Seeing What’s Unique In Everyday Things Is A Critical Problem-Solving Skill

Written by Mike Shapiro | | October 12, 2017

It’s not news that being curious is important for our work and personal growth. There have been some good books on the subject: Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It by Ian Leslie and A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life by Brian Grazer both give great examples of how cultivating the simple habit of inquisitiveness can improve our lives. And although it is often cited as an example of the power of optimism, Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search For Meaning, seemed to me to be more a testimonial for the value of simple curiosity in helping the author through dark times when he was unable to summon even a shred of optimism.

While curiosity helps us look forward to what’s coming next, to really reap its benefits it’s helpful to cultivate a habitual sense of wonder about the things we’re going to see when they arrive.

Most of what we’ve read about this state of mind tends to refer to the wonders of nature as in Rachel Carson’s A Sense Of Wonder, or fantastical worlds of creatures and people with strange and magical powers like the ones in the Lord Of The RingsHarry Potter or Game of Thrones franchises.

But we shortchange ourselves if we limit our sense of wonder to these extreme and obvious cases. We need our own version of it — a real-life, practical, working version — to use in our daily lives as we’re constantly being challenged to do more — and to be more — in our work and in our relationships: To “get creative,” to “think outside the box,” to “be innovative.”

The thing we’re looking at doesn’t have to be inherently majestic or magnificent to inspire wonder. The kind of wonder that’s going to help us solve problems is the kind you find in everyday happenings. We’ve all experienced or read about events like these:

  • Using common ingredients, a chef prepares a dish unlike anything we’ve ever tasted.
  • A mediator helps warring parties resolve a decades or even centuries-old dispute by showing them a way that preserves their individual interests.
  • An engineer sees a new way to bring scarce resources to where they’re needed.
  • A musician plays a song we’ve heard a hundred times, but does something with it that makes it unique, different and more enjoyable.

While they may not rise to the majesty of a mountain range or roaring waters, you can see that there is something worthy of wonder in them, and they are inspiring in their own way. Take a moment to look deeper into each experience. What is it that make it work so well? It is this kind of exercise that can help you solve vexing problems by:

  1. Providing an alternative to “been-there, done-that” thinking. You’ll be more likely to truly see what’s unique (and better) about whatever it is you’re looking at. What separates it from all the rest?
  2. Inspiring you to be resourceful. It encourages you to use familiar items in new ways, see new solutions to old problems and new relationships between things and people.
  3. Helps you see common threads and patterns. You’ll begin to develop metaphors and analogies that can be useful in adapting successful ideas from one arena or discipline to solve problems in another.
  4. Helping to build a team. Most truly important breakthrough ideas are the result of collaboration. Being able to identify and describe to others the key ingredient to a successful analogous piece of work will help recruit like-minded people to work with you.

Any student who wants to create great art or music has to study the works of the masters. Similarly, those of us whose work requires developing creative solutions to tough problems should study the “masterpieces” around us.