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Solving Frustrating Problems

Saturday, November 19th, 2005 by Steve Pavlina

Download MP3: solving.mp3

Today we're going to talk about how to solve problems—where you feel you have to choose between two alternatives, and neither alternative is very appealing, both of your options have problems with them. These situations are, of course, very frustrating. Maybe you're in a relationship with someone. Should you get married? Or stay married if you already are married? Should you break up? Should you remain in your current job that seems very secure and stable, or should you take the risk of finding a new one you might enjoy more? Should you do what you love and stay broke, or sell out to make more money?

These are problems where you might find yourself in a situation saying, "I don't know what to do about X." They're all problems where you feel you have to choose between two or more options, and you don't like any of the options. None of them seem good. So you end up doing nothing—nothing that is, maybe, except for, ever more deeply exploring the options you already know about. But all that tells you is you still don't like the options. You end up getting into a situation where you feel you eventually just have to decide. You don't like having to make the decision. You don't like the options that present themselves, but you don't see any alternatives. Staying put doesn't seem right, and choosing option 'A' or option 'B' doesn't seem right either. You feel like you need to do something to get past this road block. No matter what you do, even if it's nothing at all, it's going to lead to pain of some sort. It's not going to be really a very good solution. This, my friends, is the state of learned helplessness. It's not a pleasant state to be in, but fortunately it's a state you can move past. As you'll see later in this podcast, when you enter this state it can actually be a blessing for you down the road.

How do we end up in these situations? Really, we create these situations for ourselves. If you view the problem as happening to you, rather than a problem you're creating, that's what puts you in the situation of "either/or thinking"—where you have to choose either option 'A' or option 'B'—but "either/or thinking" is a myth. It's very limited thinking. It's thinking too narrowly. And it's especially thinking of the problem on a level where it cannot be solved. At least, not very satisfactorily.

When you think in terms of "either/or", you think in terms of a multiple options—none of which are really very good. None of which are really what you want. You block better solutions from coming to you. What happens is cyclical: you just start alternating between viewing one option after another, after another, just going in a circle. The key to getting past this pattern is to realize none of the options are what you really want, and that you should reject all of them. But we think we can't do that, because we think these are all of the options we have available. Of course, this simply isn't true.

When you think this way you create unneccesary pain. You paralize yourself, and you perpetuate the very problem you are trying to solve. So when you have an "either/or" situation, and you don't like any of the options, go ahead and reject them all. Stop clinging so desperately to the solutions that you don't like—in which you aren't implementing anyway. You're just putting it off. So, just let them go. Let go of all of them. Make it ok to have a problem that is unsolved. Just allow the problem to be.

What you want to do is identify a third alternative solution. A third alternative solution is one where it does meet all your citeria. But it's what, perhaps, you cannot imagine right now. It's outside your consciousness, outside your thinking. What you have to do is bring this solution into your consciousness, to bring it into your thinking, to invite it in. If you don't really identify or find third alternative solutions, it's really a process by where you create them.

Let me give you some ideas for how to create these third solutions now. First of all, stop thinking there are only two solutions, or however many solutions you identified. Open your mind to more possibilities. Computers have to think in binary terms. Human beings don't. It's often enough just to allow new solutions to come to you. Sometimes, if you just simply reject the solutions you don't like and you allow yourself to remain in that sometimes uncomfortable space of not having a solution—of not having an option—you'll invite it in. Because you'll stop your cyclical thinking, you'll start thinking more open-endedly.

Secondly: broaden your perspective, step back from the problem. Now, this is often advice given in general terms. I'll give you more specific things to do, in order to apply this. Look at your problem from different perspectives—in terms of thinking about it how other people, or even other objects, would view your problem. How would the other people involved in your problem view the situation? Try to see it from their perspective. Take some time to journal about it, write about, write what their perpective of the problem is—or ask them about it, if that's possible. Ask yourself how a scientist would view your problem. Ask yourself how a philosopher would view your problem. How would an artist view it? A football coach? A billionaire? A cat? A tree? God?

Try expanding your perspective to these other alternatives. You can also change your perspective in terms of position, you can change it in terms of time. How would you have thought of this problem five years ago? Ten years ago? How would a five-year-old think about it? An eighty-five-year-old? How will you think about it ten years from now? Sometimes problems that seem very real in the present moment change completely from when you view them outside of the present moment, when you change your time perspective. You suddenly realize it becomes silly.

I often have these situations with my five-year-old daughter. I might be having a problem that seems frustrating, and to her, it's nothing at all. It's something to laugh about. Of course, I have the same perpective on some of her problems. Some of the problems she seems to encounter at age five seem utterly trivial to me. It's just a matter of she'll outgrow them. Broadening your perspective can really help in terms of seeing the problem from multiple angles. Because for one, it can help you immediately escape some of the pain of the problem. Just by seeing it from another perspective, you can perhaps see the problem as being a little silly—even trivial. So by reducing a little bit of the pain, you'll be able to open yourself up more to that third alternative solution coming in. Focusing too much on the pain and frustration you're feeling will only block those solutions from coming to you.

