Have you ever been going for a job and on the application form it says something like “Please give and example of how you solved or overcame a problem”
I always hated this kind of question because how on earth are you supposed to answer it?
“The TV remote control was lost and the family bickering had escalated to the point of violence. Dad was throwing a tantrum, and Mum was about to throw the vase at him when I found them tucked down the back of the sofa. Problem solved; family crisis and possibly divorce averted.”Or
“It was absolutely vital that I have a black tie for this funeral I was going to. If I couldn’t attend and look smart enough my boss was going to fire me on the spot. I spent the entire weekend searching for one without success. Then I called my brother and he lent me his. Problem solved; job kept for another 4 months”Typical problems, typical solutions, but probably not what the potential employer is looking for. An example of lateral thinking is what they’re after, but this is a rare occurrence for most of us.
Herein lies the difficulty: many of the problems that are big, dominating and take up vast amounts of our emotional energy are irrelevant once you have a solution and are really not worth the retelling.
However, I do have one problem-solving episode of which I’m quite proud, and if you ever desperately need to answer one of those questions, feel free to borrow it.
Many years ago, Maggie and I spent two weeks travelling around Europe. We arrived at a campsite in Utrecht, Holland, and it was chucking it down. Like most tents, ours was one that had the main part of the tent with the groundsheet sewn in, but a separate flysheet that went over the top to keep the rain out.
The fundamental design fault with these tents arises when it’s raining. You cannot put the flysheet up first because you need to have the main tent structure under it to hold it up, but without it the inner tent is not waterproof so will get soaked during the time it takes to erect.
Along with several other dejected looking campers, we stood for a while under a small sheltered area, looking out onto the sodden field, trying to pluck up the courage to go out and put the tent up. Every now an then, someone would crane their neck to see if the clouds were breaking up in the distance, but they weren’t. This was the kind of rain that settles in for the week.
As it began to get darker a sense of despondent inevitability settled over everyone. Periodically a person here, or a couple there, would brave the elements and set up their tent in the rain watched, with sympathy and resignation, by the rest of us. Still no sign of a break in the weather.
And as I watched another couple struggling to build their tent in record time, he kneeling in the mud, she trying to hold the flysheet over him, I had a revelation. Suddenly I knew the solution and it was so obvious I couldn’t believe that no one else had thought of it.
I opened the bags and built the tent under the shelter, then Maggie and I carried the completed masterpiece out to a not-so-waterlogged patch of grass and pegged it down. Before we climbed in I glanced back and saw that everyone was now emptying bags and slotting poles together under the shelter.
OK, it might not be up there with finding solutions for famine or third-world-debt, but I still allowed myself a smug moment.