Someone recently remarked that we are a nation of problem solvers. I would extend that statement to encompass much of Western culture. Our instinctive response to a problem is to seek a solution– the sooner the better.
There’s nothing wrong with solving problems per se, just as there’s nothing wrong with productivity. But there are days when I get so wrapped up in solving all of my problems that I miss the big picture.
You see, problem solving is generally a good thing, but it’s like a god in our culture. Solve people’s problems, and you’ll be appreciated. Solve people’s problems, and you have a business idea. Solve people’s problems, and you’ll receive wide recognition.
Is there any alternative to solving problems? Is it only the lack of privilege or agency that keeps anyone from solving problems? Can there be a problem with problem solving?
I’ve denounced perfectionism, and now I’m about to denounce problem solving. But not the kind of problem solving that empowers the disempowered or heals the wounded– that I’m genuinely behind. I’m more concerned with the culture of problem solving that sees life as nothing but a string of issues waiting to be resolved. The fastidious get-it-done mentality that overshadows all other purposes, visions and dreams.
I’m a problem solver. We all are, in a sense, trained to be. But I’m realizing how similar to perfectionism this problem-solving mentality can be. And even as I continue to meet needs and seek answers in my own life, I want to confess the weaknesses of my solution-minded, bottom-line oriented ways.
7 Confessions of a Chronic Problem Solver
1) I don’t always comprehend the (whole) problem.
A friend used to say, we need to attack the lion, not the flies buzzing around the lion. How many times have I swatted at those flies and missed the lion completely? Furthermore, how tempting it is to settle for a quick fix, only to come back and realize we were hasty to begin with.
I don’t think we need to spend most of our time analyzing the issues, but they deserve some attention, scrutiny and research. Before we dive in with our solutions, we should be asking questions. I know I need to be asking more questions about the problems I see, rather than spewing answers before I’ve taken a closer look.
2) I forget to consider the individuals involved.
Give me a problem to solve, and I’ll steamroll right through emotions, commitments, sentiments and values. I’m quick to diagnose an issue in someone else’s life: she just needs to do more of this, he just needs to stop doing that. It’s easy to stand on the outside and look in, identify the imperfect piece of the puzzle, and try to replace it.
But the boundaries in our lives are hardly so clear-cut. Compartmentalizing can be useful at times, but it’s not always the reality. Treading carefully is difficult when we only have an end goal in mind. The process matters too.
3) I do it to assuage my frustration.
If I can solve a problem, then I don’t have to learn to be patient with it.
What an easy way to deal with the anxiety, anger, frustration or stress we feel when something isn’t the way we want it to be. Problem solving is seen as a good thing in our culture, so we easily hide behind it when what we’re really feeling is rage.
Just as perfectionism is a socially acceptable form of anger, problem solving can be a socially acceptable form of frustration. But in the end, we’re “fixing” things on behalf of our own emotions, not on behalf of others’ wellbeing.
4) I get grandiose notions about my control and influence.
I’m a huge fan of stepping up in situations where most people are afraid to do the right thing. I even wrote an ebook about courage (available here). But what does my automatic problem-solving reflex say about me? Not much, other than that I think I’m the one– the only one– who can solve the problem.
Once we get into the problem-solving groove, we can feel like we have a lot of power. We feel in control again. We might even feel important. While these things may or may not be true, the problem isn’t solved because we feel better about ourselves. It has to be solved when we’re willing and humble enough to take the right step for the right reasons.
5) I don’t leave room for others to step in.
Along with notions of myself as the divine savior of all involved, I leave no room for others to participate. Perhaps it just feels more efficient if one person (I) take over and everyone else watches.
But so much of problem solving in our world today involves broken relationships that need mending. None of us alone can patch up these relational wounds; we need to collaborate, listen, encourage, and find our own place in the midst.
6) I close myself off to long-term gains.
No one enjoys living in situations less than ideal, but sometimes they can bring forth good things. Patience is fostered in challenging circumstances. Hope is needed when things are not the way they should be. Generosity becomes valuable when not everyone is living in excess. There are good things that come from solutions that are not quick-fixes, but target the long-run.
7) I despair before transformation has time to occur.
In our digital age, we expect problems to be solved faster than before. With a click we can send words and images all over the world. We can share information within seconds. We can even give money internationally with a few swipes on our tablets.
But human beings don’t change nearly so fast. When it comes to people, we need to play that long game. We need to trust that it can take weeks, months, years or even decades for someone to overcome a hurdle. We must continue to seek ways to breathe new life into those who suffer, even if they don’t go from hurt to healed overnight.
My problem solving tendency is to diagnose, prescribe, and proceed to the next challenge. The art of transforming people and transforming communities, however, requires the slow, steady and persistent involvement that most problem solvers have no patience for.
The bottom line: there’s more to life than fixing
As a culture, we like numbers, steps, and practical methods for ridding our lives of challenges big and small. And there are truly many challenges that are easily overcome that way.
But, if you’re a problem-solver like me, seek more than to solve every problem you perceive and move on to the next. Seek to build as you solve. Seek to include as you conquer. Seek to trust, hope, and believe that you are not the entire solution, only one part of it.