When I was in college I spent my summers at home in Vermont working for a party rental company. I set up huge party tents with other college athletes, a few rugged high schoolers and a handful of experienced veterans who had real jobs, but would help set tents on the weekends for extra income (and presumably to show us what brands of jeans were cool a decade ago).
There was lot of beef on that crew. You had to be strong because the job entailed lugging tents that weighed more than you did and carrying all the tables, chairs and dance floors needed to get your party on. You also had to be able to hammer 40-inch steel spikes into the granite of Vermont and New Hampshire. This was not a job for the chess club.
Learning the ropes.
The first few tents I set up were in idyllic settings on lush, sprawling lawns. The tents were erected (snicker) in textbook fashion. You laid the tent out flat. Pulled the ropes straight out from the tent. At each rope you drove a spike into the ground four feet from the tent. You tied the ropes to the spikes. Then you set up a side pole at each rope to support the perimeter of the tent. Finally, you set up the tall center poles in the (surprise…) center of the tent. I was a pretty smart kid. I caught on quickly.
Then I went on what I thought would be a really easy assignment. I was sent to set a small 20 foot by 20 foot square tent in a woman’s front yard with one of the veterans. I thought we would be done in twenty minutes.
Then came the problems.
When we got to the house I immediately began to worry. There was no large field of green. There was what amounted to a small rug-sized lawn squeezed in front of a small house. There was no 20′ X 20′ space to be found. There was no way to place the spikes back 4 feet from the tent so we could tie the tent down and anchor them properly. In one corner of the yard the porch of the house prevented us from driving any spike at all.
This was not good. A woman was expecting a tent for her party, but we weren’t going to be able to set it up in this space. The backyard had even less lawn. So that wasn’t an option either. I turned to Dave, the veteran, and said, ‘This is bad! We can’t set the tent. It doesn’t fit here.’ Dave was completely unfazed. He said, “Come on Greenhorn. Let me show you how it’s done.’
The Eye-Opening Transformation
What happened next changed me in ways that will impact my clients for the rest of my career. Dave found solutions for every single problem. Instead of setting the tent in the standard, follow-the-manual way, he set it in the way the situation allowed. Dave mapped out a plan that I had completely missed. He tied the tent ropes, that normally get tied to spikes in the ground, to anything that would hold them. We tied ropes to the fence. We tied ropes to trees. We tied ropes to the railing on the front porch of the house. The bushes and flower beds I thought prevented us from setting the tent in the front yard simply ended up under the tent, adding ambiance. And everything looked perfect. The tent pulled straight and tight and clean, despite the fact that half of the anchor points had been improvised to accommodate for the environment.
It felt like my brain grew 500% that day. I quickly learned to love the challenges of compromised conditions. Over the next three years I became so adept at problem solving I believed there was no problem I couldn’t overcome.
Putting the lessons to work.
Today I use the mindset I developed setting tents in my advertising career. At my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, we deeply believe there is a solution to every problem. We don’t focus on what we would have done in the best case scenario. We explore what can be done given the reality. What can be done with the hand we have been dealt. That means no excuses. We always work to maximize the outcomes given the current situation. Because the key to life is a good plan B or C or D.
Don’t spend a moment thinking about how things should have been done if the situation were different. Focus on how to bake the best cake with the ingredients you have right now. It’s the only way. Put all of your time, thought and energy into solving the problem in front of you. Recognize your assets. Make them work for you. Just like Dave showed me how to make that tent work in that small yard back when I was just a Greenhorn.
4 thoughts on “My life-altering first lesson in professional problem solving.”
You’re such a good storyteller. Enjoy your posts!
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Thanks Leslie! I think you’re an excellent story reader and story replier too! I really appreciate your support. -AA
We are all “Greenhorns” at one point in our life or even Multiple times (parenting). The goal is not to stay one or become the mayor of that make believe town “shawnville”. Always love hearing about your adventures and glad I got to be part of some. All the best to you and your family
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Great observation Todd! There was a lot of learning that happened during those summers. Like, don’t pour boiling water in your work boot. That’s a good one I learned from you.