The late Earl Nightingale, known as “the dean of personal development,” once related this story in one of his audiotapes that speaks to the challenges we face today, and why creative problem solving is more important than ever.

The late Earl Nightingale, known as “the dean of personal development,” once related this story (paraphrased here) in one of his audiotapes that speaks to the challenges we face today:

The Great Depression was the worst of times, far worse than the global economic downturn we’re all fearing today. A huge number of people were out of work, broke, hungry and with no possible hope for employment in the near future. The situation was so dire that some businesses even placed “no help wanted” signs in their windows. Even though this was a form of negative publicity, it did keep away the teeming hordes of out-of-work people, who would plead, “Please give me a job. I’ll do anything!” But business was so bad that there were no jobs to be had.

A friend of Earl’s, who found himself in the same predicament, decided to be creatively proactive in finding work. He first started out by writing down the ideal kind of job he would like to have, one that would leverage his skills and inherent strengths.

Next, he identified the leading companies in that industry, and spent several weeks conducting research about them. He spent time at the local library, poring through newspapers, and interviewed people associated with these firms to learn as much as possible about them – with a special focus on the problems and challenges they face.

Once he had assembled a critical mass of data and crafted challenge statements for each firm, he spent some time in concentrated brainstorming, thinking up innovative solutions to each challenge.

He then wrote letters to the president of each company, introducing himself, telling them of the research he did and that he had come up with some valuable ideas to improve their business, and asking for a meeting to talk about these ideas. He didn’t ask for a job – simply an audience with each business leader. What company leader could turn down that kind of an invitation?

You see, what Earl’s friend did was to turn the situation around 180 degrees. Instead of acting just like the thousands of other out-of-work people – who only begged for jobs, but gave no indication why they should even be hired – this enterprising man decided to creatively differentiate himself. He aimed to make himself of valuable service to these firms, and that got their attention.

What happened to Earl’s friend? He did get interviews with the presidents of several of the companies he targeted. The head of the largest firm was so impressed that he created a new position for this personal innovator.

What are the lessons to be learned here?

1. Depression? Recession? Choose not to participate. Creative people can move ahead, even in the worst of times. In fact, economic downturns often open up yawning chasms of opportunity. All you need is a creative outlook to see them and capitalize upon them.

2. Differentiate yourself! At any time, but especially during an economic downturn, the leaders of your organization don’t care as much about WHO you are, but the value you provide – especially any ideas you may have that will help the business to succeed during difficult times. Now is a great time to approach your bosses with creative ideas for saving money and reducing waste, for example.

3. Look for the opportunity in adversity. W. Clement Stone, a contemporary of Earl Nightingale, was fond of saying that every problem contained within itself the seed of an opportunity – some element that could be turned to advantage. Throughout his career as a personal development guru and successful entrepreneur, he found this principle to be unfailingly true on many occasions. The trick is to turn the creative problem-solving powers of our minds to the challenge at hand, and to seek creative solutions to it.