Jack enters the first major phase of CPS, Problem Exploration. He meets Manny Gibran, a professional problem solver, who prompts him to begin the first step: Identify the Challenge. In other words, Jack must identify what he hopes for and what possible outcomes he wants in his life. Manny encourages Jack to use the words “I wish” to create a list. Manny also urges Jack to defer judgment of those wishes because criticizing too soon will hinder the creative process.
Deferral of judgment is a good idea even when you aren’t in the middle of making a list. It’s a good practice for everyday life. Things are often not what they seem. If we take more time to understand a situation, then ideas and opportunities often arise. If we move quickly—too quickly—to critical judgment, we close doors.
The hot coffee soaking into his jeans jolted Jack awake. Cursing under his breath, he grabbed a handful of paper napkins from a stack on the counter and blotted the spill. The muted sounds of the tennis club, the repetitive thwacking of the tennis balls from the courts, had lulled him to sleep. He noticed spilled coffee inching toward a frayed lamp cord. He rushed to blot it up before it reached the wire and just made it. Under the wrong circumstances he might have been electrocuted. He could see the headline: “Arlington Heights Tennis Club Employee Aced by Coffee Spill.” The headline would be accompanied by a gangland, murder-style black-and-white photograph of him lying dead on the floor—visible coffee stains on his jeans. At least he’d go out with a bang.
He glanced at his watch—still forty minutes until closing time.
Jack was tired, and it hadn’t helped that he’d skipped lunch and dinner. Being both a night manager at a tennis club and a bartender at a local pub paid the rent but were not jobs conducive to regular meals and sleep. Since his car was not working, he spent hours on the train getting to and from the tennis club job. He walked the few blocks from his apartment to his bartending gig. It was work just getting to work. Worse than all of this, Jack was as bored as a human being could be. As he threw away the wet napkins, he noticed that his hands were trembling; he really needed to get some sleep.
Jack poured himself more coffee and ate some stale pretzels.
At twenty minutes to midnight Jack got into the closing routine. Just after twelve he locked the front door behind him, and a gust of cold wind sent a chill up his spine. He thought with regret that he should have known to wear his raincoat. It was a long walk to the train station, so he zipped up his jacket and broke into a jog. He was so tired he couldn’t keep jogging for long, and he slowed to a walk.
The smell of rain filled the air. In the distance rumblings and flashes indicated an approaching electrical storm, and it was still about thirty miles to his apartment. To get there meant a four-mile walk to the Metra’s Northwest Line, a long ride downtown, a transfer to the CTA Blue Line, and then another short walk.
Such is life for the young, bored, and desperate, he thought, filled with trains and walks. He’d given up on what he really wanted to do, photography. He’d studied photography in college before he dropped out after his junior year. Despite a few successful shoots over the past few years, including weddings and freelance photojournalism, jobs were few and far between, especially for someone who was underequipped and underfinanced. He had no idea how to take it to the next level. Nothing he’d tried had worked, and it was frustrating.
It started to rain. A drizzle at first, then it quickly built up, and Jack found himself in a downpour. In a minute the ice-cold water soaked through his sneakers and socks, and he still had at least two miles to go.
His body started shaking involuntarily, and he was angry with himself. Sighing, he said softly, “I’m not going anywhere.” He wanted to take control of his life. What gives a person control? he wondered.
He asked himself, What do I need? An answer floated into his head—ideas. I need more ideas. Is that too simple? Too easy? I need more ideas, and better ideas, about how I can help myself, he thought. But how to get them? And how to get off my rear end and do something?
The rain was getting worse; lightning flashed nearby. He started jogging again, flapping his arms to stay warm, with his back to the infrequent cars passing by. Walking by a public park, he noticed an open-air pavilion with an extended roof. He ducked under the overhang and listened to the rain pelt the tin roof. The center of the electrical storm was right on top of him. Suddenly, the lightning flashed and thunder clapped—so close, so loud and surprising, it knocked him to the ground.
