Problem-Solving: Lessons From Pac-Man and Harry Houdini

Force Field Leadership Alive Large

Lesson From Pac-Man

It was in the 1980s that the immensely popular video arcade game Pac- Man hit the market. Constantly being chased by his enemies Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde, Pac-Man tried to elude his captors while moving end­lessly through the maze eating pac-dots. His reward for successfully eating all of the pellets, was being promoted to the next level to start the process all over again!

Increase Our Value-Add

As leaders, when we get good at solving problems, our reward is that we get to handle bigger problems…and more of them. I’ve often thought that senior leaders could reduce their job description to a couple lines on their LinkedIn account, and one of those lines would be “solving problems all day long.” We increase our value-add to an organization or team when we become effective problem solvers.

Problems Are The Breakfast of Leaders

One distinction I want to make though is if we keep having the same problem year after year. Now that’s a problem! Sometimes I feel like Pac-Man, but instead of eating pac-dots, I encoun­ter an endless supply of reoccurring problems in my path (and hopefully not the same one). If Wheaties is the “breakfast of champions,” then as Henry Cloud says, “Problems are the breakfast of leaders.” And if problems are connected to adding value, and if problem solving is a part of the daily regimen of every growing leader, then learning how to become a creative problem-solver is a worthy goal to pursue. One of the ways to get better is to see problems correctly.

Drowning Versus Swimming In Deep Water

James Baldwin said, “We stand as witnesses that swimming in deep wa­ter and drowning are not the same thing.” Although that’s true, at times they can feel the same. I learned to swim as a kid at a neighborhood pool during summer break. I also learned to tread water by being thrown into the deep end and told to paddle and kick for two minutes! The lifeguard (that’s what he called himself) would slap your hands away from the side of the pool if you got tired and tried to rest on the ledge. I still remember those two long minutes. I thought I was going to drown. The good news is that I survived and learned two important lessons: (1) I can tread water better and longer than most people care to ever learn, and (2) There’s a dif­ference between swimming in high water versus water that actually takes you all the way under. This lesson applies outside the swimming pool as well. I know there are times that all of us have felt like the waters of life are going to wash over us, pull us down, and snuff us out. In those times, we must reframe our perspective. Don’t be afraid of problems or of making mistakes. Both are part of life.

Reframing Problems As Opportunities

Like most things in life, how we see something affects how we interact with it. Learning how to see problems through the correct lens is very helpful…and strategic. As we reframe problems into opportunities, we position ourselves, in a very real way, to not only ask the right questions, but to generate creative solutions that we never dreamed possible. Creative problem-solving is a skill-set that will be in high demand in the com­ing years as we operate in a workplace that is ever changing.

Most All Problems Are Solvable

One of the secrets regarding effective problem-solving is to never think that a problem can’t be solved. Sometimes when we can’t generate solutions to our problems, it could be because we haven’t found the right person to help us yet. It could be that we are too emotionally involved to see the problem objectively. It could be that we’ve made up our minds that this problem will not be solved. The danger in framing problems like this is that once our minds are locked and closed, even if something did open up, we’d miss it, because we weren’t looking for it.

Harry Houdini

I love the story of Harry Houdini, the great stunt performer, magician, and escape artist of the early 1900s. He was known as one of the greatest tricksters and lock-pickers of his day. He could crack his way out of any­thing. Once he accepted a challenge to pry his way out of a locked prison cell that was designed by one of the most notable security companies of the day. With the clock ticking, Houdini pulled out his tiny instruments and began picking away. Soon, he became frustrated. Finally, soaked in perspiration, Houdini declared, “This lock can’t be picked!” He quit. Ex­hausted, Houdini leaned up against the cell door, and surprisingly it swung open. They had tricked him! Houdini was actually put in a cell that was already open. He was set up. The cell was never locked. Houdini tried to open something that was already open. But because it was locked in Houdini’s mind, he couldn’t open it.

Opportunities In The Making

The same is true for us as well. When we lock things down inside, give up trying to solve something, and say it’s impossible even if it is open, we won’t see the open door because we’re not looking for it. Let me encourage you: define your problems accurately. See them as opportunities in the making. Even though the waves are high and at times, you feel like you are in over your head, you will not drown! You will make it over to the other side and sometimes the way over is through. Believe that your problem can be solved because believing often helps us see. It’s important not to “lock out your mind” and stop looking for answers that might not be that far from your reach. And for all you know, the door might already be open and just needs you to push against it in a new way.

Problems + Disruption = Opportunity

Increase From The Ox

Problems equal profit Chris MeadeOne of my favorite metaphors from the ancient agrarian world is encapsulated in the saying, “Without oxen a stall is clean, but great is the increase by the power of the ox.The sage explains a choice every farmer had to make (and we do too). If they wanted a full harvest, abundant fruitfulness, large profit, and a steady increase from the efforts of their hard-working ox, then they had to feed the ox and keep its stall clean. Those were the pros. The cons? Lots of poop had to be cleaned up each day out of the stall. The other option was to have a clean stall, with no poop to clean up, and no ox to worry about. This, of course, equates to little or no harvest (profit).

