Vail Daily column: The problem is to know what the problem is |

Vail Daily column: The problem is to know what the problem is

Butch Mazzuca
Butch Mazzuca |

In Orlando, according to CNN, “An American-born man who’d pledged allegiance to ISIS gunned down 49 people early Sunday, June 12, at a gay nightclub in Orlando, the deadliest mass shooting in the United States and the nation’s worst terror attack since 9/11, authorities said.”

As has become the norm in America today, while 49 people lay dead and dozens others wounded, some critically, instead of coming together as a nation, the political left and right have taken sides and are at odds over how to prevent such terror attacks in the future.

And as one might expect during the political season, the left and the right come at the issue from very different perspectives. For the right, the Orlando matter was primarily one of Islamic extremism. For the left, it’s all about gun control. So which is it?

Einstein is quoted as having said if he had one hour to save the world he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution. Perhaps Mr. Einstein was overly optimistic about solving the problem in five minutes, but the quote illustrates his thinking regarding the most effective way to tackle a problem.

The problem is to know what the problem is, which means the first step in problem solving is to clearly define the problem. However, human nature being what it is, what usually happens is that as soon as we have a problem to work on, we’re so eager to find solutions that we neglect taking the necessary time defining it.

But on those occasions when we take the necessary time to accurately define the problem first, the solutions are always more abundant, of higher quality and achieved much, much more readily.


In a survey years ago Toyota asked its employees to brainstorm “ways to increase their productivity.” The responses they got back were vague and unfocused. However, when Toyota rephrased the question as “ways to make their jobs easier,” the company could barely keep up with the amount of suggestions.

Words carry strong, implicit meaning. And the words we use play a significant role in how we perceive a problem. In the aforementioned example, “increase productivity” could be interpreted as a sacrifice one is making for the company while “make your job easier” feels like something Toyota employees would do for their own benefit, while at the same time benefit the company. In the end, the problem is still the same, but the points of view associated with each of them are vastly different — as will be the solutions.


Interestingly, research has shown that paying more attention to how we define problems is more difficult than actually solving them. So again, human nature being what it is, the less difficult approach is the one we too frequently choose.

Exacerbating the situation, political issues, no matter how simple or clear they may appear to be, come with a long list of assumptions, agendas and preconceived notions. These are usually biased, inaccurate or in many cases, simply politically correct, rendering the problem statement inadequate or even misguided.

One solution might be to turn the problem on its head, i.e., if you want to win, first ascertain what it is that makes us lose. If we’re struggling finding ways to keep Americans safe, then perhaps we should find ways to place them in more peril, and then reverse our answers.

Multi-sided problem

On the surface stricter gun control measures may appear to be a viable solution to what occurred in Orlando, but when we look at the city of Chicago, with the strictest gun control laws in the country, we see a city with the highest gun-murder rate in the nation. Conversely, keeping Muslims out of the country wouldn’t have done much good in preventing the Orlando massacre because the perpetrator was born in New York.

This is a bifurcated problem — how do we keep thugs and miscreants from possessing firearms while not infringing upon the rights millions of law abiding gun owners and at the same time protect our country from even more Islamic extremism?

This matter begs for leadership, common sense and the elimination of political agendas — after all, how can we realistically expect to solve this problem when we’re still arguing over what the problem is?

Quote of the day: “To the man who only has a hammer, everything he encounters begins to look like a nail” — Abraham Maslow.

Butch Mazzuca, of Edwards, writes regularly for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at

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