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Today, Solve a Problem

By Dave Stuart Jr.

I can picture riding in the car with my dad, Mr. David Stuart Sr., back when I was a kid, with him telling me one of his favorite bits of wisdom.

“Dave, there are two kinds of people in this world: problem-makers and problem-solvers. No one sits on the sidelines. Be a problem-solver, and you'll succeed.” My dad, an engineer by trade and a leader by nature, was onto something there, and his life has served as potent evidence.

Now, it might seem like there's one more category — that of the problem-observer, or the problem-reporter, or the problem-pointer-outer. We fancy ourselves this when we get into complaining conversations in the copy room. But when the conversation ends with only a mildly relieved sense that we found someone to commiserate with, it ends in the problem-making category. Everyone involved in the complaining conversation we've just had now possesses a new dose of that most nefarious form of discouragement — the one that feels good on top (because, after all, in finding a willing partner to complain with, we’ve found camaraderie) yet leaves us a bit more listless, powerless, devoid of life below the surface. Problematically, this internal state lends itself to further complaining on the next day, and the compounding effect that results is why many of us find ourselves so burnt out by May each year.

Positioning ourselves as problem-solvers gives us agency in a national conversation about education that seems, too often, bent on removing teacher voice and teacher empowerment. Luckily, problem-solving today doesn't depend on someone walking up and granting us newfound authority; we need a simple, stubborn internal shift far more than a grandiose change in authority. I'm talking about kneading into our minds the habitual stance of problem-solver through simple, efficient, daily action.

Getting practical, starting small

To make problem-solving a part of our identity, we need to regularly solve problems. If we're to regularly solve problems, we need to habituate problem-solving. To habituate problem-solving, we need to celebrate each time we solve a problem.

And I mean celebrate — like a fist pump, a victory dance, saying “Yessssss,” or grunting. This sounds so insane that I need to tell you whose idea it is: Dr. BJ Fogg at Stanford.

On his Sandbox blog [1], BJ says,

Imagine that you’re shooting a basketball from half court. If you make a basket, you get $5000. Well, you throw the ball . . . and it goes in! At that moment, what is your reaction? That reaction is a natural celebration for you. Note it. And use that celebration immediately after doing your new tiny behaviors.

See? I'm not kidding. The next time you unjam a kid's locker or unjam the copy machine or delete a bunch of emails that probably aren't important or teach a ninth grader how to work a pencil sharpener, you're going to act like you just made the half court shot for five grand.

Why does BJ push for the celebration bit?

At some point I need to explain more clearly why the celebration part matters. If you want to create a habit, the celebration is not optional. The positive emotion you feel right after doing the behavior is what helps you remember to do the behavior again in the future. My headline: Emotions create habits.

The point is that you need to celebrate in a way that genuinely makes you feel good inside each time you solve a tiny problem in your job. As this habituates, you begin to see yourself as a problem-solver. You begin by tackling the tiny “locker jam” level problems, and then you start approaching the thornier issues we face — homeless kids, low assessment scores, poor homework completion rates, insane state- or federal-level policy measures — with a naturalness that wasn't there before because. Indeed, now you are a problem-solver. Solving problems is what you do.

This internal work isn't optional if you're going to enjoy a career in education, a career bent on solving problems millions of times bigger than you. Like my dad says, there are two kinds of people in this world. Which kind are you?


  1. See “BJ’s note January 7, 2015 12:31pm.”

4 Responses to Today, Solve a Problem

  1. vendija723 September 14, 2016 at 12:29 am #

    There’s a lot of great stuff going on here, but I’m still chuckling over teaching a 9th grader how a pencil sharpener works. The aha moments we get are not always the ones we set out for.

    • davestuartjr September 15, 2016 at 1:37 pm #

      So true 🙂 Yesterday I failed to teach a 9th grader how to sharpen a pencil, for the record.

  2. Lynsay Mills Fabio September 15, 2016 at 10:53 pm #

    Thanks so much for this reminder, Dave. As a returning teacher and leader on my hallway, I often feel tension between this problem-solving bent and the desire to prioritize that which is most crucial to reaching my Everest. The compromise: either pitch in or be quiet.

    • davestuartjr September 19, 2016 at 11:56 am #

      My pleasure, Lynsay! It’s always great to hear from you.

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