Jack came to a moment later. The air smelled strange, and his body was shaking uncontrollably. His mind was foggy at first, but then he remembered he was going home. He slowly started moving again. Everything was working, so he must have dodged the lightning bolt, or at least the worst effects of it. He was suddenly very happy to be alive.
As he stepped out from the shelter and began walking, a car horn beeped behind him. He jumped and turned around. A fire-engine red Jeep Cherokee pulled over, its emergency lights flashing. For a moment, Jack thought it was a cop. It wasn’t. The window on the passenger side slid down, and the man inside said, “Sorry to startle you there, do you need a lift?”
Jack hesitated for only a moment, making a quick judgment that he definitely could use the help. “Yeah!” He hopped in the car and was glad to see that the seats were vinyl since he was going to get them all wet.
As if reading his mind, the guy said, “Don’t worry about the seats; they’ll wipe right off.” The man reached behind to the backseat, and then a hand towel appeared as an offering to Jack.
“Wow, a towel,” said Jack. He gratefully accepted it, wiping off his face and neck and blotting his hair.
“Where you going?” The man’s voice was deep and resonant, like an announcer. There was the slightest hint of an ethnic accent, which Jack couldn’t place. His friendly tone put Jack at ease.
“I’m going home—actually walking to the Metra station, then I make some transfers. I live close to downtown, in Wicker Park.”
“Well, I’m heading into the city; you want a ride in?”
Jack tried to get a better look at the driver. It was dark in the car, but the streetlights gave Jack some help now and again. The man wore old-fashioned horn-rimmed glasses, and his long black hair was combed back and gathered behind his neck in a ponytail. His strong chin sported a thick, well-trimmed goatee. He looked intellectual, like a professor. Jack also noticed that the guy had a real beak on him. Jack, on the other hand, looked younger than his twenty-six years, with his boyish face, blue eyes, fair skin, and trim physique.
Jack glanced into the backseat and noticed a fancy red western-style shirt in a plastic dry-cleaning bag. He wondered why anyone would wear something like that.
“It’s for a square dancing class,” the man said, noticing where Jack was looking. “It’s like something out of Urban Cowboy, eh?”
Embarrassed to be caught snooping, Jack asked, “So what’s in the city?”
The man looked over and smiled. “Going to work.”
“Yeah. Weird deal. I’m looking at an office building—I’m trying to solve a wiring problem, and the only time we can go in and really poke around the building is after hours. I have to get into spaces that might cause some dust or make some noise, so the powers-that-be thought it best I do my investigating after hours. I had a previous dinner date this evening, and this is the earliest I could get down there.”
Jack now noticed the man’s hands. They were big hands with a few scars, hands that had seen some heavy work, though maybe not so recently. “You’re an electrician?” Jack asked.
“No, not really. I’m just helping a client of mine out with a problem.”
Jack shook involuntarily, and the man said, “You’re cold. Let me turn on the heat.”
“Thanks. And listen, thanks for the ride too.”
“De nada. You’re welcome,” the driver said.
“So, what’s it all about—looking at this building, consulting or whatever. You said it was a wiring problem?”
“It’s an interesting problem to me, but you might find it rather boring,” the man said, glancing over at Jack.
“No, go ahead. Do you work for a consulting company?” asked Jack, just wanting to continue the conversation.
“I work for myself. I’m a professional problem solver.”
“Never knew there was such a thing as a professional problem solver,” said Jack.
“Sure, there are a few of us out there. To be more specific, I facilitate a method, a problem-solving process, called CPS, which stands for creative problem solving. Actually, a lot of people—maybe even most of us—are in some way professional problem solvers,” the man observed.
“We all have problems, that’s for sure,” said Jack. “You mentioned a process. What was that again?”
“CPS,” the man said.
“CPS, that sounds interesting. I never thought of creativity as a process,” Jack said. “How are you using it with what you’re doing downtown?”
