When we’re faced with a big problem we have no idea how to solve, we tend to drill down to very specific skills we already have that might solve it. But more often than not, we come up empty and give up. A better way to approach problems that are way outside your knowledge zone is to go broad. I have a simple tip that will very quickly get you a list of options. Because every problem is solvable when you use the right brainstorm strategy.
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Sometimes when you have a really hard problem in front of you, the craziest idea that pops into you head is exactly the right solution. Like, for example, that time, silly string saved a bunch of lives. Stick around to hear how that happened, and how you can come up with crazy-good ideas to your big problems too.
I’ve had to figure out how to fix some really big problems over the past year with my business, my kids, my house. And a few of them really knocked me for a loop. You know what I mean. The kinds of problems that just left me scratching your head with no idea where to start. Because at first glance they look impossible. Well impossible for me with the money, or basic resources, or maybe the muscle I have available.
Like this week when I was doing some yard work and I decided it was time to move a big piece of metal that’s been just sitting along the fence for way too long now. It’s like 20ft long and flat and weighs maybe 400-500 lbs. I originally thought I was going to use it for a project, but then after I decided I wasn’t, I just left it there because I honestly can’t move it. It’s too big and heavy.
I have zero ideas how to move this thing.
So I called Roman outside, my youngest son who’s 15 now, and I asked him to help me come up with ideas. We have to move it about 50 ft to our driveway to get rid of it. We both stared at it a while. Kicked it. Shook our heads over how massive and heavy it was. Wondered why in the world I ever thought it was a good idea to get this thing. Then Roman said he also had zero ideas. He said, “It’s impossible, we can’t do it.”
And you know me. And you know those are fighting words. There’s no such thing as we can’t do it. Only we can’t do it—yet. We are definitely going to do this. We just have to figure out how.
But Roman, after one quick look wanted to quit before we even got started. I’m not picking on him though. That’s actually the perfectly normal response most people have when something looks impossible.
Because here’s what’s happening in our head: We immediately imagine the most common ways we move stuff. Lift or drag. Neither of those things are going to work with this heavy piece of metal. And when our brain realizes that, it’s next move is absolutely, completely useless.
Our brain zooms right in to focuses really close up on those options, the things that we know how to do. In this case: lift or drag. But no matter how close we look, we get the same result. It’s impossible. So then the brain doubles down and goes again. How can I lift or drag this? How? I can’t. See what happens? You get stuck in this loop. And this is all happening in a few seconds of time. But after a few times through you say what Roman did: Nope, it’s not possible for us to do this.
But it actually is possible. And the way to figure it out is to give your brain some space to figure it out. That zooming in to what you usually do just crowds out the potential for all your most creative ideas. Here’s how you create space instead.
You do this by taking a step back or zooming out for a broader view. I’ll give you a detailed step to do that in a sec, but first, you need to know this isn’t a new way of doing things. You did this exact step when you were a kid. That’s true of a lot of the brain based steps I talk about. Because back when we were kids we did what was more natural, we didn’t fight against our own brains. Somewhere along the way we didn’t understand how to use this brain function, it felt worthless or childish, so we tried to get rid of it.
Oh, so this is a good time if you have any young kids around, it’s a perfect time to invite them to help you, exactly like I did with Roman. Ok, here’s the secret step to solve big problems.
Ask yourself (and that kid if you’ve got one handy) to make a list 10 different ways to solve your problem. In my case, move that piece of heavy metal. There are no rules for this. None. Anything is possible. Any outrageous thing you can think of, put it on the list. Maybe you get on a roll and think of 15, that’s fine. But don’t let this become a form of procrastination. Watch for that.
It shouldn’t turn into an excuse not to do the work because you’re busy making lists of how to do the work. Get a minimum of 10 things down. And more than half the time, just this exercise will spark an actual, doable idea, even though what you wrote down are these wild, over-the-top things. Because, I’m telling you, when you make some room for creativity, your brain takes off like a wildfire. It’s designed to work this way, and this is how it looks when you use it.
