In our personal lives, we usually know what to do to solve our problems: there’s a wedding we need to attend, there’s no milk in the fridge, we’re over our credit limit this month. But the ones we’re paid to solve are often nuanced, fraught with risk and unlikely to have a solution that pleases everyone; as Seth Godin rightly says, all the easy problems are taken.
As someone who trades in people pleasing, conflict avoidance and immense personally applied pressure to succeed, this has really warped my ability to approach the problems I’m paid to solve lightly. In my seriousness and dedication to finding the perfect answer, I forget that there will be no perfect answer.
Michael Lynch put this conundrum beautifully in an article on Vox about intellectual humility when he said that it’s unhelpful to think of problems “like a Rubik’s cube: a puzzle that has a neat and satisfying solution that you can put on your desk.” Instead, we can acknowledge that we can “make progress at a moment in time, and make things better. And that we can do — that we can definitely do.”
The Rubik’s cube is a wonderful symbol of perfection – clean lines, bright colours, and one, universally agreed-upon correct way of solving the puzzle. We’re never going to find such clear-cut answers in places like health, digital democracy, education, finance, consumerism, the climate emergency, energy, creativity… We’re balancing triple bottom lines, shareholders, expectations, immense competition, sometimes global consequences for our actions and always, always, the pressure of time. We cannot universally win.
When we know that there won’t be a completed Rubik’s cube at the end of our problem, we can instead start asking better questions, like “Why is this a problem in the first place? Who knows more about this than we do? What beautiful constraints do we need to put on our solution in order to move forward?”
Remember – you’re solving problems that don’t have an easy or even agreeable solutions. Instead of falling under the spell of a seductive, feel good, one-size-fits-all spell, have a think instead:
What could you replace perfection with?