Thursday, July 21, 2011

Solving Problems

You have to think about this thing.  We can't keep doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result.  I cringed as Isaiah's voice attacked my ears through my cell phone.  Several images flashed through my mind tempting me with emotional regression.  I chose to be my better self.  I couldn't think of anything loving and kind to say, though, so I remained quiet.  Do you want to talk back to Simonne? he asked. Does she want to talk to me? was my reply.

Let me fill you in quickly.  Zach's birthday present was an aquarium.  We spent 2 weeks trying to find a spot in our home where the tank would be safe from Jaedon.  Jay found the whole idea quite fascinating and thought that he should help with the continuous filling of the tank by pouring liquids into the tank.  Well, he started out by pouring water, which we discouraged forcefully, but the real panic started when someone's coffee went into the fish tank and everything went downhill from there.  The entire bottle of 'Off' (insect repellent) went into the tank.  20 ounces of coconut oil killed most of the aquatic plants.  Thankfully, the fish had not yet arrived.  We conditioned and reconditioned the water many times. Visiting friends accused me of setting up the fish for death.  All I knew was that Zach wanted fish and in lieu of the dog that both kids wanted, fish seemed like a good idea.

Many Clarke family activities in and out of the home are somewhat shaped by Jaedon, what he will tolerate, what we can tolerate having him interact with, and what will survive his interaction.  Fish in a tank seemed like a great safe idea.  The pouring was an unforeseen challenge, but I was not daunted.  Perhaps Jaedon could learn to leave the fish alone.  Perhaps we could find a secure location for the tank.  Perhaps we could find a secure cover for the tank.  I decided to work on all three options.

With a new hood, cover and location in place, I decided to get the fish and officially start our aquarium.   The first couple days went uneventfully, then I notice some sand in the aquarium one morning.  That's really strange, I thought.  I poll everyone to see who was so generous as to have purchased aquarium sand and applied stealth to putting it into the tank overnight.  No takers.  After several more minutes of thought, I spy the empty bottle of calcium/magnesium tablets on the dining table, a soggy tablet in the vicinity of the tank and quickly figure out the crime.  I re-secure the tank and begin to think about solutions to the safety breach around the tank filter.  Some hours later, I fish playdoh out of the tank.  I put Simonne and Zach on high alert.  Jaedon is not allowed in that part of the room.

I had just gotten into the car and was turning onto the main road that intersects with our street.  My phone rings.  Mommy, Jaedon poured all the fish food into the fish tank.  What should we do? 
I thought quickly.  Ask Daddy to scoop the fish out into the little tank.  I'll sort it out when I get home. 
S: I did ask Daddy and he said he wouldn't do it.  Isaiah then comes on the phone and gives the speech.  Some things just don't work.  Doing the same things over and over is insanity... It's a tough lesson for the kids to learn, but this is how it is...I have to think about it and have a solution before getting the fish,...

I did a lot of self talk to help me regulate myself so I could be .... even.... before I got back home.  Fortunately, Simonne got on the phone and asked me a question I could process: What do you think we can do to save the fish?  She followed my instructions to scoup the fish from the soupy water and the fish were in the small tank by the time I got home.

The incident stimulated my thinking about my problem solving strategy.  I tend to think about the problem big picture, look at what others have done to solve the problem in similar situations to mine.  I think about the hardest part of the problem in detail, but if I believe the smaller problems can be handled as they come up, I save my thinking for that time.

I thought back to my days of writing software.  As a student, I was told by the professors to write an algorithm ( a plain English solution to the problem) then to encode my algorithm in a language the computer understood.  I always had good intentions, but invariably, I sat in front of the computer, started thinking and writing at the same time, then rewrote as I tested and debugged.  I would then write my algorithm after the fact, based on the solution I had already written into software.

That is pretty much how I solve problems now.  I research generally, and trust that my brain is filing the useful bits of info, then I get into action mode.  I start to write the code, or the curriculum, or the letter.  I buy the fish paraphernalia and see how they work together.  Sometimes, I can explain how it will all work out, but sometimes I'm not sure.  I just know that there's a solution out there, and incrementally, as I see my system respond to its environment, I figure out what else I should add or subtract, refine or tweak to make things work the way I want. 

The changes are so minuscule sometimes, that it might seem like I didn't change much, especially if the change didn't produce the result I wanted.   But even slight changes, with no apparent outcome, change the entire system, teach me new things about the problem I'm solving and enhance the process in my own mind.  

Isaiah's problem solving strategy is different.  He tends to fully formulate a strategy that he feels really sure about before getting into action mode.   I can become very impatient with his approach, and I know he is often frustrated with mine.  This is what I've noticed when he's home.  Interestingly, his strategy at work is very similar to mine. I am recognising this as just a difference in approach, and like the choice between chicken or fish, it depends on what you like to do and what works for your situation.   So, I'm working on remembering not to judge Isaiah for what I have judged to be his judgement of me.

Now, the fish have a fully submerged filter and a reptile lid with 2 reptile clips on the tank.  Jaedon still knows how to open it, but it takes him more time, and he is less enthusiastic about that.  I'm going to get 2 more reptile clips and a cupboard lock to clamp the hood to the tank. 

Now the new problem is that Zachary can't feed his own fish.... Let me get to that one.

By the way, how do you solve problems?


  1. Problem-solving approaches are fascinating, Faith. I used to use the Isaiah method exclusively for the longest time, and judge all who didn't, leading to quite a few conflicts. Now I believe I have learned to be comfortable with figure-out-as-you-go where the occasion demands it (very fluid situation, no time to figure it all out beforehand, etc). But I clearly have a much better time when I put more energy on remaining open to different approaches and letting go of judgements, over actually solving the problem.

  2. Faith, I got really excited reading your post. I thought it was just me. Whenever I have challenges working with other engineers, it always seems to come down to problem solving method.

    I'm an iterative-refinement kind of guy, i.e., I figure it out as I go. Engineers as a discipline tend to be structured: think about it, design it, document it, build it, test it. To most engineers, my approach is just wrong. For me, it works better than anything else.

    In fact, I plan on getting things wrong the first time and then fixing them. This is perfect for software because there's no cost of goods (when it breaks, you just fix it and try it again). When you're doing something that's never been done or can't be looked up, it's the only way to go.

    That said, there are cases where I really think and plan (well at least more than normally). For example, when I'm doing woodwork and I have limited materials, as much as I enjoy iterative refinement, I suddenly become a measure-twice/cut-once kind of guy.

    I still don't write it down or draw it (I just visualize it), but I definitely play with the visual model before actually setting blade to wood. Iris will walk into the garage and find me standing in the midst of my virtual structure as I walk around looking at it from various angles.

    Perhaps the stuckness in one mode or the other is a side-effect of the "If all you've got is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail" phenomenon? Then it's probably time to start trying new tools.

  3. It's the perception of resource cost! That was very helpful, Tef. I just had loft beds made for the kids and I was very precise. I measured everything, the room, drew out all the options,... all before the project started. I don't feel as flexible with materials that I have to throw away and buy more of if I'm not accurate. Solutions that only require my thought and time then are judged on the time to think it out before vs the time to act in the moment, and I confess to the belief that I can figure it out quickly. Another expensive resource is energy and I think that's the one consuming Isaiah's focus.


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