The Universal Problem Solving Formula

There are a myriad of micro-skills that are easy to overlook that go into any kind of success.  One critical one is problem solving.  Here’s a fact, people run into barriers and quit.  Perseverance is part of it but it goes way further than that and how do you persevere?

Yesterday I was talking to someone who I’ve noticed frequently gets stuck and quits.  Does this in business and career but in communication, relationships, etc. as well and it all comes down to the same predictable process.

Imagine you had something you wanted to communicate to someone you tried and they didn’t get it?  What would you do?

Most people would resort to one of two things.  Either they’d say “forget it” and quit (in which case if it was worth quitting over after one attempt was it really worth trying to communicate to begin with?).  Or alternatively they’d repeat themselves.  What if the person still doesn’t get it?

Usually this would lead to either another repeat perhaps with heightened emotions, a stern voice or yelling…or just quit.

Now if you were really persistent you might do one of two things or a combination.  You might ask “what aren’t you understanding?” or try to restate the same thing in a different way to try to get the person to understand.  A lot of people just don’t have the patience for this process and they aren’t likely to be particularly successful in whatever their not willing to be patient with.

Sooner or later most people will give up.  What was the gap?


Let’s consider another example.  You’ve got an important business deal you need to close but it’s in another city and you’re broke having put everything into your start-up, what do you do?  A lot of people would give up right there, they’d say “I can’t make it because…” and that story would be the reason it was ok for them to fail.  That’s a loser’s mentality.  NEVER play like that!

Some other people would put in some effort maybe they’d ask some people for a ride and what if that didn’t work?  They’d give up and tell the story about how they tried everything but it didn’t work.  Tony Robbins has an expression “if you’d really have tried everything you’d have the result”.  You haven’t tried everything you’ve just scratched the surface.  The person who has tried everything will have hitch hiked, begged, borrowed, pleaded, fought all the way there.

I have a friend who was an incredible example of this.  When he turned 18 he wanted to go to Tony Robbins Mastery University in Hawaii but couldn’t afford a ticket to the event.  Without a ticket to the event and with just enough money to get one way he flew to Hawaii without any return ticket or place to stay.  He then proceeded to go up to random people on the street, introduce himself and ask if he could borrow $17 000 for the course (or whatever the amount was).  He got turned down each time.  At this point a person could justifiably say “he’s tried everything”, no one could fault him for giving up.  But he didn’t, he harassed Tony’s staff so much that they held an emergency meeting just as the event was starting and agreed to do something they never do, which was give him the course based on zero deposit on payment terms.  In other words he got the result.  “If you are committed you’ll do whatever it takes”.

There’s a whole emotional side to doing whatever it takes and perhaps in the future we’ll feature an expert in this area to discuss it but for now there is something that’s served me well that we can learn.  What I’ve noticed is most of the people who get taken out early have something in common.  They have a lack of options on the front end to keep them going.  Here then is the process I find consistently works well.

  1. Brainstorming – most people jump to options with very few, when you’ve got a challenge discipline yourself to brainstorm a massive number of options (more than 3 typically up to around 7, never get less than 3 preferably a few more, returns tend to diminish over 7) regardless of how crazy they might be, don’t judge them at this point that comes later. When you’ve got 7 options to solve your problem you’ll be much more able to keep going when one option fails.


  1. Evaluating – go through the 3-7 options and determine the likelihood of success, you’re just guessing based on what you know but also be aware that if something doesn’t seem like it will work you should consider brainstorming 3-7 ways you could make it work. For example make one option to get somewhere is to rent a helicopter and that seems incredibly impractical and maybe it is but say it was an option and you’re just constrained by resources there are probably other ways to get those resources.


  1. Selecting – based on the evaluation prioritize the highest probability of success and most efficient activities in order.


  1. Action – implement the options you’ve prioritized immediately in an attempt to get the result.


Go back to the beginning if you aren’t succeeding.  If you’re struggling with brainstorming here are some useful tips:

  • Chunk it down – this means break the problem into smaller pieces:
    • “what’s the problem?” “I need to get from a to b”
    • “ok, what’s the problem there?” “I don’t have a method”
    • “ok, what are the possible methods?” “Car, boat, plane or bus”
    • “ok, how come those aren’t options?” “I don’t have any of those”
    • “ok, who does have one of those?” “well there are these 8 people”
    • “perfect what do you need to use their resource?” etc.
    • See how by breaking the problem down into smaller pieces and working through it sequentially it can be easier to determine options


  • Step back from the problem – this is something useful you’ll often get too close to the problem and therefore not see that the problem isn’t really what you think it is and as a result there are other options to get around it:
    • “What’s the problem?” “My credit card is frozen”
    • “ok, what do you need your credit card for?” “to make for this ticket online”
    • “ok, what other ways might there be to pay for a ticket?” “I could borrow one from a friend and pay them back”
    • “perfect, do you actually need to book the ticket online?” “I could I guess book in person”
    • “Perfect could you do that with cash?” “Yes”
    • “Ok, great, what are you booking the ticket for?” “To take this girl for a date”
    • “Ok, are there other places you could take her for a date?” “Sure, I guess”
    • “What other places…”
    • You get the idea, see how at the start the fixation might have been on a frozen credit card and maybe there are few options to unfreeze it but by stepping back you see the real problem wasn’t the frozen credit card anyway it was the need for a ticket and as soon as you change the problem from “unfreezing the credit card” to “buying a ticket” a whole different set of resources become available. Then you discover that’s not even the issue the issue is planning a date and when you realize the problem is actually planning a date a whole other set of options again become available.  The point is by stepping back and reframing the problem you can open up all kinds of options that might be useful in getting where you want to go.

In practice the above example is illustrative, actual coaching wouldn’t likely go that smooth but if you practice these disciplines yourself you’ll get very good very fast.  This is the key, this problem solving process, this process of getting resourceful is a discipline.  It is often worth generating options even though it’s not necessary because the tendency to go after what we know blinds us to potentially better practices.

“The defining factor in life is never resources it’s resourcefulness” – Tony Robbins.

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