The Problem with Problem-Solving

What is here now, when there is no problem to solve? Loch Kelly

Recently I’ve begun my morning meditation by asking myself this question, offered by Loch Kelly in a three-minute practice . It’s had a dramatic effect on my ability to “drop in”—to let go of the noise and chatter in my head. Simply asking the question allows me to “arrive,” almost magically, as I begin my morning meditation. And, when the chatter ramps up, as it is wont to do, I ask the question again and, again, the noise subsides.

While this one question may have different effects on everyone who tries the practice, its power has helped me to become more aware of how deeply we are wired to be problem-solvers and how that limits us in an increasingly complex world.

When I work with leaders, especially when our focus is on becoming better coaches, the single hardest thing for most of them is to step back from immediately fixing or problem-solving. Developing the capacity to listen without fixing is a continuous, intentional practice. It is not surprising to me that this is the case. After more than twelve years of working as a coach it still requires intention for me—and I can still be pulled into fixing mode.

Here’s the thing. Being problem-solvers got us far, as individuals and as a species. Being told you’re a good problem-solver is a compliment and knowing you’ve figured something out can make you feel pretty good about yourself. We can resolve things, move projects forward, help people. It’s what we’ve spent most of our lives being trained to do and to be. What could be bad about that?

To answer that question, I want to draw on a critical distinction—the difference between complicated and complex. Operating in complexity means we’re in the terrain of the unpredictable. Solutions are emergent; we navigate and experiment our way towards them and things are likely to shift as we go along. Complicated means we are traveling more “plannable” and predictable territory—and problem-solving can be exactly the right approach. In our VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) reality, more and more of what we face as leaders and what the people around us are facing falls into the domain of complexity.

When I share this distinction with my clients (which I almost always do—it’s that useful,) the most profound moment is often when they truly get that, in complexity, problems can’t be “solved” and that much of their time as leaders is spent in the complex domain. Realizing that our problem-solving brains can become an obstacle to thriving—and potentially even to surviving (more on that later) can be both liberating and terrifying. It’s freeing to know you’re not supposed to have the answer—in fact, you can’t. And, at the same time, it can be terrifying to realize that you need new ways of dealing with the challenges you face. If complexity means that the problem-solving mind I’ve cultivated for my whole life is not what I need to thrive in this new reality, what happens next? Going a level deeper still, the question becomes “Who am I?” since, for many of us, our identity is grounded in our skills as problem-solvers.

Back to my morning meditation. The moment when I ask myself the question “What is here when there is no problem to solve?” is the beginning of the answer to both the question of what to do next and the question of who I am. I relax into a sense of expansiveness, spaciousness. I can become more patient with not knowing. Once I can allow myself to not know, I am able to listen and to be present—to myself, to my family and to my clients. I don’t try to “solve” my problems or jump in with solutions to theirs. I know that we can navigate this together. I can ask a question that allows me to operate in complexity with greater ease: “What’s next?”

My coach training was led by Doug Silsbee, whose final book was Presence-Based Leadership. (For more on Doug and his work, here’s my tribute to him.) Doug’s claim was that Presence is the meta-capacity of leadership. I find myself re-arriving at this conclusion over and over in my work with leaders. I also realize that presence requires training and continued practice. As Doug suggested, throughout his body of work, the path towards being comfortable with not knowing and being able to genuinely thrive in complexity is through Presence.

This is why my work continues to focus on supporting my clients as they develop the capacity to be present—and continuing to develop this capacity in myself. It’s also why I spent the last year studying to be a somatic coach, working with embodiment. The work required to embrace complexity, to be present, to genuinely release the belief that we should have all the answers to all problems, is not exclusively head learning. Left to their own devices, our heads will continue to engage with problems as we’ve been taught in school and at work throughout our lives. To change a habit this deep, we need to access and re-train our whole self.