Back to my backyard where I did this with Roman. His list included stuff like a helicopter lift, a factory conveyor belt, a water slide, the aliens who built the pyramids, and an elephant. Most of these will be pretty obviously unavailable to you. That doesn’t matter. Because making a list like this lights a little creativity fire in your brain that all by itself will branch out and light up new ideas. This isn’t an imaginary visual of a tree on fire, but what the neurons in your brain look like as they have this chain reaction of one idea lighting up another one.
And before you know it, one of the completely impossible things sparks something that will become your actual solution.
For example, you probably don’t have an elephant, but maybe your neighbor has a horse. Or a four wheeler. Or tractor. Something with the same pulling power of a elephant. That wasn’t it for us. But a couple things Roman said sparked some possibilities. First, the pyramids. I know they used some complex levers and logs and things to move the big limestone rocks around in ways that people just deadlifting them never could have accomplished. But that wasn’t all.
Roman’s mention of factory conveyor belts, really sparked something. I mean, I didn’t have any of those. And it wasn’t realistic to get any. But what I did have, were a half dozen small round metal pipes. Not enough to make a conveyor belt, but we could get a couple of them under the metal piece and then as we rolled it just keep moving the one from the back to the front. And it would be, in a way, like a conveyor belt.
I thought it would work. Roman thought it would work. So we rolled up our sleeves and we tried it. I’m not going to lie and say it was easy, because it was still a lot of work. But we did it. We moved the metal piece the 50 feet we needed to and now it’s been picked up and it’s gone. You know what it feels like?
It’s kind of like we did the impossible, and that feels really amazing. But, I promised you a higher stakes story than this. Something even more impressive. I promised you the life saving uses of silly string. This is a wild story, and you’re going to love it.
. . .
Before we dig into those details, we’re going to take a short break.
Do you have an idea that you just haven’t been able to get off the ground? Or maybe you worked on it for a while and then got stuck? And even though you still love the idea—can’t get it out of your head, you just have no idea how to get unstuck.
If you could *just* take all the time you spent putting off a project, and put that time into doing the work to reach your target it would change everything. Take the distractions, the extra coffee breaks, TikTok videos, and Netflix binges and instead spend all those hours, weeks, sometimes years making real progress toward your goal.
If procrastination has been holding you back, my course Build Something can help.
I’ve put EVERY SINGLE THING you need to build your ridiculously big project into Build Something. All the strategies, tactics, and methods I used (and still use) to successfully turn my big ideas into real-life projects and finish them. #BuildSomething will teach you how to: plan your projects, get started, take action, actually do the work, work through the hard parts, and stay motivated until you reach your goal.
This is your chance to get unstuck and start the project of your dreams so you can #BuildSomething you’re proud of.
. . .
And now, back to the show.
In 2006, a new US. Soldier, a guy named Todd Shriver, sent to Iraq and went out on this mission where he had to face these really dangerous trip wires. Which are super thin wires stretched across doorways of buildings, and they’re booby trapped. So when anyone goes through the door, the wire triggers an explosive. They’re deadly, and they’re just about impossible to see. But this new soldier immediately got a tip from the veteran soldiers about the trick they used to find these hair-thin wires. And that trick was, a spray can of silly string. Pretty cool, right?
They just spray the silly string from 10-12 feet away into a doorway and it hangs up on any wire, but it’s so light it doesn’t trip the booby trap. You can see how incredible this is for these soldiers. How much more quickly and safely they can carry on with their mission. All because someone took a minute to toss out the wildest ideas they could come up with, and one sparked a fire in the silly string part of their brain.
This is exactly the kind of outside-the-box idea that you can come up with when you step back and intentionally let creativity take up some space in your head. It takes a little practice to get back in the habit of listing even the silliest ideas, but it’s worth making the effort. And it gets easier every time.
