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Overview of the Problem-Solving Mental Process

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

how to be a problem solving person

Rachel Goldman, PhD FTOS, is a licensed psychologist, clinical assistant professor, speaker, wellness expert specializing in eating behaviors, stress management, and health behavior change.

how to be a problem solving person

  • Identify the Problem
  • Define the Problem
  • Form a Strategy
  • Organize Information
  • Allocate Resources
  • Monitor Progress
  • Evaluate the Results

Frequently Asked Questions

Problem-solving is a mental process that involves discovering, analyzing, and solving problems. The ultimate goal of problem-solving is to overcome obstacles and find a solution that best resolves the issue.

The best strategy for solving a problem depends largely on the unique situation. In some cases, people are better off learning everything they can about the issue and then using factual knowledge to come up with a solution. In other instances, creativity and insight are the best options.

It is not necessary to follow problem-solving steps sequentially, It is common to skip steps or even go back through steps multiple times until the desired solution is reached.

In order to correctly solve a problem, it is often important to follow a series of steps. Researchers sometimes refer to this as the problem-solving cycle. While this cycle is portrayed sequentially, people rarely follow a rigid series of steps to find a solution.

The following steps include developing strategies and organizing knowledge.

1. Identifying the Problem

While it may seem like an obvious step, identifying the problem is not always as simple as it sounds. In some cases, people might mistakenly identify the wrong source of a problem, which will make attempts to solve it inefficient or even useless.

Some strategies that you might use to figure out the source of a problem include :

  • Asking questions about the problem
  • Breaking the problem down into smaller pieces
  • Looking at the problem from different perspectives
  • Conducting research to figure out what relationships exist between different variables

2. Defining the Problem

After the problem has been identified, it is important to fully define the problem so that it can be solved. You can define a problem by operationally defining each aspect of the problem and setting goals for what aspects of the problem you will address

At this point, you should focus on figuring out which aspects of the problems are facts and which are opinions. State the problem clearly and identify the scope of the solution.

3. Forming a Strategy

After the problem has been identified, it is time to start brainstorming potential solutions. This step usually involves generating as many ideas as possible without judging their quality. Once several possibilities have been generated, they can be evaluated and narrowed down.

The next step is to develop a strategy to solve the problem. The approach used will vary depending upon the situation and the individual's unique preferences. Common problem-solving strategies include heuristics and algorithms.

  • Heuristics are mental shortcuts that are often based on solutions that have worked in the past. They can work well if the problem is similar to something you have encountered before and are often the best choice if you need a fast solution.
  • Algorithms are step-by-step strategies that are guaranteed to produce a correct result. While this approach is great for accuracy, it can also consume time and resources.

Heuristics are often best used when time is of the essence, while algorithms are a better choice when a decision needs to be as accurate as possible.

4. Organizing Information

Before coming up with a solution, you need to first organize the available information. What do you know about the problem? What do you not know? The more information that is available the better prepared you will be to come up with an accurate solution.

When approaching a problem, it is important to make sure that you have all the data you need. Making a decision without adequate information can lead to biased or inaccurate results.

5. Allocating Resources

Of course, we don't always have unlimited money, time, and other resources to solve a problem. Before you begin to solve a problem, you need to determine how high priority it is.

If it is an important problem, it is probably worth allocating more resources to solving it. If, however, it is a fairly unimportant problem, then you do not want to spend too much of your available resources on coming up with a solution.

At this stage, it is important to consider all of the factors that might affect the problem at hand. This includes looking at the available resources, deadlines that need to be met, and any possible risks involved in each solution. After careful evaluation, a decision can be made about which solution to pursue.

6. Monitoring Progress

After selecting a problem-solving strategy, it is time to put the plan into action and see if it works. This step might involve trying out different solutions to see which one is the most effective.

It is also important to monitor the situation after implementing a solution to ensure that the problem has been solved and that no new problems have arisen as a result of the proposed solution.

Effective problem-solvers tend to monitor their progress as they work towards a solution. If they are not making good progress toward reaching their goal, they will reevaluate their approach or look for new strategies .

7. Evaluating the Results

After a solution has been reached, it is important to evaluate the results to determine if it is the best possible solution to the problem. This evaluation might be immediate, such as checking the results of a math problem to ensure the answer is correct, or it can be delayed, such as evaluating the success of a therapy program after several months of treatment.

Once a problem has been solved, it is important to take some time to reflect on the process that was used and evaluate the results. This will help you to improve your problem-solving skills and become more efficient at solving future problems.

A Word From Verywell​

It is important to remember that there are many different problem-solving processes with different steps, and this is just one example. Problem-solving in real-world situations requires a great deal of resourcefulness, flexibility, resilience, and continuous interaction with the environment.

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You can become a better problem solving by:

  • Practicing brainstorming and coming up with multiple potential solutions to problems
  • Being open-minded and considering all possible options before making a decision
  • Breaking down problems into smaller, more manageable pieces
  • Asking for help when needed
  • Researching different problem-solving techniques and trying out new ones
  • Learning from mistakes and using them as opportunities to grow

It's important to communicate openly and honestly with your partner about what's going on. Try to see things from their perspective as well as your own. Work together to find a resolution that works for both of you. Be willing to compromise and accept that there may not be a perfect solution.

Take breaks if things are getting too heated, and come back to the problem when you feel calm and collected. Don't try to fix every problem on your own—consider asking a therapist or counselor for help and insight.

If you've tried everything and there doesn't seem to be a way to fix the problem, you may have to learn to accept it. This can be difficult, but try to focus on the positive aspects of your life and remember that every situation is temporary. Don't dwell on what's going wrong—instead, think about what's going right. Find support by talking to friends or family. Seek professional help if you're having trouble coping.

Davidson JE, Sternberg RJ, editors.  The Psychology of Problem Solving .  Cambridge University Press; 2003. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511615771

Sarathy V. Real world problem-solving .  Front Hum Neurosci . 2018;12:261. Published 2018 Jun 26. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00261

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

Problem-Solving Mindset: How to Achieve It (15 Ways)

One of the most valuable skills you can have in life is a problem-solving mindset. It means that you see challenges as opportunities to learn and grow, rather than obstacles to avoid or complain about. A problem-solving mindset helps you overcome difficulties, achieve your goals, and constantly improve yourself. By developing a problem-solving mindset, you can become more confident, creative, and resilient in any situation.A well-defined problem paves the way for targeted, effective solutions. Resist the urge to jump straight into fixing things. Invest the time upfront to truly understand what needs to be solved. Starting with the end in mind will make the path to resolution that much smoother.

how to be a problem solving person

Sanju Pradeepa

Problem-Solving Mindset

* This Post may contain affiliate Links, and we receive an affiliate commission for any purchases made by you using such links. *

Ever feel like you’re stuck in a rut with no way out? We’ve all been there. The problems life throws at us can seem insurmountable. But the truth is, you have everything you need to overcome any challenge already within you. It’s called a problem-solving mindset. Developing the ability to see problems as puzzles to solve rather than obstacles to overcome is a game changer. With the right mindset, you can achieve amazing things.

In this article, we’ll explore what having a problem-solving mindset really means and how you can cultivate one for yourself. You’ll learn proven techniques to shift your perspective, expand your creativity, and find innovative solutions to your biggest problems. We’ll look at examples of people who have used a problem-solving mindset to accomplish extraordinary feats. By the end, you’ll have the tools and inspiration to transform how you think about and approach problems in your own life.

Table of Contents

What is a problem-solving mindset.

What Is a Problem-Solving Mindset

A problem solving mindset is all about approaching challenges in a solution-focused way. Rather than feeling defeated by obstacles, you look at them as puzzles to solve. Developing this mindset takes practice, but the rewards of increased resilience, creativity and confidence make it worth the effort.

  • Identify problems, not excuses. Rather than blaming external factors, look for the issues within your control. Ask yourself, “What’s really going on here and what can I do about it?”
  • Focus on solutions, not problems. Once you’ve pinpointed the issue, brainstorm options to fix it. Don’t get stuck in a negative loop. Shift your mindset to answer the question, “What are some possible solutions?”
  • Look for opportunities, not obstacles. Reframe the way you view problems. See them as chances to improve and learn, rather than roadblocks stopping your progress. Ask, “What’s the opportunity or lesson here?”
  • Start small and build up. Don’t feel overwhelmed by big challenges. Break them into manageable steps and celebrate small wins along the way. Solving little problems builds your confidence to tackle bigger issues.

Be patient with yourself and maintain an open and curious attitude . With regular practice, you’ll get better at seeing the solutions, rather than the obstacles. You’ll become more flexible and innovative in your thinking. And you’ll discover that you have the ability to solve problems you once thought insurmountable. That’s the power of a problem-solving mindset.

Why Developing a Problem Solving Mindset Is Important

Why Developing a Problem-Solving Mindset Is Important

Developing a problem-solving mindset is crucial these days. Why? Because life throws curveballs at us constantly and the only way to overcome them is through creative solutions.

Having a problem-solving mindset means you view challenges as opportunities rather than obstacles. You approach them with curiosity and optimism instead of dread. This allows you to see problems from new angles and come up with innovative solutions.

Some key characteristics of a problem-solving mindset include:

  • Flexibility. You’re open to different perspectives and willing to consider alternative options.
  • Creativity. You think outside the box and make unexpected connections between ideas.
  • Persistence. You don’t give up easily in the face of difficulties or setbacks. You continue experimenting and adjusting your approach.
  • Adaptability. You accept change and are able to quickly adjust your strategies or plans to suit new situations.
  • Resourcefulness. You make the most of what you have access to and find ways to overcome limitations.

Developing a problem-solving mindset takes conscious effort and practice.

The Key Characteristics of Effective Problem Solvers

The Key Characteristics of Effective Problem Solvers

To become an effective problem solver, you need to develop certain characteristics and mindsets. Here are some of the key traits shared by great problem solvers:

1. Openness to New Ideas

Effective problem solvers have an open and curious mind. They seek out new ways of looking at problems and solutions. Rather than dismissing ideas that seem “out there,” they explore various options with an open mind.

2. Flexibility

Great problem solvers are flexible in their thinking. They can see problems from multiple perspectives and are willing to adapt their approach. If one solution isn’t working, they try another. They understand that there are many paths to solving a problem.

3. Persistence

Solving complex problems often requires persistence and determination. Effective problem solvers don’t give up easily. They continue exploring options and trying new solutions until they find one that works. They see setbacks as learning opportunities rather than failures.

