Columns, Imagine That

The four F’s of creative problem solving

Laura Mann

Imagine for a moment that you are watching the very first human who created fire. Perhaps she was working with a group of people on the problem. Or, maybe she was off somewhere alone, striking rocks and sticks together in solitude.

The motivations and challenges that made up our caveperson’s problem solving process were unique: Perhaps he was motivated by the need to cook meat, and challenged by the fact that fire appears of its own accord. But it was difficult, from the standpoint of the caveperson, to figure out its origins.

Through a process of trial and error, our enterprising cave dweller found out which materials produce the necessary sparks in a consistent manner. This caveperson may have been working from an initial inspiration (perhaps having seen rocks hitting each other and producing sparks), but most of their creative process was made up of failing, … and failing again.

The phrase “creative problem-solving” gets thrown around a lot and, for the most part, people focus on the word “creative.” However, the true power of the phrase is held in the word “problem.” It’s easy to shy away from the word “problem” due to its negative connotations; however, in order to creatively solve a problem, we must look within the negativity to find inspiration.

Creativity is all about finding solutions in improbable places.

Thus, the four F’s of creative problem solving begin with words that we don’t normally find inspiring. Creativity is all about finding solutions in improbable places, so perhaps a look at the negative aspects of the process can shed some light on how creative problem solving works.

1. Fear: Like much of America, I’m addicted to the HBO show “Game of Thrones.” In one episode, a young boy asks his father, “Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?” His father answers: “That is the only time a man can be brave.” If there is nothing to be afraid of, there’s no reason to be brave. It’s not that we aren’t afraid when coming up with new and different solutions to our problems; it is when we dare to face that fear that we come up with bold, daring solutions.

2. Frustration: We talk a lot about creative inspiration, but the frustration that comes between moments of inspiration is equally important to the creative process. The novelist Joyce Carol Oates once likened finishing a first draft to “pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.” Author John Updike similarly embraces the frustration that accompanies creativity; he writes, “I’ve never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think that the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them, you will never write again.”

3. Failure: The formula for WD-40 was developed by rocket scientist Norm Larsen in 1953. Larsen was trying to come up with something that would dispel corrosion and displace water; the WD in the name stands for “water displacement,” and the 40 stands for the number of attempts he made before finally coming up with the magic formula. In other words, Norm Larsen failed 39 times before succeeding. Without those 39 failures, we wouldn’t have the brilliant household product that we love & use today.

4. Fortitude: This last one is the most important on the list. Fear, frustration, and failure would mean nothing if the creative mind doesn’t have the fortitude to meet challenges and keep going. The Adinkra tribe of West Africa has a symbol for fortitude called mframadan, which means “wind-resistant house.” The square symbol with crosshatch pattern represents a house that is able to withstand nature’s fury, while keeping the family inside safe. Mframadan is a terrific metaphor for the fortitude of the creative individual: We must have an exterior that can endure the daily wear and tear that problem-solving presents, while protecting the creative spark and drive that exists within.

Imagine That!

Laura Mann graduated in Emerging Media and Communications from the University of Texas, and writes for The Dallas Observer. She also provides media assistance to the MediaWise Movement.

© Michael Mann, 2013, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,