The Problem Is Not the Problem

Or, Why You Need a New Perspective

What do you see when you look at this picture?

From https://mymodernmet.com/matthieu-robert-ortis-la-revolution-des-girafes/

You should see an elephant. Floppy ears, tusks, and a trunk.

But take a moment, and shift your perspective just a little bit, and it’s a whole different image.

That’s the power of perspective. You don’t always see the whole of a piece of art, or a situation, or an experience, from your position when you first encounter it. Sometimes, you need to look at it from a new angle.

Consider that challenge that’s bugging you. Maybe it’s your teenage son and his friends; you don’t understand why they go out of their way to avoid you, when just a few months ago he seemed like such a good kid. Or perhaps it’s an issue at your church. You know the Elders believe they’re doing the right thing with this new building expansion “to attract new seekers”, but you and almost everyone else thinks it’s foolish when there are greater priorities, like missionaries in the field.

Why don’t you speak up? Is it because you don’t believe strongly enough in the mission, the same way they do? Or is it something deeper than that? Might there be something you’re missing? If you knew more, would you support that decision? Maybe.

How do you get that missing perspective?

David C. Baker has an interesting analogy in The Business of Expertise. He describes a little human inside a jar. When you’re in the jar (whether that jar is your business problem, your relationship, your extra-curricular time, or your personal mindfulness journey), you cannot read the label on the jar. You just can’t. You’re behind the label, and you’re stuck.

So, what do you do? How do you get out of the jar?

You have to shift the conversation. You have to stop talking about the problem that’s the surface, and you have to start asking some more substantial, deeper questions. Like, “Well, yes, my business is struggling. Does that mean I need more advertising? Or more staff? Or a new product? Or does it mean I need something more fundamental, like a re-set of my whole business philosophy? What am I trying to say with this business, anyway? And does it even matter if I’m here to do it?”

These are deeper, more fundamental questions. They’re the underneath of the iceberg. They don’t get viewed by the general public, but in answering these questions – in thinking through these lines – you will start to take the steps to get yourself out of the jar, and moving towards a position where you can look back and read the label for yourself.

Let me give you another analogy, and let’s get a little abstract. Suppose you are an arrow, that’s on a flight path. Now, you can choose to fly in whichever direction you want, and you’ve decided to fly directly at whatever targets you’re trying to hit. To keep the analogy clear, let’s assume these targets are another set of arrows, which represent the best options for your life, in lots of different areas. They are all coming at you, directly, and you’ve got to hit something, anything, to make an impact.

What’s likely to happen? Are you going to hit them? Any of them? Or, is it more likely that you’ll just miss? Whiff completely?

You, and these best options, aren’t likely to hit. You’re not likely to get to the point where you meet whatever you’re shooting at, because you’re shooting at too small a target. I think there’s a movie or two where the arrows or bullets actually hit each other head on, but it’s such a slim chance, that it doesn’t really make much sense to rely on that as your strategy.

What if, though, you change your perspective?

What if, instead of facing the problem head-on, you got to the side? You approach it from the outside, from a perpendicular direction? What if, instead of having only one little point of contact which you could have the slightest chance of hitting, you turned it around? What if you came at it from the other way?

Instead of aiming directly at the oncoming problems, why not get out of the way, off to the side? Now, you’re traveling “up”, and the arrows coming at you are still going to the left. This time, though, you’re much, much more likely to actually hit what you’re aiming at! Look at how easy it is to intersect with all of those different things you want! Plus, now you have options. You can pursue one, or many, solutions in your time, rather than crying that they’ve all passed you by.

Allow me to share an anecdote. I recently talked with an old friend, and told her about this Trailhead Conference – how it’s a place for people to explore something new, to see problems from a different perspective, to understand something they didn’t know before. [note – the Trailhead Conference was planned for 2019, didn’t happen, isn’t planned for any time again – SJ]

And she related a story of her other friend, who had been struggling to lose weight for years. Diets, exercise, sleep, nothing worked. She kept the weight on, kept fighting, kept failing. Kept feeling like a failure, when, really, she was fighting the wrong battle. Eventually, though, she figured out the problem and lost the weight.

So how did she do it? Liposuction? Juice cleanse? Personal trainer? CrossFit?

Nope. Nope. Nope. And nope.

All of those were solutions to the wrong problem.

All of those assumed that the issue was caloric intake (too much) or expenditure (not enough), or metabolic cycling (irregular), or routine (need to “shock” the system), or something else.

All of those were actually trying to combat the symptoms – the tip of the iceberg – when, really, something needed to be done at a much deeper level, under the surface. Down inside, where the pictures aren’t so pretty and so visible.

So – what was it? What was the thing that finally flipped the switch and helped her to lose 30 pounds?

What was that radically different thing she did?

She got divorced.

Wait, what?

Now, I don’t know all the details. But there were significant forces at work, including emotional abuse, that led to weight retention. And it makes sense. The surface issue was excess weight and feeling bad because of it. The deeper, substantive problem was that there were problems in her relationship – maybe her finances, and spirituality too. Cognitive dissonance between what she wanted (a better relationship) and what she felt obligated to do (remain married due to religious tradition) led to feelings of inadequacy.

This showed up as weight retention, a physical issue, when, really, the solution was going to be an emotional one. Solve the relationship problem, and the weight loss happens naturally. So when her husband asked for the divorce, despite how much she didn’t really want to be divorced, she relented.

