I don’t believe there are any unsolvable problems. In my job I’m often asked to solve things that seem impossible, but every time it takes just a little creative thinking to overturn the paradigm and solve it. I want to tell you a funny story that really happened to me a few years ago, one that illustrates how we can solve the impossible problems of life.
One evening I was working late at the Kennedy Space Center. I had to leave by 6:00 p.m. because my wife was planning to go to a meeting and I had to get home to watch the kids. It takes me an hour to drive to Orlando and she had to leave the house by 7, so leaving my workplace by 6 gave me no time to spare. Cutting it close, I walked out to my car a few minutes before 6 and realized in horror I couldn’t find my car keys. Looking through the car’s window in the evening gloom I could make them out lying on the driver’s seat. My co-workers had already left so there was nobody to give me a ride, and if I called a locksmith it would take an hour for them to get badged into the space center, ensuring my wife would miss her meeting. I thought briefly about getting a big rock and smashing the window out. That would be costly to fix. Then the thought occurred, “I’m a physicist, just like Iron Man. He can use physics to create an iron suit. Surely I can break into a car!” Yeah, I know Iron Man is not real. But that thought turned this into a physics problem, just one more unsolvable problem that I could now solve.
I quickly scanned the car for vulnerabilities, and seeing none I realized it was McGyver time: I needed to gather some random, helpful items that would magically empower me to open the car. Fortunately, I had my lab nearby, so I ran back inside to see what I could get. Unfortunately, it’s a lab equipped for studying extraterrestrial regolith, the stuff lying on planets that we Earth-people call “dirt”. While extraterrestrial dirt is very cool, it’s not great for breaking into cars, not even for McGyver. But I snatched the handle from a 5 gallon dirt bucket, got some pliers, a super magnet, a flashlight so I could see what I was doing in the deepening darkness outside, several random items, and ran back out.
All the while, I was fighting the feeling I couldn’t do this, I had too little time, and my wife was going to be very unhappy that I didn’t opt for the big rock. My Iron Man delusion was making things worse, not helping! So to fight these doubts I kept telling myself, “I have a Ph.D. in physics! I work for NASA. If we can land a man on the Moon, surely I can break into a car.”
That last line is one we Space People hear all the time. Not the part about breaking into a car, but this: “If we can land a man on the Moon, surely we can…” (fill in the blank). Another one we hear all the time is, “Come on, people, this isn’t rocket science!” And of course there is the all-time favorite, “Houston, we have a problem.” If the projector isn’t working in a conference room at NASA, someone will invariably say, “Houston, we have a problem.” Then somebody else will say, “Come on people, this isn’t rocket science!” And finally, someone will helpfully chime in, “If we can land a man on the Moon, surely we can get this projector to work!”
But I was saying those things without any irony, trying to keep my spirits up. I had only 3 more minutes to spare, and that left no time for doubting.
I discovered that new cars are engineered a lot better than the ones I used to break into when I was in high school. Yes, I broke into a lot of cars in high school. No, I wasn’t a car thief. I was a bag boy at a grocery store. Breaking into the cars of customers who had locked their keys inside while their ice cream was melting was an essential skill for bag boys back in the day. But now, I discovered, my bag boy skills had expired. Automotive engineers tightened up the cracks around windows and door jambs. And remember those mushroom-capped pull-posts that used to stick up next to the windows for unlocking doors? Those have been replaced with mechanically-stiff, smooth-surfaced rockers down the sides of the doors where a thin wire can’t effectively push them. So Iron Man needed to invent something new. After feeling all the cracks on the car I discovered that the rear door has softer foam in the crack along one section of its leading edge. Unfortunately, you can’t open the rear door by putting a wire through that crack to pull the rear door handle. Only the front door’s handles will open the door while the car is locked.
So with one minute to spare, I got the dirt bucket’s handle straightened with the pliers and pushed it into the rear door’s slightly larger crack, re-bent it with pliers, pushed some more, rotated it, and bent it again. I snaked it through the door jamb of the rear door, then leftward past the side of the driver’s seat, left again to the front door handle, hooked around the handle, and with a pull from the back door of the car the front door popped open. There was no time to spare. I threw the tools into my car and zoomed off to Orlando. I arrived at exactly 7:00 and my wife went happily to her meeting unaware of the drama in the Kennedy Space Center’s parking lot an hour earlier.
The funny thing is what happened the next morning. I arrived at work early and went straight to the lab to put the tools from my car back into the toolbox. When I walked inside, my colleague (and co-founder of the lab) Rob Mueller was giving a tour to a lady, a man, and two young girls. Being overly proud of myself for the prior night’s heroics, I loudly announced what I had done and made sure to use all the phrases we Space People like to say. “I just kept telling myself, ‘if we can land a man on the Moon, then surely I can break into a car.’ Surely a NASA physicist can break into a car! I wasn’t going to let a simple car stop me. It’s not like it was rocket science, after all!” What a dweeb! The lady and her family stared at me silently with the kind of look that says something is weird here, something is wrong. I noticed the looks, but I was too proud of myself to care.
Later that day I ran into Rob a second time. “Do you know who that lady was, in the lab this morning?” I answered that I did not. “She’s the Chief Engineer at General Motors.”
I sure hope she didn’t think that I knew she was from General Motors, that I was oafishly saying those things to try to impress her, to make her think that she needs to collaborate with my lab because we are so much better than her own people when it comes to problems with simple cars, that she needs us because — let’s face it — we know how to do rocket science. But what can I do about that now? It’s just another embarrassing moment in my life, one among the many.
And so, what is the moral of this story? It might be, “don’t brag like a doofus.” Or it could be, “always know your audience before you speak.” But today the moral of the story is this one: the way to solve an unsolvable problem is to honestly believe you can solve it.
Every time I have to solve such a problem, I give myself the internal pep talk. I don’t usually go for the clichés about rocket science and landing a man on the Moon. (Those are reserved for emergencies.) But I do pump myself up, reminding myself that every problem has a solution and that I am going to find it. Honestly, I know I don’t have any special ability to solve problems. It doesn’t require a Ph.D. in physics or experience with NASA or bagging groceries, and it definitely doesn’t require Iron Man. I just believe I can solve hard problems because I believe we all can. All we need is to think outside the box and to keep thinking outside the box until the problem is solved. So learn to turn the problem inside out. Look at it upside down. Step back. Broaden the question. Answer the deeper thing that isn’t being asked. Eventually, you find the solution. Sadly, most people won’t do this. They won’t do it because they don’t immediately see the answer and they give up, believing what the disbelievers have told them.
So try it sometime. Don’t give up on unsolvable problems. Tell yourself that you can think differently and find the solution. Tell yourself that it’s not rocket science. I’ve been doing this for many years, and so far it always works. I don’t believe there are any unsolvable problems.
(By the way, I told this story to my friends on Facebook, and one of them said, “It would be an even better story if your car was made by General Motors.” Well…it was.)
Want some help in solving unsolvable problems? Here’s a great article with practical steps to see problems differently: Unsolvable Problems and How to Solve Them (Einstein’s Secret)