How to reduce the pain of problem solving during the creative process

What’s wrong with me?

The answer seems out of my grasp. I have a desire, a burning question rolling around and around in my head but I feel no closer to the solution.

Frustrated, confused and mentally exhausted I start to blame myself. I’m so stupid. I think. Everyone else can figure this out except me.

I have honestly felt this way so many times while trying to figure out my business, what I can offer and who I should help.

Does this sound familiar? You start to wonder:

  • Am I on the right track?
  • How would I know if I weren’t?
  • What if the answer lies around the very next bend despite my environment showing no clues that this is the case?
  • Do I keep going?

These types of questions are symptoms that we have not correctly framed the problem to begin with.

It’s so important that we understand the problem. Because, it turns out, not all problems are equal and the creative process for finding the solution varies widely depending on the type of problem you’re trying to solve.

Maybe it’s not you afterall.

I’m going to introduce the 3 types of problems first so that we can identify what we’re dealing with. Then we’ll have a look at the kind of process for approaching the solution depending on the type of problem.

According to Dr. Shelly Carson in her book, Your Creative Brain, there are 3 types of problems: reasonable problems, unreasonable problems and open-ended problems.

Type of Problem.
Reasonable (logical) problems go from a to b in a predictable path.
Unreasonable (illogical) problems have a clear 'right answer' or end point but require a flash of insight to get there. There is no logical route to the solution. Scientific problems are commonly unreasonable.
Open-ended (ill-structured) problems have many possible end points and require many flashes of insight (aha! moments) to reach the solution. You may not even know you've reached the solution. These problems require ideation fluency and divergent thinking.


Reasonable problems have a single solution and a clear roadmap or protocol to arrive at that solution. Just like putting a destination into google maps, you may get a few alternative routes to choose from but they are step-by-step, a-to-b options.

With reasonable problems, you may know the solution from the start and the question becomes: “What route do I want to take to get me there the fastest? What’s the shortest route? The most scenic?”

The question is how would I like to arrive at this solution.

If you don’t know the solution, there is a clear protocol to get there. A mathematical formula. The answer can be discovered through logic or reason using a deliberate process.

These kind of problems are algorithmic, which means they can be automated. Because they can be automated, they can be completed by a machine.


Unreasonable problems have a single solution or endpoint as well but they do not have a clear roadmap or protocol. They cannot be solve through logic or reason.

Accessing the solution to these kind of problems requires a flash of insight or an ‘aha!’ moment.

Insight comes from associations and connections in our subconscious brain regions being fed forward to our conscious brain – the thoughts we can ‘hear’.

We can’t force insight, but we can create an environment in our brain where insight is more likely to come, where we’re more likely to ‘hear’ the subtle suggestions from our subconscious brain.

These moments of insight often fuse the information we know about the problem with random associations from our experience or interests that help us see the problem from a new perspective. This shift in point of view enables us to see a possible route to the solution.

We require more of a spontaneous creative process to invite these moments of insight.

Many scientific problems are unreasonable problems.


Open-ended problems have many possible outcomes and many possible routes to the solution.They are highly valuable problems and cannot be solved through reason and logic alone. Many creative problems are open-ended.

Life is an open-ended problem, there is no one route to success. No one travels exactly the same path.

How do decorate your kitchen is an open-ended problem. You may choose a country theme, a monochromatic look, only secondhand appliances or no change at all because you prefer to eat out anyway. There is no ‘right’ way.

However, decorating the kitchen of kit-set model home based on the plans and products of the blueprint is a reasonable problem. They will all turn out the same and there are set protocols in place.

We find ourselves in trouble when we treat unreasonable or open-ended problems as reasonable problems.

Trying to force our way to the ‘right; solution or beating ourselves up for not taking the ‘right’ path that we feel we ‘should’ be taking will never solve an unreasonable or open-ended problem. 

Choosing what business you’d like to run or what your purpose is in life or where to move to are open-ended problems.

For so long, I felt like there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t figure out the answer to these questions.

The problem wasn’t me, it was the idea that there is just one right answer.

The sooner we get comfortable with the possibility inherent in open-ended questions, the sooner we can take action.

Open-ended questions require us to venture into the unknown, to be uncertain, to face our fear.

It might work out ‘perfectly’ (whatever that looks like at that point). Or you might not even see the solution in your lifetime. And, as all outcomes are possible, failure is also a potential outcome. You might be diverted onto another open-ended problem.

You’ll never know if you don’t look beyond the logical, the trial-and-error and start following your curiosity instead.

Scary, yes, but there is also delight, discovery, progress of epic proportions, legacy available to you with an open-ended problem. You’re the creator.

But the focus MUST be on the process.

If you’re attached to the outcome of an open-ended problem, you will restrict the exploration and openness required to arrive at the best solution.

Soon, I’ll be writing a post about outcome goals and growth goals to help build this focus. For now, it’s enough just to ask, “What kind of problem am I dealing with here?”

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