retreat from a situation where I was scared about not being able to do it well. Once I identified those triggers, I was able to push myself into uncharted territory–which forced me to grow.

When you address the problem upfront, you’ll become more and more comfortable operating with uncertainty–even in situations where you have little influence. Over time, you’ll discover that there are very few problems you can’t solve.

2. I challenged my assumptions with self-interrogation

You’ll likely face a problem in the next day or so. As tempting as it is to find evidence to support your first instinct, look at the issue from a new perspective by asking yourself a series of questions. When I was asked to write the university curriculum, I went through the following process–I questioned whether the experience would fit our company’s mission, would help me grow, or would have a positive impact. Upon answering “yes” to all three, I knew I had to move forward despite worrying that I might fail.

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Today, instead of shutting down an opportunity that puts me in a vulnerable situation, I ask myself: “Does this give me an opportunity to grow? So what if I fail?” Then, I figure out the lessons I could take away from the situation (and trust me, there are always quite a few.)

Next, I flip to a more transactional mind-set and ask myself, “What is the cost of not doing this?” After all, I might lose a scary yet empowering opportunity, and who knows whether another will come along? When you ask yourself this question, you can identify the validity of your knee-jerk reactions. Rounding out the costs and benefits will provide a clear distinction between your fear and ability.

3. I asked for help and advice

It’s fine to want to go solo at times, but don’t make it an everyday practice. Our brains thrive when we’re part of a healthy community. Successful people make asking for advice a habit because they know that constructive criticism helps them do (and be) better.

People want to help, but they often don’t know that you need help. Make sure the person you are connecting with knows that, understands explicitly what you need help with, and has time to evaluate whether he or she can assist. When I asked for help to form my curriculum, people didn’t chide me for being a burden. In fact, they told me that I was wise in doing so. Not only did they share their insights, but also requested my guidance for their own conundrums.

In short, send that email, connect on LinkedIn, or offer a handshake to someone who inspires you or can impart some wisdom advice on a situation. You never know how far one connection can take you both.

Playing it safe might seem reasonable. But a perceived sense of security and warmth won’t make you a better problem solver or, for that matter, a stronger professional. Don’t let your fears hold you back from growing and learning as a person. That’s going to end in regret.

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Kerry Goyette is the president of Aperio Consulting Group, a corporate consulting firm that utilizes workplace analytics and implements research-based strategies to build high-performance cultures.

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