Finding problems worth solving

There are only two types of problems: problems you’ve encountered, and problems other people have encountered. Within each set there are countless problems worth solving. Let’s talk about how to find them:

To identify the problems you’ve encountered takes a lot of observation, reflection and knowledge of yourself. Crucially, these skills can only be refined through active practice.

To identify problems other people have encountered takes a lot of empathy. You need to understand people on a deep level and apply your skills of observation for their situations. Again, you can only improve at this by practice.

The two ways to identify problems worth solving are to look deeper within yourself, or to understand someone outside yourself. Both take practice and it feels like now is a great time to begin.

The worst thing and still okay

Yesterday I gave a TEDx talk. It went well.

The day before, I rehearsed my TEDx talk and froze on stage. I drew a blank in the middle of my talk. It’s the worst possible feeling. You forget what to say, everyone is staring at you and you look dumb for not knowing what’s next.

But surprisingly, everything was okay. People still understood the message. The idea still made sense. Despite the long pause and apparent awkwardness, the talk still worked.

The worst thing happened, and everything was fine. So yesterday when I delivered the actual talk, the one that was recorded and will hopefully live online for years to come, I didn’t have as much fear. Because I’d already experienced the most embarrassing feeling and it wasn’t THAT bad.

I think there are two big lessons here: 1. it’s always a good idea to practice and 2. even the worst case scenario isn’t the end of the world.

So live in possibility, and not in fear. It isn’t perfection that makes a talk memorable, it’s the emotion, the ideas and your passion.

Smile more

I was at a conference in September and one of the speakers gave a great piece of wisdom. It was simple and yet so impactful: Smile more.

But as we all now, simple doesn’t mean easy and most of us could use some work in the smiling department. Myself included.

So that’s my goal for today. Smile more. I hope you’ll join me.

Reflection as the goal

What if we considered deep self reflection a goal in itself?

The focus shifts from being about the grade, the essay or even the project and onto the self-learning that came about.

If the answer to “what did you learn about yourself from working on this ___?” is “nothing,” then we have a problem. But as long as you can generate new answers to that question, then you will never stop growing.

Student-directed iteration

When students care about the work, they know when there’s room for improvement. They don’t need to see a grade, or wait for the written feedback. They can sense it.

The best part is, a burning passion for their cause helps them bounce back.

I saw it happen just a few days ago. A student group held an advisory board meeting last week and it didn’t go very well. They knew it. So when they came to Dual School this week, they invited a new group of advisors, they had printed agendas, they bought donuts and had all of their questions written out.

They didn’t amp up their preparation because they got in trouble for the previous meeting. They did it because they knew it could be better.

Think about how much efficiency that brings to the entire system! When students can self-monitor, and course-correct on their own, there are no barriers to their learning. They hold the keys to the kingdom, and through this iterative process will continue making discoveries about their work and themselves. How might we instill that passion and reflection in all students?

The big question

How many of you feel truly and authentically seen for who you are?

I expect the percentage of “yes” answers would be quite low. But the interesting question is: “What would need to be true for that answer to be a yes?”

That’s a fascinating design challenge. For parents, students, educators and others, hearing the answers to that question would be amazing. Because feeling seen is so fundamental to human existence, yet we rarely design explicitly for it.

What if we designed a program, a class, a space that was optimized for “seen-ness”?

Questions not assignments

A student in Dual School was waiting to hear back from someone she emailed. She was on her phone, scrolling through social media and feeling like she had done what she needed to do.

So I asked a simple question, “what if you made a flyer for your first club meeting?”

It wasn’t an assignment or a threat. It was a “what if” question. An open door to possibility.

I recommended and then for the next 45 minutes she wrestled with questions about what she would call the club, when the first meeting would be, how to make a visually interesting flyer and more. By the end of that time, she had a flyer. She was proud of the work, and she made some meaningful progress thinking through her idea.

All it took was one simple question.

Astro Teller’s Two Options Exercise

This post is based on a talk by Astro Teller that aired on Tim Ferriss’ podcast

There’s a classic quote from Astro Teller that is always harder to find than it should be, but here it is:

“Sometimes shifting your perspective is more powerful than being smart.” 

This idea is at the heart of his thinking. 99% of people are working on incremental innovation. That means if you’re in the business of 10% improvements, you have a lot of competition! Given that logic, it’s better to shoot for 10x innovation, because while it might fail, there won’t be as many people trying. Plus, it will cause you to think differently, and that new perspective will be valuable.

He gives an interesting example in the talk to illustrate both the potential of 10x thinking and the main obstacle. He says, you have two options:

A. Contribute $1,000,000 to your company’s bottom line without a doubt.

B. Contribute $1,000,000,000 with 1% certainty.

Which would you take?

Everyone chooses B, as the rational actor would because the expected value is 10x higher. But then he asks, “Which would your boss want you to take?” To which most people respond choice B.

Herein lies the dilemma. The natural human craving for certainty says take choice A because we can plan for that, but new technology and the constant threat of disruption say take choice B, because if you can’t innovate, you won’t be around in 10 years.

Luckily this isn’t a binary choice. Astro suggests that some people in your company should be thinking 10x and pushing boundaries. And when he says some people he doesn’t mean three crazy people in Silicon Valley while the 5,000 person New York office stays buttoned up. He means 5-10% of the company.

Or put another way for those of us who don’t operate in a big company environment, 5-10% of your time should be spent choosing option B. Shooting for the moon, shifting your perspective and dreaming bigger than you previously thought possible. Sometimes that simple action is more powerful than being smart.

Moving toward the energy

Facilitation is first about creating a spark of interest. Sometimes that spark is created before you even begin with stellar framing. Other times it takes a great stoke at the beginning. Sometimes might take a few hours just to start seeing sparks.

The spark is just the first part, though. The crucial next step is to sense the energy created, and move toward it with the rest of the work. A simple example would be if you were doing a workshop on the solar system, and suddenly the whole group was just fascinated by Saturn. You have to sense that fascination, then move towards it. In the example that probably means spending some extra time on the Saturn portion.

This framework will naturally encourage learning, but there are several obstacles to its ubiquity:

We don’t design for the spark. We just deliver content and if no one is interested, it doesn’t matter and we still have to get through it.

We don’t sense the spark. This is a mindfulness problem. If we’re not present, and aware of what’s happening, you could easily miss sparks.

We don’t move toward the spark. Our sessions are over-planned, rushed and leave no room for meandering. The magic is always unexpected, thus we should be flexible on timing.

Human centered, mindful and flexible. All three are crucial to create sparks and help nurture them within others.

Format, then content

Oftentimes the content isn’t the problem, it’s the format instead. No matter how good the speaker was, 90% of people were going to be disengaged. So the question isn’t “how do we find a better speaker?”

The question is “how do we change the format so that 100% of people are engaged?” If you start from that question, you likely won’t choose a sit and lecture format.

Maybe it’s a series of short activities. Or an interactive challenge in small teams. Either way, it’s always helpful to think of format first, and the “speaker” second.