Problem Solving as an Art Form

There is special beauty in solving a challenging problem.

That is what I like about art. In my view, it is a series of solving problems. (I was a painter, occasionally I still am, so I will stick with that.)

1) Identifying the goal. Sometimes a complex message, sometimes a simple desire to create beauty or to challenge perception.

2) Selection of media. This may be pre-determined by the training and preferences of the artist, or a part of the process. This includes picking the size of the canvas.

3) Standing before the blank canvas (or whatever the media).

4) Execution. Sometimes once you start it all flows to the finish without interruption or real challenge.

5) The thousands of decisions along the way – color mixing, color choice, composition.

6) Seeing what’s there v. what you think is there. One of the most common mistakes in representational art

7) Remaining faithful to your vision.

8) Finishing. Finishing. Re-finishing. And again.

Of course, if you look at this list and change a few words, it applies to coding. And a bunch of other things, such as higher ed policy analysis. Or maybe it is just the way I approach my job. Whichever it is, I enjoy what I do a lot.

Even more, I enjoy seeing that there is an ever greater beauty in watching someone you trained, taught, or raised, solve the problem themselves with only a brief hesitation. Last weekend I was watching my son work on a project that developed into a bit of a puzzler. We realized there was a problem about the same time and I just watched. He stared at it awhile and then things clicked. You could see the click in how his body relaxed suddenly. At that point he made some changes in what he was doing and finished.

I nodded to myself, thinking, “Yep, that’s what I would have done.” Out loud I said, “Good solution, good job.”

It was very cool.

Same kind of thing happened today at work. I stopped at the DMV on the way to work. While I was there I got a note that the webserver was presenting an error. I told the sender I couldn’t do anything, so just let my assistant directors know. Using my phone I was able to establish the macro issue and knew it was out of our hands and that a ticket would have to be filed with tech overlords. Now I just needed to wait and see how long it took my staff to figure out what to do.

Just a handful of minutes. A little longer than it took me. Good.

When I got to the office and talked with them, they told me what they had done to isolate the problem. I was pleased. I love problem solving.

Unfortunately, the outage has not yet been fixed. Turns out to have affected a number of agencies and 14 hours later they are still working to implement the solution identified four hours ago.

Some problems take longer.

Sometimes years. It took me quite a few years to get to the point where legally, politically, technically, and practically we could publish the wage reports. Small accomplishments each year to solve tough problems.

It might be good to take that approach to the big problems as well.

Be nice. It won't hurt either of us.

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