Thirdly: Accept the problem. How many times do we have problems in our life, and we don't even accept that they exist? We deny them or we resent their existance. By accepting them—I not only mean accept it intellectually, but emotionally—accept that it's here to teach you something. Stop resenting it's very existence, it's very presence in your life. Accept that this is a problem that you're going to have to deal with. That it's here and it's for you. When you accept a problem, and you simply just say, "alright, if this is what I have to deal with; it's what I have to deal with," that again helps to elevate your thinking and to invite those third alternative solutions.

Fourthly: Redefine the problem. Let's say you have a problem where your roommate is driving you nuts. If you define the problem in that way it's immpossible to solve, because you have to gain control of your roommate, which you can't do. So redefine the problem to one that you can solve. Make it a problem that's from your perspective so you have control over it. For example, if your roommate is driving you nuts, you could redefine the problem as, 'I'm feeling stressed. Or I'm upset, or I'm frustrated.' Then you can start to work on ways to reduce your level of stress, reduce your frustration. Regardless of what other people do, you may find as I do that when you attack the problem from your perspective it actually gets solved from the other person's perspective too. In other words, if your roommate is driving you nuts and you're feeling stressed about it, if you work on your own stress you may find that it's not merely a matter of thinking good about that problem and still having it exist, but the fact that you became less stressed. You stop contributing to the creation of the problem and your roommate is no longer doing those things that will set you off. Does it make sense? So, sometimes working on a problem from your own perspective—even when it seems like it's a foolish way to do it—will often work, because you cannot see the ways in which you are creating the problem: through your own thinking, through your own actions.

Another way to have a third alternative solution is to focus your intention on what you want. Even when you don't think it's possible to get it, keep holding that intention, even when you can't see a path to it. For example, I want to enjoy a loving, intimate relationship. Maybe you don't know whether your current relationship is the right one for you, or whether you should seek out a new one. So relax your intention a little bit and focus just on what you want. What you really want is to be open to all possibilities, but you want an intimate and loving relationship, whether it's with your current partner or with somebody else. So, allow for the possibility for your current relationship to transform, or for it to end. Be open and accepting to either alternative.

Another example is 'I want to do what I love and make a great living doing it.' So focus your intentions on those possibilities—making a geat living and enjoying doing it. It's a win-win solution. It's not an "either/or" solution. You see, seemingly unsolvable "either/or" problems are really a blessing. When we encounter them, it forces us to elevate our thinking. Once we do that, our pain disappears and the solution appears. So whenever you have one of these frustrating "either/or" problems, where none of the options look like they're right, the real solution is that you have to elevate your thinking. Your thoughts are creating the problem, you're not merely observing it. You're also actively creating it in ways you probably don't even realize. If you stop thinking in binary terms, you'll stop living a binary life. Binary approaches to problems can only solve binary problems, but many of the problems in life are not binary in nature. They're much more complicated—better yet, we make them more complicated by refusing to see how simple they are. We approach the problem from a level where it cannot be solved instead of elevating our thinking to a level where the problem is easily solvable, or even disappears. Many of the problems you experience at the age of five, for example, disappear completely by the time you're twenty-five. They don't even need to be solved anymore.

Let me give you a personal example: I had to deal with some "either/or" problems when I was running my games business. This is very common for anyone who works in the computer-gaming industry. Big question that everyone asks, "Should I make a game I really love—that I'm really passionate about making? Or, should I make a game that I know will sell, but I might not enjoy making it as much?" Often times, people come about these solutions because they see the games that are selling really well and so they want to do another game like those so that they can have a top seller. But they often look at those games and think they're not very good. They don't like them. They see that the games are selling for reasons other than the developers passion, that maybe they're selling more for marketing and sales reasons—and the indivual game developer doesn't want to do that. They want to focus on the creative aspects, on the passion, on what they love, on enjoying the process. So it's very common to set up a situation, a classic situation of passion versus profits. Which do you choose? Do you go the passion route or do you go the profit route? Do you do what you love or do you sell out for money? Well of course, just like any other person in the gaming industry, I had to solve the same problem.

My solution was to redefine the problem. Instead of saying passion or profits, I changed it to passion and profits... or nothing. This is what Steven Covey calls, "win/win, or no deal." Be totally comfortable accepting no deal. Of course, this passion versus profits problem goes well beyond the gaming industry—it goes into every industry,every line of work. You see, the truth is, if you feel that in your current line of work that you can't enjoy both passion and profits, then you're in the wrong line of work. That's where you need to elevate your thinking. If you're in a relationship and you can't experience both giving and receiving, you're in the wrong relationship.

You need to abandon these "either/or" problems and go for "win/win or no deal." No deal doesn't mean doing nothing, it means you cut your losses and get out. It means definitely doing something. When you hit the point of no deal, it's because you've already tried to strike a deal—to make a job work for you, to make a relationship work for you. So, if no deal is the solution, then no deal it is. You're done.

My challenge for you now is to identify one of those "either/or" roadblocks in your life, and to use the concepts described in this podcast to create a third alternative solution—one that you truly consider a win. Refuse to settle for any solution that leaves you in pain.

Until next time, live consciously.