Executive Careers Blog

# What an Earthquake Can Teach You About Problem Solving

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

Whenever there's an earthquake——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.