I can’t stress enough that you have to actually write down these ideas, especially in the beginning when you’re getting back into this habit. Because this gives your mind more time and more ownership of the idea so it sits in a spot in your mind long enough to spark something. Otherwise it’s like your lighting match sticks and tossing them onto the sidewalk at your feet. They will fizzle out and go nowhere. It’s a waste. And you don’t have time to waste. You have a big problem to solve, don’t you.
Remember, because ideas spark ideas, what you’re doing is setting off a chain reaction that is really likely to end with a solution. Even if sometimes that solution has to be enlisting another person or waiting for a while when circumstances are better. Which could have happened to Roman and me with that heavy piece of metal.
Because what if it had just rained? Then the ground where I live would have been so soft that the poles would have sunk right into the mud instead of rolling on top like that conveyer belt. So sometimes your solution comes with some patience and challenges.
Even for those soldiers, silly string was an imperfect solution at first, because it wasn’t something the military provided them with. There is no military issue silly string. So it was hard to come by in places where they are doing these dangerous missions and also impossible to ship from the US by families because it’s an aerosol. But luckily, this new soldier, Todd, he did something that set a massive plan in action.
He mentioned the silly string on a call to his mom. And Marcelle Shriver ,a 57 year old office manager, didn’t let the oddity or the complications of air lifting aerosols cans of this really weird item stop her from fixing this problem for her son. She went to work.
First at her church—where she had people dropping cans of silly string in the donation baskets, by the way. And then she reached out direct to the company that made the silly string, and eventually for donations through national news stories. Within just a few months, she collected well over 100,000 cans of silly string. And then she found a pilot who would fly the supply over on a private flight and get it into the hands of the military. She made it look easy, didn’t she.
But remember in the beginning, it looked as impossible to her as whatever problem you have in front of you. All you have to do, is make some space for the creativity, and be ready to roll with the solution. Done!
There’s no telling how many lives this soldier and his mom saved by running with this ‘silly’ idea.
Let’s go back though and make sure you’ve got the process down. Because I want it to be super obvious how to get from your crazy list of flying lions to actual solutions. Most of the time, just going through the process of making the list gives me a solution. I don’t have to try hard to translate my list into something. But that’s partly because I’ve been using this strategy for years. And that’s really good news because it means it will get that easy for you too. But at first, you may have to work a little harder to get your brain back in this habit. So here’s what you can do.
You have at least 10 ideas in front of you. Nothing earth shattering came at you, so give it a little time. Say the first solution out loud, and then visualize it. From start to finish what would it look like if that solution happened right now in front of you? Scribble a sketch of that in the margins if you’re a doodler. Can you see it? Really picture it.
Next, think of a solution that’s similar, but more realistic and picture that. All the way through from start to finish. So if flying lions were going to move the metal for you according to list item one, now imagine a massive crane lifting it out instead. Still not a likely outcome probably, because crane’s are expensive. But maybe your brother has something that lifts car engines or your neighbor lifts cows. I don’t know if cow lifting, if that’s a thing, but you get the idea.
Do this for every item on your list until some real doable ideas are sparked. I’ve never in my life done this and come out the other side without a solution. It wasn’t always an instant solution, and it usually still meant a ton of really hard work, but I was able to solve the problem every time.
I really can’t wait to hear how this works for you. It’s been a a game changer for me. And so often you’re going to find the thing that really makes a big difference for you is to stop taking yourself so seriously and to do some things that may at first feel a little silly or a little child like. And that’s because our brains were designed to use that type of thinking as part of an incredibly powerful innovation process.
This is big stuff. And it’s going to make me so happy to see your wild lists and to see you out there barely pausing over massive problems, but just jumping right in with a strategy to solve them. Go over to instagram, I’m easy to find, just my name, Cara Brookins, and tag me with your crazy list. I want to help you celebrate the ways you solve your impossible problems. One solution at a time, we’re making your world, and the entire world a better place.