Focus on the solution not the problem

I used to work with an ex para called John, who’s battle cry in a crisis was: “Let’s focus on the problem, people!” John was an exceptional man. He’d survived a broken back in the services, and was in constant pain. Yet he had forged a whole new, successful career, becoming operations director in a large facilities management company.

The funny thing was though that anyone actually focussing ‘on the problem’ only would have been promptly kicked out of his meeting! What he meant was, let’s focus on what we are going to do about it.

I loved attending meetings with John. He would cut wafflers off mid-sentence, and bring everyone back to what needed to be done, with a stern: “Focus, people!” When problems arose, John was always the man tasked to find the solutions.

Change your mindset

If you think about it, focussing on the problem gives you very limited information, a narrow perspective and no new options. If you talk to someone who is depressed or stuck with one particular problem, they often keep raking through the same issue or event, as if something will spontaneously change if they keep going over it all again and again. Most of us have experienced how this just doesn’t work. As Albert Einstein once said: “You can’t solve the problem using the same thinking that created it in the first place.”

You have to find ways to focus on what you can do. You need to step back and think about the other areas in your life where things are going well, find what is working. I know this is easier said than done, but whenever you feel stuck, ask yourself, are you focussing on the problem, or potential solutions and options?

Some people seem to naturally be able to find this positive perspective. I’ve just spent a lot of time with another amazing man, who is also my father. He recently had a medical crisis, and was told in very clear and certain terms that he was not going to survive. The prognosis was he had days to live.

Don’t dwell, take action

He immediately set his mind to the task of setting his affairs in order. Each day family would come and visit and he would give us all our specific instructions - which newspaper his death notice should be in, who should be personally notified, where all the important papers and documents were, and who should deal with them.

At the same time the family all came to see him, and there was much laughter and reminiscence. Much of the humour was dark and would not have been to everyone’s taste, but the room where he was supposed to be quietly expiring, took on a bit of a party atmosphere.

After a few days, when my father refused to get sicker, the doctors started allowing him to eat again, and restarted his medication. After 10 days, they pronounced that they were ‘confounded’, that he was a ‘magician’, and they moved him to rehab to start him on the long, and still ongoing, journey back to physical fitness.

As I sat down to write this blog, I was struck by the fact that at no time did my father focus on what had gone wrong. I’m sure he experienced huge internal turmoil, perhaps even despair, when he heard and digested the original pronouncement, but then he just accepted it and focussed solely on what he could do, and on what was within his control. He comes from that stoic, war generation that is awesome to witness.

For me, I realised what an amazing master-class I had been given in dealing with setbacks. I started to think about times in my own life where I‘ve overcome much smaller obstacles and realised that things had been resolved when I had focussed on what I could do, what I could change, and what I could control. When problems have remained problems for me, it has because I became stuck, focussing only on the problem, until I either moved on, or something or someone else managed to shake me out of it.

Striving to resolve setbacks is a natural drive, feeling helpless and stuck is a learned response. We are born programmed to focus on getting fed, learning to communicate and walk. No toddler sits on the ground focussing on how hard it is to walk, they just find the necessary carpet, table or toy they need, to pull themselves up on, and have another go.

A flower being overshadowed by a larger plant doesn’t turn it’s attention onto that plant, it keeps it’s photosynthesising sights firmly on the sun, and literally moves heaven and earth to get it back in view. In the world of plants, people like John and my dad are like bamboo, a plant known for it’s ability to blast through concrete in order to get back to the sun.

So next time you experience a setback, remember not to focus on what has happened, but rather look for what you can do about it and then just do it!

Business skills training
for creative freelances