Monthly Archives: March 2013

Fully engage or get out of the way

In my previous post I talked about how I choose to work through problems not around them. It summarizes my overall mindset towards life and helps me deal with my procrastinatory tendencies. This belief keeps me focused and prevents me from comfortably leaning on my default behavior of putting things aside and not dealing with them. However, if confused with addressing the wrong problems, it can be truly exhausting. This is where it’s important to distinguish the desire to fully engage with something and see it to completion and randomly collecting problems that are not yours.

I love the 1974 HBR classic “Management Time: Who’s Got The Monkey“, which tells the story of an overstretched manager who unwittingly takes on all problems from his team. It’s about time management theory, but the important message is that one should distinguish problems appropriate for them to solve versus problem that are others’ to solve. In short, you can’t just say yes to all problems even if your ethos is “work through problems not around them”, you have to be discerning.

So how do you discern? You relate the problem to what your role, your objective or your values. You ask, does this problem matter to me? Learning to answer the question is accomplished through trial and error.

In a professional work context for example, many new managers who are new to having direct reports often fail at supporting their staff because they solve their staff problems rather than helping and guiding them on seeking their own resolution. It’s so tempting to solve problems you’ve solved before; as a new manager, you are responsible for coaching and mentoring others who are going through what you’ve gone through before; solving their problems doesn’t help them grow and is not the expected contribution of your role. (Tip: It is also disempowering). The traditional Chinese proverb expresses that directly: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”.

In inter-personal relationships, it can be the difference between being a friend or not. Helping others who have a problem to solve by supporting THEIR ability to work through things and/or stop avoiding something is what’s key. It’s not solving it for them, or disengaging when the need exists. It’s hard to define how much to be involved, but remember the first rule of helping: help must be wanted. Most of the time people are struggling with a problem or avoiding it because they haven’t really articulated the problem. This is a situation where you can help by framing or reframing the problem with them. And leaving them to solve it.

How about intimate relationships? I know very well that solving my wife’s problems for her is neither what she needs nor what I am best at, but I can’t help myself. I want her to be wildly happy and content all the time; when she comes to me frustrated with a problem I want to immediately address it, but sometimes all she needs is someone who is willing to listen. Over the years we learned that this happens between us so now when we express a frustration or problem and catch the other person trying to find a solution for it, we explicitly say “I don’t need you to solve it for me, I just need you to listen”. Simple, but what a win to have figured this out! And when she or I want help solving a problem, we ask for help: We state the problem as we see it and ask “What do you think I should do?”. It’s then up to the other person to help clarify the problem/problems and determine if it is theirs to solve too or if it’s back to the person. Advice and suggestions are welcome then, but taking it over from the other person is rarely the right answer.

I mentioned three kinds of situations where things may go awry when trying to work through a problem, most of these are in relationship to other people and their own problems. It is really on our own problems that is most difficult to be discerning on what to address and what not to. I’ll address that in my next post.

Work through problems not around them

Humans are lazy. I tried to find a reference to this commonly thrown around phrase and could not find anything reliable. So I looked for the definition of laziness and loved coming across “disinclination to activity or exertion despite having the ability to do so.” Whoever said humans are lazy was probably on to something from an evolutionary standpoint, but anecdotally I can agree with this postulate based on my experience with every person I have ever encountered in my life.

I’m a procrastinator. Procrastination goes far beyond laziness. It’s about imbalanced priorities, where you push out what you know to be important in favor of smaller less important things – or sometimes in favor of nothing at all. I think of procrastination much like alcoholism is thought of. You may not have had a drop of drink in years but you are still an alcoholic and it is always your choice everyday not to fall of the wagon. I know procrastination causes me immense grief and dissatisfaction so I take serious measures to combat this behavior.

For many years I have said “work through problems not around them”, but I don’t recall how I reached this conclusion. I definitely embraced this idea early in life and feel like it reflects my general attitude and outlook. It essentially summarizes my overall ethos. Maybe it spoke to me so intimately because it creates direct conflict with my procrastinatory tendencies.

