On Snags

It is very close to inevitable, when you are problem-solving, that at some point you will hit a snag. Indeed, if you do not hit a snag, that calls into question whether what you are doing is actually solving a problem, rather than merely going about something you ought to be able to do blindfolded and with your hands tied behind your back. I do not mean that literally. I am trying to suggest an activity that is so familiar and comes so easily that to call it a problem is to do violence to the language. Going out to the newsagent to buy a copy of the Daily Hoo-Hah and a pint of milk, for example, ought not be a problem for most of us. So if that is your idea of problem-solving I think I would laugh in your face, or shove you aside, out of my sight.

Having said that, I suppose it is true that even so simple and unproblematic an activity could be booby-trapped with a snag. You might trip over a clump of tough intractable weeds on your way to the newsagent, for example, and sprain your ankle, forcing you to hobble. Or you might arrive at the newsagent only to discover a hole in your pocket through which your coinage has fallen, and you have no money to pay for the newspaper and the milk. Or who knows what else? But these are properly accidents rather than snags, the kind of snags we bump up against when solving problems.

The snag is, as it were, inherent in the problem. If there were no snag to negotiate, the matter might not be a problem at all, and we could just get on with it, and now I am repeating myself so I had better shut up about non-problems and concentrate on problems.

To illustrate what I am talking about, or trying to talk about, let us take two different problems and consider what sort of snags might crop up.

First, we could say that the most basic type of problem is a simple sum, 1 + 1, for example. This is the kind of problem with which we might be faced when attending infant school. We have to add 1 to 1 and come up with the correct answer. Simple as it is, this little sum might be dubbed the fons et origo of every other sum we might ever attempt, up to and including stupendously complicated calculations in the higher mathematics. It is, in a sense, the ur-sum. Not too many snags there, you might think. But hold on! What if, as an infant, sitting on the infant school bench with your slate and your pointy scraping tool, it is somehow vouchsafed to you that 1 + 1 is indeed the very basis of every other sum you might ever try to solve for as long as you live? That is a dizzying mental prospect! It is enough to befuddle the head of the more sensitive and imaginative infant. Hence the snag. The profound implications of 1 + 1, of all that it might later lead to, could provoke a sort of seizing up of the cranial integuments, a gibbering havoc of the brain. In other words, a snag.

For our second example of a problem let us take something more concrete. Let us say you have embarked upon a project of building a tiny hydroelectric power station using balsa wood and glue and nanotechnology. Everything is going swimmingly, until you realise there is a mismatch between the diagrams on your blueprint and the amount of balsa wood in your box. You are at a loss to see how you might complete the construction until this anomaly is resolved. This, then, is the snag.

It is clear, I hope, from these examples that neither problem is going to be solved successfully until the snags have been addressed. By addressed, I suppose I mean solved. So we can consider each snag like a little problem in itself. It is part of a bigger, overall problem, but the solution to that uber-problem depends entirely on the solution to the mini-problem. How, then, should one go about tackling the mini-problem, or snag? Here are some handy tips.

1. Do not panic. (Actually, there are certain snags where panic is, if not the most sensible response, then certainly an understandable one. Imagine you have hit a snag in disarming a lethal explosive device, and the timer is ticking down to the last few precious seconds. In these circumstances, you might be better off panicking and running away as fast as your little legs will carry you.)

2. Take several deep breaths.

3. Scratch your head and furrow your brow. (Some people also like to let their tongue loll out.)

4. Try to relax your overheated brain. (There are several ways of doing this. President Nixon mashed potatoes. Baruch Spinoza set a pair of spiders to fight each other in mortal combat.)

5. Consider whether you really care enough to solve the problem at all. (This might sound defeatist, and it is, but you would be surprised at how often people get all hot and bothered about things that, in the long term, do not matter one jot.)

6. Smack your forehead with your open palm and press on regardless. (This is the reckless option. Sometimes it works out for the best, sometimes it brings in its wake unparalleled disaster.)

7. Consult an expert. (Somewhere in the world there is an expert in everything. The expert is the kind of person who will take one look at your snag, give a wry chuckle, and solve it, possibly while blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their back. Tracking down the right expert can of course become a problem, or snag, in itself, so what you should do as you make your progress through the world is to buttonhole every person you meet and interrogate them regarding their field(s) of expertise. Keep a note in your jotter, including their contact details. Later, at home, transfer the details from your jotter to a magnificent alphabetical and cross-referenced card index system.)

Next week, we will take a look at pitfalls.

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