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Rewiring Your Brain for Problem Solving

By: Everett S

One thing became abundantly clear when I started getting to know people who grew up in the countryside: They are often extremely talented at problem solving. This is especially true when it comes to solving a problem with little or no money. I am a creative problem solver in many ways (at least that’s what I put in my resume) when the topic has to do with the industry in which I work, but solving business and marketing problems seems like my watered-down substitute for something that lies dormant in many of us.

Our friend David grew up here, though he has traveled the world alone and with his Uruguayan (had to look that up) wife Alé. He built his approximately 500-square-foot house for practically nothing out of salvaged materials. It is beautiful, functional and chock-full of ingenious little ideas, nooks, crannies, and gadgets to make life a little easier and to save space and money.

From little things like a magnet glued to the back of a bottle cap, which gets stuck inside soap and magnetically attached to a metal plate; to big things like D.I.Y. solar hot water and solar electric, David and Alé creatively and inexpensively solve problems around the house. I do not. This was highlighted once recently when we were visiting them for lunch and I noticed his clothes line outside the garden. We had one at our last two places, but not at our new place. I’ve only ever had clothes lines that were attached to metal T-poles that you have to buy from the store so the words that came out of my mouth were: Hey that reminds me, we need to buy poles for a clothesline so we don’t have to use the dryer so much. David looked at me in surprise and asked why I wouldn’t just make one. He’d made his with a couple of 4x4s and some rope he’d had lying around. It took him about 30 minutes to make both poles. Duh.

Calculating the Height of a TreeWe were visiting them again recently and he was teaching me trying to teach me how to figure out how tall a tree was by standing at a certain angle from the top and measuring how far away I was from the trunk. I say what I always say when someone starts talking calculus or trigonometry: “I suck at math”. David insists that he sucked at math too, which I find difficult to believe, but that he “rewired his brain” because he got a job that required him to teach it to children, and actually found learning math easier as an adult than he had as a child. If it were anyone but him, I might wonder why teachers are being hired to teach things they don’t know themselves, but I nonetheless got the point: You CAN teach an old dog new tricks.

Our friend Mark reminds me of this as well. Unlike David, he didn’t grow up in the country building spring boxes or helping his dad run a sawmill, but Mark has willed himself to learn to look at things through the eyes of a creative problem-solver with the confidence to know that, in most cases, he can figure something out well enough to get by without resorting to hiring someone or paying for something new. That isn’t always the case in the end, but the important thing is that his first thought isn’t to “just pay for it”.

Anyone who is into the so-called “simple life” enough to bother reading this blog has probably heard a variation of the following phrase:

Use it up. Wear it out. Make do. Or do without.

It is catchy and it sums up what many of us think is at the core of this amorphous thing we refer to as “simplicity”, but when it comes down to it I haven’t always done what it takes to truly live that kind of lifestyle, though I have made a lot of progress and am not going to beat myself up about it. The reason is because I never fully understood how wired my brain was by over three decades of second-generation city-dwelling in an environment where you work to get the money to buy the goods and services you can’t provide yourself. When you only have one or two days a week to do all of your chores and errands, relaxation usually involves something other than simply walking around in the woods or reading a book,  and it often includes expensive equipment, tickets, and trips, which require us to work more so we can afford our “leisure” activities. Another phrase comes to mind – “Work hard. Play hard.”

My first instinct when something I don’t know how to do (especially if it involves the risk of electrocution) needs to be done is to pay someone else to do it. Instead, I would like to first ask if I can learn to do it myself. From small-engine repair, to plumbing that doesn’t involve a metal snake, plunger or Draino (i.e. lye), I would like to be more “self sufficient” in areas other than heirloom tomatoes and eggs.

My first instinct when I needed something (not wanted, but needed) that I didn’t have was to buy it if I could afford to. Instead, I’d like to first ask myself if there are things laying around that I can use to make what I need. With that in mind, I’d like to introduce you to my nut pick. This simple little thing only saved me about $5 – and is certainly no engineering marvel – but whenever I use it I hope to be reminded that learning and doing are better than working and paying, and making is better than buying.

Homemade White Walnut Picker

A piece of wire from a metal fence was inserted into a simple wooden block cut to a size and ground to a shape that fits comfortably in my palm.

Homemade Walnut Picker

The wire was bent with a pair of pliers and sharpened to a point on a grindstone. No, I’ve never been to prison though it seems I know how to make a shiv.


Basket of White Walnuts

Now I can pick at that basket of walnuts.

