We all solve problems for a living. Both in our personal and professional lives. But how many of us can say that we are skilled at problem solving? And how many of those skilled can say that we love the process?  

How do we define problems? In simple words, a problem is an event that causes difficulty or discomfort. We resolve problems to reach an intended outcome and to feel at ease.

The skill of problem solving is key in learning. Let’s visualize that you are learning how to build your own garden. The problems you will face will span from sunlight direction, water retention, wind, nutrition and the list goes on. From this list, some of the problems are under our control and some are external. Let’s leave the external ones for the moment. 

For the problems under our control, where do we get started? We start by looking at problems like an IKEA furniture that you need to unpack from the box, gather different parts, sort them and assemble. All of this without an instructional manual. It’s not pretty, but it’s not impossible either

Scientists have conducted experiments with young learners and adults and found that kids were better at creatively solving problems compared to adults. How is that possible? Let’s dig in and focus on fundamentals – 

1. Fluid thinking

Kids in their formative years are elastic in their experiments. They test extremes and do not show complacency. Why are kids fluid in their thinking? Multiple studies have shown young kids look at problems through an isolated lens. They don’t develop connections from one problem to another and hence have the advantage of honing their curiosity and stretching their solutions. 

2. Lack of biases

One of the biggest attributes that makes kids better at problem solving is their lack of bias. As adults, through years of experience, we attach ourselves to beliefs and refuse to let go of those preconceived notions. We fall in love with the previous solutions that worked and don’t look at problems from an isolated lens. 

If our previous solutions help the current problem, that discovery should happen through validation and not assumptions. 

3. A blank world view

As experiences accumulate, our view of the world and our place in it changes. We find joy around kids because of their curiosity and innocence. In the truest sense, kids visualize each day as a blank slate and that provides them with fresh mental tools. 

We have taken a look at why kids are better at problem solving. Let’s break these down into actionable behaviors:

a. Let’s validate our assumptions

I wanted to learn coding in 2013, because my manager asked me to and it would be a great skill to move to a tech role. I took a free course, practiced a few times and gave up. I assumed before I started the course that this was too ‘technical’ and I would never be great at it. I did not validate those assumptions or build consistency

Assumptions might help us move through problems swiftly, but they can block us too. Let’s validate these assumptions before marrying them. 

b. Let’s ask ‘why’

I bought the Unlearning Labs domain in early 2020 and did not publish the first blog until 2022. I assumed that no one would read. Through the two years, I built the habit of listening to podcasts and heard creators who started blogging and their reflections. I went back to the whiteboard and started asking myself ‘why am I not ready to publish?’ I read about the 5 Whys technique, dug in my feet and figured out that the root cause of my procrastination was that ‘I did not know who my target audience was’.

While asking ‘why’ seems repetitive, kids practice this and it’s the only way to find the root cause

c. Let’s solve for one

While our productivity maestro’s might speak about multitasking, most of us agree that it doesn’t work. Our mantra should be breaking down the problem into components and solving one at a time through actions

Solving for one is challenging in work settings but it’s beneficial to focus on one action at a time. If we solve for all, we’d be juggling more than we can handle. 

d. Let’s sleep on it

This one is my favorite. Problems belong on our screens and work desks, not in the bedroom. Taking space and distance from our problems allows us to go back with better frameworks and full of possibilities

Sleeping through problems helps us think laterally. It’s almost like letting our neurons solve the problem for us. 

We give kids problems to solve everyday in the form of video games, puzzles, blocks and they enjoy it. The biggest takeaway for me through this blog is to acknowledge and love problems and enjoy the process of deconstructing the problem. 

Unlearning Thought

What question are you using the ‘5 Whys technique’ for?