My 16 year old son, Noble, is working on a group project at school. His entire grade is spending this week on national and global problems and how to solve them (poverty, homelessness, immigration, racism, etc.). In sharing his thoughts, I was surprised to see how rigid his views came across and how he (in my opinion) was missing some concern about how his solution might impact people that he might not be considering.

I asked him if he knows what an airplane is. “Of course, I do,” he replied.

“Do you know how airplanes stop flying?” I asked.

“They land,” Noble said.

“That’s one way,” I told him. “But there’s a couple of other ways that they stop flying, too.”

National and global problems are no different that problems we face in our personal and professional lives. Some problems are easy to solve, some aren’t. And some may never get solved. However, when we have a role to play in solving a problem, I’ve always looked at problems and opportunities as planes in the air that need to land…and how they land is up to me.

Planes can fall out of the sky and crash, leaving no survivors. Planes can execute an emergency landing that causes a brief period of stress and everyone walks off the plane alive. And planes can land smoothly, without any stress or harm to the passengers. How well we orchestrate the solution to our problems and opportunities depends largely on us and our ability to play “air traffic controller.”

Our goal, whenever we face a problem or opportunity, is to land the plane as smoothly as possible – to try and land the plane so that all of the passengers are happy and safe.

You can’t sustain success without being a great problem solver. Lots of people solve problems by crashing their planes; that doesn’t make them a great problem solver. To be a great problem solver, you have to find ways, over and over and over again, to land your problem planes in such a way that the passengers walk away happy, or understanding, or even completely unaware that there was a problem landing at all. The better you are at solving problems and successfully landing planes, the more money you will make and the better your career will be.

I’m not sure this is advice that my 16 year old will ever remember. However, I offer it up here, in hopes that it makes a difference to somebody. I’ve always seen myself as an air traffic controller, whose job is to guide my problems, opportunities, responsibilities and relationships to a safe landing. And like all airlines, I’ve lost a few planes, despite my best intentions not to. And if I’ve learned anything, it’s that it costs far less to fight like hell to land planes than it does to let them crash.