Problems Open Doors To Solutions

One of the things I love about my job is that much of it is working with different elements of the human condition. This includes growing excitement, defining and setting expectations, dealing with disappointment and conflict, coordinating different ethical lines, being there for someone in times of personal crisis, helping folks to develop skills and personal growth, and more.

I have often referred to community management as one part project manager, one part motivational speaker, and one part therapist. The role is not just about coordinating volunteers to achieve success in their contributions, but it is also very much about being there as a friend and ally in times of difficulty and personal reflection.

Over the years many folks have come to me with worries and personal challenges surrounding their involvement in a project, their perception of what value they bring to the community, and insecurities about where they fit into the fish-bowl. Of course, these conversations are always in private and I welcome any of you to reach out to me if you ever want someone to talk to. I have though come to some conclusions about different approaches to personal improvement and growth in the face of these insecurities and worries.

Perception Of Problems

One of the oldest and most overused sayings has been about whether people see the glass as half-full or half-empty. Of course, the metaphor is referring to whether people look at the world through the eyes of an optimist or a pessimist.

Some see half full, some see half empty, some just see Vodka. No comment.

One of the areas in which the distinction between an optimist and a pessimist defines future potential and growth is how we perceive and react to problems and/or critique.

Let me give you an example. Imagine you work for a company and your boss comes up to you and expresses concerns about your work. There are two approximate ways to react this situation.

First as a pessimist:

Argh! This is terrible! I can’t believe this is happening to me. Life sucks.

Pessimists typically fall into two other groups when it comes to receptivity to feedback; people who feel oppressed and those who feel ineffective.

For the former we see statements such as:

This company is making terrible decisions, my boss isn’t helping me, I don’t have the tools I need, so my bad performance isn’t a surprise. I see no way in which I can fix this. The system is screwing me.

The latter, those who feel ineffective, are typically overly self-reflective and critical:

Damn. I am screwing everything up…I knew I wasn’t cut out for this job and they are probably better off if I left.

The former approach of blaming others for your problems will do nothing to grow and optimize your personal growth and life experience. This is something I am discovering more and more as I get older; the biggest lessons that I have learned to form my own personal perspectives have grown out of being self-reflective but learning from that self-reflection.

Lessons are not learned by listening to this guy. Or Stuart Langridge.

This leads rather neatly onto optimism.

Now, to be fair, I know I am an optimist, so all of these words, and in fact all the words I ever write, are generally written through the eyes of an optimist. I didn’t just become an optimist overnight though; the reason why I see things in a more positive light is that I have seen first-hand the opportunities and amazing things that people can do when they put their mind to it.

I have faith in people and what good people can do.

I have also had the fortune of working with some truly inspirational people whose experiences, wisdom and approach has rubbed off on me in different ways to help shape my own world.

While I am an optimist, I feel I am a fairly realistic optimist. I don’t see the world like a scene from Bambi, but I do feel we all have huge control in our hands to bring success to our work and our projects, and much of this success is defined by how we approach our work and our challenges, and our receptivity to feedback.

Getting back to how we perceive problems, I think a more optimistic response to our previous example of a boss complaining about your work would be:

I am delighted to get this feedback from my boss as I now have a better idea of areas in which I can improve, and today is the first day of the solution.

The last part is the key bit: today is the first day of the solution. Every day I see people who battle with challenges, mis-aligned expectations, little bits of conflict, and sometimes painful critique from colleagues and community members that they need to process and handle.

The folks who have reached out to me that I described at the beginning of this blog entry have faced these kinds of challenges, and I would like to encourage everyone to view these challenges as an awareness of problems that now allow us to make today the first day of the solution. This not only puts us in a better mental state (process the problem sucks, working the solution is far more empowering), but I think it also demonstrates a positive personality trait about constantly striving for self-improvement. It is also a very attractive attribute from a career perspective.

Of course, the more pessimistic of you are going to rip me a new one in the comments, and there will always be folks who don’t feel like they have the ability to drive themselves to a better destiny, but for all of you who have reached out to me with insecurities and uncertainly, think of how today could be the first day of the solution. And as ever, I am here to help.

  • Marcos

    Great post jono! It’s true, it’s really important and really hard to work something of out the criticism. And I olso agree, every bad critic is an opportunity to improve. Sandly not every boss tells you what you’ve been doing wrong. Keep rocking!

  • Martin Owens

    It’s a very good post, of course I’m generally an optimist, but biology being what it is can throw people into depression sometimes.

    One thing I’ve learned: Get plenty of sleep before self-correcting, nothing worse than being deathly tired and pushing yourself into a depression with meaningless stress.

  • Cognitive Bias Cop

    In short, if you are more optimistic than the default human level of over-optimism, you are wrong.

  • Joe

    Nice idea, but even optimists can be oppressed. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

  • Grant

    I appreciate your sentiments but there are sometimes genuine occasions where the statements of your oppressed pessimist are valid.

    Such as when a key member of management in your company “forgets to carry the one” and ends up putting 3/4 of your department on the risk-of-redundancy list, which then means that your direct line manager isn’t able to complete his timetabling before the start of term, so no-one left in the department knows what they’re teaching until they’re due to start teaching it (it is usually useful to plan ahead a little), which puts undue stress on each member of the team and several key members (including your direct line manager) take a leave of absence due to stress and so isn’t available to assist or guide you in your new additional roles, so unsurprisingly you’re not performing your job role to its/your best as you don’t actually know what you’re supposed to be doing, which then gets highlighted by the upper management infrastructure and you are advised that you are at risk of losing your job because you are “clearly not capable of doing it”.

    “This company is making terrible decisions, my boss isn’t helping me, I don’t have the tools I need, so my bad performance isn’t a surprise. I see no way in which I can fix this. The system is screwing me.” Seems quite fitting.

  • mdgeorge

    I mostly agree, although as a pessimist I struggle to see the world optimistically. it’s quite hard after repeated failures.

    Also, you have completely mischaracterized Bambi. It’s a fantastic movie, and both touching and realistic. Go watch it.

  • jono

    Most awesome comment ever.

  • jono

    Agreed, but as I said, I don’t think I am overtly optimistic. If I feel something is just not going to work out, I will pull the plug right away – I don’t just assume that everything will be great.

  • jono

    Agreed, Martin – plenty of sleep is a good thing. I think it also really helps in those periods of self-reflection to get outside, get some fresh air, and let you mind wander around how the future can be better. :-)

  • sil

    I’ll get you for that.

  • Russell Dickenson

    Jono – Great post! Whether you’re an optimist or pesimist, we sometimes look to someone else to fix our problems.

    Jono/sil – please send me a CC of sil’s reply when it comes through. Thankyou. It’ll be like lugradio in slow motion. 😀