This little gem of a phrase was put to good use while I pursued my doctorate. Trust me – it didn’t come easily or naturally to me. I’m a “big picture” person by nature and focusing on isolated details or individual issues without plugging them back into the big picture is just . . . not me. Doing that feels like I’m wearing my shoes on the wrong feet. Weird. However during that time, I learned I was not only earning a doctorate, but I was learning how to be flexible, think differently, and do things that didn’t feel normal when that course of action was actually the best way to go for overall success. I applied this idea of “work the problem in front you” as I realized sometimes I had to get out of my natural way of thinking to keep moving forward and do right by those who depended on me to figure it out. But a professor in a university didn’t actually teach that little gem to me; my youngest son taught it to me several years earlier.
My youngest son – the Math genius Airman – always loved solving puzzles and riddles as a kid, and he still does. One summer we discovered the computer game “Sherlock Holmes: Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb”. The game was filled with clues, riddles, puzzles, and hidden things that had to be found and combined to solve other problems. We loved it! We were hooked. The extraordinary thing was how we worked together. We looked at things very differently, but together we saw possible connections and solutions that built on each other’s thinking. However, we both discovered that in our quest to solve the overall mystery, we often overlooked obvious clues and solutions that were right in front of us, forcing us to go back, relook, and then feel stupid because we’d missed something so simple. He was better at the math puzzles (of course) and I remember asking him how he figured out where to start. He said, “Work the problem in front of you – assess what you know or are given, figure out what the outcome is supposed to be, and start solving problems.” Sounds so simple, and yet it’s so hard to remember to do it when life is coming at you in real time.
A few years ago we started taking on Escape Rooms (I highly recommend them – so fun!). We did them as a family and after the first failure we realized we’d forgotten the cardinal rule – work the problem in front of you. We also realized that everyone needed to pick a problem and solve it. Divide and conquer. We hadn’t done either. We got distracted, went off on tangents, tried to look at too much and made erroneous connections with really no evidence to support them. We did everything BUT solve the problems in front of us.
We’ve gotten better and even tackled a level 5 room over the holidays. We got out with 3 seconds to spare!! We were sure we weren’t going to make it, but we stayed calm and kept working the problems until – voila! We unlocked the door! We were shocked we’d actually done it. It reminded me of one of the last scenes from “The Martian” when Matt Damon is explaining to astronauts-in-training that there will be moments when you can either give up or start solving problems. And if you solve enough problems, before time runs out, you get to go home. I get it.
So that gem has been given a workout the last two weeks. It started two weeks ago when we were out of school due to the extreme cold temperatures. We went back on a Wednesday to a pipe bursting and flooding the office plus 3 classrooms. The classrooms are back but the “office” has been reduced to a computer, a phone, 4 walkie-talkies, a folding table, and 4 folding chairs in the back hallway. OMG! The staff has been phenomenal in pulling together, being flexible, and having patience with all the craziness. But for me – I’ve been reduced to “work the problem in front of you.” The new normal – until the office is restored – is steering the ship with a paddle. I work the problem in front of me and then move on to the next. It’s not in my comfort zone at all, but it’s not unfamiliar either. I’ve been here before; I recognize the setup. I know if I stick to the plan, we’ll solve it all and be successful in the end. In the meantime, the new wrinkle to the familiar setup is we’re exhausted, our patience is thin, we can’t get to half the documents we need on a daily basis, and yet school must go on as normally as possible for the staff and students. Unfortunately, I can’t do anything about the main problem – no office – and I can’t do anything about the on-going deadlines, reports, and building goals that are all limping along at half speed. (You know that’s killing me.) Hopefully, we’ll get to go home before I run out of energy or patience or both.
Then today was the Groundhog Run. We’ve been running this race for the last seven years, and it’s always a high water mark for me. Ok – after today I’m thinking this race is cursed for me. I’ve never been able to run it without some catastrophe befalling me. I’ve been training, I was working the plan, and when I checked my watch I was on target to get a PR. I was closing in on mile 3, everything was going great one moment and the next my left hip felt like someone just took a hot poker to it. The pain was so bad I couldn’t breathe for a moment as I staggered to the side of the course. I took a couple of seconds to catch my breath and that scene came back to me: I can quit or I can start solving problems. Freak out and figure out what the hell just happened later. Right now I’m in a race so – think. It’s not over yet. I try running normally but slow. Oh hell no – white hot pain again. Ok – plan C. Can I do anything that lets me sort of run on that leg? I try this zombie / lurching limp gate where my right leg pulls and my left leg comes alongside, weight on the ball of my foot to stabilize long enough for my right leg to pull forward again. It’s slower than I want, but it’s doable. The pain is just OMG rather than throw up and pass out so I decide this is the plan until I can’t do it anymore – then I’ll think of something else. I limped / lurched my way to the finish line and promptly crumbled into my husband’s waiting arms from there. He’d done great in the race, but he knew something was very wrong when I didn’t show up right behind him. It was frustrating and disappointing for me, but I made it. I finished under my own power. And the most ironic thing? When I checked the stats later, I’d actually finished almost 2 minutes faster than I had two years ago. Go figure.
So what’s the moral of the story for me today? Working the problem in front of me is still usually the best course of action when all around me is unclear. Sometimes, the lessons we learn in completely unrelated areas of our life come to our rescue when we need them most. And sometimes, we learn those lessons from the least expected sources so be open to all the lessons that come to us, from wherever they come. You never know when you’re going to need to apply it to your own life in real time.