We Need More Unsolvable Problems

Do you think you could tie a ponytail with one hand?

How about tie shoe laces with one working arm?

Maybe you think you could insert a contact lens with weakened arms and hands?

Better still, could you design and effectively communicate a solution to any of these limited only by time, your creativity, and a $100 budget?

Not unsolvable, but not easy either. And yet that’s just what each freshman in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University experiences in the mandatory Design Thinking and Communication (DTC) course. It’s a remarkable offering that is more journey than course. It challenges students to fail as much as it challenges them to succeed.

And that is where the intersection is for me.

No matter the discipline, in order to meaningfully succeed and change lives, there needs to exist a willingness to go after the unsolvable and, as a consequence, experience failure along the way. And I mean really experience failure like some of these students do when they share their prototypes with people struggling with disabilities. It’s in those humbling moments in front of peers and those we most want to impress that failure can prove a great catalyst for advancement and innovation.

And the sooner we start failing the better. As Dr. Michael Milligan Executive Director of ABET an engineering program accrediting organization and C.Fox client says of the DTC course, it’s unusual to require freshmen to design products for people. Most programs don’t allow that kind of coursework for several years. But by letting people experience failure earlier it can help prepare them for the larger, unsolvable challenges when a fear of failure or an inability to deal with it simply won’t be an option.

And let’s face it. Budgets are always too slim to think they can sustain failure—just ask a freshman with the $100 in the DTC course. And there never seems to be enough time to get the solution in the hands of those that need it—look no further than those the DTC students aim to help. Yet to get to the break through solutions and do truly meaningful work, it’s often necessary to allow some measure of time and dollars to fail in order to evolve into success. In our own work for clients we often build in time for a few healthy rounds of review. It helps us make sure we are giving ourselves time to take some chances and calculated risks as we create communications solutions for clients.

So while I will try to keep my failures to a minimum, they are sure to happen. My failures tackling daunting communications assignments and obstacles over the years have given me insight to not repeat them, to avoid them, to see them coming, to know what techniques eliminate them, and how to turn them into advantages. They’ve propelled me to refine my own wordy and lackluster pieces into award-winning writing and campaigns. It’s in those failures and in their lessons that the capacity to take on the bigger challenges of tomorrow can emerge. So go on. Find something unsolvable. Fail at it and then win at it.

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