Why persistence important

Why Persistence is Important: 8 Benefits & 6 Ways to Develop

4. creativity.

Innovative problem solvers think outside the box . They make unexpected connections and come up with unconventional solutions. They utilize techniques like brainstorming, mind mapping, and lateral thinking to spark new ideas.

5. Analytical Thinking

While creativity is key, problem solvers also need to be able to evaluate solutions in a logical and analytical manner. They need to be able to determine the pros and cons, costs and benefits, and potential obstacles or issues with any solution. They rely on data, evidence, and objective reasoning to make decisions.

Types of critical thinking

7 Types of Critical Thinking: A Guide to Analyzing Problems

How to cultivate a problem-solving mindset.

How to Cultivate a Problem-Solving Mindset

To cultivate a problem-solving mindset, you need to develop certain habits and ways of thinking. Here are some tips to get you started:

1. Look for Opportunities to Solve Problems

The more you practice problem solving, the better you’ll get at it. Look for opportunities in your daily life to solve small problems. This could be figuring out a better way to organize your tasks at work or coming up with a solution to traffic in your neighborhood. Start with small, low-risk problems and work your way up to more complex challenges.

2. Ask Good Questions

One of the most important skills in problem solving is asking good questions. Questions help you gain a deeper understanding of the issue and uncover new perspectives. Ask open-ended questions like:

  • What’s the real problem here?
  • What are the underlying causes?
  • Who does this impact and how?
  • What has been tried before? What worked and what didn’t?

3. Do Your Research

Don’t go into problem solving blind. Do some research to gather relevant facts and data about the situation. The more you know, the better equipped you’ll be to come up with innovative solutions. Talk to people with different viewpoints and life experiences to gain new insights.

4. Brainstorm Many Options

When you start thinking of solutions, don’t settle for the first idea that comes to mind. Brainstorm many options to open up possibilities. The more choices you have, the more likely you are to discover an unconventional solution that really fits the needs of the situation. Think outside the box!

5. Evaluate and Decide

Once you have a list of possible solutions, evaluate each option objectively based on criteria like cost, time, and effectiveness. Get input from others if needed. Then make a decision and take action. Even if it’s not the perfect solution, you can make changes as you go based on feedback and results.

6. Question your beliefs

The beliefs and assumptions you hold can influence how you perceive and solve problems. Ask yourself:

  • What beliefs or stereotypes do I have about this situation or the people involved?
  • Are these beliefs grounded in facts or just my personal experiences?
  • How might my beliefs be limiting my thinking?

Challenging your beliefs helps you see the problem with fresh eyes and identify new solutions.

The Ultimate Guide of Overcoming Self-Limiting Beliefs

The Ultimate Guide of Overcoming Self-Limiting Beliefs

7. seek different perspectives.

Get input from people with different backgrounds, experiences, and thought processes than your own. Their unique perspectives can reveal new insights and spark innovative ideas. Some ways to gain new perspectives include:

  • Discuss the problem with colleagues from different departments or areas of expertise.
  • Interview customers or clients to understand their needs and priorities.
  • Consult experts in unrelated fields for an outside-the-box opinion.
  • Crowdsource solutions from people of diverse ages, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

8. Look beyond the obvious

We tend to focus on the most conspicuous or straightforward solutions, but the best option isn’t always obvious. Try these techniques to stimulate unconventional thinking:

  • Restate the problem in new ways. A new phrasing can reveal alternative solutions.
  • Remove constraints and imagine an ideal scenario. Then work backwards to find realistic options.
  • Make unexpected associations between the problem and unrelated concepts or objects. Look for parallels and analogies in different domains.
  • Play with hypothetical scenarios to find combinations you may not logically deduce. Some of the wildest ideas can lead to innovative solutions!

With an open and curious mindset, you can overcome assumptions, gain new insights, and find unconventional solutions to your most complex problems. The key is looking at the situation in new ways and exploring all possibilities.

Mindset is Everything

Mindset is Everything: Reprogram Your Thinking for Success

9. practice active listening.

To become an effective problem solver, you need to practice active listening. This means paying close attention to what others are saying and asking follow-up questions to gain a deeper understanding of the issues.

Listen without judgment

When someone is explaining a problem to you, listen with an open mind. Avoid interrupting or criticizing them. Your role is to understand their perspective and concerns, not pass judgment. Nod, make eye contact, and give verbal affirmations like “I see” or “go on” to show you’re engaged.

Ask clarifying questions

If something is unclear or you need more details, ask questions. Say something like, “Can you explain that in more detail?” or “What specifically do you mean by that?” The more information you have about the problem, the better equipped you’ll be to solve it. Ask open-ended questions to encourage the other person to elaborate on their points.

Paraphrase and summarize

Repeat back parts of what the speaker said in your own words to confirm you understood them correctly. Say something like, “It sounds like the main issues are…” or “To summarize, the key points you’re making are…” This also shows the other person you were paying attention and care about addressing their actual concerns.

10. Withhold suggestions initially

When someone first presents you with a problem, avoid immediately suggesting solutions. Your first task is to understand the issue thoroughly. If you start proposing solutions too soon, it can seem like you’re not really listening and are just waiting for your turn to talk. Get clarification, summarize the issues, and ask any follow up questions needed before offering your input on how to solve the problem.

Developing the patience and discipline to actively listen takes practice. But by listening without judgment, asking clarifying questions, paraphrasing, and withholding suggestions initially, you’ll gain valuable insight into problems and be better equipped to solve them. Active listening is a skill that will serve you well in all areas of life.

11. Ask Lots of Questions

To solve problems effectively, you need to ask lots of questions. Questioning helps you gain a deeper understanding of the issue, uncover hidden factors, and open your mind to new solutions.

Asking “why” helps you determine the root cause of the problem. Keep asking “why” until you reach the underlying reason. For example, if sales numbers are down, ask why. The answer may be that you lost a key client. Ask why you lost the client. The answer could be poor customer service. Ask why the customer service was poor. And so on. Getting to the root cause is key to finding the right solution.

Challenge Assumptions

We all have implicit assumptions and biases that influence our thinking. Challenge any assumptions you have about the problem by asking questions like:

  • What if the opposite is true?
  • What are we missing or ignoring?
  • What do we think is impossible but perhaps isn’t?

Questioning your assumptions opens you up to new perspectives and innovative solutions.

12. Consider Different Viewpoints

Try to see the problem from multiple angles by asking:

  • How do others see this problem?
  • What solutions might employees, customers, or experts suggest?
  • What would someone from a different industry or background recommend?

Getting input from people with diverse experiences and ways of thinking will lead to better solutions.

13. Brainstorm New Possibilities

Once you have a good understanding of the root problem, start generating new solutions by asking open-ended questions like:

  • What if anything were possible, what solutions come to mind?
  • What are some wild and crazy ideas, even if implausible?
  • What solutions have we not yet thought of?

Don’t judge or evaluate ideas at this stage. Just let the questions spark new creative solutions. The more questions you ask, the more solutions you’ll discover. With an inquisitive mindset, you’ll be well on your way to solving any problem.

14. Document what you find

As you research, keep notes on key details, facts, statistics, examples, and advice that stand out as most relevant or interesting. Look for common themes and threads across the different resources. Organize your notes by topic or theme to get a better sense of the big picture. Refer back to your notes to recall important points as you evaluate options and determine next steps.

Doing thorough research arms you with the knowledge and understanding to develop effective solutions. You’ll gain a deeper appreciation for the complexity of the problem and be able to make more informed choices. Research also exposes you to new ideas you may not have considered. While it requires an investment of time, research is a crucial step for achieving an optimal solution.

15. Start With the End in Mind: Define the Problem Clearly

To solve a problem effectively, you need to first define it clearly. Without a concrete understanding of the issue at hand, you’ll waste time and energy grappling with a vague, nebulous challenge.

Identify the root cause

Ask probing questions to determine the underlying reason for the problem. Get specific by figuring out who is affected, what’s not working, where the breakdown is happening, when it started, and why it’s an issue. Look beyond the symptoms to find the source. The solution lies in resolving the root cause, not just alleviating surface-level pain points.

Gather objective data

Rely on facts, not opinions or assumptions. Observe the situation directly and collect information from multiple sources. Get input from people with different perspectives. Hard data and evidence will give you an accurate, unbiased view of the problem.

Define constraints and priorities

Determine any restrictions around time, money, resources, or policies that could impact your solution. Also identify what’s most important to solve—you can’t fix everything at once. Focus on high-priority issues and leave lower-priority problems for another time.

Frame the problem statement

With a clear understanding of the root cause, supporting data, and constraints, you can craft a concise problem statement. This articulates the issue in 1 or 2 sentences and serves as a guiding vision for developing solutions. Refer back to your problem statement regularly to ensure you stay on track.

Final Thought

Developing a problem-solving mindset is within your reach if you commit to continuous learning, looking at challenges from new angles, and not being afraid to fail. Start small by picking one problem each day to solve in a creative way. Build up your confidence and skills over time through practice.

While it may feel uncomfortable at first, having an adaptable and solution-focused mindset will serve you well in all areas of life. You’ll be able to navigate obstacles and setbacks with more ease and grace. And who knows, you may even start to enjoy the problem-solving process and see problems as opportunities in disguise. The problem-solving mindset is a gift that keeps on giving. Now go out there, face your challenges head on, and solve away!

Solve It!: The Mindset and Tools of Smart Problem Solvers by  Dietmar Sternad

  • Creative Problem Solving as Overcoming a Misunderstanding by Maria Bagassi  and  Laura Macchi * (Department of Psychology, University of Milano-Bicocca, Milan, Italy) ,
  • Mindsets: A View From Two Eras by Carol S. Dweck 1  and  David S. Yeager 2 published in National Library of Medicine ( Perspect Psychol Sci.  Author manuscript; available in PMC 2020 May 1. Published in final edited form as: Perspect Psychol Sci. 2019 May; 14(3): 481–496. )

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With regular practice, a problem solving mindset can become second nature. You’ll get better at seeing opportunities, asking the right questions, uncovering creative solutions, and taking action. And that will make you a highly valuable thinker in any organization or team.

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How to Solve Problems

  • Laura Amico

how to be a problem solving person

To bring the best ideas forward, teams must build psychological safety.

