When One Thing Doesn’t Work, Try Another


That won’t work … Yeah, that won’t work either. I tried it,” they say when we try to offer them solutions to their problem. “Why do you insist on helping me?” they ask with fatigue. “Why can’t you just listen?”

“When one of my friends has a problem,” we say, “I try to help them.”

“Why do you have to help?” they ask. “Is it because there’s some part of you that needs to be right?”

“If I needed to be right, why would I pose so many, different solutions? If I have an unusual need to be right, I would only pose one solution and insist that you try that. My motto is, if one thing doesn’t work try another one. If I thought I was always right, why would I write as much as I do? I’m searching for answers and solutions when I write, and when they work for me I suggest them to my friends to see if it will work for them.”

“Well, you can go ahead and shove your solutions in your nether regions,” they say, “because none of them work.”

“Fair enough,” we say. “What solutions have you found?”

“I’ve tried everything,” they say. “Nothing works.”

It’s simplistic to say that for every problem there is a solution. It’s simplistic to say if that solution doesn’t work, try another? It’s also simplistic to say that some dilemmas are complex and some are very simple. There are only so many facts, and there are only so many solutions. When we argue over truths as they apply to solutions, we think that if all parties concerned dug deep enough, we will eventually arrive at an agreed upon truth.

One agreed upon truth we think we all have is that everyone wants to be happy. When we encounter problems, we think a solution could lead to health, happiness, and peace of mind. When we finally find our solution, we want to share it with friends in similar straits, to help them sort through the complexities. We want to help them find happiness too. We don’t demand that they use our solution, and we’re not hurt when they don’t. Our goal is to join their quest for a solution to that which plagues them. The problem is they’re not as concerned with finding a solution that might work for them, even internally. Their goals are to presumably draw attention to the complexities of their predicament so they can gather sympathy and attention, and so we all acknowledge their problem for what it is. 

When we reach this point of an argument, we have two choices. We can either walk away or acknowledge the severity of their complaint? Neither choice solves their problem, of course, but it becomes obvious that they don’t want to solve their problem as much as we thought, and they only want us to acknowledge the severity of their problem, as they lay it out. Our reward for soothing them in this manner is their smile.

I saw that smile once in the uneventful silence of a hospital’s emergency room (ER). While counting the hours it took for an ER attendant to consult with me, I accidentally overheard another ER attendant inform a young teenager that she had a condition. He informed her that her condition was not life-threatening, or severely debilitating, but that she suffered from a relatively mild version of a condition that would require lifelong diligence on her part to maintain a modicum of health. She smiled. She probably didn’t intend to smile, but it happened. She tried to hide it from the ER attendant and her mother, because she knew how serious the moment was. She turned away from them because she couldn’t stop smiling.

Before I list off what I thought sparked a twinkle in her eye, let me write that it’s entirely possible that the ER attendant’s diagnosis soothed her because it put an end to the fear of not knowing. Those of us who have had our body fall apart in small, confusing ways can empathize, because we know that fear of not knowing. We spent months prior to our emergency room visit trying to figure out what was wrong with us. We listed our symptoms on various medical websites, trying to come to up with a diagnosis of our own, and we found a whole lot of nothing. Armed with a diagnosis, we, like this young woman, found solutions in the form of proactive measures we could employ to maintain a modicum of health that we hoped could lead to more energy and more healthy happiness.

The smile I saw on her face was something different however. I saw a little spark in her smile that suggested she considered that this diagnosis might add some complications to her life. Most of us live simple, boring lives, because we inherited quality genes that provided us a finely tuned and well honed machine that rarely breaks down. We appreciate the brilliance of the design of our body, to some degree, but after living with it for as many decades as we have, good health can be a little boring at times. When our body does break down, in small, relatively harmless ways, it can be interesting and even a little exciting for reasons that are tough to understand or explain. 

I do not know what was going on in her head, of course, but I imagine that she knew that this condition would not only require attention from her, but from her family, her friends, her employer, her school, and anyone else who cared about her. She probably sat in that ER room thinking that she would become the center of attention among those who cared about her. Until they could devise a plan to help her manage her day-to-day activities, she would also be a subject of sympathy from those concerned about her health. She knew she could talk to them about it, and that smile suggested she looked forward to those conversations and all of that attention. She knew she would be able to express her concerns, and she knew they would finally listen to her, because this was a big deal. They, along with her doctor, would help her devise a plan that would include a disciplined diet that she would have to follow, and she probably figured she could violate it when she was “feeling a little naughty”, and because she had a relatively mild case, the consequences of these violations would be minimal, but her friends and family would still be concerned when she did that.