“There’s this old building I’m looking at. It wasn’t constructed to handle digital-era wiring, so there’s no good place to put the data lines and all. It’s a problem. They could probably handle this without me, but they’re busy, and they’re panicked, and the easy way to handle the problem is very expensive. What they really need is a cheaper way to get it done. So I got the call. Really my job is to do three things: explore the problem or challenge, brainstorm some problem or ideas, and get into action.”
“That sounds simple enough. How’d you get into this thing you do?”
“It just evolved,” the man said.
“I’ve tried that evolving. It’s not working so well.”
“Give it a chance. You’re a young guy.” The man smiled.
“Well, as you can see, I’m walking around in the rain—I’m not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer.”
“Raw intelligence and good sense are two different things. One’s the engine; the other is driving skill. And circumstances can put people, even very bright, sensible people, into some tough situations. Like you, walking around in the rain. Of course I don’t know why you are out walking around in the rain. Could be that walking around in the rain tonight was your choice. And even if it wasn’t your choice, it could still be the best thing that ever happened to you. Every problem is an opportunity.” The man paused for a moment and smiled again. “Sorry, people get annoyed at me sometimes when I say that. Anyway, you sound bright enough to me. What are you up to?”
“Right now, I’m just a slob trying to make his way home,” said Jack.
“Like the song Joan Osborne did, right? I liked that song. Funny, the reaction to it. You’d have thought it was a sin to think of Jesus in humble circumstances. But really, if you don’t mind, tell me, what are your circumstances? I’m not here to judge, I’m just curious.”
“What do you want to know?” asked Jack.
“Hmm, well, to start with, what do you wish for?”
“What do I wish for?”
“Yeah, what’s your dream? What’s on the list?” The man was persistent. “I’ll tell you why I ask for your list of wishes,” said the man. “It’s the first step in solving a problem. The first step in CPS is identifying the challenge; it’s where you think of an objective. You have to know what result you want, in other words, what you wish for.”
“So you make a list of wishes about things you want?”
“I don’t have a list of wishes,” Jack said.
“Okay, so it’s not formally written down or anything. Just from the top of your mind—what’s the first thing you think of when I ask the question, what do you wish for? I wish . . . ”
“I wish I were a photographer,” Jack said, without blinking an eye. “I was just thinking about that as I was walking home.”
“Okay, photography. What else do you wish for?”
“That’s pretty much it,” said Jack. “I mean I hadn’t thought much about it.”
The first step in CPS is identifying the
challenge; it’s where you think of an
objective. You have to know what result you want, in other words, what you wish for.
“We have some time to explore this—unless you want to listen to the radio instead?”
“No, no, that’s okay. It’s an interesting question. Nobody’s ever asked me that before,” Jack reflected.
“It’s a question you can ask yourself anytime you want—it puts your brain in motion. In order to get what you want, you have to know what it is. That’s the first step. Doesn’t matter if it’s a business problem or a personal one.”
Jack thought about this for a minute. Why is this such a tough question? he wondered.
“Hey, anything’s allowed. I mean, do you wish you had a car?” asked the man.
“Yeah,” said Jack.
“Okay, that’s two wishes on the list. What else?”
“I wish I had a girlfriend.” Jack thought, That’ll never happen.
“And I wish I had a better job. But, oh, I said photography already . . .”
“That’s okay, we’re just making the list right now; keep flowing, don’t judge it. When you defer judgment you open the door to your own imagination. I mean, there could be other cool jobs for you, right?” said the man.
“Right,” said Jack, still thinking about the not-judging-it remark. Not judging it. Making a list and not judging it. Jack judged everything. “Tough not to judge,” Jack finally said.
“We’re all great judgers, aren’t we? Critical thoughts come up all the time, but I try not to let it get in the way of my imagination,” said the man.