Teams today aren’t just asked to execute tasks: They’re called upon to solve problems. You’d think that many brains working together would mean better solutions, but the reality is that too often problem-solving teams fall victim to inefficiency, conflict, and cautious conclusions. The two charts below will help your team think about how to collaborate better and come up with the best solutions for the thorniest challenges.

  • Laura Amico is a former senior editor at Harvard Business Review.

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How to Be a Creative Thinker and Problem Solver

Last Updated: January 20, 2024 References

This article was co-authored by Trudi Griffin, LPC, MS . Trudi Griffin is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Wisconsin specializing in Addictions and Mental Health. She provides therapy to people who struggle with addictions, mental health, and trauma in community health settings and private practice. She received her MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Marquette University in 2011. There are 17 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been viewed 136,693 times.

Sick of coming up with the same old tired solutions to your problems? Want to re-wire your brain to be more creative and clever? With a few easy-to-follow mental tips, you'll be engaging all of your creative neurons in no time. Being more creative in your thinking involves using creative problem-solving skills, thinking outside of the box, and exercising your brain.

Defining the Problem

Step 1 Write the problem down.

  • One example of a possible problem is that you procrastinate (wait until the last minute) on important tasks. Write down what your specific issue is that you need resolved.
  • Define the problem in the simplest terms possible. If procrastination is the issue, simply write down procrastination instead of, “I always wait until the last minute to complete projects and this is stressful.”

Step 2 Make sure the problem needs fixing.

  • For example, if you think procrastination is the issue, are there also ways that it is not a problem? Is it possible that it does not create stress and helps you focus on getting your work done (some people need the pressure to work)? Is it possible that others may not like that you procrastinate, but it doesn’t hurt anyone and doesn’t seem to affect you getting your work done? Thus, if the problem does not seem to have identifiable consequences, it might not be a top priority problem, or may not be a problem at all. In other words, perhaps you think you procrastinate but you don't.

Step 3 Create a pros and cons list for solving your problem.

  • Write down what will happen if the problem is not resolved. In the example of procrastination, the consequences might be that others may continue to comment on your procrastination, you may have difficulty prioritizing tasks, you may have increases in stress, and your work quality may suffer if you don't give yourself enough time to complete a project.
  • Write down and recognize the benefits of solving the problem. For example, the benefits of solving procrastination might be: less stress at the last minute, quality of work will increase due to more time, will have more time to complete work, and bosses and coworkers will be less concerned about the procrastination. If you identify that there are many benefits to solving the problem, then it is probably worth solving and may be a high priority issue.

Step 4 Identify all of the components of the issue.

  • Write down everything you know about the problem and all of the components that you think contribute to the problem. Pertaining to procrastination, this list might look like: distractions such as television/internet, avoidance of tasks that take a long time, scheduling problems (not enough time), and low frustration tolerance. These issues could be associated with organizational skills.
  • Try creating a problem tree with your main issue on the trunk of the tree, and the associated components on the branches of the tree. This way can you visualize what your problem looks like and how the other issues contribute to the main problem.

Step 5 Focus on one problem at a time.

  • For example, procrastination could be a small part of the bigger problem that your work quality is suffering and your boss wants you to make fewer mistakes. Instead of trying to combat the issue of work quality (which could be very complex), you would identify all of the components that contribute to the issue and work on each component separately as its own issue.
  • One way to understand this is to make a graphic representation or “problem/solution tree” of the bigger issue versus the smaller issues. You would place the bigger issue in the center (organizational issues with affect work quality), and the components of the issue would branch out from the center. [6] X Research source Components contributing to the bigger issue might be things like: getting enough sleep, paying close attention, managing time, and procrastination. Notice that procrastination is just one component of the big picture issue of work quality and/or organizational issues.

Step 6 Write down your goals.

  • Make your goals specific, realistic, and time-limited. In other words, give yourself a specific amount of time that you need to accomplish the goal or solve the problem. Some goals may take 1 week while others will take 6 months.
  • For example, if your goal is solved your issue of procrastination, this might be a very long-term goal since some habits can be deeply ingrained and difficult to break. However, you can make the goal smaller, more realistic, and time-limited by saying, “I want to get at least 1 project done 1 day before it is due in the next 2 weeks.” This goal is specific (1 project done ahead of time), realistic (1 project instead of every project), and time-limited (in the next two weeks).

Researching and Imagining Solutions

Step 1 Recognize ways you have solved similar issues.

  • Write all of these thoughts down on paper or on the computer.

Step 2 Find ways others have solved the problem.

  • Observe and ask questions. Watch the way others perform. Ask others how they have solved similar problems.

Step 3 Identify possible options.

  • Compile a list of all possible solutions. Write down every way to solve the problem you can think of. In the example of procrastination, your list might involve: keeping a strict schedule, prioritizing tasks, writing daily reminders of important tasks, making realistic evaluations of time needed to complete projects, getting help when needed, and beginning a task at least one day earlier than needed. These are organizational and time management skills that can be learned. There will most likely be many ways to work toward solving the issue. You may also identify other behaviors that reduce the likelihood of procrastination such as: getting adequate sleep, exercising to cope with stress, and eating a healthy diet (to increase and maintain overall health).

Step 4 Think about the problem abstractly.

  • Consider philosophical, religious, cultural, and components of your issue.

Step 5 Approach the situation from a different angle.

  • Try doing free writing or brainstorming in order to generate new ideas. Simply write down everything you think of in regards to possible solutions to the issue. Analyze your list and consider some of the options that you may not normally consider or that you think won’t work.
  • Consider alternative views that you normally wouldn’t. Entertain outlandish suggestions from others and at least consider them as options. [11] X Research source For example, if procrastination is a constant struggle, perhaps making someone else do your work for you might solve your issue. This may sound silly, but even the most outlandish ideas can have a grain of truth in them. For this idea, perhaps asking for help on difficult tasks is not something you considered because getting assistance seems impractical. However, getting help can be very helpful indeed.
  • Do not set limits. Look at the absurd. The answer may go against convention.
  • Take risks. Open-mindedness can be associated with taking appropriate risks, and learning from your mistakes. [12] X Research source

Step 6 Imagine that the problem is solved.

  • Imagine that a miracle occurred during the night and you woke up in the morning and this problem has magically disappeared. How would it feel? What would it look like?
  • Work backwards from the solution and imagine what might have needed to happen in order for your problem to go away.

Evaluating Solutions

Step 1 Create a cost-benefit analysis to decide on solutions.

  • Try finding a cost-benefit chart online and fill it in.

Step 2 Rate each solution.

  • Once you have developed your ratings, write them down from 1-10 on paper or the computer. This way you can refer back to it once you have implemented your choice solution. If your first solution does not work, you can revisit the list and try your second solution and so on. You can also apply several solutions at once (instead of one at a time).

Step 3 Ask for input.

  • Talk to a friend who shares the issue or has solved the issue in the past.
  • If the problem is work-related, discuss it with a co-worker whom you trust if they have experience dealing with your problem.
  • If the problem is personal, have a conversation with a family member or partner who knows you particularly well.
  • Get professional help from someone who is an expert in solving the problem you have.

Exercising Your Brain to Enhance Problem-Solving Abilities

Step 1 Gain new experiences.

  • Learn something new. Watch movies, read or look at pieces of art in genres or styles that would normally be of no interest. Read more about them.
  • Try learning how to play an instrument. Studies suggest that playing an instrument can help children achieve success academically. [17] X Research source Perhaps learning to play an instrument helps exercise parts of your brain that control important functioning including: attention, coordination, and creativity.

Step 2 Play games.

  • Some types of brain games to try include: logic puzzles, crosswords, trivia, word finds, and Sudoku.
  • Try Lumosity, the brain-training application for your phone. [19] X Research source
  • Try Gamesforyourbrain.com or Fitbrains.com.

Step 3 Read and learn new vocabulary.

  • Look at dictionary.com and find the "Word of the Day." Use the word several times during the day.
  • Simply reading more often will increase your vocabulary.

Step 4 Use your non-dominant hand.

  • Try simple tasks first like brushing your hair and using your phone before you try other activities.

Cultivating Creativity to Increase Problem-Solving Skills

Step 1 Expand your horizons.

  • In order to engage your creative side more, try new activities such as: drawing, painting, dancing, cooking, playing music, writing in a journal, writing stories, or designing/creating anything else you can think of!

Step 2 Try free association.

  • Write down the first things that come to mind when you think of the word creativity. Now, do the same with the word problem-solving.
  • Write down what your problem is and any words that immediately come to mind that are associate with your problem including feelings, behaviors, and ideas. A brain-storm for procrastination might look like: anger, frustration, busy, tasks, distraction, avoidance, boss, disappointment, worry, late, distressed, and overwhelmed.
  • Now brain-storm solutions to the problem (what might be involved and how it would feel). For procrastination this might look like: reduce distraction, quiet place, clean desk, tight schedule, calm, happy, relaxed, confident, understanding, no stress, free, peace, cleanliness, relationships, timely, and organized.

Step 3 Draw solutions.

  • Try doing an art therapy exercise. Take a piece of paper and put a line down the middle. One the left side draw your problem. For example, if procrastination is the issue you might draw a picture of yourself at a desk with loads of papers and assignments on your desk, while you are in the picture texting on your phone. Once you have drawn the problem, draw on the other side of the paper a representation of what the solution might look like. For example, this might be a picture of you with your desk clean, phone away, working quietly at your desk.

Step 4 Put it out of your mind.

  • Try distracting yourself with a pleasurable activity such as reading and then come back to the problem when you feel refreshed.

Step 5 Sleep on it.

  • Pay attention to the dreams you have following a problem and identify any possible solutions that your subconscious mind came up with.

