What it means to be solution-oriented

Most people aren’t solution oriented, they’re problem oriented, in that they see a problem and freak out over it… But don’t really take responsibility for solving it.

Most people do this because solving problems is hard and having problems is scary… And in a lot of cultures people are given every excuse in the universe to not take responsibility for anything ever.

But do you want to be most people?

I was super-duper problem-oriented at university. I had this real prick of a lecturer who taught mathematics for economists, I hated this fucking guy… But he taught a unit I had to pass… And one third of students would fail this class each semester. The lecturer was just shit at teaching and he didn’t seem to care about this fact either. You know the type, they make you scratch your head and wonder just why the fuck they are still employed. As exams approached me and my classmates just kept complaining about how the curriculum ought to be this way, the lecturer ought to be that way and so on. And it was looking like I was probably going to have to repeat this fucking unit and I was freaking out and even woke up regularly to nightmares of failing the exam and I would have to rush to the bathroom to throw up in the toilet. It was not a fun time. Then I read a book that made me see things differently.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey. As it turned out, my endless complaining was not very effective, go figure, and I decided to really focus on the first of these seven habits, which was basically about being solution-oriented.

This was a revelation for me at the time, and it totally changed my approach to dealing with issues. Now as soon as I would notice myself complaining, I would stop, identify the problem, define the cause of it, then brainstorm a number of possible solutions and if it was solvable then I’d choose a solution to implement. And that was it. The whining voice in the back of my head just sort of got cut off from his endless rant.

I can’t remember today how to do partial differentiation… But I passed that God-awful fucking piece of shit unit, even got a distinction for it which surprised the hell out of me, by gritting my teeth and focusing on how I could solve the problems I was having. Which were namely that I wasn’t very good at maths and had difficulty studying by myself, so I ended up getting free tutoring from older maths students and would study before and after and during my sessions with them. Fuck that unit though, seriously. I still have the occasional nightmare about failing an exam where after I wake up I have to remind myself that I already graduated, this is probably because of that class.

I carried this incredibly practical approach with me to my first “real” job, and as a consequence was put in meetings for making decisions that were actually outside my department… Just because they wanted my problem-solving focus to guide the process. I couldn’t tell them what the solutions were… Because I was like 20 years old and inexperienced as hell… But I could sure as hell help them get on course with finding it. This gave me way more power in the company than I otherwise would have, and in combination with a few other things, meant that I basically played by my own rules whilst I worked there. It was pretty sweet.

It feels good to complain and you’ll usually find a sympathetic audience to your complaints which feels doubly good… But I mean… It’s not super helpful IF it’s not followed up by actions to solve the problem, right?

And yet, so many of our complaints aren’t followed up at all… And we become one of those people that just defines themselves as a victim of their circumstances and doesn’t even bother to solve their problems. You probably know a few of these people. It can be quite sad.

Solution-orientation didn’t mean that I never complained or never said that the situation was shit or unjust or total bullshit… Because it often was. Solution-orientation just meant when I noticed a problem, I would identity it, look for the cause of it, generate alternatives to solve it and if it was solvable then pick a solution to implement. That’s all. So I’d have a good long bitch about something that would irk me to my mates… Then DO something about it. Getting the best of both worlds really.

Whilst working at this company a common problem was that, basically, the clients were “stupid” (in the words of the developers). But… Short of sending them to some brain-training camp and having them get pissed off and fire us… That they’re “stupid” isn’t really anything we could change if it were true… And so this sort of generalisation, whilst fun, was really unhelpful. 

Focusing on things totally outside of your “locus of control”, totally outside your sphere of influence… Isn’t productive. Because after you finish your delicious rant… You CANT do anything to solve it even if you intended to, even if you were the most solution-oriented person in the world. So thus you just gotta focus on the stuff you CAN control, because at least after your good-long whinge… You can DO something about it. And this became my advice. Assuming that it’s the clients that are stupid… And not just the developer’s inability to live in reality and see the glaring flaws in their programs… The only useful thing we can focus on would be the stuff we could change. So instead of lamenting a clients IQ level, we would focus on more clear communication between ourselves and the clients, more detailed analysis of their requirements to avoid fucking it up and so on. The approach predictably worked wonders, and once again whilst everyone else was staying back to work late and work weekends… I went home on time and never worked a single weekend despite glaring looks from my colleagues… because I knew my mindset made me indisposable. Oh to be 20 and drunk with power.

Solution-orientation spread to all other areas of my life and the results were awesome.

Gripes about my health, friends, sex-life and career quickly turned into projects and goals. For the first time in… My whole life actually, I was propelled forwards at all times, never stagnant, always controlling the direction of my life.

How might your life change if you were a little more solution-oriented?

Do you think your peers and employer and partner would have greater respect for your focus on getting shit done and being part of the solution? And do you think it would build a greater level of self-respect too? And do you think that greater level of self-respect could make you feel better about yourself which would increase your confidence? 

Absolutely.

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