“So, okay, I wish I had my raincoat with me,” Jack said. “I wish that I could find a way to have more fun in my life.” At this point, Jack remembered the insight he’d had after dodging the lightning bolt. It prompted him to say, “And I wish that I had more ideas, I wish that I had better ideas, I wish I were the idea guy.”
“Now you’re rolling,” said the stranger.
He was rolling. When you really started just saying what you wished for—and didn’t stop to analyze—it just flowed. Jack was surprised he had said out loud the wish for ideas. It had just come out in the stream of other wishes.
“Funny how when you get going with that listing, things just sort of pop out,” said Jack.
“It happens when you stop judging your own ideas. You’ve got an interesting list going. So, keep going. What else do you wish for?”
“It gets tougher to think of things once you stop,” said Jack.
“Yeah, but push through it. You have more to say. I bet you have more wishes buried—just under the surface.”
“Okay.” It didn’t matter what he said, did it? He’d never see this guy again. Plus he was so exhausted from the rain and cold, he didn’t have the mental strength to resist, so he said what was really there for him, right at that moment. “I wish I had finished college,” Jack said, “I wish I could confront my demons. It would be nice if I knew what was going to happen to me. It would be nice if I had all sorts of skills to complement what I already know . . .” He paused, thinking, then continued, “I wish I knew more about computers, e-mail, and the Web. I wish I had a family, kids someday . . .”
“Okay!” The stranger laughed. He had a big, easy laugh. “That’s some list.”
Jack wondered about this guy. “So, what’s your name?” asked Jack.
“Manny Gibran,” the man replied.
“Sounds like a Hispanic name.”
“Not exactly, the name is more Middle Eastern. But I am Hispanic—my mother was Mexican. Manny is short for Emmanuel, which is not all that common of a name in Hispanic culture, but it was the only name my mom and dad could agree on. My father was Lebanese.”
“Lebanese—are you Muslim?” Jack was immediately sorry he’d said that out loud. Since 9/11 and the other terrorist bombings, he’d become more suspicious of people who were, or looked like they were, from that part of the world. Jack had never really known a Muslim, not even one—never went to school with one, never had a beer with one. He knew his mild prejudice wasn’t rational, and he made a mental note to try harder to be fair.
Jack quickly said, “Listen, it’s none of my business what you are. You’re just a nice guy to give me a ride.”
“Actually, no, it’s not a problem; I like talking about my background. I think it’s sort of interesting. To me, anyhow. So to answer your question—no, I’m not Muslim although many Lebanese are. A lot of people don’t know that many Lebanese are Christians. My father was what they call a Maronite Christian. My mother, God rest her soul, like most Mexicans was Roman Catholic. She was a mestizo, a mix of Spanish and Indian blood.”
“How’d a Lebanese guy end up marrying a Mexican woman?”
“They met in Mexico City. My father fled Lebanon during their civil war. He immigrated to Mexico. There’s a Lebanese ex-pat community there.”
“I’ve read something about that war. It was pretty brutal from what I hear.”
“It was. It destroyed my family, scattered us to the winds. War is so senseless. It’s always senseless—no matter what the politics are or what the story is. There is always a better way.”
Jack had the feeling that the guy was sincere. His quiet demeanor and voice radiated authenticity. There was no need to worry about him.
“How’d you get here to Chicago?” asked Jack.
“That’s a long story. The short version is that after my mother died, my father came up here to find work. We lived near Mom’s relatives. The mestizo part of the family ended up helping to raise me. I spent some time down in Texas along the way.”
“Sounds like you had a tough childhood,” said Jack.
“Not so tough. It was kind of nuts, but our family stuck together,” said Manny.
They were making good progress toward the city and were now in the denser urban neighborhoods that ring around the center of Chicago. Jack loved Chicago—its combination of grit, polish, and charm meant home to him. The street lamps had haloes in the cold mist. He looked down the long straight avenues disappearing into the fog. The heater was still on full blast, and it was making the car stuffy. He was still thinking about the wish list, how it would be a good idea to have that list to read through and think about. He felt an urge to write it down before he forgot it.