Expert Q&A

  • Be patient. Patterns of thought take time to change. Thanks Helpful 55 Not Helpful 6
  • Spur your interest with a reward. Thanks Helpful 35 Not Helpful 10
  • Learn from your mistakes. Thanks Helpful 9 Not Helpful 1

how to be a problem solving person

You Might Also Like

Solve Logic Puzzles

  • ↑ http://www.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/32693_Chapter1.pdf
  • ↑ https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/j.2330-8516.1983.tb00019.x
  • ↑ http://www.skillsyouneed.com/ips/problem-solving.html
  • ↑ https://www.researchgate.net/publication/223801366_The_effect_of_information_presentation_on_decision_making_A_cost-benefit_analysis
  • ↑ http://evaluationtoolbox.net.au/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=28&Itemid=134
  • ↑ http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/223588
  • ↑ http://www.innovationmanagement.se/imtool-articles/the-basics-of-creative-problem-solving-cps/
  • ↑ http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidkwilliams/2013/01/07/the-5-secret-tricks-of-great-people-how-to-become-open-minded-in-2013/
  • ↑ http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10879-006-9040-y/fulltext.html
  • ↑ http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTED_08.htm
  • ↑ https://fortune.com/2014/08/28/how-asking-for-help-actually-helps-you/
  • ↑ http://time.com/3634995/study-kids-engaged-music-class-for-benefits-northwestern/
  • ↑ https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201310/video-gaming-can-increase-brain-size-and-connectivity
  • ↑ http://www.lumosity.com/hcp/research/completed
  • ↑ http://www.nwitimes.com/niche/shore/health/using-your-other-hand-benefits-your-brain/article_6da931ea-b64f-5cc2-9583-e78f179c2425.html
  • ↑ http://www.mindtools.com/brainstm.html ?
  • ↑ http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/news/20041223/dreams-can-solve-problems

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10 Characteristics of Good Problem Solvers

Professional psychologist, motivational writer

Good problem solvers are good thinkers. They have less drama and problems to begin with and don't get overly emotional when faced with a problem. They usually see problems as challenges and life experiences and try to stand above them, objectively.

Good problem solvers use a combination of intuition and logic to come up with their solutions. Intuition has more to do with the emotional and instinctive side of us and logic is more related to our cognition and thinking. Good problem solvers use both of these forces to get as much information as they can to come up with the best possible solution. In addition, they are reasonably open minded but logically skeptical.

Some of the general characteristics of good problem solvers are:

1. They don't need to be right all the time: They focus on finding the right solution rather than wanting to prove they are right at all costs.

2. They go beyond their own conditioning: They go beyond a fixated mind set and open up to new ways of thinking and can explore options.

3. They look for opportunity within the problem: They see problems as challenges and try to learn from them.

4. They know the difference between complex and simple thinking: They know when to do a systematic and complex thinking and when to go through short cuts and find an easy solution.

5. They have clear definition of what the problem is: They can specifically identity the problem.

6. They use the power of words to connect with people: They are socially well developed and find ways to connect with people and try to find happy-middle solutions.

7. They don't create problems for others: They understand that to have their problem solved they can't create problems for others. Good problems solvers who create fair solutions make a conscious effort not to harm others for a self-interest intention. They know such acts will have long term consequences even if the problem is temporarily solved.

8. They do prevention more than intervention: Good problem solvers have a number of skills to prevent problems from happening in the first place. They usually face less drama, conflict, and stressful situations since they have clear boundaries, don't let their rights violated and do not violate other people's rights. They are more of a positive thinker so naturally they are surrounded with more positivity and have more energy to be productive.

9. They explore their options: They see more than one solution to a problem and find new and productive ways to deal with new problems as they arise. They also have a backup plan if the first solution does not work and can ask for support and advise when needed.

10. They have reasonable expectations: Good problem solvers have reasonable expectations as to what the solution would be. They understand that there are many elements effecting a situation and that idealistic ways of thinking and going about solving a problem will be counterproductive.

At the end, good problem solvers do not have too many irrational fears when dealing with problems. They can visualize the worst case scenario, work their way out of it and let go of the fear attached to it. Fear can make your logic and intuition shady and your decisions unproductive.

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4 Jobs for People Who Like Problem-Solving

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how to be a problem solving person

Picture these scenarios: An attorney strives to represent their client in court but must prepare a thorough and persuasive brief to do so. A data analyst seeks to improve a business’s customer base but first needs to use data collection software to measure audience engagement. A middle school principal sets goals to improve next year’s standardized test scores but has to assess teacher performance and curriculums beforehand.

What do these jobs have in common? Even though the settings and duties differ for each, all three roles involve critical thinking and problem-solving abilities to achieve a positive outcome.

If you consider yourself a goal-oriented, problem-solving enthusiast, you might feel overwhelmed at the sheer number of careers that provide opportunities for overcoming complex challenges. This blog discusses four jobs that are ideal for people who like problem-solving and seeking concrete results. Read on to learn about these jobs and how you can find a career that rewards your problem-solving skills.

Top Problem-Solving Jobs in Today’s Market

While many—if not all—careers demand some form of problem-solving, some industries may call for more extensive and straightforward attention to detail than others. The jobs listed below belong to the fields of business, information technology (IT), and healthcare. Each job includes a description of day-to-day responsibilities and common examples of problem-solving abilities where critical thinking and analytical skills are key to success.

Software Engineer

Software engineers —sometimes called software developers—have become invaluable as digital technology has advanced over the last several decades. These professionals create and optimize software programs, applications, and operating systems for consumers, businesses, and other organizations.

Software engineers usually concept and ideate on a vision before collaborating with other developers and programmers to build it out for a specific purpose. For example, a software engineer may design an account management program for an insurance company or develop a word processing program for individual use. Common tasks for software engineers include the following:

  • Assessing software needs for users
  • Creating and maintaining software and underlying operating systems
  • Writing, testing, and debugging program code
  • Communicating with IT teams, organization leaders, and stakeholders
  • Implementing security features into software

Questions such as “What do users need in a program?” and “How can I make software accessible for users?” are important for software engineers to ponder. Since so many people rely on computers for business, communication, banking, and more, software engineers need to be agile, logical, and collaborative, keeping speed and scalability in mind as they develop software solutions tailored to user needs.

Financial Planner

Managing finances includes more than just being thrifty or saving money. Entire careers—like those of financial advisors and financial planners—are dedicated to helping individuals and organizations achieve their financial goals. Financial planners provide expert advice on various financial matters like spending, saving, investing, paying taxes, and more.

Daily job duties of financial planners include:

  • Consulting with clients to establish expectations and answer questions
  • Discussing financial goals with clients
  • Forecasting financial trends for clients
  • Reviewing and optimizing client budgets
  • Making recommendations based on client income and spending habits

If clients have questions about retirement funds, mortgages, insurance premiums, or any number of similar financial subjects, a financial planner can clarify and help them navigate their concerns. This means that financial planners need to communicate effectively and actively listen. They consider all available solutions, then choose the one that best meets a client’s needs based on their unique circumstances.

Data Analyst

According to the data aggregator site Statista.com, the total amount of data created and consumed in the world reached about 64.2 zettabytes in 2020. That figure is forecasted to increase to 180 zettabytes by 2025. For reference, one zettabyte is equal to one trillion gigabytes.

How is it Possible to Manage This Much Data and Harness it For Use?

Data analysts are trained to collect, analyze, and parse all kinds of data to glean actionable information. These specialists use computer programs and machine learning technologies to spot patterns in raw data that could—after proper interpretation—benefit individual or organizational decision-making. Data analysis requires logical reasoning, critical thinking, and inference skills—all of which are common traits of problem-solvers.

Many data analysts work to research market trends, enhance business goals, assess demographic behaviors, and more. Others work as actuaries with an emphasis on risk analysis. The empirical evidence produced through iterative data analysis can then be used to support myriad organizational initiatives, programs, or campaigns.

Registered Nurse

Registered nurses compose the backbone of functional healthcare systems. A registered nurse (RN) is a licensed healthcare professional that cares for and educates patients of all ages. Whether it involves measuring patient vitals, administering treatment, or consulting with physicians and therapists, nurses help patients on their path to healthy, happy lifestyles.

Regarding their day-to-day job responsibilities, nurses maintain a balanced skill set in interpersonal communication, medical knowledge, and technical problem-solving. Common tasks include the following:

  • Working in tandem with doctors to treat patients
  • Collecting and recording patient medical histories
  • Conducting diagnostic tests on patients
  • Using and maintaining medical equipment
  • Establishing treatment plans based on patient diagnoses

It’s important for nurses to practice empathy toward their patients, including helping them understand the nature of their illness or injury. Many patients may not know how to manage their condition upon being diagnosed. To overcome this challenge, RNs should answer a patient’s questions as accurately as possible and provide encouragement as needed.

Building a Career in Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving

To determine whether you’d thrive in a role oriented to problem-solving, consider reflecting on your professional skills and workplace attitude. Do you enjoy the challenges inherent in business , IT , healthcare, or other dynamic, growing fields? Do you like being the go-to person that people come to when they have an issue? Could you see yourself finding fulfillment in solving work-related problems five or 10 years from now? Are you willing to gain the education or credentials you need for the job?

Answering questions like these can help you feel more confident as you search for jobs that align with your interests.

As you prepare for the problem-solving career of your dreams, look to WGU. We offer more than 75 online, accredited bachelor’s and master’s programs in IT, business, education, and healthcare. Each program is designed with input from industry experts, granting you the skills that employers love to see. Additionally, WGU’s competency-based education model means that you advance through coursework as quickly as you show mastery of the material, so you can potentially graduate faster and save money. Get started today.

Ready to Start Your Journey?

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How To Be a Problem-Solving Leader

DecisionWise

On this episode of the podcast, Matthew Wride and Charles Rogel continue our discussion around manager best practices, focusing on problem-solving. They touch on:

– How to identify the root cause of a problem before jumping to a solution. – Having a competency-based culture where behaviors are measured and improved upon. – Myths and common misconceptions associated with problem-solving. – Creating a roadmap by working backward from the ideal state to your current state.

Transcription

Hello and welcome to the decision-wise engaging people podcast. My name is Charles Rodel and I’m the vice president of consulting services here at decision-wise today. I’m joined by Matt Wride, the decision-wise president and senior consultant.

Hi Charles. Thanks for having me.

Today we’re going to continue our series discussing approaches to improve leadership competencies, more specifically the competency of problem solving.

And so I guess to begin, let’s talk about how we would define problem solving as a leadership competency and also why.

Sure.  We define problem solving based on four behavior statements. And that’s because in the process of measuring, which is what we do with three sixties and other instruments, we try to give someone who’s rating a leader on their problem solving ability.

We try to give them these four behavior statements and ask them for their feedback.

Number one uses pertinent and relevant facts and information when solving problems. Okay. So we’re looking to see how well are they using the underlying data? Are they making data-driven decisions?

Number two looks beyond the obvious to find the underlying causes.

Okay. So the ability to go deeper, the ability to see an analysis happening at various levels to look for root causes,

Not just make a quick decision?

Yeah, that’s right. Number three, the third behavioral statement is solves difficult problems with effective solution. That’s sort of outcome based.  It doesn’t really help someone know how to be a better problem solver, but in evaluating that we need to know, are they good at overcoming roadblocks?

