Making changes, especially big changes, takes creativity. How hard you look for a solution shows how much you want to solve it. Here’s a great example of that.
Zhu and the 100,000 arrows
The other day my son Emerson was in the toy room playing and he started telling a story about Zhu Ge-liang, a famous general and scholar from ancient China. Zhu was one of the emperor’s advisors in the time of the warring states, there were many different kingdoms at war with each other, and all were vying to control all of China. He was smart, but he got on a lot of people’s nerves as well, and so one day his enemies within the court laid a trap for him.
An advisor to the emperor called Zhu into see him and told him that the army needed 100,000 arrows in ten days time, and that it was Zhu’s responsibility to make them. This was an impossible task, something that even a large group of craftsmen wouldn’t have been able to finish in such a short time. Zhu said he would do it, and finish in only three days. The first day went by and all Zhu did was think. The second day rolled around and he was still thinking. His friends, already worried because of the impossibility of the task, started to plead with him, asking him to flee so that he wouldn’t be executed when he couldn’t deliver the arrows. He just smiled and told them not to worry.
On the evening of the third day, Zhu went to the docks and asked the shipmaster to prepare a number of ships for him. Zhu and some helpers then bundled together stacks of straw and placed them upright on the ships. When the ships were prepared they were sent into the river with the crew hidden behind the straw.
On the other side of the river was the enemy. As they saw ships coming across the water in the thick mist, they thought an invasion had been launched, and so they lined up their archers and began to fire on the ships. The crews on the ships stopped them in the middle of the river but still inside of arrow range. The enemy army pelted the ships with arrows for an hour until they began to withdraw. When the ships returned to the shore, Zhu and his helpers took all of the arrows out of the straw, bundled them up, and took them back to court, over 100,000 of them. Not only did the army get the arrows it needed, the emperor promoted Zhu to be his primary advisor.
Solutions that make a difference aren’t necessarily obvious
If success were easy, everyone would be successful. If the problems that hold people back were simple to solve, most people wouldn’t have them in the first place. Don’t settle for failure, and don’t stop looking for solutions until you’ve tried everything you can.
When our family made the decision to move to America, we had some huge problems facing us – no job prospects and no easy way to save money for the move. The solution didn’t jump up and bite me during the first night of thinking about it, it took two years of learning and preparation to appear. I didn’t study about eBooks in school, I didn’t even know what an eBook was when I graduated from the history department! (And Amazon hadn’t even invented the Kindle at that point.) No one pushed me to learn HTML, to study details about eBook formats, or to spend my free time reading technical documentation that seemed to be 90% hieroglyphics.
My point is not that I am an amazing intellect or somehow better than anyone else because I’ve learned a skill that I’ve been able to turn into a job that will take my family halfway around the world. If I can do something like this, then anyone can, including you.
Fear is our greatest enemy and greatest helper in problem solving
If Zhu Ge-liang had looked at his situation logically or listened to his friends he would have ended up a penniless outlaw without a country. No one in a million years would have suggested the solution he came up with to him as the best course of action. Perhaps that’s why his solution worked, it wasn’t the solution that anybody expected him to come up with. With hindsight his plan is clever, even logical. Who has 10,000 arrows? The other army. All he needed was a way to get them to hand them over. In the moment, however, I’m sure it felt like a Hail Mary pass with the clock running out. Whatever Zhu’s feelings at the time were, one thing is for sure: legends aren’t made out of people who allow fear to win.
Whatever the problems you are facing, don’t underestimate the effects of fear. It can paralyze, or act as a springboard that will catapult us to new heights of creativity.
What do you do when you’re in a difficult situation? How have you overcome challenges? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.