The Importance of Understanding the Type of Problem we Have


“Barriers are the universal of human experience.”

[Bruce Lee]

We all want success and money. Our time is limited —as in physical time, because there are only so many things we can do in a day, and we don't know when our number is up— we have a window of opportunity to make an impact.

Many of the things we want require us to figure out what will get us there, preferably faster and with fewer steps and less pain. Creating a big opportunity as we solve a problem commands a higher premium. Thus the importance of becoming adept at understanding the type of problem we have.

The nature of our experience helps here are we used to trying out new ideas and approaches? Are we unafraid of testing and experimenting? Fear comes in because not everything will succeed at first, and if it does, we may get lucky but learn less about the reason why it did. 

Professional creators understand the value of failure it's humbling, and it can teach us valuable lessons, if we learn to understand what didn't work. Twyla Tharp is one of America's greatest choreographers, she has won two Emmy's, and one Tony Award for the very show that created the most opportunity for learning by starting as a disaster Movin' Out.

There are private and public failures, but the process is the same for both we need to understand why something doesn't work. The most important thing we need to do when failing in public is not to let our feelings and emotions have the best of us. This helps us get to the lessons faster.

In The Creative Habit Tharp says we need to remember the reasons why we fail, to “acknowledge our battle scars and gird yourself for the next round,” but then get busy with the business of understanding the type of problem we have.

Tharp lists six types of problems:

1. Failure of Skill, in other words our reach exceeds out grasp. She says:

In my case, it might involve having an insufficient vocabulary of movement, or not recognizing how the audience will read a particular gesture or move.

The lesson: get to work!

2. Failure of Concept, the idea is weak, it doesn't hold. It's an error that catches up with us. She says:

It could be a bad story idea, bad subject matter, bad casting, bad partners, bad timing.

The lesson: get out while the getting is good.

3. Failure of Judgement, we let our guard down, we let something pass. She says:

It's a hard mistake to avoid when you're starting out, but the sooner you demonstrate good judgement, the sooner people will give you the clout to exercise it.

The lesson: get experience, then keep your vision intact.

4. Failure of Nerve, no guts to support our idea and explore the concept fully. She says:

The corrosive thought that you will look foolish holds you back from telling the truth.

The lesson: get experience, then keep your vision intact.

5. Failure through Repetition, our memory of past success. She says:

Repetition is a problem if it forces us to cling to our past successes. Constant reminders of the things that worked inhibit us from trying something bold and new.

The lesson: seek unexplored territory

6. Failure that comes from Denial, or not meeting reality where it is. She says:

the same mechanism that protects you from your worst fears can blind you from reality. Denial becomes a liability when you see that something is not working and you refuse to deal with it.

The lesson: don't procrastinate

When we talk about embracing failure, we want to dig deeper to understanding the type of problem we're having. Because that makes it easier to get to work on closing the gap.

Do we need to improve our skills? Is it time to pull out, cut our losses, and regroup? Are we compromising our vision, letting group think have the best of us? Are we too timid, not committed enough? Do we copy a formula without taking into account current conditions? Do we put off dealing with something?

It comes down to changing the work and how we work, the biggest test of our creative process. “The wonderful and scary thing about creative problems is that there isn't one answer,” says Tharp. “There are a thousand possible answers, but the valuable and practical thing to do is fix the things you know how to fix.” This is where having a broader set of skills comes in handy, or we limit the number of problems we can solve.


[Twyla Tharp photographed for the GAP’s ‘Classics Redefined’ ad]