Yeah. And do they get the job done?

Right. And then do they involve others?  In problem solving and that is seeking help bouncing ideas off of others asking others. for input to avoid biases and other things that creep into our problem solving. So that’s how we measure problem solving.

Yeah. So it seems pretty comprehensive. We have kind of these four actionable statements that we’re trying to use. Normally these up here on a 360 survey, as we’re measuring this for leader, other people get to kind of chime in and, and rate someone on those statements as well.

Right, and it’s my opinion that this is one of the most important competencies that for me personally, here at DecisionWise in, kind of overseeing our efforts to grow and improve finding employees that have problem solving capabilities that are high in this area is vital. And that’s because we don’t hire labor anymore to sort of just do things, to process things for us.

I mean, that’s still a part of manufacturing facilities and other organizations that are structured that way. But in a knowledge worker economy, we’re looking for people who can see a problem, and then start to automatically find a way to get rid of the roadblock. And as we hire, we’re looking for those people that can do that, because that means we’re faster, better at responding to our clients’ needs. We’re better at gaining market share all those things that we care about.

Yeah. And I think a lot of people, you know, they come into an organization. If you’re new, especially you just trying to learn your job and get up to speed and you get to a point in the job or your career where you can tend to start having an opinion about things. Right. You see the bigger picture, how things work, what needs fixing efficiencies that need to happen. And so that’s when you can get into problem solving mode to really say, yeah, this isn’t working. Right. I think I have a better idea here. Let’s try to pursue this.

Right. And that is step one, right? The ability to identify a problem is foundationally, but we don’t want people to stop there.

And that’s because anybody can point out problems. The ones, that do it well go beyond identifying the problem and they start identifying. Causes so that they can evaluate solutions. They start researching different ways to solve the problem.  We have lots of folks that can identify problems, but it’s rare when you get someone who identifies a problem, then comes preloaded with all the ideas and possible ways of solving it. Those are just gifts.

So let’s talk a little bit about then.  Building competencies, competencies in general.

I am really keen on this notion called a competency-based culture. We do a lot of measurement around here. We measure organizations, different ways, different sizes. And a lot of times we think culture represents the way things work around a particular place. Right. Kind of what it’s like to be there. I like cultures that are based on competencies and behaviors, because I think it’s easier to align people to those standards than  to say something aspirational.

I mean, so often we’ll have a set of values, like drive it’s very aspirational, but if we don’t go further and say, well, what does that look like? What does drive mean? when you further add on a behavior statement, like takes initiative comes up with identifies new opportunities for growth.

you make it much more clear to people what you’re expecting of them. And so cultures that are built around competencies that are defined and measured by behaviors, I believe are fair. In a sense that they let people know what we expect of them. They give us an objective measurement.

And so I’m really keen on organizations, building their cultures around competencies and behaviors, as opposed to around aspirational statements or success when or we drive change, you know, those things. don’t go deep and to And it’s funny cause you want to set a culture around specific values.

And so I’ll see a list of like six values for an organization and they’ll define them and sometimes they’ll be a little nebulous or they might be a little aspirational, like you’re saying, but once you say, well, how do we, what are the behaviors that drive that value? So once you start defining the competencies and behaviors, people get it. And then once you measure against those, all of a sudden people know what the expectations are and how they’re going to be evaluated..

That’s exactly right. I mean, and you do this stuff in your sleep, but that’s where we add value. As we really are able to take a nebulous idea of, Hey, this is a, a value or a concept we want to make part of our culture.

then we come in and we can help say, okay, let’s get really clear about the behaviors we want to see associated with that.

That’s a good point. So let’s talk then a little bit then about some of the myths associated with problem solving.

Yeah. think it’s fun to, tackle MIS and sort of talk about when something is by noting what it’s not, and I’ll give you an analogy listen to a podcast a while back, and it was by someone who is.

trained in forgeries and detecting forgeries and somebody says, well, you must study all sorts of forgeries all the time. And he says, no, I actually study. And study and study the real thing. And when I know it, so well, the forgeries pop-out automatic,

So becoming a subject matter expert.

Right. And I say that, and so it’s fun, but I love to talk about the myths because they help us understand really what at its core problem solving is all about. Anyway, myth, number one, problem, solving and critical thinking are the same. And that’s not true. Problem solving is a seven. This notion of critical thinking, it’s kind of what we talked about.

You can identify an issue or a problem associated with an argument or a, a decision that the organization is making, but problem solving goes beyond just identifying to actually evaluating solutions thinking of creative ways to solve the problem. Maybe you Invert your thinking to work backwards from solution to problem.

Those types of things are all associated with problem solving. And that’s not the same thing as critical thinking. Right? Number two is the second myth is good. Problem solvers intuitively shoot from the hip, and that’s a myth problem solving is a skill. You can learn how to do it. You can have systems and mental models that help you become a good problem solver.

And so don’t think that this is just something that you know, how to fix stuff. It doesn’t, that’s not how it works. Myth. Number three, if you come up with a good solution, you’re a good problem. And that’s sometimes there’s luck, you know, a broken clock is right. Twice a day. Right. It’s the old, old saying.

So not necessarily just because you can come up with a solution do you mean that you’re a problem solver, myth, number four, you are born with the ability to solve problems that is somehow in an innate ability.

No. A five you must like puzzles. You don’t have to be a puzzle person to be a problem solver.

And number six, there’s only one answer to a problem, or you can only solve a problem in one way and good problem solvers. They look at a variety of angles of attack to a problem there they’re not focused on one way. They Keep all their options open until they’ve evaluated the different scenarios.

So in that sense, by discussing what problem solving is not, I think we have a better understanding of what it is.

Great. So let’s talk then more about the competency itself. Like what it means, what does it mean to be good at this? Okay. Yeah. The first thing that I want to talk about is something that a consulting firm partners in leadership teaches, and that is beliefs are foundational to change and to problem solving.

Okay. so first to be a good problem solver, you have to believe that you have the. that you can affect that outcome. And you’re not a victim. You also have to have a belief in the underlying solution and, and the reason that you need to solve the problem and, and all sorts of those things.

You’ve, got to have reason to care if you will. And you have to have confidence that what you are proposing. We’ll work. So again, you have to start with your beliefs and if you don’t believe you’re a problem solver, you probably won’t be a good one.

And if you don’t believe in the underlying mission of what you’re trying to accomplish, you probably won’t be a good problem solver. So make sure that you have identified your beliefs and that those beliefs are aligned with where you want to go.

good problem solvers, have a pattern. And again, I’m sourcing this material to partners in leadership, but they see it. They own it, they solve it and they do it. In other words, it’s, action-oriented that’s why you don’t have to be good at puzzles is it’s not a game. It’s not just something you sit around and do on the train as you commute to and from work problem solving as an activity.

And you get in and you, you identify problems you move things forward. Some other tips that I like to talk about is remain objective list the obstacles that are stopping you from progressing. There’s a great saying that the territory is not the map. And what I mean by that is sometimes we can think that the map represents the problem.

Like our conceptualization of the problem is, is what it really is, It’s not. And so, you have to be really, really good at being a great cartographer. A good problem solver is a really great cartographer or a map builder. Okay.  You’re an outdoors guys, but the better your map is the more fun you can have.

And so if you want to be a great problem solver, Everything about that problem. That’s what I mean by map building, you know, the nuances, the elevation gains all of the tributaries and all the things associated with that. And so good problem solvers are great. Cartographers if you will.

And this is, I see this happen a lot because we’ll do kind of action planning sessions with clients and we’ll get into this you know, identify what the problem is. So, we have poor communication in the organization and we’ll sit down with a group. Well, and everyone jumps into solution. Right off the bat. So we need to do this and this and this, and they don’t map out the problem effectively. So they don’t identify, well, why is it not working? So we, we call it the current state, right?

So identify what is happening now. That’s not working. and if you can have a longer discussion and you can pull the reins back on people from getting into problem solving immediately. They will really have dissected what the problem is first or the issues are, get them all on the table, summarize what they are now they can go and problem solve. So, yeah, too many times we jumped headlong into coming up with ideas for solutions that. Not baked well enough.

You’re so right. that’s why I like to propose some sort of like a 70, 30 rule spent 70% of the time understanding of the problem and only 30% coming up with solutions if you just walk in and say, Hey, let’s list all the possibilities. You’re going to spend time going down, rabbit holes and things that won’t matter. Whereas if I loved your phrase mapped the problem. If you’ve accurately mapped the problem, a lot of times the solution reveals itself.

So asking questions. Why times three, you know, Y Y Y Y you know for example, customer comes and says they don’t like the platform. Well, why is that? Well, it’s hard to use. What does that mean? You know, and you just keep digging down till you get to the root causes, then the solution presents itself.

What problem are you trying to solve?

I think problems solving needs a system. So if you’re doing it with people, you need to have a facilitator. You need to be organized. do you need to list your efforts and record your experimentation? I love the idea of inverting, your thinking, which is reverse engineering.

Sometimes we look at a problem and we try to think of it as how do I go from point a to B, but instead of going that way, how all the things you need to get to point B and then work backwards. It’s called. So it’s a tip of inverting your thinking. So if,  my desire is to have a really great training session with a group of employees, start with that, identify the ideal and work back of all the things that you need in order to accomplish that.

And that will. Create a better map or a better roadmap of where you want to go. Then if you just say, well, okay, now we need to get a room. Now we need to get some tables right now. I need a trainer. And those things that working backwards from the ideal state, you mentioned like the future state, describe your future state and how do we, you get there and that’s in verse thinking and that’s where your, you invert your thinking to do.

You’ve got to be open-minded. You can not solve problems without others. You have to be rational. You have to be willing to change your mind when new information presents itself and gives you a reason to change your mind. You have to cast your ego aside and look for the good of the organization and solving the problem is more important than getting credit.

I think good problem solvers are well-versed in other areas and disciplines. They find solutions. I’ve seen business people find solutions and things such as biology and what that is is they’ll look at an ecosystem and understand how ecosystems interact and they’ll use that understanding to say, well, that applies to my organization. That applies to how we interact as a team. So they’re able to use connections between various disciplines, science, physics, and all sorts of things

one last point I really want to make is about as I mentioned the need to understand concepts from other fields, I wanted to give you an example here, how we do that here?