She probably also thought about her obnoxious brother, boyfriend, or anyone else who thought they knew what was wrong with her. They all offered her a diagnosis, and she argued with them that it was far more complex than that, but they wouldn’t listen. They also offered her simplistic home remedies that promised some quick-fix solutions to what ailed her. Her smile suggested that she couldn’t wait to tell them they were all wrong, all along, and her condition was far more complex than any of them dreamed. Armed with ER attendant’s diagnosis, she realized she could now tell them all to go to hell. “You have no idea what you’re talking about. This is a big deal. You have no idea what I’m going through here. I have a condition that requires constant care and treatment.” That smile told me that she couldn’t wait to drop these lines on her obnoxiously simplistic friends and family. “Oh, so, you’re telling me that you know more about this than a doctor?”

What is the antonym of solutions-oriented thinking? Thesauruses list a number of antonyms, but they do not list the term problems-oriented. The term does not exist, because no one is problems-oriented, at least in the sense that a person uses problems to find some happiness. Some of them appear to love to talk about their problems non-stop, and they view any attempt to resolve them as an attempt to minimize their issue.

Solutions-oriented thinkers are no smarter, healthier, or in any way better than someone who appears to relish talking about their problems. Solutions-oriented thinkers are often quick to recognize patterns and devise an immediate solution, but they often have to face the flaws in pattern recognition thinking. When those humbling experiences occur, they choose a more methodical approach that includes consulting others, manuals, or another more methodical approach, and they use that information to devise another solution.

“But I thought you just said the other solution was the answer,” their agitators say. “I thought you knew-it-all.”

“I was wrong.”

Solutions-oriented thinkers are also wrong as often as anyone else is. They might be surprised, confused, and frustrated when their proposed solution doesn’t work, and problems-oriented people might enjoy that initial failure, but the solutions-oriented person does something that shocks the problems-oriented person, they try something else. Solving problems, to them, is an ego-less pursuit of finding an answer that involves trial and error. 

Solutions-oriented thinkers in solutions-oriented positions, in some Fortune 500 companies, are doing away with the traditional interview process. Through trial and error, they’ve decided to do away with the closed boardroom methodology that challenges a potential candidate with a, “This is the problem. Quick, what is your solution?” They’ve found that this line of questioning is no longer the way to find the best candidate. These innovative companies are sending their questions to their potential candidate’s homes, via email, to allow them to process the question, trial and error it, and arrive at the best possible answer. They recognize that quick thinking might sound great in the traditional interview, but it does nothing for their company long-term. They think the “thinks quick on their feet” bullet point to finding the best employees is overrated. They prefer a person who studies the nature of a problem, arrives at a diagnosis, recognizes their errors of their impulsive, pattern-based thinking, and arrives at another diagnosis of the situation to be their ideal candidate. 

The quick-on-their-feet candidate will always look better on paper, but how many quick-thinking, well-spoken candidates turn out to be great employees over the long haul? How many great employees display such qualities in the the interview process? Most of the great employees we’ve worked with over the years are generally quiet people who offer unique, creative, and innovative approaches to problem solving. Such candidates are rare, because most of them are ridiculed when they’re wrong, and most prospective candidates have been conditioned to avoid sticking their neck out in this manner. Candidates who can absorb such ridicule and endure the lack of faith they receive from bosses for occasionally being wrong to simply try something else are such a rare commodity that innovative companies are now willing to upend the traditional interview process to find them. They know such thinkers do not perform well in the standardized, traditional interview format, so they tried another format to find that special candidate who tried something else when their second and third solution didn’t work. The Fortune 500 company doesn’t want people who are always wrong of course, but even the best candidates are going to be wrong once in a while, and some of the times those errors will be humiliating. What do they do then? What do they do when all else fails? They want to hire that ego-less thinker who tries everything they can think of and when that fails, they use the revolutionary approach of problem-solving by trying something else.   

Thank you for your comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.