“Don’t you see?” I asked a former friend and business partner of mine. We were standing outside the building our office had been housed in; he was doggedly trying to convince me that we should still do business together; failing that, he wanted to know how he could avoid the falling out we had – one he’d had repeatedly, with nearly everyone he’d worked with – in the future. It was the last time I saw him.
“The reason we ended up in this situation in the first place was because we all three started a business with the intent of building a business, as partners,” I continued, “and then you leveraged us into a position where you’d built the business around you, demanded a lot of money to stay and because you said the business needed it, we paid it under the understanding that you were going to stay and stabilize what you’d built, and then you took all the money yourself and frittered it away on plane flights and hotel rooms instead of putting it back into the business like you said you would, and you still left anyway and tore the business down on your way out.”
He paused for a moment, staring at me nonplussed.
“So what should I have done differently?” he asked, without seeming to have registered my point at all. “One thing I learned was that I shouldn’t give up leverage like keys to the office until I’ve been fully paid. If I’d said, ‘I’ll give you keys and we’ll disentangle and you can pay me the rest all in one sitting,’ I probably would’ve gotten the rest of the money you owed for my shares and we wouldn’t have all this bad blood between us.”
“No,” I told him, “you don’t get it. You weren’t going to get paid for breaking the spirit of the contract, no matter what you did or how you handled things tactically at the end. The problem wasn’t your end game. It was in the fact that we ended up in that situation at all.”
He still didn’t get it.
This former friend and business partner is not an unintelligent guy. He’s sharp; he’s mastered various skills to a high degree; and he’s good at picking up many new abilities rapidly.
His issue isn’t that he lacks the mental horsepower to understand why things went the way they did in a messy, sticky situation that he himself largely created. His issue is that he doesn’t know how to fix problems… so the same kinds of problems keep happening to him again and again.
And this is, in fact, a surprisingly common problem in and of itself.
The Problem with Tactics
Most people, I notice, if they think about things much at all, when things go very wrong, they tend to break those things down into discrete, individual scenarios.
“Okay, this event happened because I handled XYZ scenario the wrong way the day before.”
I’ll give you an example.
Susan gets up on stage for her piano recital in front of an audience of sixty people or so. She starts playing; then, she stumbles. A few missed keys, and suddenly she’s totally thrown off. She recovers, but she feels embarrassed.
“Curses me,” she thinks. “It’s all because I forgot to practice this morning before leaving for the recital.”
Here’s another example.
Joe forgets his wedding anniversary; his wife Kelly is both angry and sad. “I was hoping you were going to surprise me,” she says to him tearfully that night after he returns from work and reveals, when asked, that he hadn’t planned anything. “You never remember anything important about us.”
“Damn it,” he thinks to himself, “I should’ve put a reminder on my calendar.”
That kind of thinking is what I call tactical problem solving, and it’s what most people default to.
Problem? Okay, how to fix it? Ah, right… do things different tactically next time.
To me though, this is missing the forest for the trees. That tactical fix is really more of a Band-Aid; it might fix problems in the short term, right now, for that specific problem… but it doesn’t fix them in the long term, across a wide range of scenarios, and get at the root.
Getting to the Gym
For ten years between ages 16 and 26, I worked out regularly. I never got as big as I’d have liked, but I put on some pretty decent muscle. I stopped going for about 2 1/2 years following a period of continuous travel, but I’m happy to say I’m back to regularly lifting weights once again (in fact, I’m going right after I finish this post).
One of the things I struggled with over those 10 years of regular work outs was getting to the gym. See, the thing was… I never really liked working out. It was always a chore, and at first I even hated it (I’ve since made my peace with it).
So, to solve the problem of getting myself to the gym on time, I tried some tactical fixes.
I’d have a set schedule where I’d always get to the gym at a certain day and time. That worked great for a semester, until I’d go home from college and my schedule would be disrupted.
I tried this again and again, and always it took me a long time to get a new schedule ironed out and committed to, and I’d often lose 1 or 2 months in between transitions getting back into the habit of working out again.
Next, I tried reminding myself that I didn’t want to lose muscle mass and lose what I’d built, so I had to go to the gym at least to maintain what I got. But that was a worse motivator than anything else.