Yeah.  There’s a principle in quantum mechanics called the observer effect that when you observe a particle, you actually can change its state. The famous illustration is known as show diggers cats, conundrum, where the cat can either be dead or alive. And you don’t know that until you open the box and observe it. And once you observe it, these really weird physics takes over and alter things. Okay. , we have noticed that when we measure things with leaders, they improve, not because they’ve actually done any work, but simply because they know they’re being observed, they improve their performance.

Yeah. And so that was interesting. We’re sitting around talking about the observer effect and we were making connections. To physics, to quantum mechanics, you know, and we sort of have that interesting insight   How much of what we do is just observer effect and how much of it is actually identifying a problem that then a person can go address.

So that’s a simple example, but nonetheless, an example of how we can be well-versed in other areas. And those can lead to problem solving and too. Better outcomes.

I liked some of the points here, like enlisting other open-minded people, because sometimes I think people. Don’t consider themselves very innovative.

And so when there’s a problem that gets stuck and they can’t really think of some ideas. And, and so I say, well, you probably need to get a, partner to kind of brainstorm a bit on how to solve this, or maybe your team or whatever. So again, opening it up to a group. And then there’s different styles because if you’re more of an introvert, you prefer to maybe think.

By herself to kind of come up with some ideas and solutions, then bounce those ideas off of other people. If you’re an extrovert ideas, normally come through group discussion. And so you’re able to kind of coalesce your ideas more within a group setting as opposed to being alone. Yeah. And that’s a, nice example where a facilitator who knows what they’re doing can be really helpful.

They may be able to send out some pre-work, so introverts have time to prepare. And then they also balance that with. An hour-long discussion that allows the extroverts to get in and sort of get those, those discussions going. So that’s why facilitation is important.

there’s one last point sort of before we kind of tie this up, this is really vital to diversity equity and inclusion.

Problem solving good problems are reliant on diverse perspectives. And so this is one way, rather than just quotas, like how many people serve in leadership, you know, how many peoples of color, things like that. You want to make real difference from diversity equity and inclusion efforts, enlist others as part of problem solving.

So gather their perspectives, listen to their solutions because. I’m amazed of nuances and sort of background information that I didn’t even know, because I didn’t realize that a word meant something different to a particular person of color things. good problem solving is relying on perspectives.

And then this is therefore reason why diversity equity inclusion matters. And this is a good area to make some gains. That’s really good point. So as we’re talking about this what are some of the, like, as you’re trying to teach problem solving, what are challenges there? What, what do  people get hung up on?

So there’s no. Formula you can follow for problem solving. And I, liken it to someone who learns how to be a good writer. The best way to be a good writer is to be a voracious reader. And just by consuming so many different types of writing yourself, you begin to see patterns and styles and you, you can take what you like from one area.

Same thing with music. We’re sitting here with Jay our producer here. Jake’s a great musician, partially because he can see. All types of genres of music. Sure. Well, problem solving is the same thing. you should study people who solve problems. You should look at how problems are solved you should engage in after action reviews, where you, go back and process and digest. what went wrong and how did we fix it? Yeah, You have to become a student of the actual discipline of problem solving. And that’s in my view, really the only way to learn it. There’s no great formula.

I think I’ve noticed as most leaders, as we’re like debriefing your coaching leaders on 360 results are pretty good problem solvers, right? so as a, maybe as a individual contributor, you were good at fixing things, getting things done, solving problems, which got you promoted.

Now you’re kind of in this, position to help others solve problems, but also to kind of remove roadblocks for your team. So that is one of your kind of core skills as to help keep things running efficiently taking out the, the difficulties or the, you know, the barriers out of people’s pain

And your point is right. And this is why we say you can’t just go cherry, pick your favorite competencies and think that that’s a great assessment or that’s a good competency culture to your point. Yeah. Managing change and problem solving and go together because managing change is the final step of problem solving if you will. And so that’s why you have to think about how your competencies are interrelated and not just say I’m a fan of decision-making, I’m a fan of communication. You need to think. Well, how do they fit together to create the type of leader that will transform this organization?

Right. Excellent. Well, Matt, thank you very much for the insight here on problem solving. Thank you everyone for joining us today. And we look forward to having you join us on our next engaging people podcast. Thanks guys.

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Self-Esteem

It’s ok you can’t solve every problem, trying to “fix" everything can leave you feeling like a failure..

Updated May 10, 2024 | Reviewed by Ray Parker

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  • Your intrinsic value is more than what you can do for other people.

You are still worthwhile and can be successful, even if you don’t have all the solutions.

  • Consider which decision will make you feel you’ve stayed true to your values.

In coaching others, I often discuss problem-solving strategies to help individuals think creatively and consider many options when they are faced with challenging situations.

Problem solving 1-2 includes the following:

  • Define the problem, identify obstacles, and set realistic goals .
  • Generate a variety of alternative solutions to overcome obstacles identified.
  • Choose which idea has the highest likelihood to achieve the goal.
  • Try out the solution in real-life and see if it worked or not.

Problem-solving strategies can be helpful in many situations. Thinking creatively and testing out different potential solutions can help you come up with alternative ways of solving your problems.

While many problems can be solved, there are also situations in which there is no “perfect” solution or in which what seems to be the best solution still leaves you feeling unsatisfied or like you’re not doing enough.

I encourage you to increase your comfort around the following three truths:

1. You can’t always solve everyone else’s problems.

2. You can’t always solve all of your own problems.

3. You are not a failure if you can’t solve every problem.

Source: Hans-Peter Gauster / Unsplash

You can’t always solve everyone else’s problems.

When someone around you needs help, do you feel compelled to find solutions to their problem?

Are you seen as the problem solver at your job or in your close relationships?

Does it feel uncomfortable for you to listen to someone tell you about a problem and not offer solutions?

There are times when others come to you because they know you can help them solve a problem. There are also times when the other person is coming to you not for a solution to their problem, but for support, empathy, and a listening ear.

Your relationships may be negatively impacted if others feel that you don’t fully listen and only try to “fix” everything for them. While this may feel like a noble act, it may lead the other person to feel like they have failed or that you think they are unable to solve their own problems.

Consider approaching such situations with curiosity by saying to the other person:

  • As you share this information with me, tell me how I can best support you.
  • What would be most helpful right now? Are you looking for an empathetic ear or want to brainstorm potential next steps?
  • I want to be sure I am as helpful as I can be right now; what are you hoping to get out of our conversation?

You can’t always solve all of your own problems.

We are taught from a young age that problems have a solution. For example, while solving word problems in math class may not have been your favorite thing to do, you knew there was ultimately a “right” answer. Many times, the real world is much more complex, and many of the problems that you face do not have clear or “right” answers.

You may often be faced with finding solutions that do the most good for the most amount of people, but you know that others may still be left out or feel unsatisfied with the result.

Your beliefs about yourself, other people, and the world can sometimes help you make decisions in such circumstances. You may ask for help from others. Some may consider their faith or spirituality for guidance. While others may consider philosophical theories.

Knowing that there often isn’t a “perfect” solution, you may consider asking yourself some of the following questions:

  • What’s the healthiest decision I can make? The healthiest decision for yourself and for those who will be impacted.
  • Imagine yourself 10 years in the future, looking back on the situation: What do you think the future-you would encourage you to do?
  • What would a wise person do?
  • What decision will allow you to feel like you’ve stayed true to your values?

You are not a failure if you can’t solve all of the problems.

If you have internalized feeling like you need to be able to solve every problem that comes across your path, you may feel like a failure each time you don’t.

It’s impossible to solve every problem.

how to be a problem solving person

Your intrinsic value is more than what you can do for other people. You have value because you are you.

Consider creating more realistic and adaptive thoughts around your ability to help others and solve problems.

Some examples include:

  • I am capable, even without solving all of the problems.
  • I am worthwhile, even if I’m not perfect.
  • What I do for others does not define my worth.
  • In living my values, I know I’ve done my best.

I hope you utilize the information above to consider how you can coach yourself the next time you:

  • Start to solve someone else’s problem without being asked.
  • Feel stuck in deciding the best next steps.
  • Judge yourself negatively.

1. D'zurilla, T. J., & Goldfried, M. R. (1971). Problem solving and behavior modification. Journal of abnormal psychology, 78(1), 107.

2. D’Zurilla, T. J., & Nezu, A. M. (2010). Problem-solving therapy. Handbook of cognitive-behavioral therapies, 3(1), 197-225.

Julie Radico Psy.D. ABPP

Julie Radico, Psy.D. ABPP, is a board-certified clinical psychologist and coauthor of You Will Get Through This: A Mental Health First-Aid Kit.

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Watch CBS News

Teens come up with trigonometry proof for Pythagorean Theorem, a problem that stumped math world for centuries

By Bill Whitaker

May 5, 2024 / 7:00 PM EDT / CBS News

As the school year ends, many students will be only too happy to see math classes in their rearview mirrors. It may seem to some of us non-mathematicians that geometry and trigonometry were created by the Greeks as a form of torture, so imagine our amazement when we heard two high school seniors had proved a mathematical puzzle that was thought to be impossible for 2,000 years. 

We met Calcea Johnson and Ne'Kiya Jackson at their all-girls Catholic high school in New Orleans. We expected to find two mathematical prodigies.

Instead, we found at St. Mary's Academy , all students are told their possibilities are boundless.

Come Mardi Gras season, New Orleans is alive with colorful parades, replete with floats, and beads, and high school marching bands.

In a city where uniqueness is celebrated, St. Mary's stands out – with young African American women playing trombones and tubas, twirling batons and dancing - doing it all, which defines St. Mary's, students told us.

Junior Christina Blazio says the school instills in them they have the ability to accomplish anything. 

Christina Blazio: That is kinda a standard here. So we aim very high - like, our aim is excellence for all students. 

The private Catholic elementary and high school sits behind the Sisters of the Holy Family Convent in New Orleans East. The academy was started by an African American nun for young Black women just after the Civil War. The church still supports the school with the help of alumni.

In December 2022, seniors Ne'Kiya Jackson and Calcea Johnson were working on a school-wide math contest that came with a cash prize.

Ne'Kiya Jackson and Calcea Johnson

Ne'Kiya Jackson: I was motivated because there was a monetary incentive.

Calcea Johnson: 'Cause I was like, "$500 is a lot of money. So I-- I would like to at least try."

Both were staring down the thorny bonus question.

Bill Whitaker: So tell me, what was this bonus question?

Calcea Johnson: It was to create a new proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. And it kind of gave you a few guidelines on how would you start a proof.