The nut pick isn’t pretty, complicated or something that requires much intelligence or skill to make. Perhaps by even posting a picture I’ve already given it more attention than such a thing deserves. But the thought of a thousand little nut-pick-like homemade solutions over the next 30-60 years of my life; the thought that my son will grow up taking a D.I.Y. mindset for granted like my friend David… If that doesn’t put a great big smile on my face whenever I see it, then a lifetime supply of free walnuts certainly will.

Although I am far, far away from where I would like to be, and would probably have to decide whether to call the plumber or the electrician if our well pump stopped working (luckily we also have spring water), the little bit of cultivating, or “rewiring”, I’ve done since David’s trigonometry lesson has already been effective in other areas of my life besides the nut pick. Below is one example from today that involves correctly identifying the problem, which often makes a solution appear like magic.

I’ve been getting a little frustrated that we are always leaving clothes on the chair in our bedroom that I like to use for meditation. I have a hard enough time motivating myself to practice the few times a week that I do without being given excuses not to, such as having to remove clothes that are piled or draped over every surface of the chair. Missy putting clean laundry piles on the chair wasn’t the problem. She does most of our laundry and I am grateful for that. Me hanging my already-worn-but-still-clean-enough-to-wear-again clothes over the back of the chair wasn’t the problem either. This was going to happen no matter what. The real problem was that we had nowhere else to put them. And once I saw what the real problem was the solution was simple: Make something to put those clothes on so we don’t have to use the chair.

When was the last time you stopped yourself in the middle of hiring someone to do something you didn’t know how to do, and decided instead to learn a new skill? When was the last time you stopped yourself in the middle of buying something and decided to make it yourself, or “make do” without it? We’d love to hear those inspiring anecdotes in the comments section if you don’t mind sharing!

Category: Arts & Crafts, DIY Projects, Rants, Simple Thoughts, The Transplants

Comments (6)

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  1. Anna says:

    That’s hilarious — I was just telling Mark how to measure a tree like that last week!

  2. Jayne says:

    Very good thought processing . . . I think Mark’s Mom, Rose is already there . . .
    We lost the toggle switch handle off of Rose’s Mom’s motorized wheel chair last week during one of her transits around the house. Never could find it. Instead of buying it – Rose drilled out a hole in a dowel to fit the the head for the toggle on the wheel chair, cut it to a handy length (much nicer that what we had) and then encapsulted the whole thing in black duct tape to match the rest of the wheel chair. The tape also allows the handle to be cleaner easier than the bare wood. No matter where you are or what the situation – you can apply the question – how can I do this in absence of what I thought I had to have?!

  3. Donna says:

    Your nutpick might be simple, but it is beautiful in design and appearance due to that very reason. As far as rewiring your mind, I know how you are feeling, although I grew up in a family that “made due” I got away from it over the last 10-15 years due to the hours I committed to work and now I’m having to waken those dorment skills as I try to return to a more simplified life. The more you do it though, the better you get at it and the quicker solutions to daily problems will arise in your mind.

  4. De says:

    I’ve been working on this too. As an engineer it’s in my nature to find the root cause of a problem – if something’s annoying me (like the clothes on your chair, I had the same problem), I figure out a way fix to it. What I need to rewire in my brain is to stop going out to buy a solution (like buying a clothes rack with pegs to hang on the wall), rather than creating a make-do from what I have (building a clothes rack from stuff lying around.)

    Lately I’ve learned a few new skills, but often bought expensive tools for short-cuts. For example, I wanted to learn to use the chain saw, but Dan’s is heavy and I’m just no good with pull-cords. So we bought an expensive, super-light-weight Stihl with the Easy-Start option. I’m using the saw and really enjoy it, but perhaps I could have worked on getting stronger instead and saved $400 :-)

    And just last weekend, I learned to graft apple trees. There is a short-cut tool for $25 that makes it really easy to make the cuts, and I was planning to buy one. Instead, I think I’ll practice my whittling til next spring. Thanks for the inspiration!

  5. Leslie says:

    Great post. “Hey, we should learn how to make this ourselves!” is one of my mantras to such an extent that it has become a family joke. Creative problem solving is such an important skill and avenue for self discovery. And fun (at least most of the time).

    Today I started washing dishes with baking soda and a splash of vinegar. No dish soap, no plastic bottle. Squeaky clean dishes! My humble contribution to your post.

  6. […] to make or do things themselves first (if you don’t have that DIY muscle don’t worry, it strengthens with exercise), and is always on the lookout for things they can do without, as well as things they can re-use or […]

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