How to solve almost any problem

This is mainly for my children, and also a reminder for myself for when the next insurmountable circumstance comes along.  I see people despairing all the time because they have no idea that a handful of principles can improve their lives.

1. Decide what you want

Most people have no idea what they want.  They want to be loved, they want to be rich, they want a “career.”  You won’t succeed at anything until you have a goal in mind, and, for most us, it involves more than money.  Making money is most fun when you feel like you’re doing something good for people, or changing the world in a positive way.

2.  Be honest about what you’re good at.

If you’re good at something and you love doing it, go for it, no matter what it is.  Almost no one is any good at anything;  if you’re one of the few people who is really good at something and you enjoy doing it, you’re in the top one tenth of one percent.  Don’t consider anything else.  Go after it that with everything you have, and keep going until it works out.  If you think you have a lot of competition, try being someone who’s not really good at anything at all.  THAT’S competition.

3.  Read all about it.

For everyone else, get good at something fast.  Most people have some general idea about what they would like to do, and they say, “I’m in marketing or sales or engineering,” and there it stops.  Read a book every week about your chosen subject;  subscribe to industry magazines;  meet the luminaries in your field, or at least read everything they have to say and follow their careers.  You’ll be a mile ahead because most of your peers are dedicated to being totally average.  Just showing up for work is a big deal for most people;  if you have some actual interest in what you’re doing, you’re way, way ahead.

If you have a big problem — getting a job, increasing sales — read all about it.  The libraries are chock full of free information that no one ever reads.

4.  Make a plan

Any plan — it hardly matters because your first plan will be terrible.  Show your plan to people you trust;  listen to their input and take their best ideas.  Work your plan all the time.  By the way, I have never seen a good plan, and most people I know say they have never invested in a company where the original business plan worked out.  I have asked investors to show me the perfect business plan (because they never like mine), and that request always stumps them.  There are no good plans, but they are all better than no plan at all.

5.  Keep every ball in the air, but press the critical issues.

People get overwhelmed with all the things required to run a life or a business.  However, at any time, there are one or two things that will make a difference.  Not paying taxes will get you screwed;  getting a major contract will keep your company alive — these are big things.  It’s easy to get run over while you’re worring about little things. Every day, ask, “What are the one or two things that can make a difference in my life or my business?”

6.  Ask for help.

I’m astonished by the people who moan about the problems in their lives without asking for help.  It’s as if their problems have become the real entertainment, the drama that makes life interesting.  If you have a problem, read all about it first and then go ask people who can be of help.  If you don’t do the work of getting the background information first, the people to whom you appeal will recognize you as a lazy jerk, and they won’t waste their time with you.  On the other hand, everyone likes to help someone with a plan who is seriously trying to get ahead — it’s so incredbily rare that it’s refreshing.  This works particularly well for young people, but it also works for older people.

I know a middle-aged man whose business failed miserably.  He lost everything —  his credit cards, his car, his house, his vacation house, his income.  What could he do? He finally called up the people he knew, and said, “I can’t repay what I have already lost.  I have nothing, no collateral, nada, but I do have a new idea, and I would appreciate it if you would consider investing in me.”  He has a thriving business today because, in the most desperate situation, he asked for help.  (He also had a plan.)

7.  Sacrifice.

To get ahead, you will have to give up something — maybe a few videogames and movies.  People who achieve great lives spend less time on the entertainment that consumes the average life.  Average people, though, seem afraid that they will have passed up the golden opportunity to live the same life as everyone else.  What if I never played that video game for 100 hours or saw those ten movies?  Performers should be performing;  entrepreneurs should be improving their businesses.  Time wasted is time lost.

8.  Do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t.

Most people and companies try endlessly to fix what is wrong and so miss the great opportunities to expand what is right.  Your customers will tell you what they like, and they’ll buy more of what is working.  Watch carefully how people respond to what you do, and do more of that.

9.  If nothing works, re-evaluate.

You have done your best.  You have honestly applied yourself, but it’s not working.  What’s the real problem?  A bad plan?  Are you missing something?  Does the environment suck (did investment bankers rip off your country and now your country has bailed them out leaving your entire economy in the crapper?)  Are there problems that cannot be fixed?  The situation you are in may not be your fault;  no one can anticipate everything, though we try.  Accept the situation, take off the blinders, and ask, “What is possible?”

10.  Consider something completely different.

One of the words that moves the world is “new.”  People love new things.  We are a race of people in search of new tools and new entertainment.  If your competitors have done everything there is to do, try going in the opposite direction.  Mircosoft shredded every competitor by combining each new application into its operating system or its office suite.  Finally, people did the only logical thing possible:  they gave away the software.  Linux and Google created a free alternative to Microsoft that has Microsoft grasping for Yahoo before we all start running our office software on Chrome.

Try something new and keep trying new things until you find what works.  If you’re on the Titanic and the life boats have left, see if the mattresses will float; make a boat with a table while everyone else listens to the band.

11.  Consider faith.

Our lives go along pretty well until something awful happens, and then we say, “Why, O why?  O, why me?”  In fact, we never ask “Why?” when things go well.  Other generations have lived through worse, but the current generation panics if the cable goes out.  Consider visiting your local church for the weekly reminder that you are loved and that worrying accomplishes nothing.  Take the day off.   My mentor always said, “You can get more done in six days than seven,” by which he meant that we burn ourselves out worrying and working.  We need a day to reflect and to remind ourselves that God gave us life and has a hand in everything we do.


I once visited the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence, Missouri where I read the story of John Bidwell, a 20-year-old school teacher who moved from New York to establish a 160-acre claim in the Iowa Territory.  Needing capital to improve his farm, he taught school for a year in Weston, Missouri, and returned to find his farm seized by claim jumpers.   Discouraged by his luck and disenchanted with his profession, Bidwell made his way to California.  What would have finished most of us helped get Bidwell started.  Once in California, he became one of the largest land owners in the state, acquiring a ranch of 22,000 acres.  He threw himself into public causes, was elected to the legislature and was nominated for governor of California and president of the United States.  Bidwell, while often defeated, was a problem solver who lived a life that was fully engaged and full of adventure.

This is an interesting story because it seems to illustrate the point that perserverance is better than giving up, and that one can fail to hold onto a 160-acre ranch, but fight on to own a 22,000 acre estate.  On the other hand, Bidwell could just as well have died on the way to California, and he would not have been a lesser human being.  His ultimate success now seems to define him, but, if you had known Bidwell on the trail, he would have been defined by his faith in the future, his principles and his determination.  We can adopt the same attitudes, principles and beliefs today without any great hardship to ourselves.

Published in: on August 4, 2009 at 2:42 am  Leave a Comment  

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