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Archive for October, 2010

Knowing When to Stop

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

“Stay the course” is time-honored advice, but is is always wise?

Yesterday, I had the chance to look at this question up close and personal–on a hike.  I was with two experienced hiking buddies in a national park that has a stellar reputation for trail maintenance and signage.  What we had in mind, was, literally, a walk in the park.  But it’s late October at the moment and the “park” is Mount Rainier in the Pacific Northwest.  The “walk” was a five mile loop trail with about 1300 feet elevation gain.  Seems like a no brainer that we’d “stay the course.”

But about a mile into the hike, we started seeing snow on the trail.  By two miles in, we were walking in 6 inches of slush.  Piles of snow were literally bombing off the evergreens with huge “whomp” sounds when they hit.  Another half mile and we were hiking in a foot or more of snow in a rather brisk breeze.

We kept right on going.  Not because we are big on making ourselves miserable, but because we assumed it was temporary.  This was just a high, exposed point of the loop, and we’d be back to walking on dirt in no time.

We trudged on, with the chilly sluch invading not-as-waterproof-as-we-thought boot seams and the “breeze” turning into just plain cold wind.  Why did we keep going?  It’s a loop trail–the faster way back to where you started is to just keep going. There were tracks marking the trail because another hiking party that included a local hiking matriarch was ahead of us.  Besides, the sky was blue and it was likely to be our last hike in the park–without snowshoes at least–for six months.

The snow deepened until we were “post holing” (sinking so far into the snow with each step that we could have placed fence posts in the resulting holes).  On we went, adjusting our strategy only to delay lunch until we got back down because it was too cold to enjoy stopping to eat.  We reached the high point and rejoiced that “it’s all downhill from here” and trudged on for another mile.

That’s when we saw the trail blazing group ahead of us coming back.  The snow had obliterated the trail to the point that they couldn’t find it.  Finally we looked at what we’d been doing with more than a “just keep doing this and it will work out fine” attitude.  Without their footsteps to follow, we knew we were likely to get lost.  That happens out here.  They’d just found another woman hiker–alive but cold after three days out in this mess–the day before.  (Older women hikers are a sturdy, resourceful bunch.)

We turned around and followed the other group back the way we’d come–through three miles of deep snow with an underlayer of freezing, watery slush.   When we were finally back to hiking on dirt, we started to ask ourselves the question we should have asked early on:  Was it wise to keep going?  None of us wanted to hike in snow.  All of us knew that wet boots and socks are not good.  All of us knew that turning around would have gotten us out of what became a rather demanding situation.

The “why” we came up with is one that gets used in many other circumstances.  We thought it was temporary and that we’d be able to get past it without changing our plan.  The farther we got into the mess, the closer we believed we were to getting out of it.

Which, it turns out, was not the case.

So how do you know when to stop?  When to change direction, alter your strategy, or just plain abort on what you are trying to do?  There’s a pop psych definition of insanity as “doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.”  Are we all nuts when we keep going?

It’s a bit more complex than that, but still worth trying to get a handle on.  Some questions it might help to ask:

  • Are conditions still what they were when I started?  If not, are these new conditions conducive to what I’m trying to do?
  • Am I enjoying this?  Am I achieving something I value with the effort?
  • Is it safe to continue–physically, emotionally, and/or financially?
  • Is this still where I want to go?

Being able to persevere in the face of adversity is an important skill.  But there’s a flip side to that, and we need to be learning that as well.  We need to learn when to give up on the original plan and try something else.

To do that well, you need to be aware of what’s changing, of what you’re getting out of what you’re doing, and of the realities of the circumstance you are in.  And then, usually, you need the courage to choose the longer, wiser route rather than hoping it will all work out easily when it’s beginning to look highly likely it won’t.


How to Solve a Problem

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

We all want to believe we are good at solving problems.  (And maybe that it’s other people in your life who need to read this post….)  But have you even taken a good look at how you go about it?

Here are the basics of effective problem solving. Do you do it this way?

Be sure you’ve accurately described the problem. Before you do anything else, be sure you are trying to solve what really needs to be solved. Lots of the time, we see a symptom of the problem as the whole problem. Solving just that isn’t going to make things go in the right direction for long. Being sure you’ve identified the real problem is half of solving it effectively.

