Famed psychiatrist Victor E. Frankl - holocaust survivor and founder of the school of Logotherapy - sat opposite one of his patients who was holding his head in his hands. This patient hated his job and was at his wits' end, prepared to even try a new form of psychotherapy that people had only just started talking about.
He'd tried therapy before, of course; his last shrink had sat him down and made him analyse his relationship with his father, going ever deeper and deeper into the past to truly have a chance at reconciliation. After five years of this not a lot had changed and he still hated his job.
Frankl believed that our main motivation in life is to find meaning, but that this 'will to meaning' can be easily frustrated. These frustrations are nothing special - they're usually just the everyday obstacles we encounter. Where others had attempted to solve these problems with drugs and endless analysis, Frankl would sit his patients down and show them the forest where they could only see trees.
Frankl, sitting opposite the patient, didn’t analyse a thing. He told him to just quit already and get a new job.
When you've got a problem, acting on the impulse to improve something - anything! - is common and what you'd expect if you're the motivated type. But just because we are improving something doesn't mean that we are necessarily improving the right thing.
First of all, there's nothing to say that we've even defined the problem that well. Secondly, the link between a problem and its solution is often not so clear, especially if we are currently living in the problem.
Secondly, the mere act of being productive and finding solutions can fool us into thinking that we're making progress even when we aren’t. My favourite example of this is the absolutely phenomenal Slap Chop advert.
You're slapping your troubles away! And eating healthy! And you can clean it easily! Makes sense, right? Look at how efficient that thing is, chopping up all those fruits and vegetables so efficiently. Wouldn't you be able to eat healthily and save money with one of those?
Thing is, how healthy you eat and how much you spend on food has almost nothing to do with your kitchen utensils. And never mind the fact that most everything he chops has already been sliced and prepared with a knife... just shut up and buy one, damn it! It's the solution for a problem that doesn't exist.
Buying a Slap Chop because you want to eat healthier is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Any time I find myself doing something as misguided as that I try to stop myself but, sometimes, I'm too late:
The obvious disclaimer here is that the above are unique to me; my deck chairs may be your sinking ship, or vice versa, or not at all. It's all relative. (Perhaps this is why it's so difficult, and so tempting to be seduced by those who tell us they've got it all figured out.)
Improving the wrong thing is bad for us because:
When we spend our time solving the right problems with the right solutions, we don't lose that time and energy, we save money, we make real progress and, of course, we actually solve the problem.
Just saying 'solve the actual problem' is easier said than done, though. Reflecting on my previous deck chair escapades, I've been able to change what I do to make sure I'm solving the right problems more often than not.
Here's my approach:
Years later, Frankl checked in with his patient to see how he was doing. It turned out he loved his new job and he hadn't analysed his relationship with his father even once in the intervening years. Not a bad outcome, all told.
If you're interested in Frankl and want to know more, you can read my notes on his book 'Man's Search for Meaning'.
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