We can recognize the sensations we feel, the shapes our bodies assume, the thoughts we have when we are gearing up for conventional problem-solving. And we can learn to pause and, decide if that way of being fits the situation we’re in—and, if not, we can learn to shift. We can take a breath, note the sense of urgency, acknowledge it, shift the way we are holding our body, and respond differently. We are not forcing ourselves to shift, we’re noticing one pattern and choosing a different one. We can genuinely appreciate—and draw on—our problem-solving minds and bodies when they are what’s needed and choose a different way of being when we are facing complexity.

As Amanda Blake, another teacher and coach whose work is grounded in embodiment says: “Awareness creates choice; practice creates capacity.” The more we practice this shift, the more available it becomes to us, until, after perhaps thousands of repetitions, it becomes the way we are in the world. Luckily, we have lots of opportunities to practice!

The challenges we are collectively facing are profound and highly complex. I believe that learning to shift from problem-solving to being truly present in the complexity of those challenges is critical capacity for our society and world. For me, the kind of practice and awareness I’ve described here is the most accessible, though not necessarily easy, path towards presence—and with it surviving and even thriving in the complexity that surrounds us.

2019: Reflections and Recommendations

Cacti and succulents at Huntington Gardens–one of my favorite days of 2019.

Here are a few of my favorite books, podcasts and even an album that I’ve appreciated this year, along with some general reflections as we close out one year and begin another.

Looking Back…And Ahead

I watch, along with so many of those around me, with deep concern as the world faces ever greater challenges, increasingly aware that our political structures and leaders are not going to be able to adequately address those challenges. I see the profound inequality and injustice across the globe and within my own country and city. I am frightened by the daily updates about climate change–the speed and ferocity of its effects. And so I remind myself, regularly, of the words of Ruth Messinger, former CEO of one of my favorite organizations, the American Jewish World Service. She calls on us to not “retreat into the convenience of being overwhelmed.”

Last year one of my favorite books was Meg Wheatley’s Who Do We Choose to Be? In it, Wheatley introduces the idea of being, in the midst of these exceptionally difficult and potentially irredeemable times, a Warrior for the Human Spirit. If you have not yet read her book or listened to interviews with her, I start my 2019 post with a reminder that her book still sits atop my list and is one I revisit often.

And, even as my faith in the future of the world is often shaken and I notice the urge to retreat, I continue to see and experience examples of people doing work that matters, who are Warriors for the Human Spirit.I have been privileged and honored this year to work with clients who are, among other things, enabling East African youth to create meaningful work, bringing traditional beekeeping methods to rural Chinese farmers to create sustainable livelihoods and a healthier world, and producing soap products with ingredients that each have a story behind them that inspires and moves.

I am sure that the coming year, too, will continue to test our resolve. The urge to retreat will be great and the need to resist it even greater. Find the ways that you, too, can be a Warrior for the Human Spirit through your actions–be they direct or in support of those doing work that you admire. I urge you to get involved, not stay on the sidelines. The upcoming year will require that of all of us!

My Learning Focus: Embodiment, Embodiment, Embodiment

Last January I began studying at the Strozzi Institute for Embodied Leadership, completing (yet another!) coach training program. You can read about my experiences at Strozzi here. Rather than learning with my head, at Strozzi I learned to learn with my whole being. It was not easy–and I am even more convinced that working with embodiment is one of the most powerful access points for navigating the increasing complexity we are facing, enabling us to become more present, engaged and alive. I hope to continue to share what I learn as I continue this journey and am excited to be bringing more and more of this into my work.

Books I Loved 

Some years I have a favorite book that I can’t stop talking about. This was one of those years. I’ve given copies of Jennifer Garvey Berger’s Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity to my kids and clients–and urged just about everyone I know to read it. Jennifer has written a short, engaging and highly accessible book. She describes five mindtraps that can get in the way of our ability to be effective leaders (in all aspects of our lives) and ways to “unlock” them–through powerful questions and simple practices. Jennifer is steeped in knowledge about adult development and complexity and demonstrates, in this book, her ability to synthesize complex content and research in a way that can be easily understood and immediately useful.