I didn’t finally fix this more or less for good until I consciously realized I needed to stop trying to fix it tactically, and figure out how to fix problems like that one at a higher level.
I needed to be internally driven.
So I began training myself to imagine what I wanted my body to look like regularly. I imagined how strong I’d like to be. I imagined how powerful men would think me, and how attractive women would find me. I imagined these things when I thought about working out, but even during idle time when I wasn’t doing anything gym-related.
And suddenly, it was easy for me to keep my commitment to the gym.
Instead of fixing the end game – trying to correct the situation as it arose with a routine or a reminder not to lose what I had – I instead focused on the problem itself: a lack of motivation. By figuring out how to internally motivate myself, I took away my consistency problem and made myself want to go to the gym.
The Problem with the End Game
1. Chess. the final stage of a game, usually following the exchange of queens and the serious reduction of forces.
2. the late of final stages of any activity: the end game of the negotiations.
If you’ve ever played chess, you’re familiar with the term “end game.”
At the start of a chess game, the board looks like this:
By the end of the game – in the end game – it looks more like this:
Now imagine you’re playing black in this game. You’re almost certainly going to lose this one, given white’s position. He’s likely going to trade rooks with you and promote his pawn to queen, one way or another.
So let’s say you lose.
What a lot of players will do is think back a few moves and say, “Ah, I shouldn’t have brought my knight down to threaten white’s king first; that cost me the game. I should’ve moved my rook over to block his pawn then threatened his king. There isn’t anything he could’ve done to my rook then.”
And there is some merit to that – it’s good to know how to operate from behind in the end game. That’s important to be able to do.
But what’s infinitely more important than that is to not end up in a sticky situation like that in the first place.
The reason why people don’t usually do this is because it’s hard. How do you know where you went wrong in an entire game of chess? You pretty much can’t, unless you’re already an expert. So, you analyze tactically to the best of your ability – and you largely analyze the end game.
You should analyze your strategy.
Why did white end up with a bunch of pawns and a rook and close to getting a queen or two, while you ended up backed into a corner with a rook and knight and on the defensive?
Could you have played the middle game differently?
Could you have started differently?
It’s important to understand the end game. But understanding how better to play the end game doesn’t help you avoid ending up in sticky situations; it just helps you to better fix problems when you’re in them.
Susan learning to practice the morning before her recital every time will help her do better. But it’s still a Band-Aid.
And Joe putting important dates on his calendar will help him avoid those blow-ups… but again, still a Band-Aid.
Just like me making the gym a routine, or trying to tell myself I had to maintain what I had, these are short term fixes that only address the immediate problem…
… instead of the fact that you have the problem at all.
And that’s what you should be addressing.
How to Fix Problems
One of the reasons I find that I learn things faster than most people is that I’m very critical of my strategy, where most people are critical of their tactics.
For instance, when I play a computer strategy game, and I’m building steadily along, and then am suddenly and unexpectedly crushed by a far superior force, my thought isn’t, “How do I beat that? That’s impossible!” nor is it, “Damn, my defenses need to be better.” Rather, my thought is, “Okay, clearly I built too slowly and choose too easily assailable a position.”
When I’m learning a new skill, I tend to look at the strategy of its best proponents.
When I learned music, my question was, “What are the leading artists trying to accomplish with their songs? What kinds of melodies are they choosing, what emotions are they focusing on, and what are their messages? Are they speaking to the masses, to the radio, to a certain core set of listeners? Are they telling a story with an album, with individual songs, or are they just riffing?”
I noticed that leading artists had a lot more in common than those with talent who never made it big. For instance, top artists tend to weave the songs in their albums into a story or a general theme, whereas less successful artists tend to just have an assortment of unrelated songs thrown together in a hodgepodge.
When I learned chess, I’d play against the computer at increasingly higher and more difficult levels. I’d watch the computer beat me, then use “Undo” to go back and examine the moves it made against me and try to understand its general strategy. I’d replay the same game from different points, trying different strategies, to find one I could beat the computer with from different positions. Then I’d take the same moves and strategy the computer made against me and use them against the computer player myself the next time and watch how it responded. I quickly reached a level where I was routinely defeating human opponents with much more experience and a lot more hours spent playing chess than I, because they’d learned it more slowly and tactically than I had.
