The Problem with Problems
Updated: Jan 14, 2021
If you think your job is to solve problems, it may be time to consider a different approach to your career.
Think back to the last time you successfully solved a challenging problem. Satisfying, wasn't it?
Now consider how long that feeling of satisfaction lasted. If you’re anything like me, or the hundreds of coaching clients with whom I’ve worked over the past 20 years, the high of having solved a problem lasts somewhere between two seconds and ten minutes.
The moment you come down from that temporary high, your mind is magnetized to the next problem, and the next, and the one after that. For every problem you solve, there are endless more waiting – more or less patiently – for your attention.
The problem with a career focused on problems is that it’s a game you can’t win. If you go looking for problems anywhere, you will find them, whether you choose to look in your workplace, your home or your relationships. What you focus on, expands; so the more you focus on problems, the more there are.
There are many problems in the world that are worth solving. But contrary to the rhetoric of politicians and marketers, you can’t problem-solve your way to creating a better future. That requires a different consciousness.
What problem-based consciousness cannot see is that our deepest desire in our working lives is not to achieve an absence of problems. There is a deeper wish. We want our work to matter. We want our effort and sacrifice and struggle - including the problems we solve - to create a desired future.
Problem consciousness repeatedly asks the question, “What’s wrong here?” or “What could be better?” This consciousness seeks and finds faults, deficiencies, and imperfections. This judgmental state of mind creates an internal sense of endless dissatisfaction, and is a central reason why so many people are deeply unhappy in their work.
The alternative is creative consciousness, a term I encountered through the work of Robert Fritz, David Emerald and Bob Anderson. Creative consciousness is organized around the question, “What will I choose to create?” Where problem consciousness moves away from what it doesn’t want (the problem), creative consciousness moves towards what it does want (the vision of what will be created).
Problem consciousness has its place. Problems can be interesting. A juicy problem can be all consuming, even fun to solve. There are many real problems that cause preventable pain and suffering in the world. I’m grateful every time I board a plane or step on an elevator for the people who dedicate their lives to the question, “What might go wrong, and how can I prevent it?” When it comes to ensuring effective functioning of mechanical components or lines of code, problem-focused consciousness is ideally adapted.
But when it comes to people (and particularly our deeper longings) problem solving fails. People are not problems to solve. When you look at people through the problem-seeking lens at people, asking yourself what’s wrong, what could be improved, you’ll find quirks, imperfections and idiosyncrasies. But the urge to “solve” these creates the kind of judgmental, controlling and micromanaging behavior that makes for toxic workplaces. If you need evidence of the corrosive effects of problem solving applied to people, spend a few minutes in the company of someone who thinks you need to be fixed, and it’s their job to fix you.
In our work and in our relationships, we want our unique individuality to be seen, celebrated, honored, appreciated and valued. And the problem-focused question, “What’s wrong here?” creates exactly the opposite experience: people are faulty, deficient, lacking, not good enough.
Creative consciousness is formed around a question that is far more supportive of effective relationships: “What works here?” Instead of seeking deficiencies to be corrected (which, even if successful, could only lead to the absence of deficiencies), creative consciousness seeks for gifts to share, for longings to express, for dreams to be fulfilled. Problems get solved in creative consciousness not because they are a fault to be corrected, but simply because their resolution is a baby-step towards a greater, more important destination. The problem itself is not the point, and while it may require focus and effort to solve, the energy for that effort comes from passion for the vision you are trying to create.
The best we can achieve with problem solving as a primary career strategy is the absence of problems, and a fleeting feeling of satisfaction. What if, instead of filling that space with yet another problem, you were to focus your attention on the most essential question of all: what will I create?
(c) Paul Wyman, PCC, January 2021, http://www.paulwymancoaching.com.