We often hear about the advantages of recognizing defeat, but generally we refer to big defeats: going bankrupt, not knowing how to keep going because we have invested all our savings in a startup destined for failure.
But most of the defeats are gradual and less striking. We decide to improve something – our life, our relationship, our finances, our community – and it works for a while. But then our charge runs out and we resume old habits.
Maybe we blame the lack of self-discipline or conclude that the circumstances were against us. But there is a more fascinating explanation for this type of defeat, however paradoxical it may seem: what if trying to solve the problem was the reason why we did not solve the problem?
The elastic in a room
Creativity expert Robert Fritz explains this idea in his 1984 book The path of least resistance, and once someone has told us it seems obvious: if we have a problem and do something to scale it down, we will have a minor problem and, of course, we will be less motivated to deal with it. Fritz uses the example of the early 1980s famine in Ethiopia that sent aid from all over the world, until “the situation has improved. The media have lost interest. Fewer and fewer photos of hungry children have arrived on the evening news and aid has diminished “even if the problem was far from being resolved definitively.
Perhaps it is in bad taste to draw an analogy between a humanitarian tragedy and, say, our marital problems or our unsatisfactory work. But there is a certain analogy. If something is intolerable and we do the bare minimum to make it tolerable, we will go back to tolerating it until it gets worse again. But in this way things never improve in a lasting way.
The basic problem is that we have two contradictory goals: we want a happy marriage or a meaningful job, but we don’t want to endure the inconvenience of changing or abandoning our relationship or our current job. So we try to achieve the first goal (to improve it) until it starts to conflict with the second (avoid an inconvenient change), and at that point we reverse course.
When we focus on solving a problem, we cannot help but carry the assumptions that accompany it
Fritz asks us to imagine ourselves standing in the center of a room, with two huge rubber bands around the waist attached to two opposite walls. If we move to a wall to release the tension of one elastic, we increase the tension of the other until it is strong enough to get us back to the center of the room.
What is the solution? Fritz’s one fills several volumes, but to simplify the trick is to stop focusing on problems (except in emergencies, when we have no other choice) and ask ourselves what we want to create. When we focus on solving a problem, we cannot help but carry the accompanying assumptions, including a very narrow range of positive outcomes, and this amounts to saying “I want this problem to disappear”. Forget all this. Decide what you want, deal with your reality, and then take the necessary actions to invent the result you seek.
Obviously, this summary explanation makes it seem easier than it is. But simply giving up on the prospect of having to solve the problem is a great start. What emerges in its place may not work; but at least you won’t risk improving things just enough to not improve them.