The secret to learning how to fix problems is this: you need to look at the big picture.
What am I talking about? Take a look at that short discussion at the start of this post. That first explanation by me is a big picture explanation for why things went wrong. My former friend and associate’s following explanation is the tactical troubleshooting of how to play the end game differently. That won’t prevent him from ending up in the same situation again, and he’ll keep having to scramble to fix problems in the future over the same things.
Think about Susan and her recital. What if, instead of scrambling to practice the morning of, she practiced her heart out the weeks before the recital and had that piece down cold? What if she got herself to a level of skill with the piano that she could play a piece by ear and remember it solid within only a few renditions?
Then she wouldn’t have to bust her butt trying to get in one last practice. She’d be so good she wouldn’t need it.
Think about Joe and his wife Kelly. What if, instead of racking his brain to remember dates (and men forget birthdays and anniversaries pretty universally), Joe reassured Kelly in other ways that he really cared about her, and reminded her that he was really bad at remembering dates?
If Kelly was confident Joe loved her and she knew he had a hard time with dates, she wouldn’t make as big a deal about it. She’d help him out with reminders about the dates, and would cut him some slack when he forgot.
Learning to fix problems by looking at the forest instead of the trees has these benefits:
- It lets you find a SOLID fix instead of a Band-Aid fix. If you want to spend the rest of your life scrambling to apply Band-Aids to problems, fixing things tactically is the way to go. If you’ve got more important things to worry about than having to solve the same problem over and over again, however, you need to make changes to your overall approach to the situations leading up to the situation. You need to be a big-picture thinker and a big-picture solver – not a Band-Aid putter-onner.
- It saves you a great deal of time. Imagine if instead of all the time you plow into fixing problems, those problems just STOPPED happening? That’s what solving the root cause – the strategy you chose that led to that sticky situation – does for you. It allows you to not have to spend so much time scrambling to put out fires and fix short-term problems.
- It saves you a great deal of stress. Imagine again if problems stopped happening because you fixed the things that led to those problems. What would your stress levels be like? I’m guessing you’d have a much more enjoyable life – but not only that, you’d find taking on new challenges less daunting, because you’d resolve the hard parts of those challenges more quickly and get to the fun stuff a lot faster.
- It empowers you to do more with your life. Once your time and effort are freed from putting out fires, you can expand your focus to new things. You can move onto building competency in new skills; becoming involved in hobbies or pastimes you’ve long wanted to get involved in; you can take more stress-free leisure time to just unwind and have fun. Your life becomes a lot more exciting, and a lot less ordinary, when you free yourself from scrambling to fix problems because you’ve caused those problems to stop happening.
You’re probably saying to yourself now, “Wow, that sounds great! … but, how do I do it?“
Let me solve that problem for you. Here’s what you need to do to truly fix problems.
- Understand that everything is connected. Because most people see problems as being discrete, unrelated issues, they have huge difficulties truly fixing problems, and likewise have huge difficulties predicting problems. Start viewing all things as interrelated. Ask yourself these questions:
- Does everyone else have this problem? Not “do other people have this problem,” because there’s always someone else who has your problem. Not do “most people have this problem,” because, let’s be honest, most people don’t know how to fix problems in their lives. You want to ask does everyone else have this problem? If the answer is “yes,” every single person around you has this problem, then it’s probably a bad situation and you should get out. If the answer is “no,” some people don’t have this problem, then you need to figure out everything that’s different between what they do, and what you and the other people who have the problem do… and you need to change.
- Are there things I could’ve done differently yesterday, last week, two months ago, or a year ago that would’ve changed how things went this time? For instance, if you trained twice as hard over the past year at beach volleyball, would you still have failed to make it past the beach volleyball semi-finals? Or if you spent the past two weeks preparing for your presentation – instead of waiting until last night to really begin – would things have gone differently? If you can find something you could’ve done different in the past that would’ve affected the present, that’s where you need to concentrate your efforts – not on last-minute end game fixes that only put a Band-Aid on wounds you could’ve avoided having in the first place. You can’t change the past, of course – but you can change what you do from now on.