The seniors were familiar with the Pythagorean Theorem, a fundamental principle of geometry. You may remember it from high school: a² + b² = c². In plain English, when you know the length of two sides of a right triangle, you can figure out the length of the third.

Both had studied geometry and some trigonometry, and both told us math was not easy. What no one told  them  was there had been more than 300 documented proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem using algebra and geometry, but for 2,000 years a proof using trigonometry was thought to be impossible, … and that was the bonus question facing them.

Bill Whitaker: When you looked at the question did you think, "Boy, this is hard"?

Ne'Kiya Jackson: Yeah. 

Bill Whitaker: What motivated you to say, "Well, I'm going to try this"?

Calcea Johnson: I think I was like, "I started something. I need to finish it." 

Bill Whitaker: So you just kept on going.

Calcea Johnson: Yeah.

For two months that winter, they spent almost all their free time working on the proof.

CeCe Johnson: She was like, "Mom, this is a little bit too much."

CeCe and Cal Johnson are Calcea's parents.

CeCe Johnson:   So then I started looking at what she really was doing. And it was pages and pages and pages of, like, over 20 or 30 pages for this one problem.

Cal Johnson: Yeah, the garbage can was full of papers, which she would, you know, work out the problems and-- if that didn't work she would ball it up, throw it in the trash. 

Bill Whitaker: Did you look at the problem? 

Neliska Jackson is Ne'Kiya's mother.

Neliska Jackson: Personally I did not. 'Cause most of the time I don't understand what she's doing (laughter).

Michelle Blouin Williams: What if we did this, what if I write this? Does this help? ax² plus ….

Their math teacher, Michelle Blouin Williams, initiated the math contest.

Michelle Blouin Williams

Bill Whitaker: And did you think anyone would solve it?

Michelle Blouin Williams: Well, I wasn't necessarily looking for a solve. So, no, I didn't—

Bill Whitaker: What were you looking for?

Michelle Blouin Williams: I was just looking for some ingenuity, you know—

Calcea and Ne'Kiya delivered on that! They tried to explain their groundbreaking work to 60 Minutes. Calcea's proof is appropriately titled the Waffle Cone.

Calcea Johnson: So to start the proof, we start with just a regular right triangle where the angle in the corner is 90°. And the two angles are alpha and beta.

Bill Whitaker: Uh-huh

Calcea Johnson: So then what we do next is we draw a second congruent, which means they're equal in size. But then we start creating similar but smaller right triangles going in a pattern like this. And then it continues for infinity. And eventually it creates this larger waffle cone shape.

Calcea Johnson: Am I going a little too—

Bill Whitaker: You've been beyond me since the beginning. (laughter) 

Bill Whitaker: So how did you figure out the proof?

Ne'Kiya Jackson: Okay. So you have a right triangle, 90° angle, alpha and beta.

Bill Whitaker: Then what did you do?

Bill Whitaker with Calcea Johnson and Ne'Kiya Jackson

Ne'Kiya Jackson: Okay, I have a right triangle inside of the circle. And I have a perpendicular bisector at OP to divide the triangle to make that small right triangle. And that's basically what I used for the proof. That's the proof.

Bill Whitaker: That's what I call amazing.

Ne'Kiya Jackson: Well, thank you.

There had been one other documented proof of the theorem using trigonometry by mathematician Jason Zimba in 2009 – one in 2,000 years. Now it seems Ne'Kiya and Calcea have joined perhaps the most exclusive club in mathematics. 

Bill Whitaker: So you both independently came up with proof that only used trigonometry.

Ne'Kiya Jackson: Yes.

Bill Whitaker: So are you math geniuses?

Calcea Johnson: I think that's a stretch. 

Bill Whitaker: If not genius, you're really smart at math.

Ne'Kiya Jackson: Not at all. (laugh) 

To document Calcea and Ne'Kiya's work, math teachers at St. Mary's submitted their proofs to an American Mathematical Society conference in Atlanta in March 2023.

Ne'Kiya Jackson: Well, our teacher approached us and was like, "Hey, you might be able to actually present this," I was like, "Are you joking?" But she wasn't. So we went. I got up there. We presented and it went well, and it blew up.

Bill Whitaker: It blew up.

Calcea Johnson: Yeah. 

Ne'Kiya Jackson: It blew up.

Bill Whitaker: Yeah. What was the blowup like?

Calcea Johnson: Insane, unexpected, crazy, honestly.

It took millenia to prove, but just a minute for word of their accomplishment to go around the world. They got a write-up in South Korea and a shout-out from former first lady Michelle Obama, a commendation from the governor and keys to the city of New Orleans. 

Bill Whitaker: Why do you think so many people found what you did to be so impressive?

Ne'Kiya Jackson: Probably because we're African American, one. And we're also women. So I think-- oh, and our age. Of course our ages probably played a big part.

Bill Whitaker: So you think people were surprised that young African American women, could do such a thing?

Calcea Johnson: Yeah, definitely.

Ne'Kiya Jackson: I'd like to actually be celebrated for what it is. Like, it's a great mathematical achievement.

Achievement, that's a word you hear often around St. Mary's academy. Calcea and Ne'Kiya follow a long line of barrier-breaking graduates. 

The late queen of Creole cooking, Leah Chase , was an alum. so was the first African-American female New Orleans police chief, Michelle Woodfork …

And judge for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Dana Douglas. Math teacher Michelle Blouin Williams told us Calcea and Ne'Kiya are typical St. Mary's students.  

Bill Whitaker: They're not unicorns.

Michelle Blouin Williams: Oh, no no. If they are unicorns, then every single lady that has matriculated through this school is a beautiful, Black unicorn.

Pamela Rogers: You're good?

Pamela Rogers, St. Mary's president and interim principal, told us the students hear that message from the moment they walk in the door.

St. Mary's Academy president and interim principal Pamela Rogers

Pamela Rogers: We believe all students can succeed, all students can learn. It does not matter the environment that you live in. 

Bill Whitaker: So when word went out that two of your students had solved this almost impossible math problem, were they universally applauded?

Pamela Rogers: In this community, they were greatly applauded. Across the country, there were many naysayers.

Bill Whitaker: What were they saying?

Pamela Rogers: They were saying, "Oh, they could not have done it. African Americans don't have the brains to do it." Of course, we sheltered our girls from that. But we absolutely did not expect it to come in the volume that it came.  

Bill Whitaker: And after such a wonderful achievement.

Pamela Rogers: People-- have a vision of who can be successful. And-- to some people, it is not always an African American female. And to us, it's always an African American female.

Gloria Ladson-Billings: What we know is when teachers lay out some expectations that say, "You can do this," kids will work as hard as they can to do it.

Gloria Ladson-Billings, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, has studied how best to teach African American students. She told us an encouraging teacher can change a life.

Bill Whitaker: And what's the difference, say, between having a teacher like that and a whole school dedicated to the excellence of these students?

Gloria Ladson-Billings: So a whole school is almost like being in Heaven. 

Bill Whitaker: What do you mean by that?

Bill Whitaker and Gloria Ladson-Billings

Gloria Ladson-Billings: Many of our young people have their ceilings lowered, that somewhere around fourth or fifth grade, their thoughts are, "I'm not going to be anything special." What I think is probably happening at St. Mary's is young women come in as, perhaps, ninth graders and are told, "Here's what we expect to happen. And here's how we're going to help you get there."

At St. Mary's, half the students get scholarships, subsidized by fundraising to defray the $8,000 a year tuition. Here, there's no test to get in, but expectations are high and rules are strict: no cellphones, modest skirts, hair must be its natural color.

Students Rayah Siddiq, Summer Forde, Carissa Washington, Tatum Williams and Christina Blazio told us they appreciate the rules and rigor.

Rayah Siddiq: Especially the standards that they set for us. They're very high. And I don't think that's ever going to change.

Bill Whitaker: So is there a heart, a philosophy, an essence to St. Mary's?

Summer Forde: The sisterhood—

Carissa Washington: Sisterhood.

Tatum Williams: Sisterhood.

Bill Whitaker: The sisterhood?

Voices: Yes.

Bill Whitaker: And you don't mean the nuns. You mean-- (laughter)

Christina Blazio: I mean, yeah. The community—

Bill Whitaker: So when you're here, there's just no question that you're going to go on to college.

Rayah Siddiq: College is all they talk about. (laughter) 

Pamela Rogers: … and Arizona State University (Cheering)

Principal Rogers announces to her 615 students the colleges where every senior has been accepted.

Bill Whitaker: So for 17 years, you've had a 100% graduation rate—

Pamela Rogers: Yes.

Bill Whitaker: --and a 100% college acceptance rate?

Pamela Rogers: That's correct.

Last year when Ne'Kiya and Calcea graduated, all their classmates went to college and got scholarships. Ne'Kiya got a full ride to the pharmacy school at Xavier University in New Orleans. Calcea, the class valedictorian, is studying environmental engineering at Louisiana State University.

Bill Whitaker: So wait a minute. Neither one of you is going to pursue a career in math?

Both: No. (laugh)

Calcea Johnson: I may take up a minor in math. But I don't want that to be my job job.

Ne'Kiya Jackson: Yeah. People might expect too much out of me if (laugh) I become a mathematician. (laugh)

But math is not completely in their rear-view mirrors. This spring they submitted their high school proofs for final peer review and publication … and are still working on further proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem. Since their first two …

Calcea Johnson: We found five. And then we found a general format that could potentially produce at least five additional proofs.

Bill Whitaker: And you're not math geniuses?

Bill Whitaker: I'm not buying it. (laughs)

Produced by Sara Kuzmarov. Associate producer, Mariah B. Campbell. Edited by Daniel J. Glucksman.

Bill Whitaker

Bill Whitaker is an award-winning journalist and 60 Minutes correspondent who has covered major news stories, domestically and across the globe, for more than four decades with CBS News.

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Action News Jax Now

Seventh Judicial Circuit taking new approach rehabilitation with problem-solving courts

Gavel

(DNY59/iStock)

For over 2 decades, the 7th Judicial Circuit’s problem-solving courts have played a critical role in the community by restoring lives, strengthening families and enhancing community safety.

>>> STREAM ACTION NEWS JAX LIVE <<<

The 7th Judicial Circuit, which spans Flagler, Putnam, St. Johns and Volusia counties, has several problem-solving courts, including drug, veterans and DUI courts. These specialized courts provide a focused and collaborative approach, bringing together public safety and health professionals to address complex issues, such as substance abuse, mental illness and related challenges within the criminal justice system.