Fast forward to the 21st century and this principle is still relevant. We each have to make this same choice in our lives as business leaders. If we steward and solve problems well, we’ll receive its reward––increase. Or we can sign up for a life and a job with no problems and a clean stall, and we’ll receive the result of that option as well––little or no increase. It’s either door number one (ox, poop, and great increase) or door number two (no ox, no poop, no problems, and no increase). Becoming an effective creative problem-solver brings increase into our lives financially, personally, professionally, and relationally.


The funny thing is that most people today don’t want any more problems on their plate. In fact, we often define our happiness factor based on how many problems we have or don’t have. The restaurant TGI Fridays’ slogan is “In Here, It’s Always Friday!” This international restaurant chain took its name from the expression TGIF (Thank God It’s Friday). TGI Fridays’ clever mantra has actually become part of popular culture, and it’s the goal for many Americans––living for the weekend to forget about their problems. Research has shown that people are happier on Friday than on any other day. More people suffer heart attacks on Monday than on any other day. Surveys indicate it’s because people are back at work and stressed out over their problems on Monday, and on Friday it’s all over for a few days.

Precursor to Opportunity

Part of the secret to creative problem solving begins first in how we view problems from the get go. If we want to be good at solving problems, and receiving the reward (increase from the ox), then we must view problems differently. Creative problem-solving first begins as an attitude. We must see problems as the precursor to opportunity.

Problems = Profit

Years ago, I started a service/sales business. The company also specialized in emergency fire and water damage restoration. Our normal day-to-day work brought in normal revenue. Good service, a talented sales force, efficient systems, hard work, and being really frugal were the bread-and-butter building blocks needed to turn a profit. But every now and then, insurance companies would call on us to help in an emergency disaster of some sort that involved fire or water damage. These jobs were incredible headaches. They added lots of complexity as well as many long hours to our daily work routines. But, it always paid very well. We could make a large profit in a relatively short amount of time. These large-scale jobs were a kind of love-hate opportunity for us.

Lesson From a Javelina

One time the phone rang in the middle of the night and we were called out to a school in the foothills. It was a beautiful new school with top-of-the-line furnishings, equipment, and décor. I drove to the school and met the principal out front. He told me a wild javelina had broken into the school in the middle of the night, and was trapped in his office. (A javelina is a large, wild boar-like animal with sharp tusks and teeth that is native to southern Arizona). The principal then dropped the bomb on me. “He pooped all throughout our offices and all over our furniture.” I went into the office with the principal after Animal Control removed the javelina. I was about knocked over from the most sickening smell you can imagine. Long story short, the principal wanted our company to thoroughly clean every piece of furniture, as well as conduct other restoration and decontamination processes in the their facility.Problems equal profit Chris Meade

“We focus on fire and water cleanup. We normally don’t do this kind of stuff. You should probably call someone else,” I told him. I thanked him and left. Later, he called back and said he couldn’t find anyone who was willing to do the job. He begged us and said he would pay whatever we wanted if we would just take on the job. We ended up saying yes. We bid the job high because of all the unknowns. We ended up making a very large profit from that one job. I learned that day that the bigger the problem, the bigger the potential profit. Javelina poop never smelled so good from that day on! Amazing what several thousand dollars can do to a person’s nose! If you want the increase from the ox (or the javelina in this case) you have to be willing to clean up the poop in the stall!

Reframing Problems as Opportunities In The Making

To be successful in life we must reframe our “TGIF worldview” to a lens that views problems as the precursor to opportunity, increase, fruitfulness, profit and mission fulfillment.  Forward-thinking leaders have trained their eyes to see the harvest and not just the poop in the stall! Having the right perspective is always a competitive advantage. Seeing problems as opportunities in the making is a timeless truth. The Chinese character for “crisis” is actually two words: danger plus opportunity. As leaders, managers and business professionals who live in a changing and competitive global economy, those two words describe our world pretty accurately. The right perspective is everything. Problems are connected to increase. The bigger the problem, the bigger the potential reward for solving it.

Problems = Profit

Let me ask you, are you facing some problems and disruption at work and in life that you have labeled as “poop in your stall” rather than a necessary precursor to future possibility? If so, let me encourage you: Don’t be afraid of the poop! It’s very possible that some of the problems and frustrations you are facing right now, if reframed as opportunities in the making, might very well be the first of a series of actions that will eventually bring about increase, breakthrough, innovation and mission fulfillment for you and your team in the near future. Remember: Most every realized opportunity first manifested itself in the form of a crisis, problem or challenge of some sort.