Review: Problem Solving 101

Have you ever tried to solve a really hard problem? A problem you can’t google the answer to; or ask somebody else. A problem nobody ever had before you. The ability to solve such problems can change your life and is very valuable. If you want to learn how to solve hard problems you should read Problem Solving 101.

Ken Watanabe is the author of Problem Solving 101. (No, not the famous actor!) In the preface he explains why he wrote the book:

“In 2007 Japan’s prime minister made education his nation’s top agenda. As the country turned its focus to the educational system, I felt compelled to do my part. Although Japanese business leaders, educators, and politicians have long talked about the need for Japan to shift from “memorization- focused education” to “problem-solving-focused education,” no one had figured out a concrete and effective way to make this happen.

So I left McKinsey to write this book and to teach kids. My aim was to teach Japanese children how to think like problem solvers, to take a proactive role in their own education and in shaping their lives.

I tried to frame the tools we used at McKinsey in a fun and approachable way, one that would show kids what a practical approach to problem solving could help them accomplish.“

Why Problem-Solving-Focused-Education

Countries like China and India will further develop to the standard of the west. But, their education system is focused on memorization. Thus, we will have many educated workers who can copy solutions. This kind of work will be cheap. But, solving hard problem will still be valuable in the future. (If you wanna know more about this idea, listen to following Tim Ferriss Podcast with Seth Godin)


The title suggests that the book is only about problem solving. But, the last third is more about achieving goals.

In both cases, Watanabe reveals his generic process to do so. He breaks down problem solving in the following steps:

“(1) understand the current situation;

(2) identify the root cause of the problem;

(3) develop an effective action plan; and

(4) execute until the problem is solved, making modifications as necessary.”

This is a generic framework that can probably solve almost any problem you can imagine. Watanabe not only explains each point in detail but also adds tools that help with the process. Tools like the Pro-Con list.

Often there are many possible root causes for a problem and many possible solutions. Thus, the process is based on the scientific method. This leads to a target-aimed process and measurable results.

This may sound complicated; it’s not. This is a book for kids. The author explains each aspect in an easy to understand way. He uses stories, metaphors and examples as you can see in following paragraph:

“The process is very similar to how doctors treat their patients. Think about what doctors do when you visit them when you’re not well: They first ask you some questions about your symptoms and then take your temperature. They may also run blood tests or take X-rays. They are collecting information and analyzing it to identify the root cause of your illness. Only after they’ve determined the diagnosis do they decide what to prescribe, whether it’s medicine for a cold or surgery to remove a tumor. Remember the difference between the symptom (headache), the root cause (fever), and the prescription (take cold medicine). The better you get at understanding the symptoms and identifying the root causes, the better you will get at developing effective solutions.“

Is It Just A Book For Kids?

Yes and no. Obviously, Watanabe wrote the book for school kids and teenagers. The language, the examples, and the presentation are easy to understand.

But, the topic isn’t only relevant for kids. The topic is important for everybody throughout life. It is one of the key skills we need to be successful and to achieve tranquility.

Many adults have no idea how to solve problems.

So, if you’re older than 18, don’t be discouraged by the fact that Watanabe wrote the book for kids.

It’s one of the strengths of the book! Everybody can understand it.

(I especially encourage teachers to read it and to include it in their classes.)

What I liked about it

By now you can tell that I’m a big fan of this book. I like that it is under 200 pages long, good structured, and easy to understand. You can read it in one session.

All the explained skills are based on the scientific method. That saves much time. Readers will not guess what the problem is and try random solutions. They will purposefully work towards the solution.

The used examples are great. They portray real problems kids and adults can relate to.

(I think that this book is a great example of the Feynman Technique)

I encourage you to read Problem Solving 101. It should be a must read in every elementary school all over the world. I’m sure you will learn something you can use every day for the rest of your life.

I know that I will gift this book a lot in the future.

Deo volente,

Gaius Wolf



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