“I have this urge to write down that list I just made,” said Jack.
“It’s a good instinct, actually. Here, I’ll give you something.”
Manny fished around in a leather bag under his seat and produced a blank notebook. He gave it to Jack.
“Here, start tracking your thinking in this,” said Manny.
“Thanks,” said Jack amazed. “Do you keep spare blank notebooks in your bag to give away?”
“Well, I had that one because I’m about to begin a new project, and I haven’t even touched it yet. I’ve got a dozen more at home on the shelf—so you take this one, it’s on me,” he said.
Jack had a ballpoint pen in his jacket. He opened the notebook, which was a simple spiral sketchbook with blank pages, no lines. He took a minute and jotted down the wishes he’d come up with earlier. It felt good to do it. Why? He thought about it until the answer came to him: it was, very simply, a start.
Jack was thinking ahead. In about five minutes they would be in his neighborhood. The ride was almost over, but Jack wanted to get to know this guy, wanted to stay in touch. And maybe Manny would be a good contact—he seemed like he knew things.
“Listen, I was just thinking . . .” began Jack.
“Well, do you, like, ever need a photographer?”
“Matter of fact, I do now and then,” Manny said, fishing around in his shirt pocket with one hand. “Here, take my card. Send me an e-mail with your rates and such.”
“Okay, thanks,” said Jack.
Not what he had hoped for, but he did have the card. E-mail was a problem. Jack didn’t have a computer and didn’t have an active e-mail account. He’d have to go to one of those Web cafés and get that together.
“Where do you live?” asked Manny.
Jack wasn’t sure he wanted Manny to see where he lived. Not because he was afraid of him anymore—he seemed like an okay guy. But because he was embarrassed. His apartment wasn’t a total dump, but it was nothing to be proud of.
“Why not just drop me off at the corner of Noble and Milwaukee?” suggested Jack.
“Yeah, yeah, I need to pick up some stuff at the convenience store,” he lied.
“Okay, Noble and Milwaukee—that’s right off the exit, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, you can hop right back on,” said Jack.
They rode in silence, but then Manny said, “I forgot to ask your name.”
“Nice to meet you, Jack.” He extended his hand. “You a Jack that’s short for John?”
“Yeah, but everybody calls me Jack, always have.” Jack took Manny’s hand to shake it. He’d been right, this guy had hands that were able, had seen some hard work. They were strong. Handshakes for Jack were usually a cursory thing, something you had to do, but Jack sensed something different about Manny’s handshake. There was something more sincere about it. Jack’s hand was warm as it dropped away. What a nice piece of luck to run into this guy, he thought. Jack noticed he wasn’t cold any longer. His frazzled fatigue had changed to a calm, relaxed state.
Manny glanced over and smiled. It was a knowing smile, and Jack got his first look at Manny’s eyes. Through the glasses, they were large, deep, dark, and liquid brown. They radiated kindness.
“Jack, I hope you send me that e-mail—maybe we could do some work together. If you’re interested—maybe I can help you work through that wish list you made.”
“I’m interested. Why would you do that? Why would a big-time consultant spend time helping me?” said Jack.
“I have my reasons,” said Manny. “Do you want to work through the CPS process?”
“Sure,” said Jack.
“All right then,” said Manny. “We’ll be in touch . . . Oh, one last thing before you go. Review that list and pick one wish that really grabs you, one that really gives you energy, okay? Then, go out and find out as much as you can about it—turn over every stone.”
“Turn over every stone . . . okay, will do, and thanks for the ride,” said Jack.
“De nada,” said Manny.
Manny stopped the car in front of the White Hen convenience store. Jack said thanks again and hopped out. He watched the car pull back into traffic and move toward the highway. Jack stood on the corner. It had stopped raining. The new notebook was in his hands. As he walked the few blocks home, he scanned the list. Reading it gave him a glimmer of hope—and that was something.