This year I read and re-read Pema Chodron’s Living Beautifully With Uncertainty and Change. Reading Pema Chodron is one of the things that keeps me sane and hopeful even as she, too, is unflinching in her view of reality. This is also a short book full of the wisdom that Pema has acquired in her 80+ years on the planet. It’s kind of a “greatest hits” and yet goes deep. If you are new to Pema’s writing, this is a good place to begin. If you’re a regular reader but have missed this one, it’s worth it.

A book that has accompanied me this year, and become part of my regular meditation practice is The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have by the poet Mark Nepo. Nepo’s reflections, generally less than a page, including a reflection practice, are perfect as a way to center before I turn on a timer.  It’s almost always as if Nepo read my mind and offered me just what I needed that day. Nepo’s book is about 20 years old. A newer edition is soon to be published and the current edition is available used. It’s a gem.

Podcasts and Audio Resources

I believe that podcasts are one of the greatest inventions of the century. I walk and listen for many hours a week and feel better-informed and happier as a result (and get lots of steps, too.) I’m still an avid listener of the New York Times The Daily–it’s my main source of in-depth coverage of topical issues. In addition, I’ve discovered Throughline and Codeswitch, both NPR podcasts. The first is a history podcast, often digging into the aspects of history that we should know but don’t. Codeswitch deals with race and identify and has definitely helped me to gain greater insight and perspective on topics I do not know enough about. The New York Times’ series 1619 was one of the best things I heard this year, so if you missed it, take the time to listen–I was shocked at how much history we never learned.

I was introduced to Hurry Slowly this year and have, in turn, introduced friends and clients to it as well. It includes some of the most thoughtful and helpful conversations I’ve heard this year. Jocelyn Glei, who interviews people I’m almost always glad to learn about and learn from, also shares her own reflections–and I enjoy those as well. In her words: “Hurry Slowly is a podcast about how you can be more productive, creative, and resilient through the simple act of slowing down.” Start anywhere–there are several seasons to draw on.

My guilty pleasure is Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin? in which we get to listen in on couples therapy session and hear her commentary along the way. It’s a fascinating window into people. She just started a new podcast How’s Work? that applies the same methodology to work issues. I’ve only listened to one episode and enjoyed it. I can pretend there’s a professional value in listening, but I’m not totally sure.

Tara Brach’s website, which includes access to her guided meditations, is an incredible gift. I’ve never used a meditation app, so I can’t make any comparisons. Tara’s teachings and meditations work well for me and she is my go-to when I know that my level of distraction means that just putting on a timer may not be the wisest way to meditate. It’s especially helpful when I travel and don’t have the comfort of my regular space. What I especially like is that I can find a meditation that is exactly the length I need as there are so many choices.

The last recommendation in the “listening” category is an album that my husband and I (whose tastes are not always aligned) can’t stop listening to–Lana Del Rey’s “Norman F**ing Rockwell.” Here’s a song from it. I cook with it, walk with it, drink coffee to it, and read to it–and still am not tired of it. I’m not exactly sure what genre she occupies–it’s hard to pin down–pop, indie–not sure.

And with that–wishing you a good end of the year and beginning of the new one. Happy reading, listening and learning!

Best of 2018: Books, Podcasts and Blogs

As 2018 comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting on the things I’ve read and learned this year. Here’s my “best of” list. It includes the books, podcasts and blogs that enriched, expanded and challenge my thinking this year. I hope you find one or two things that appeal to you and that you can learn from in 2019.

Learning About Complexity

The most important thing I discovered this year was that complexity is not only something we’re dealing with (increasingly!), it’s also the topic of serious study and a profound body of work. For an orientation to one dimension of that work, here’s a post I wrote this fall that summarizes much of what I’ve learned. Recognizing that we can develop greater personal capacity to work with complexity has allowed me to feel less fearful about the pace of change and the uncertainty that we confront daily. This is a framework that I’ve used one-on-one with coaching clients, brought to teams of leaders to explore together, and talked to family and friends about at the dinner table.