Be clear about how important it is to solve the problem. Before you spend time on the rest of this process, decide how important it is to solve this particular problem. Sometimes, it’s essential. Sometimes it’s just an ego thing—where you want things to be the way you prefer. You do have to decide how to handle a budget shortfall or a missing person. But a lot of what we fret about is just emotional gymnastics. With those, it’s often good to just ignore what’s bugging you. Or even better, to reset your self talk so that it’s not bugging you anymore.

Take the time to brainstorm multiple solutions. This is the biggest mistake people make when they are trying to solve something important. They run with the first solution that comes to mind. Quite often, a much better solution was possible, but it was never identified because you only looked at that one (less effective) option.

After you are done brainstorming, evaluate all the options you identified. Sometimes, something totally off the wall turns out to have the kernel of an idea that’s far better than the obvious solutions. So don’t judge as you brainstorm. After you’ve stopped generating new possibilities, go back and look at what you came up with. Choose the the ones are worth pursuing further. Look for any that might be perfect if combined, reversed in order, or edited. Add any new ideas that come of this step; then choose the best.  The complexity of how you choose which one is best is a function of ythe weight of the decision, the number of people involved in the choice, and your preferred amount of decision-making structure.  Some people do a complex spreadsheet to figure out what new tires to buy; som create new companies on the back of an envelope.

Be aware of the quality of the information you’re relying on. Too often, we use information without taking the time to assess how good it is. We trust people we think know when they don’t and accept the accuracy of sources that really don’t deserve it. If it’s an important decision, confirm the quality of your information by checking other sources for corroboration and elaboration.

Confirm every single thing you’re assuming about the problem and the solution. We make assumptions about the situation involved in the problem that aren’t accurate, too. (Like assuming you need to call a water heater repair guy before checking to be sure the gas meter is functioning.) We make assumptions about the solution that aren’t accurate. We make assumptions about why we need to solve the problem that aren’t accurate. We could avoid a whole lot of woe if we just took the time to confirm that the assumptions we’re using are valid as we step into solving the problem instead of as a second thought–after the solution doesn’t work.

Look at the consequences. Once you find something you think will work, the natural inclination is to go roaring off to make it happen. Before you do that, please take the time to see what else is going to change if you make that change. We end up with new problems far more often than we need to either because the solution had consequences we didn’t anticipate or because we didn’t take the interim steps needed to avoid these new problems as we implemented the solution.

Solving problems is one of the best parts of being human. We get to make things better, to make things work, to make a difference. But when we approach the problem solving process, it helps a lot to do it right.


The Purpose of Purpose

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

It’s not a “Mother Teresa” sort of thing. Purpose is the best way to make your life really really happy.

A lot of what’s out there about finding a sense of purpose comes from the premise that we owe it to God (or whatever you choose to call that external force) to do something worthwhile with our time here.  That’s all well and good, but what if your personal philosophy doesn’t go there.  Is purpose irrelevant then?

Not at all.

Purpose is important for every single one of us.  One of the critical pieces of becoming an effective adult is knowing where you want to go–a sense of purpose.  It is your rudder, your sail, and your North Star.  Purpose helps you get going, keep going, and know where you are going.  It also holds the key to why you want to get there.

As young adults, purpose typically isn’t fully formed.  We may say we’re working to afford that hot car or the killer flat screen TV and sound system.  That’s actually a good way to start toward becoming an effective adult.  But as we move through life, we either either evolve beyond that childish materialistic definition of purpose or we start to drift.  And drifting can be very unsettling.

Purpose doesn’t have to be something herioc and monumental.  It may be as simple as “make sure each person I interact with is better off because of that interaction.”  But it’s got to bigger than you, to be about more than your own comfort and convenience.

Once you retire, the need for your own clear sense of purpose becomes even more critical.  The job provided a lot of what you used to prove your self worth.  When that goes away, you need to replace it with something that you believe in strongly–with something you want to do something about.  That’s purpose.  Maybe it’s teaching inner city kids about personal finance in an after school class and maybe it’s creating a beautiful garden.  The “what” is your call.

But do it.

Without purpose, we notice what hurts more.  We notice slights more.  We get depressed more easily.  We get sick more often.   A sense of purpose is as important to your overall health as good nutrition and regular exercise.  Once you have it figured out, it’s downright exhilarating.

Purpose is the path to doing things you love.  Get on it.