Whatever the reason, it seems to reflect underlying assumptions and feelings that I value, such as “I can do anything” and “I am fearless”. By reinforcing that message to myself for so long, I really do believe that I can work through pretty much any problem. And hard as that path might be, it is always better than not addressing a problem full on.

This attitude has brought me real professional success. Compared to peers with equivalent or superior technical skills, I am fully confident that my drive to work through problems and ability to do so effectively has distinguished me. I’m seen as no-nonsense, perceived as able to navigate complex situations and praised for my commitment in addressing long-term challenges diligently.

I express the notion of working through problems as making a choice – an implicit choice or an explicit choice. If we come across a situation that needs resolution (and is not going to resolve itself) and we choose not to address it, we are also making the choice to live with that problem.

Every day that you don’t switch away from the bank that charges you a stupid fee, is another day you are choosing to pay that fee. Every day that you don’t give adjusting feedback to an employee, is another day you are choosing to experience their bad performance. Every day your spouse hits you and you choose not to report them to the authorities, is another day you are risking your life.

It is true for small and large things in life. It is an opportunity cost; the cost of working around a problem or not dealing with it. It’s often hard to calculate, specially when you have compound problems. Disambiguating the problem is step one to figure out a) what is it or what ARE the problems? and b) is it yours to solve?

In my next post I’ll talk about the important distinction between the desire to fully engage with something and see it to completion and randomly collecting problems that are not yours.

Being new at something feels worse as you get older

When I was younger I was incredibly hungry to learn. This is still my self-image: an open, questioning and willing woman who thirsts for knowledge. I have, however, noticed that while I feel this way and act this way, I do not get the same satisfaction I used to from being in the early stages of learning; the time when you are really bad at the thing you are learning.

Today I just feel bad. I feel like I should already know the thing I’m starting to learn. Or that it’s not ok for me to not know it yet. I barely start and I am criticizing myself for not having mastered it or reached “the end” already. What happened to the joy of learning?

I remember well (and fondly) that when I was starting to learn something new it felt incredibly exciting and rewarding, like I was devouring new information. In a way, when the delta between where you are and where you want to be is large, it’s very gratifying to make any progress. I simply don’t feel that now.

Perhaps part of this feeling is when I was younger I pursued new knowledge based on pure interest, not any particular need or goal. Or I’d learn something just because it sounded cool, seemed marginally neat or somewhat intriguing. Sometimes I’d take on a whole new topic just because it looked difficult and I wanted to prove to myself I could do it. Now I feel there is so much I MUST learn that even if I do find it interesting or intriguing, I already start with some strange expectation that I MUST LEARN ALL THE THINGS. RIGHT NOW. OH WAIT, I’M ALREADY BEHIND. AND THERE IS A RIGHT WAY TO LEARN TOO. AND I’M DOING IT WRONG!

This feeling really puts me off from learning. In the last 3 years I have read less books, participated in less online discussions and explored less “new things” than ever before. It feels stagnant. Now it’s just making me mad at myself, specially as I think about what an amazing moment we are living in technologically and as a society.

Oddly, I do learn quite a lot still, but it feels very superficial. And not gratifying. Access to information is so easy and cheap, but it all seems so passive too. I barely have to do any work at all to learn about the latest things. But is that really learning? Being superficially aware of what’s happening is not the same as learning to me (acquiring long-lasting knowledge), and that’s seems to have become the primary way in which I’m gaining any new knowledge these days.

Interruption may also play a role in this dissatisfaction. When I allowed myself to pursue a new topic of interest when I was younger, I really did have all the time in the world. I could really get into something and spend 12 straight hours and not sleep and fully embrace something. Now I have to schedule the time, make an explicit choice upfront, squeeze it in between other things I’ve committed to doing. How can learning feel good when it’s so constrained?

I’d like to regain that thrilling feeling of being excited about what I might learn while not knowing much at all. The feeling that it is ok to wander and to wonder. And to do so actively, feeding that hunger for more, while enjoying the bliss of ignorance until I can enjoy the reward of having conquered the unknown.

I’m going to find out how I can do that again.