The first rule in problem solving is that the solution depends on the definition and therefore success in problem solving depends on the way the problem is defined.
The same logic applies if you want to solve any problem in life. Define the problem one way and it appears insolvable. Define it another way and the solution becomes clear immediately. Define your problem as: I want to solve India’s problem of illiteracy: and you are likely to give up even before you start as the problem is so humungous. Define it as: Can I teach one child to read and can I motivate ten friends to teach one child each: and you will be well on your way to a solution.
However I believe the issue is a bit more fundamental than defining. Even before we begin to define a problem, we need to ask the question, ‘Do I want an excuse or do I want a solution?’ Why do I say that? Well think of this; how many times have you had or overheard a conversation that goes like this:
‘You know, I am very unhappy because my career is going nowhere.’
‘Where do you want your career to go? Have you written down a life goal for yourself? Have you worked out a strategy to reach that goal?’
‘Man!! What’s the use of doing all that? There’s so much discrimination in society. It is only the smooth talkers who get promoted. Sincere people (meaning me of course) are always left behind.’
‘In that case are you taking some action to enhance your presentation and public speaking skills? After all what can be better than a sincere fellow who can also present his ideas powerfully?’
‘Na!! What’s the use of that? I can’t be a smooth talker. It’s just not me. See?’
‘Yes, I do see. But perhaps not what you want me to see. What I see if someone who likes to be miserable and revels in that misery. I see someone who has no intention of solving his problems because they give him so much pleasure. I see someone who is looking for excuses and not solutions. So most welcome to your problems. Please keep them. They are yours. But delete me from your list of people whose shoulders you can cry on. When you are ready to look for solutions, you are welcome. But until then, ‘Goodbye.’
I am sure all of us have either had such a conversation with ourselves when we faced a challenge or overheard such a conversation where typically the focus of the individual seems to be on all the ways their problem is insolvable. So every comment or suggestion of yours is likely to be met with, ‘Yes but!!’ or ‘No but!!’ These two phrases are the clearest indicators of someone who is not interested in solving problems but is looking for ways to maintain the status quo.
That is why I said that the first question to ask yourself when you are faced with a problem is, ‘Do I really want a solution to this?’
Now you may say that I am nit picking because obviously everyone wants to solve problems, so what is the big deal about asking an obvious question. The reality is that many people unconsciously don’t want to solve problems because instinctively they realize that the solution will need effort, may be risky and entail some pain. The familiar pain of the problem is better than the unfamiliar and risky pain of the solution. It can be statistically shown for example that many women actually choose to remain in abusive relationships rather than walking out or filing for divorce or even approaching a counselor for help. Similarly people choose to remain in dead-end jobs but will not make the effort to change their company or career. People will talk about having their own business but will do nothing to actually make that happen. And every time you ask them what happened to their idea of starting their company they will tell you all sorts of stories about the difficulty of getting finance and how the current market is not favorable and so on. Fear of the unknown is the biggest fear for many people and they choose to remain with the pain. So we have the ‘Yes but!!’ and ‘No but!!’ conversations.
Definitions influence solutions. But solutions don’t come to those who want excuses. An ‘excuse focus’ seeks to legitimize your current state and helps you to keep pretending that you are helpless. It fools nobody but you. A ‘solution focus’ faces the reality that your life is in your own hands; that you are as powerful as you want to be and that your problem, no matter how big it may be, can be solved.
Sure, it will need grit, energy, focus, creativity, courage, forbearance,
consistency, strength, patience, vision, strategic thinking…okay, so I will stop. You are scared once again? Let me ask you, ‘How would you like to be described as someone who has grit, energy, focus, creativity, courage, forbearance, consistency, strength, patience, vision, strategic thinking? You’d love it?? Sure?? Then what do you think problem solving does? Whether or not your actual problem is solved, you end up getting all these things anyway. Now how about that? Still interested?
But remember, ‘You have to be looking for solutions, not excuses.’ That is the key.
We have reached a stage in our development (if I dare to call it that) as human beings where our world seems to run on hatred, not love. I think we all know the many reasons for this and how the flames are fanned. I remind myself and you that all fire burns and the result is always ash. It doesn’t matter why the fire was set. If it was set, it will burn everything that lies in its path and turn it to ash. Is this what we want with our lives? Ashes? If not, I have a solution and here it is.
“If you always do what you always did you’ll always get what you always got.
If you want to get what you never had, you have to do what you never did.”
Many times we find ourselves stuck in a negative cycle, especially with respect to certain people; parents, spouses, parents in law, friends; where with great regularity we find ourselves miserable, angry or otherwise in pain. Every time this happens we tell ourselves, ‘Never again. I will never let that happen again.’ But lo and behold we find that the next time around, in the same entirely predictable way we are enacting the same script all over again.
