This editorial was originally published on Aug 28, 2015. It is being re-run as Steve is traveling.
I don’t know if the urge to solve problems is learned or built in from the start, but I suspect it’s the latter. My Mom tells stories about buying me gifts as a small child, with me taking them apart to see how they worked. It was frustrating for her at first, but over time she saw that this was just who I was, and who I still am.
Those of us that are problem solvers see the world differently. Where some will find stress in having to learn something new quickly or resolve some critical problem, for a problem solver. This is the best kind of gift! From jigsaw puzzles to tuning slow queries to fixing a creaky process to be more reliable, if we can see the problem/challenge, then we’re engaged. The corollary to that is that if we don’t have problems to solve, we get bored and unhappy and soon start to think about moving on.
We problem solvers tend to see everything has a problem to solve. Work, home, life, finance, emotions, whatever. Literally correct I guess, but in practice few appreciate having their problems “solved” during a brief conversation. Better to listen and nod in most cases.
Keeping a problem solver happy requires a reasonable stream of interesting problems to solve. Part of the reason is that we crave the chemical surge of success. Part is the feeling that we need problems to exercise our skills or they will diminish. I think you might compare our desire to an athlete’s need to compete. For us problems solvers the competition is internal, perhaps making this trait more common to introverts?
However, problem solvers have to learn that not all problems need to be solved, and managers have to learn to focus the problem solvers, too. The clunky quarterly seven step process that could be automated and the query that could be tuned from 1 second to 100 milliseconds are interesting problems, but the effort may hold almost no value for the business. It’s often difficult to understand why the business doesn’t want those solved too – can’t they see the current solution is sub-optimal?
None of us are one thing, but it’s useful to understand our dominant traits and those of others. Finding the right balance of traits, well, that’s just a problem to solve!