- If I didn’t have this problem, how would my life be better? This one’s important to ask for the purposes of getting yourself motivated to fix things. If you realize you’d have more free time and less stress to develop yourself further, or work on your goals or hobbies, or take that trip you really want to take, or just relax at home with family or by yourself, you’re going to find you want to start fixing problems a lot more diligently.
- Start ignoring the end game a lot more. You know what the end game is? It’s distraction – distraction designed to prevent you from finding the real, higher level problem and fixing it for good. Stop paying attention to it. You know those sports matches (basketball games, or football, or hockey, or what have you) where it’s a nail-biter to the very end, with either team trading the lead back and forth again? The first thing that comes to my mind when it’s a team I follow involved in that is, “Geez, why didn’t they work harder in practice?” It’s exciting when your team wins – but that’s because excitement is caused by uncertainty. They weren’t good enough for you to know whether they’d win or not. Ignore the end game – you want to be the team that wins in a boring way by trouncing the opponent, because you already worked so hard on getting your entire game plan down that the only problems nagging at you are minor ones. Don’t get distracted by trying to figure out the last 5 minutes of a 60 minute game; the best teams win in the beginning and the middle of games and just use the end game to put a wrap on things, and the rest of life is that way too.
- Take pleasure from skill-building. Surprisingly few people enjoy the seemingly relatively rare pastime of skill-building. What I mean by skill-building is the slow, gradual process of getting better and better at something. In a way, this is a mindset; just like some people have the mindset that work is something you have to do to make money, while other people have the mindset that work is something you do on the way to achieving your goals, and still other people have the mindset that work is how you achieve your goals, taking pleasure in skill-building – or doing it at all – is a mindset. But it’s one you should nurture and grow in yourself, because it works very closely with problem solving. The more you enjoy building yourself into an ever-better, ever-more-capable person, the more you’ll enjoy fixing the problems you encounter permanently and absolutely.
- Work forward, not backward. I hear a lot of people talking about, “Oh, I should’ve done things this way.” My response is always, “Well, you can’t, because it’s done and over with – so what are you going to do next time?” Don’t waste time focusing on the past, which is gone forever, but instead focus on the present and the future – how’re you going to make things work better the second time around, the third time around, the twentieth, the fiftieth, and the fifteen-hundredth? That’s where you need to be devoting your energy. Fix problems for next time – don’t worry too much about before. You know the phrase “no use crying over spilt milk?” It’s exactly right – for next time, figure out how you can avoid spilling the milk (e.g., keep it in a different container; make a habit of placing it somewhere you won’t accidentally knock it over; put the jug back in the refrigerator after you pour yourself a glass, etc.).
That former friend and business partner of mine doesn’t get this still. He thinks it’d be a great idea for us to be friends and business partners again, which of course benefited him the first time around (the business with him essentially ended up as him gambling with both of our time and a lot of my money, and him coming out ahead with my money after it failed and I lost a great deal). Yet, he doesn’t see why I came out of it miffed at him and wanting to cut ties – business and otherwise – and he doesn’t understand why I’m upset. It doesn’t seem to compute.
The reason why is because he thinks the only problem was the end game.
The end game is never the problem though. The end game is where problems – or lack of problems, if you were doing things right from the beginning – come home to roost… not where they’re born.
And believe it or not, should you make it to the end game on sound strategy and fundamentals, you can usually even slow down and make a few mistakes… and still come out on top.
Don’t put Band-Aids on problems. Fix problems, starting at the very beginning, where possible. That’s how you free yourself up to do the kind of things you really want to do, and not get slowed down by problems going forward.
P.S., if you’re the type of person who loves breaking things down to what really makes them tick and solving problems at the root, you really won’t want to miss all the great tips, tools, techniques, and insights on offer in my newsletter – it’s everything you’ll need to get yourself on the road to a productive, successful business and a productive, successful life. Sign up now to start getting my newsletter delivered straight to your inbox:
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