Three Key Lessons I’ve Learned About Solving Problems

Article by NINA AHUJA, M.D.

Early on in my surgical residency in ophthalmology, the senior residents referred to me as “Trauma Queen.” Often, when I was on call for emergency cases, I was called to assess a patient in the emergency room who had suffered major trauma to their eye, otherwise known as ocular trauma. From a car accident that resulted in shattered windshield pieces embedded on the surface of the eyes, to a nail gun injury that pierced the patient’s eyeball like a skewer, these cases were complex and required urgent surgical repair. While each case was unique, the goals of the intervention were the same: to preserve the integrity of the eye and restore any vision possible. However, similar to ocular trauma cases I manage in my practice today, the path to these desired outcomes is often unclear and with a myriad of potential problems, high stakes, and high stress. Despite best efforts, outcomes can vary. Some injuries are so severe that the eye must be removed while repairing other severe injuries result in a remarkable restoration of sight that was beyond what was anticipated. Through these unique experiences and also challenges I have conquered personally and professionally I offer three key lessons about solving problems. Your Outlook Matters Whether the problem you are facing is simple and clearly defined or complex and confusing, your outlook significantly impacts your ability to develop and act on a solution. In relationships, at work, at play, or at home, having a positive outlook that is solutions-focused is highly effective. Rather than dwelling on the problem, having a belief that you can find a solution creates space in your mind for ideas to flow. Believing that you can make a difference guides your thoughts towards developing a plan. Focusing on possibility and positivity is key to effectively managing whatever other problems may arise in the process of solving the first one. A Structured Approach Brings Clarity There are many different approaches to solving problems that depend on how clearly the problem and its desired outcome are defined. For simple problems, like how to make an omelet or how to solve a math problem, you can use directions (a recipe, an algorithm) that guide your actions. You can also use visual tools like mind maps and fishbone diagrams as as examples, or, draw from previous experience and apply lessons learned. For more complex problems that are multifactorial and more ambiguous in nature, frameworks are helpful to organize various elements of the problem and come up with a viable solution. Two such framework formulas are helpful: IDEAL, identified by Bransford and Stein (1984): Identify the Problem, Define a Problem, Explore Solutions, Act on Strategies, Look Back and Evaluate; and, ADMIT, a framework I created based on my own experiences through my career (Ahuja, 2020) to help assess the psychological elements behind solving problems and associated stresses as they relate to five phases of experience. ADMIT stands for Adapting to New Ways, Doing the Work, Measuring Success, Introspection, Transformation. Together these frameworks clarify the problem, the desired outcome, the solution, and how to overcome psychological barriers to get there. When facing either a simple or a complex problem, using a structured approach solves problems more effectively. Also, be willing to ask others for their input to bring new perspectives that may be helpful to you. Focusing on Progress Over Perfection is Key For high achievers in entrepreneurship, medicine, law, academia or any other profession, the goal is to solve problems perfectly every time. It is important to remember that problems are puzzles to be solved that may not always have ideal solutions or outcomes. Be kind and compassionate with yourself and give yourself permission to make mistakes. If you reframe problems as learning experiences, you can measure success by how much you have progressed from how you managed similar or related problems in the past. The lessons you learn and take forward with you are markers of progress that is just as meaningful. Problems and desired outcomes can be routine, simple and well-defined, or non-routine, complex and poorly-defined. Maintain a positive outlook, believe you can make a difference, have a structured and comprehensive approach that focuses on progress. Solving problems with this approach helps you effectively achieve your goals, manage your stress and evolve with a growth mindset.