How I Learned to Focus On Solutions, Not Problems

My first real job out of college was working in a call center. My department provided customer service around several software products for the college market. As I talked to more and more customers, I began to learn some of the flaws in our software. I naively assumed that I was the first person to find these flaws, so I reported them and waited for the promotion to roll in. 

Nothing happened. Management knew about the problems, but either couldn’t afford to fix them or didn’t know how to.

The calls continued with more problems about our software. I felt frustrated and powerless. I knew it was going to be a long time before anything was fixed.

When they were faced with the same situations, my coworkers often became jaded. They decided that nothing was going to change so they sat around griping. For the first time, I started to join them. I would lament my situation – my job, my boss, our customers, our systems, our corporate structure – to anyone who would listen.

Looking back, I think complaining was attractive for three reasons:

  • Complaining was easy – I didn’t have the free time to think up what needed to change
  • Complaining gave me a sense of control – I felt powerlessness and complaining made me feel like I was doing something
  • Complaining helped me connect with other people – I was able to commiserate with others around me and feel a sense of comradery

I didn’t fully realize how dangerous the mindset of complaining was until I changed positions several years later. I had been tasked to work on a software that would help agents in customer service do their jobs better. When the software was ready to test, I gathered some agents in a room to get their feedback. But as soon as we sat down, everyone started to complain. Not only did they voice their dislike of the software I had helped make, they used the meeting as a springboard to complain about their jobs and the company as a whole. When we asked what was specifically wrong about the software, they couldn’t answer us. They hadn’t actually used it. They didn’t care about improving it at all, they just wanted to gripe about it. 

After one of the feedback meetings my boss pulled me aside. She said something that has stuck with me:

It’s okay to acknowledge problems, but if we don’t focus on how to fix them, nothing will ever change.

Reflecting on my time in that previous department, I now understood that complaining caused more difficulties in the end:

  • Complaining was easier, but because it avoided the actual work nothing changed. 
  • Complaining gave me a sense of control, but it was fake. Complaining didn’t take the situation seriously, it was throwing up hands and relinquishing power, not taking it.
  • Complaining did bring a kind of low-level connection, but it had a cost: it made me feel worse about my job. Even when legitimately good things happened, I didn’t celebrate as much, because I was so focused on what was wrong.

Focusing on my problems clearly didn’t help anything. What if there was another way? What if I decided to follow the advice of my boss and move from focusing on problems to focusing on solutions?

  1. I’ll be doing a lot more work. Solutions require more time and effort than complaining does.
  2. I’ll be taking more risks. Focusing on solutions requires me to test different ideas out, some of which have a chance of losing something.
  3. I’ll be positive and optimistic, but I might also be left out. People love to complain and by making a choice not to, I might look weird.
  4. I’ll be more creative.

In his book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, financial guru Robert Kiyosaki contrasts the two phrases “I can’t afford it” with “How can I afford it?”:

“I can’t afford it” shut down your brain. It didn’t have to think anymore. “How can I afford it” opened up the brain. Forced it to think and search for answers…”I can’t afford it” also brings up sadness. A helplessness that leads to despondency and often depression…”How can I afford it?” opens up possibilities, excitement, and dreams…”How can I afford it?” created a stronger mind and a dynamic spirit.

I’ve seen the exact same relationship between complaining and solutions. “Nothing will ever change” shuts down and turns off the brain. “How can this change?” turns on the brain and allows growth.

Are you someone who complains too easily and doesn’t often propose solutions?  The good news is that with some effort, you can change.

In what areas of your life have you found that you tend to focus on problems instead of solutions?

What’s one small solution that you could test out today?

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