I don’t know how many of you have seen the play, ‘The Mousetrap’; the longest running play in London. It has been running for several decades. Naturally many of the original actors have retired. Some have died. Many new actors have come into the roles. But you know something; very strangely, the ending is always the same. Now isn’t that strange??
‘Ha!! Ha!!’ you laugh. ‘How can you call it strange?’ you ask. ‘After all the script is the same. So how can the ending be different?’
‘Ha!! Ha!! Indeed’, I say to you. ‘Apply the same logic to your life Sir. Remind yourself that if you want a different ending, changing actors is no use. You must change the script. See?’
Cut to your real life’s negative cycles – many people change actors. They get divorces, marry again, change jobs, change friends, cut off relations with parents (they can’t change those can they?) and so on. And a couple of years into the new relationship they find that the same problems have resurfaced. And they are surprised. I always tell them to go and watch ‘The Mousetrap’. Not perhaps for the usual reason but to drive home the point that the problem is not with the actors but with the script.
So, what can you do?
Well here’s my solution.
I call it my 3 – step solution:
- Stop dead in your tracks
- Take back the control into your own hands
- Then do the opposite of what you normally do
Stop dead in your tracks
Remember that until you are in the cycle, it will move in the same direction it always did. So, get off. Stop in your tracks. Break the cycle. How? Tape your mouth. Say nothing. Leave the room. Pretend you are having a heart attack. Go to the toilet. Knock over the water – do anything but don’t say that thing which is on the tip of your tongue. DO NOT REACT.
Take back the control into your own hands
DO NOT REACT: Remember that when you are reacting you are merely demonstrating that you are a puppet on a string. You are moving in whichever direction the puppet master pulls the string. So, break the string. Let him pull it whichever way he wants to. Since it is not connected to you, it will not affect you. Remind yourself that NOBODY CAN MAKE YOU FEEL ANYTHING. People do whatever they want to. YOU DECIDE HOW TO REACT. Stop reacting. Instead RESPOND. What is the difference?
Responding is what you consciously choose to do. Reacting is what someone else makes you do. So instead of reacting, respond. What does that entail? Well, for one thing, it requires that you stop (refer to step 1 above) and think about what is happening. Then it requires that you think of what the best way is, to deal with it. Not what is the ‘natural way’ or the ‘instinctive way’ but ‘the best way’
Remember that what is instinctive or natural is not always what is best. Emotional maturity is to act deliberately and consciously. To do what may not be natural but is wise, useful and productive. To do that, you have to ask yourself another question, ‘What is the result that I want from this interaction?’ Then do that which will get you that result. Not what you are dying to do to score some cheap point. So, stopping in your tracks is essential. Remember, anger is natural. Controlling it is not.
Then do the opposite of what you normally do
There is a famous story of President Harry Truman (I think it is about him. Forgive me please if I’ve got the wrong president) who was locked in an argument with someone. It got to a point that when he was about to say something, the other man said, ‘Don’t even bother. I know exactly what you will do.’ Harry Truman stood up, did a summersault on the carpet of the Oval Office and said, ‘I bet you didn’t think I’d do that?’ That broke the cycle.
Do the opposite. Suddenly hug your mother in law and kiss her. Maybe she will have a heart attack and your problem will be solved. Or even better she will see the error of her ways. Do the opposite of what you normally do. A good way is to be especially nice to those who are nasty to us. Be good to them. Serve them. Be especially thoughtful. And do it sincerely. That is important. Insincerity always shows up and causes more problems. Acting can’t be sustained. Be sincere. And be consistent. Don’t be nice only once. Be nice always. Not because of them but because of you. Make being nice your brand.
The Prophet Muhammadﷺ said, ‘I guarantee a palace in the middle of Paradise to the person who has the right but gives up his right for his brother.’ He said that because that is tough to do. Do the opposite. What is the best ‘opposite’ for you to do? Well, it is your life, see? So, think about it for yourself. One rule though – it must be the best that you can do. Not simply something to score points against the other person.
Because remember the fundamental rule? When life presents a problem for us to solve, if we solve it, we go ahead. If we don’t, the same problem will come back to us again and again until we solve it. Complaining changes nothing. The problem must be solved to show that we learnt our lesson. After all there is a reason for the problem to come in the first place, see? Nothing is without purpose. We need to graduate from one class to the next. Until we are in the same class, no matter how many schools we change, it is still the same class, same exams, same books, same lessons; until we pass the exam. Only then will we be permitted to move to a higher class. The sooner we demonstrate that we learnt our lesson, the sooner will be our graduation.
In conclusion, remember it is not about changing actors but about changing the script. You are the director. It is your play. But you are not the audience. So, you must act.