Tom and Ray Magliozzi—the Tappet Brothers—are MIT-educated mechanics that take calls from listeners and help them solve their car issues while making jokes about themselves, the caller, and others.
The premise is straight-forward: callers describe the symptoms of their automotive issues and the hosts attempt to diagnose the malfunction and recommend solutions.
If nothing else, the show is a load of fun. It’s also a nice way to improve your automotive general knowledge. And it can teach us quite a bit about problem solving. Following are things I’ve learnt listening to the show.
Diagnose better by getting a sounding board.
Facing your problem, you are like any caller on the show: you might know a lot about or very little, but your viewpoint is at ground level. By involving others, it is simpler to step back and see the big picture. These don’t have to be experts in the subject matter: just as the Tappet brothers confess that, in many occasions, they don’t know much about the caller’s car, they might still be able to help. In fact, sometimes, “experts” will only approach the problem the same way as you do and, therefore, won’t help you gain perspective as much as a “novice”. (See more here.)
Diagnose better by asking probing questions.
Here is a joke: a young priest steps into the garden behind his seminary’s church where he finds one of his friends—a priest as well—kneeling in prayer while smoking. “Put it out!” he says in a hurry, “if the monseigneur sees you he will be furious.” “Why?” asks the other. “Because I asked him recently if it was ok to smoke while praying and he said that it was absolutely not: it’s disrespectful.” “That’s funny” says the other one “I asked him if it was ok to pray while smoking and he said that any time was a good time to pray.”
The point is: however you present your problem, it will be loaded. So you have to question yourself (or get someone else to help you do it). Tom and Ray are great at this: asking the caller probing questions to ensure that they are presenting the right problem under the right light.
Diagnose better by questioning whether you are be focusing on the real problem.
Following the previous point is realizing that you might have not been focusing on the right problem and being able to switch your focus. This can be tough especially if you have already invested much time in your problem because, well, this is all wasted. So here is the scoop: ignore sunk costs—as in, no matter what you have invested up to now, if you are realizing that you’ve invested it in the wrong direction, stop and start from scratch in the right one.
Diagnose better by being purposely un-insightful.
Much of the humor in the show comes from the hosts being un-insightful. But being purposely off-topic can also be a great way to foster innovation, forcing you to think laterally about alternative solutions. And every now and then, one of these seemingly worthless suggestions is in fact appropriate or can make you think about an appropriate one. (See more here.)
Diagnose better by not taking yourself too seriously.
One of the reasons the show has been on the air for over 30 years is because callers keep coming back. They wouldn’t if Tom and Ray were Jerks and yet they make fun of callers on a regular basis. But they also make fun at their own expense on a regular basis; in fact their are the butts of most of their jokes. You want others to help you? Well, they’ll need to like you first. No taking yourself too seriously might help you achieve that.
Diagnose better by taking time before you jump to solving the problem.
On any call, Tom and Ray will spend at least 80% of the time understanding the problem and coming up with a diagnostic and only 20% discussing solutions. In fact, quite often they just brush the solution in the last phrase on the call. Do the same: make sure you understand the problem profoundly before you set yourself to finding solutions. (See more here.)
Diagnose better by considering various options.
Fix it yourself, go to a general mechanic or to the car dealership. Buy a brand new component or get it from a scrap yard. Whenever they are offering potential solutions, Tom and Ray make sure that the caller has options. Realize that, whatever problem you’re facing, you too have options. Sometime it won’t be easy to identify all of them but it’s worth the effort. So persevere!
Diagnose better by having fun!
Car repair can be stressful, boring, and dirty. Yet the show is exactly the contrary. Approach any situation with the right attitude and you’ll get much more out of it. So treat problem solving as a fun activity and push yourself to enjoy it.
So, consider the lessons from Car Talk next time you’re facing a complex problem. Just make sure you don’t drive like his brother.
Subscribe to the (free) Car Talk podcast.