Saturday, April 21, 2012

Using Creativity to Solve Problems

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!


  1. Hey Richard... just wanted to let you know I'm still reading and I'm still working on my own knees! It's going to take awhile. I am still working loosely with a person at Sportscenter, but I'm also trying to walk/bike on flat every day or every other. They feel a lot better at the moment. I'm working on getting my muscle back too. Anyway... still love the blog!

  2. That's great! Glad you wrote in. Getting better is slooooow, no doubt about that. And what slows the process down even more are setbacks (through my careful monitoring, I was able to cut back a lot on setbacks, but it's impossible to eliminate them). Keep me posted on how things go!

  3. Richard, I love your blog and your book, I'm trying to keep up with my knees, but it seems like everybody among my family and doctors is trying to convince me to have a Hialuronic Acid (Sinvisc) injection in order to help improving. I'm having a hard time to decide about it, once you have read a lot of studies about knees I'd like to know your opinion. Do you think that by making this injection, in some way, I will be diminshing the natural capacity of healling in wich you have based your treatment?

  4. This is a good question that ultimately only you can answer with guidance from some smart medical professionals. I considered getting a Synvisc injection. As I saw it, the advantage would be that I could push my knees a little harder than I would be able to otherwise, as the synthetic synovial fluid would help protect my fragile cartilage, and maybe it would be the boost I needed to get more active, and into a virtuous cycle of gradually escaping pain. But: how long Synvisc lasts before breaking down varies, from as little as four or five weeks (I've heard) to six months or so. And I think someone getting a Synvisc shot would have to be very careful not to overdo activity; after all there's still damaged cartilage in there.

    Does it leave a residue, or chemicals that could interfere with natural long-term healing? I don't know enough about that to offer any opinion.

    My best suggestion: Go over to the KneeGuru site. You'll find threads about Synvisc. One thing you'll notice -- about half the people who got the shot said it hurt like hell and they had joint swelling, and about half said they were fine. So that's another thing to consider. But ask questions over in KneeGuru; those people will be much smarter about Synvisc than I am. Good luck!

  5. Richard, thank you very much for the advice!!
    KneeGuru site was really useful to read a lot of cases.
    I will keep opting for not having the injections, against my family and doctor advices. My pain is not that big, I can walk normally and ride the bike in plan tracks, I just get stronger pain when I don´t sleep properly or if I stand too long. Until this day I can see it is slowly getting better with dayly walk, good sleep and strengthening gluteus, back part of the thigh and being cautious in strengthening vastus (only strengthening in moves that don't hurt). Emotional stressing days also had I terrible effect on the pain and inflammation.
    The most difficult part of my treatment here in Brazil is to keep, day-to-day, convincing my family and doctors that all these promises of miracle treatment in injections and fast muscle increase were really not going to help in the long term.
    See you!