“The impact of problem-solving courts extends far beyond individual legal matters; they represent a fundamental shift,” said Chief Judge Leah R. Case. “By fostering partnerships and emphasizing treatment and support, these courts not only reduce recidivism but also empower individuals to lead productive, fulfilling lives.”

Research demonstrates the effectiveness of problem-solving courts in improving treatment outcomes and reducing costs. Since their inception, problem-solving courts across the 7th Judicial Circuit have achieved significant milestones.

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St. Johns County Problem-Solving Courts:

  • Drug Court: This court was established in 2002. Since then, 280 individuals completed program requirements to date, and recidivism data from 2020 to 2022 reveals that 95% of the 20 graduates in 2020 remained arrest-free. The presiding judge is St. Johns County Court Judge Alexander R. Christine Jr.
  • Veterans Court: This court only began in 2017, but since then, 96 justice-involved veterans completed program requirements to date. From 2020 to 2022, recidivism data shows that 100% of the 11 graduates remained arrest-free. The presiding judge is 7th Judicial Circuit Judge Howard O. McGillin Jr.

Read: Photos: Trees, power lines, signs blown down as storms move through Jacksonville area

Putnam County Problem-Solving Courts:

  • Drug Court: This court began in 2002, and since then, 249 graduates completed program requirements to date. Recidivism data from 2020 to 2022 reveals that 83% of the 6 graduates in 2020 remained arrest-free. The presiding judge is Putnam County Court Judge Elizabeth A. Morris.

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These achievements underscore the collaborative efforts of judges, attorneys, treatment professionals, law enforcement, community supervision personnel, researchers and educators who unite to create healing communities and promote positive change.

Throughout May, “Problem-Solving Court Month,” the 7th Judicial Circuit encourages community engagement, awareness-building and support for these court programs.

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May 10, 2024

Brain Worms like the One in RFK, Jr.’s Head Are Actually a Global Problem

Experts explain how certain worms can infect the brain and why they are an important global public health problem

By Lauren J. Young

Tapeworm cysts in the brain. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of an axial section through the brain of a 25 year old patient showing cysts (neurocysticercosis, purple) from a tapeworm infection. The cysts have been highlighted by the injection of gadolinium contrast medium.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of an axial section through the brain of a 25-year-old patient showing cysts (purple) from a tapeworm infection.

Zephyr/Getty Images

Earlier this week news broke that independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., claimed to have once had a dead worm in his brain. Kennedy had been experiencing memory loss and mental fog, and he originally suspected these symptoms might be caused by a brain tumor. Brain scans in 2010 showed a cyst that his doctors said contained remains of a parasite. The findings and other health issues were revealed in a New York Times article based on a review of a deposition for his 2012 divorce, as well as an interview the outlet conducted with him.

The revelation drew attention in the worlds of politics and parasitology. “I woke up to all kinds of messages from friends in parasitology,” says Shira Shafir, an epidemiologist and an associate adjunct professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, in response to the news.

The species of the purported parasite in Kennedy’s brain was never identified, and he did not know where he got infected. A spokesperson told media outlets on Wednesday that Kennedy had traveled extensively to Africa, South America, and Asia and likely contracted the parasite on one of the trips. Several parasites can affect the central nervous system and potentially create cysts in brain tissue. While relatively uncommon in the U.S., such infections can be devastating in many parts of the world. For example, the World Health Organization estimates there are between 2.56 million and 8.3 million people around the globe living with neurocysticercosis, a brain infection caused by the pork tapeworm Taenia solium . “It's a really big deal in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, India and other parts of Asia. It’s a leading cause of acquired seizures,” says Clinton White, a parasitologist and infectious diseases professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. “Neurocysticercosis is a major disease, and it's kind of funny [these are] the circumstances in which people are paying attention to it.”

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Scientific American spoke with Shafir and White to discuss how parasitic worms may infect the brain, what symptoms they cause and how infections are diagnosed and treated.

[ An edited transcript of the interviews follows .]

What are parasitic worms, and which ones can infect the brain?

SHAFIR: We generally don’t have adult worms that end up in the brain. What does end up in the brain are parasites in their earlier developmental stages, such as eggs or larvae—or, for lack of a better word, baby worms. So generally the parasitic infections that can impact the brain are those of pathogens in early developmental stages, which, for the most part, accidentally make it into the brain.

I study a few parasitic infections that impact the central nervous system. The most common one is Taenia solium, the pork tapeworm. It has an incredibly complicated life cycle in which individuals get infected by consuming undercooked infected pork. [But] there is no chance that, through the consumption of undercooked pork itself, someone could develop neurocysticercosis.

Other species that I work on are Baylisascaris procyonis [the raccoon roundworm] and Angiostrongylus cantonensis [the rat lungworm], both of which can produce larvae that will travel through the [human] body in order to try and find the tissue that they prefer and that can accidentally end up in the brain. And they can cause some really significant neuropathological changes.

Walk me through the life cycle of Taenia solium . How does it infect humans?

SHAFIR: Definitively, pigs are the natural hosts. So pigs get infected with a tapeworm. When it is in the pig, it penetrates the intestinal wall and goes to the musculature. The musculature is obviously the part of pigs that people consume. So humans, if they consume uncooked or undercooked infected pork, can get infected with the intestinal form of the tapeworm. And then they will pass eggs in their feces, and if those eggs are consumed by pigs, the pigs get infected, and that kind of continues, on and on. But if, accidentally, another human or the infected human themself—because many people don’t have great hand hygiene—comes into contact with the fecal material and swallows the eggs, the eggs will then hatch, they will penetrate the intestinal wall, and they’ll circulate [in the bloodstream] to the musculature. They can then end up in any organ throughout the body, but most commonly they go to the subcutaneous tissues, as well as the brain and the eyes.

So if you eat raw pork, you get a tapeworm—that’s an intestinal problem. If you come into contact with fecal material from a person who has the intestinal tapeworm, that’s how you end up with this neurological manifestation.

What are the symptoms of neurocysticercosis?

WHITE: The disease from infection with T. solium in the tissues is called cysticercosis, and when it infects the brain, the disease is called neurocysticercosis . In most places [in the body] the larvae don’t cause a lot of problems and end up dying. Those that end up in the brain can survive for a few years, and they usually do not cause a lot of problems. The cysts, these little round, balloonlike structures, are about a centimeter in diameter and are clear, fluid-filled sacs. Sometimes the cysts can become big enough that if they get into the fluid around the brain, called the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), they can get stuck at little openings in the brain and block the flow [of CSF]. That leads to hydrocephalus [swelling of the brain], and that’s often fatal unless the patient undergoes emergency surgery. But usually the cysts don’t cause a lot of problems—it’s the inflammatory response that you get when [the larvae] are starting to die and dying that can cause problems—particularly seizures.

SHAFIR: Once [the eggs of T. solium ] get to the musculature—either the musculature of the pig or the musculature of a person—they're going to “encyst,” which essentially is a cute little cuddly term for parasites rolling up into a ball and creating a protective structure. That process can happen in the brain. And depending on where in the brain [the cysts] are, they can disturb pretty important brain functions.

The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] actually has some really striking images of what it looks like when someone has neurocysticercosis. There are these cysts, or little balled-up eggs, in the brain—it has a very Swiss-cheese appearance.

Can the condition cause memory loss?

WHITE: No, it usually doesn’t directly cause much in the way of memory loss. If you do careful psychological tests, you may see some minor [memory] problems, but [this] wouldn’t be a common symptom. If someone has had frequent seizures, however, they can end up with memory loss. People wouldn’t describe brain fog or memory problems. As an aside, those are more typical of mercury poisoning. [ Editor’s Note: According to the New York Times , Kennedy has said he also experienced mercury poisoning around the time he had learned of his parasitic infection. Mercury exposure has been linked to central nervous system damage that can cause memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease .]

According to the New York Times, Kennedy claimed that the worm that infected him “ate a portion” of his brain. Can tapeworms “eat” brain tissue?

SHARIF: Discussions of eating brains are better left in zombie movies than in legitimate scientific discourse. The parasitic infections that impact the brain do not eat the brain. Now, that doesn’t mean that they cannot damage brain tissue. But that kind of inflammatory language indicates a lack of scientific literacy and is pretty concerning.

How is neurocysticercosis diagnosed and treated?

WHITE: The main diagnostics are imaging studies of the brain, such as a [computed tomography (CT)] scan or magnetic resonance imaging. Some of the findings on those scans can be confused with other things, however, so there are confirmatory tests that look for antibodies to the parasite. The CDC developed an excellent test that's very specific to the pathogen—a lot of the commercial tests are not that accurate. More recently, scientists have developed what's called a PCR test and an antigen detection test, and those are really quite helpful, particularly in severe cases. The treatment starts out with addressing the symptoms. If a patient has seizures, you should give them antiseizure medicine. If they have hydrocephalus, they may require neurosurgery. Anti-inflammatory steroids and antiparasitic drugs often hasten the demise of the parasites, and their use can be associated with somewhat fewer seizures. Sometimes it takes repeated treatments to kill them, but they do die. They don’t live forever even if you don’t treat them. There are cases [in which the larvae cause] calcified lesions that have been there for a long time in which you can get damage to a part of the brain called the hippocampus. This can be associated with seizures that are not relieved until you have surgery.

How common are these infections?

SHAFIR: Generally, cysticercosis [and neurocysticercosis are] far more common in low-income regions, including those in Latin America. We do a lot of work with communities from [there]. Because part of the tapeworm’s life cycle requires that individuals consume raw or undercooked pork and that [this meat is] allowed to be infected, we generally don’t see tapeworm transmission in the U.S. because of our robust [U.S. Department of Agriculture] inspection process. This means that the individuals who are getting infected are either from communities where it is common for pork to be infected or have traveled to those countries. Here in the U.S. we have about 1,000 hospitalizations each year —and those happen in the states where you have the greatest amount of international travel, such as New York, California, Texas and Illinois.

It is unfortunate that these parasitic infections, which disproportionately impact individuals in low- and middle-income countries, only get the attention and discussion when a high-profile individual gets infected. There are thousands of people throughout the world who are dealing with legitimate [problems] from these parasitic infections. We underfund research. We underfund the development of new treatments, which are not prioritized until they become front-page-worthy news because they’re impacting someone who is notable.

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