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What an Earthquake Can Teach You About Problem Solving

Friday, 19 Oct 2012 | 9:55 AM ET
Jamie Grill | Getty Images

On a 1-10 scale: how do you respond to problems? Try this technique.

Whenever there's an earthquake—there was one here a few days ago—the first thing you wonder is, "How bad was it on the Richter scale?"

I'm a big fan of the Richter scale, even though I don't really understand it. The scale goes from 1-10, but the smallest earthquake "that can be felt" (Webster's), only gets a 2.

If I were in an earthquake that could be felt and it only got a 2, I'd be extremely disappointed.

"Obviously," I'd say, "whoever gave this thing a 2 is nowhere near the epicenter." (I'd definitely say the word "epicenter" to indicate that I know a thing or two about earthquakes.)

But most earthquakes aren't 10's. This week's tremor was a 4.0. Our house shook for 10 seconds, then nothing.

Most problems aren't 10's either. That's why we ought to use a 1-10 scale for everything. Let's say you're stuck in traffic on the way to work. It may feel like a big deal at the time, but it probably isn't. In terms of problems, traffic is a 1.

The rational part of our brain knows that. The rational part is like a calm seismologist, unimpressed by most emotional tremors. We need to cultivate this part.

Stuck in a long meeting? "WHEN WILL THIS END?" you want to shout.

"Hold on a minute," the calm seismologist says, "There are only a few thousand PowerPoint slides left. Therefore, we should be out of here, at the very latest, by next Wednesday. On a 1-10 scale, this meeting is a 1.2."

Sometimes, our response to a problem is worse than the problem.

Tip: As soon as you feel triggered by a problem, score it on a 1-10 scale. And if you're going to imagine the worst, exaggerate. Then, realize how improbable the worst really is.

Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (www.expresspotential.com), Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is "Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy," and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com

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