Lately, I’ve been thinking about problem solving strategies and how others go about them. LexBlog has implemented their #Blog4Good campaign, an attempt to collect and disseminate much needed legal information during this critical time. There have been a slew of technical and conceptual issues surrounding implementation. I’ve been given a very specific, very focused, part to play in the campaign. Not only am I considered responsible, I also “own” this part. This means I get to make some of the decisions.

Like fitting a new suit, there’s always some tailoring that needs to be made in a new project. New project means new problems. Suggestions are always welcome from anyone. Answers come as fast as the questions and everyone wants to share in the success. That’s the great thing about teams. We win together and we lose together, but we don’t always problem solve together. Someone has to deal the killing blow to the monster.

I’ve found that how others problem solve is different. I mean, some of their education focused on learning facts, ideas, definitions, etc. while some of their education required learning processes, like story telling or coding. Some mix the two. While both are important, what’s more important is learning significance and that’s not something that everyone learns.

The Learning of Things

At a young age we learn what the number “2” means. We learn the symbol and use it as a tool our entire lives. We know what it is and we know what it is not. 2 is not the same as 1, 3, 4, 0, etc. We also learn that “2” is not the same as “a”, “b”, “c”, etc. We then learn relationally that 2 is more than 1 and less than, well, a ton of numbers. This single digit becomes foundational in our understanding of anything that requires numbers. The number “2” is a tool by which we communicate a very specific definition of quantity.

Throughout the scholastic form of education, we are presented terms and definitions as tools to use in our arsenal of understanding. Our world is built around it. Unfortunately, this also means that, for many, this is the only way they can problem solve.

Example: Jim has too many apples and needs to get rid of some. Jim only wants an apple for himself. Currently, he has 3. How many should he get rid of?

For a person who has only learned terms and definitions, the answer to this problem is: “2 apples”. They understand the question and can get the math, but all they can provide is a tool to resolve the situation. It’s like going to a mechanic to fix your car just to have them hand you a wrench. If that were the case, you would quickly find another mechanic.

The Learning of Processes

Hopefully you’ve heard the saying, “It’s not what you have, it’s what you do with it”. Well, that’s only half true. After we learn all about the number “2” from our friendly neighborhood vampire, we learn how to manipulate the number to get other numbers. We can add a “1” and get “3”. We can subtract “1” and get “1”. We can also place a zero behind the “2” and get “20”. We learn that by having two tools interact with one another we can build a process of change. We can add our understanding of another tool and combine them to get something completely different. i.e. Adding the term “apple” to the number “2” gets us “2 apples”.

While we spend most of our childhood learning terms, we spend our adolescent years learning how to process. This is where we find our entertainment, our work, our lives. We learn about expectations and consequences for our actions. Again, for many that skip past learning “things” and focus on process this is the only way they can problem solve. Let’s use the same example:

Example: Jim has too many apples and needs to get rid of some. Jim only wants an apple for himself. Currently, he has 3. How many should he get rid of?

For a person that has learned only to process, an answer is “Jim should give apples away”. For these people, they understand the problem, but they focus too much on a process for their solution. I often call this “Golden Key”. Meaning, the first reasonable solution is the best and followed. It’s often a trap of the impulsive and those who’ve never been taught critical thinking.

This is like going to a different mechanic (cause the first handed you tools) who has the know how to fix your car, but can’t tell you how much time or money the repair will require or what tools they will use. Again, you probably wouldn’t go to a mechanic if they couldn’t communicate the cost.

The Learning of Significance

The verisimilitude of critical thinking is those that think they have learned it, use it. Honestly, I’ve learned knowledge structure and advanced problem solving, but critical thinking is not an easy skill to make into a habit. Conversely, there’s many that understand critical thinking as a term or process, but in practice they are far from really using it to their advantage. We combine the knowledge of things with the knowledge of process to resolve our issues, but that’s not enough.

By the time we become adults we’ll have started to learn significance. We learn that processes have a purpose. We learn that some tools are more important than others and that context determines their importance structuring our processes. Knowing you have 2 apples becomes more important when following directions for an apple pie than knowing you have 2 apples and you’re trying to get your car fixed. Let’s go back to the example:

Example: Jim has too many apples and needs to get rid of some. Jim only wants an apple for himself. Currently, he has 3. How many should he get rid of?

Now you might ask about the significance of the apples. Why does Jim need to get rid of apples? Why does Jim “only want” one apple? What purpose does that serve? Is he going through border customs? Are the apples going bad? Is this just a ploy to gift the apples?

This is where rhetoric, and some light cynicism, come in. In the example, Jim might have a motive. He might be trying to get his kids to eat a healthy snack or maybe Jim is trying to look generous to a peer at work. In any case, Jim wants something. This also means that what Jim does with those apples, i.e. the solution, will be determined with his purpose for them.

This is the third mechanic assuming you want your car fixed when you present your broken down car. This one will ask you about when your car broke down and what level of repair you want. These mechanics will learn all they can and present multiple solutions.


Really, this post must seem like a ton of over thinking. You may be right. I’ve been working to slow down, ask questions, and allow myself to brainstorm ideas. Most of the time problems don’t need a solution right now. They need the best solution for the situation or maybe they don’t need a solution at all. Sometimes, people think there’s a problem when, in fact, there’s not.

I guess I took all this space to say that it is okay to take a step back. Don’t just throw a tool at a problem and expect it to get fixed. The same can be said for a process. Just take a moment.

I hope you enjoyed reading and found something to add to your everyday rhetoric repertoire. If you liked this post, give it a shout out on social media. Otherwise, thank you for spending your time here.