During the separation, she bought a new place and worked extra hard to renovate it. Additional activity, the right kind of activity, combined with the emotional freedom to be herself, led to her losing 4 dress sizes and showing up at the divorce proceedings looking like a new person. Which she, for all intents and purposes, was.

So I have to get divorced?

NO.

I am absolutely not counseling or advising anyone to get divorced, or to get liposuction, or to go on a three-week spiritual retreat to Namibia to “find yourself”. I don’t know that those are the solution to your problem.

I am, however, pointing out that often, what we think is the problem, really isn’t.

We’re aiming at the oncoming arrows, trying to hit sharp little points, when, instead we should step to the side and look at the problem from a different perspective.

We’re struggling, but we don’t know exactly why.

And that’s okay.

It really is.

It’s okay not to have all the answers.

It’s okay to question.

It’s okay to get intrigued and to explore something new for a while.

It’s okay to walk down that side road for a bit, learn that you don’t want to keep going, and change your mind.

You know, we have erasers on our pencils for a reason.

And we have a [DELETE] key on our keyboards, too, for the very same reason. I’ve used mine a hundred times in this post so far, and that’s okay. That simply means I’m open to considering new things, trying them out, and seeing what works. What doesn’t, goes away, and nobody is worse off.

Let’s not be afraid to try something new, and, if it works out, great! If not, let’s also not beat ourselves up about it.

That trying something new is how you get perspective. And perspective is, often, the only way out of your jar.

Cheers!

footnote – this post was originally written and published in June of 2019, when I was organizing a mid-life exploration conference. It ultimate didn’t happen, but if the web crawlers find this content and that content and try to ding me for stealing, this paragraph is proof that I didn’t. I (Stephan) actually wrote and published that same content before, just on a different platform. So there.

Extremely Bad Advice: Employer’s Reputation?

Dear SJ,

How can I deal with conflicting views of my employer? 

I work for an HVAC company that is in the Midwest that is pretty reputable in the metro area. I also have never personally been treated poorly from the company and am actually recognized as one of their most credited employees. The problem I keep running into though, is that not everyone is treated and/or sees the company I work for the same way. I constantly hear the same topic that the company is only about selling and not much on the service they can provide and both employees and customers say the same thing. The question I have is should I try and change the culture at the company I work for or should I look for a new job?

— Conflicted in Columbia

Group of Business show dislike or unlike thumbs down hand

Dear Conflicted,

Neither. You most definitely should NOT try to change the culture NOR look for a new job.  

I mean, why would you? Both of those require effort, and pretty low chance of success. What the hell are you, lowly installation tech that you are, going to do to change company culture? Are you gonna go get an MBA and work your way up to middle management where you can actually “do something”? By that time the only thing you’ll achieve is the realization that the stress-induced heart attacks, lack of quality time watching the kids grow, and the opportunity cost of missing out on 3 years of salary while you paid $120k for the status that comes with the degree, will never be offset by whatever marginally higher “satisfaction” you might get if you’re able to increase your company’s net promoter score a couple of decimal points over last quarter on the quarterly board report.

And why would it be any different anywhere else? You’re in HVAC. You’re a commodity. And your employer is a commodity broker. Sure, you could leave, but all the competitors are the same. Don’t pretend like they actually care about you. You’re a tool to be used for their purposes, just like the torque wrench and the nail gun and the flamethrower that you employ on a daily basis. Do you think those are special? Reputable? Worth telling anyone else anything about? Worth salvaging if they fall in the sewer? Nope, nope, nope, nope.

Read the rest on Patreon

Extremely Bad Advice: Time to Abandon Ship?

Dear SJ,

I am 15 years old and to me it seems like America is rapidly spiraling into depravity. 

The government becomes increasingly authoritarian, culture continues degrading into a grey consumerist sludge, our society is worse than ever, the next generation is posed to be worse off than any generation since people who were 18 in the 1940s. Should I just abandon the country, get my college education and leave without looking back? Is it worth discarding everything to jump off a burning ship?

Fearful for the Future

USA flag on grunge wood texture background

Dear Fearful,

I think you’ve already answered your question simply by the way you’ve worded it. 

Far be it from me to stop you when you’ve very astutely assessed the smoldering wreck that is this once-fine country.

Increasingly authoritarian? Check. Degrading culture? Double check. Addicted to consumerism? Triple check. Setting up our future progeny for the worst experience in the last hundred years? Game, set, and match.

You seem like a smart kid. And if you’ve downed this many red pills at the tender age of 15, there’s nothing that can stop you. Should you get out of America? Hell, yeah! And why wait until you’ve gotten a college education before you take off? I’m sure there are at least a dozen other countries that aren’t total shitholes where you can head right now and support yourself through a combination of English tutoring and online gambling. Some of those even offer free college to residents.*

I mean, you owe this country nothing. And likewise, the country owes you nothing in return. What the hell would you be discarding anyway? According to your eminently informed opinion, the engines are already on fire and the nose of the plane is pointed directly at the side of the mountain, so you should be bailing out waaaaay before college.

I wish I was in your shoes. I’d do it all differently. Fuck “normal”. Screw “standard” and “supposed to”.

Read the rest on Patreon.