“A pessimist sees the difficult in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” – Winston Churchill
When we read quotes like this, we often want ourselves and our children to be more like the optimist. Oftentimes, this has to do with either how we’ve seen pessimists create such a negative environment in the workplace that often nothing can get done once someone has convinced the team that the problem is unsolvable or that there is the potential to stretch the team well beyond their individual capabilities with the right attitude. However, it is not enough to simply want to be like the optimist without outlining the associated actions to get there. So, what can be done to get our kids to have the right attitude when they are presented with difficult problems?
Work on increasingly difficult problems
Within the academic environment, there is a heavy focus on assessment (relative & absolute). While assessment can be useful, it also has the potential for creating an artificial playing field where the boundary conditions are so simplified that your child learns how to achieve success within a prescribed set of problems. In the real world, there is a lot more ambiguity. Often the most difficult problems have that characteristic because there is so much that is unknown about what causes them or what can be done to fix it. For example, within healthcare – medical professionals are struggling to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.
Now imagine that children who have only had to solve prescriptive problems with known boundary conditions become the medical professionals of tomorrow. It is very likely that they will not have the capabilities to solve a really difficult problem like a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. On the other hand, if we begin preparing our children now with problem sets that have a wide range of boundary conditions (known to unknown); it is likely that they will grow increasingly comfortable with developing the right mindset to solution development.
From my perspective, I’d much rather have the current generation change the world through their solution development than to get a great score on their MAP test.
Figure out how to get unstuck
One of the most difficult skills to teach is how to figure your way out of a dead end or what is perceived to be a dead end. On the path to solution development, there are a key set of assumptions that are leveraged. Some of these assumptions once tested are found to be inaccurate. Depending on which actions were taken relative to these inaccurate assumptions can often lead to a solution that doesn’t quite work as intended. For example, let’s say that your kid is on the way to a friend’s house. They believe that they should take a certain street. On the way there, construction is fully blocking their normal route. As a parent or guardian, we would be pretty disappointed if our child simply returned home because of a street blockage. Instead, we would expect that they would find an alternate route. As adults, we have often faced construction blockages on our way to work or on the return trip back home. Prior to GPS which often re-routes our journey real time, we would’ve found a street that runs in parallel or asked another driver or flagged down a police offer or looked for the alternate route signage.
As kids get more practice with figuring out how to get unstuck, they build confidence that there is not always a singular solution path. The earlier they internalize this truth, the better they become at conceptualizing the widest range of potential solutions regardless of if they encounter difficulty during the development.
Practice, Practice, Practice
For any of us who have ever played sports, it is quite likely that your coach relayed this quote “Practice how you play”. Oftentimes, this was used as a motivation for either an individual or the team when the coach felt like the practice wasn’t being taken seriously. However, practice isn’t limited to athletics. Within music, technology and academics, there is a huge impact on skill development for those who are willing to practice. For sports, there are a wide variety of drills that have been developed over the years. If you want to prepare for high pressure end of game situations, you run plays with 10 seconds left on the shot clock. If you want to prepare for a school recital, you practice playing your selection without making any mistakes. If you have a big presentation, you do a dry run with the actual clothes you plan on wearing.
Those who often excel at a chosen discipline are relentless in their quest to improve. Some mistakenly believe that their greatness only comes from how they push the boundaries. For example, Michael Jordan was known for his spectacular dunks. However, the reason why those dunks became legendary was due to their rarity. In reality, his accomplishments in winning championships primarily came from developing laser sharp situational awareness. Whether it was passing the ball to a teammate because he was doubled teamed or anticipating a steal because of awareness of the other team’s play from film review, greatness is often developed on the practice court and demonstrated on the playing field.
As technology becomes a bigger part of our solution toolbox, it is important that our children understand that they have the capability to change the world with their solutions. By working on increasingly difficult problems, figuring out how to get unstuck, and practicing; they will be well prepared to push their creative solutions into the world. It will be exciting to see how they rise to that challenge and make the world a better place in the process.