• Marc

The Problem with Solutions

Updated: Mar 6, 2021

While I like the catchy title, if you came in expecting a rant about how solutions are quietly undermining what it means to be human, this post will probably disappoint.

In fact, my personal take is that problem solving is one of the most powerful functions of the human mind. While I'm no magician, I'm absolutely certain that if you stop right now and look around, wherever you're reading this, you can find 5-10 solutions to problems that have been solved by other people.

As I write this post from my living room, I see books (tools for spreading knowledge), candles and candle holders (formerly for emitting light; now solving for ambiance), a water bottle, pillows and furniture, a window from which I see fences, telephone poles, roads.

You get the point. For fun's sake, I'd encourage you to time yourself for 30 seconds and see just how many solutions you can find right where you are. Our capacity to solve problems gets expressed through building, creating, and innovating. So that raises the question: what's the problem?

It's just that we too frequently rely on this way of being and apply it in situations and circumstances where it doesn't really work for us. For example, I often find myself trying to solve for emotions and thoughts that I don't want to have. Maybe I'll hear my inner voice pop up and say, "You're really not trying hard enough. You've got no business doing what you love. You're just not worthy of that." Cue worry, stress, self-doubt. In response, I do any number of things — scroll through Instagram to distract myself, have a drink at the end of a long day, or collect mental notes and ramp up for an internal debate to disprove my mind (you can imagine how fun it is, can't you? My mind gathering evidence to argue with itself).

To be clear, I'm not criticizing these behaviors. I do all of them. I just want to be honest with myself and you in acknowledging that they're all part of this problem-solving mentality that's often front and center in our daily lives. And while each response to my nagging thought is different in approach, they all have the same purpose — to get rid of that thought and the accompanying feelings.

We've discussed this problem-solving mode of mind at length, the one that we use daily to work out simple math, to design complex business strategies, and to make our lives more comfortable and convenient. Thankfully, when it comes to working with our difficult thoughts and emotions, there's another mode of mind. The second mode is fundamentally not about finding solutions.

As Kelly Wilson shares in one of his books (and many presentations), we also have the capacity for simple and compelling observation, what he calls the "sunset mode of mind." In explaining it, he asks his audience to just take a moment to picture a breathtaking sunset.

If you're willing, I'd encourage you to do that for 20 seconds. Call to mind a memorable sunset, close your eyes, and sit with that image. It's a much different experience, right? Unless you just had other thoughts vying for your attention, there's really no need to solve for a sunset. You can simply be with it. And if you struggled to recreate that just now, I suspect you can remember a time where just being there for the experience was enough.

Borrowing from Wilson again, what if we could apply this sunset mode of mind to our difficult thoughts and emotions? To see our thoughts and emotions, as he says, "not as problems to be solved, but sunsets to be experienced."

By building the skill of noticing difficulty rather than solving for it, we really do become more resilient and capable of adapting to our circumstances. We're also better able to determine whether the thoughts and emotions we're having are signaling a change that we need to make, or if that discomfort, as Susan David says in her TED talk, is just functioning as "the price of admission to a meaningful life." Said another way, is something really off, or is the difficulty we're experiencing connected to something we value (and therefore worth having)?

There's much more to say on this topic, especially as it relates to deciding whether our uncomfortable and difficult thoughts are pointing to something that needs to change (or a request we need to make of someone else). As I type this, I'm feeling uncomfortable knowing that I've barely scratched the surface on that topic. In the spirit of this post, I'm going to let that discomfort be here and wrap this up.

I'll leave you with one quick practice that you can try out the next time you notice a thought that your mind wants to solve. As a reminder, the goal of this practice isn't to get rid of the thought or make the feeling go away, so if that's your expectation, you'll like feel even more disappointed:

First, say aloud to yourself (quietly is fine), "I'm having the thought that _______," or even better "I'm noticing I'm having the thought that _______." Then, ask yourself, "What if that thought were a sunset? Am I willing in this moment to see it for what it is (i.e. a string of words), knowing that I have minimal control over what it looks like or how long it lasts?"