Books to Read and Savor

My teacher, Doug Silsbee, wrote his first book specifically directed to leaders rather than coaches. Presence-Based Leadership holds a special place for me as Doug published it just weeks before he died of a rare cancer. The book is a guide for tackling complexity challenges. Doug embraced his own death as his final complexity challenge and shared his journey with grace, wit and vulnerability. I write about that here in case you are interested in learning more about Doug. And, if you’re a coach or interested in coaching, Doug’s first book, The Mindful Coach is one of, if not the best, book I’ve read about coaching.

Margaret Wheatley, who wrote Leadership and the New Science over 25 years ago–and is also a student of systems theory and, more recently, complexity sciences–this year published Who Do We Choose To Be?: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity. While Wheatley’s assessment of our current reality can at times feel harsh, this is ultimately a powerful and inspiring book suggesting that what we do, day to day, moment to moment, matters deeply.

I highly recommend Amanda Blake’s Your Body is Your Brain. Amanda, a wonderful teacher, shares inspiring stories and practical guidance for making change that lasts by attending to both body and brain and the linkage between the two. This book is a great read for leaders and coaches (and not quite as heavy as the first two books.) My most recent post provides a small introduction, drawing on both Doug and Amanda’s work, to the power of somatic (body) work.

Podcasts to Walk With

For me, podcasts and walking go together. Podcasts get me walking, walking gets me to listen to podcasts. I’ve traversed many, many miles while listening to these podcasts. You can listen while driving, doing housework or at your desk, of course!

My day is not complete without listening to the New York Times podcast, The Daily. Each day, for 20 minutes or so, I learn about one story in the news, in depth. While it’s often the “obvious” story of the day, just as often, it’s not. It’s a deeper dive into something I was barely aware of or not aware of at all. I’ve stopped listening to all cable news–so this is one of the few ways I “hear” about the world. (There are other, very good, political podcasts, but this is the only one I listen to all the time.)

While the Coaches Rising Podcast is ostensibly for coaches, I’m including it here since some of you work as coaches and I think that even if you don’t, you’d enjoy listening to the amazing collection of interviews that Joel Monk, one of the co-founders of Coaches Rising conducts on a regular basis with some of the most profound and inspiring people in the coaching universe. Coaches Rising also offers affordable and superbly designed and executed courses for Coaches and those interested in coaching.

One of the ways I’ve learned more about complexity is through the Human Current podcast. Angie Cross and Haley Campbell-Gross host conversations with a wide array of people who explore many different aspects of complexity. One of the most powerful episodes this year is the conversation with Meg Wheatley (see above)–though, honestly, you can’t go wrong with any episode you choose to listen to!

Other podcasts that are oriented to coaches and leaders include Tim Ferris’s podcast–which is almost always a rewarding listen, Amiel Handelsman’s podcast (there are two episodes with Doug Silsbee that are exceptional!) and Work/Life with Adam Grant (there are a limited number of episodes and they are all good.)

Blogs to Follow

Four of the blogs I follow most closely explore the topic of complexity. These include the writing of  Sonja Blignaut, Chris Corrigan and Dave Snowden . Other writers/blogger/collectors of insight whose work I’ve come to appreciate include Jennifer Garvey Berger (and her colleagues,) Ed Batista, Mark Storm, Bruce McTague, Jane Watson and Carol Sanford. What all of these people have in common is a willingness to dig deeper–beneath the surface–and almost always surprise me with a new thought or perspective or way of framing something. I recommend them all highly. And, they are all people who have rich Twitter feeds–demonstrating that, used thoughtfully, Twitter can be a force for good. (And, I know I’ve missed some of the people whose work I really enjoy in this list!)

Collections

I also want to point to two collections of posts that I’ve started contributing to and enjoy a great deal. Lets Grow Leaders and the Lead Change Group both share monthly collections, typically around different topics in leadership, for your reading pleasure. You will often find my posts, both the ones I write here and the ones I write for Actionable, in their collections.

Wishing you a good close to 2018 and beginning of 2019! Happy reading and listening!