A couple of weeks ago, I had a breakthrough with an Excel problem I had been trying in vain to solve. The problem went like this: Anytime a value in column S equals “true,” launch a message box warning that a duplicate ID exists in the spreadsheet. Unfortunately, because the contents of column S were the result of an embedded formula, there were complications.
All my potential solutions were taking me deeper into the swamp of having to program in Visual Basic. I was once a computer science teacher, so programming doesn’t scare me, but doing so seemed like overkill in this case.
Then, finally, a realization -- I didn’t need a message box. At some point, early on, someone suggested using a message box for the warning, and that got stuck in my head. Once I abandoned that idea, I was able to widen my focus -- what was my objective? -- and then reattack the problem using different tools.
I then hit upon a solution (actually, it had been lying within Excel the whole time, waiting to be discovered!) rather quickly and, even though that Friday was a miserable day due to a head cold, I left the office with a great feeling of accomplishment.
That got me thinking about creativity, and my battle with chronic knee pain. Winning this battle demanded a lot of creativity, which requires opening your mind and daring to look at things in completely novel ways.
There’s a story I put in Saving My Knees, then took out in the editing process because (a) I was concerned it would sound like I was simply celebrating my own cleverness, which was not the point (b) it interrupted the flow of the larger narrative.
But here it is now:
After I quit my job in Hong Kong to focus full-time on healing my knees, I had a miserable summer. One reason had nothing to do with my joints: A particularly tenacious mold took over my apartment.
One place it flourished: the bathroom. In the bathroom, some months before, I had constructed toothbrush holders (there were none originally) out of cardboard tubes from toilet paper rolls, wrapped in duct tape. Yeah, kind of ugly, plus they turned out to be mold magnets.
So I set myself a challenge: How could I make new toothbrush holders (remember, I had no job and income at this point, but plenty of time on my hands). I would use only objects in my possession and would buy nothing.
So I started thinking. What would the optimal toothbrush holder look like? For one, it would be simple, as simple as possible -- no big, ugly rack hanging off the side of the medicine cabinet. For another, the wet head of the toothbrush would be exposed to air as much as possible, and so come into contact with as small a surface as possible. (With a typical toothbrush holder, the bristles sit right on the metal, leaving a whitish deposit after a few weeks.)
It took me a while to figure this one out. When I did, I was pleasantly surprised by how simple, elegant and effective the solution was. Which was? Adhesive-backed plastic hooks for hanging things, such as clothes. It looked sort of like this, but with a lip on the tip:
How do you hang a toothbrush from a hook?
You don’t. You rethink the hook.
When the hook is hung horizontally (on the underside of the medicine cabinet), not vertically, it can function differently. It’s easy to slide a toothbrush in there (head goes at the hook end). The brush just seems to dangle at an angle in the air. Cool looking, lots of air circulating around the head, surprisingly stable, and didn’t cost me a cent (I had extra hooks on hand).
Creativity also served me well in trying to heal my knees. I could mention a bunch of examples, but I’ll stick with one: How did I figure out a way to do hundreds of deep-knee bends at a time when my knees weren’t strong enough to handle the exercises at full body weight?
Bungee cords! I decided to use bungee cords to “unload” weight while doing the knee bends. I had to find pretty sturdy bungee cords (which I did at a marine supply store). I needed something to attach them to (a rock-climbing harness was perfect). And, it turned out, I discovered I needed a little padding here and there (pieces of foam I shaped to my purpose). The exercises I did in a garage, throwing the ends of the bungee cords over some overhead 2 x 4’s, then attaching them to my harness.
It worked! (And the exercises were kind of fun to do.) I didn’t end up doing them for long (my knees had already improved a lot by that point, and I was just trying to grab the last few gains to get back to normal), but I could’ve done my "bungee squats" for months, or even years, had I needed to. That happened to be the kind of exercise that makes sense for knee pain -- high repetition, low load.
So today's message is: Be creative. Dare to think outside the box!