This is the 5th chapter in my upcoming book: “50 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Earlier”
Some years ago I sat down with my mum’s old friend and insurance agent, Uncle Tong Hai, for lunch, and he related a story of a client who was perpetually unhappy. The conversation went something like this:
“He was very wealthy but he was unhappy all the time and always complained about this and that,” said Uncle Tong Hai. “For all the time I knew him, he never seemed to be happy, no matter what.”
“Why was he unhappy?” I asked.
“He never told me, but he just kept talking about how he could not get happier no matter how he lived. He sought happiness in different lifestyles or businesses, but it didn’t improve the situation either.”
“Did he know what was the root cause of his unhappiness?”
“I don’t think he did.”
“If he knew the root cause, wouldn’t he know how to start making himself happy?” I blurted out without thinking very hard.
“You know, what you said is very profound and true,” said Uncle Tong Hai as he reached for another siew mai.
We all know I’m the opposite of profound, but what struck both Uncle Tong Hai and me that day was how people often fail to identify the root of the big problems in their lives.
And life, as you’ve probably realized by now, is a long series of problem-solving situations (or not).
To manage your expectations, I’m not saying here that all problems can be solved.
For example, there’s nothing I can do about your mother-in-law-from-hell or my balding pate.
Not all problems need to be solved either. I might be balding but it only seems to bother the people around me who always ask “Why are you balding? Why don’t you visit Beijing 101 for treatment?”. Apparently, me losing hair is a problem to them. But if I, my wife, and my children don’t care if I’m balding, then it really doesn’t matter who cares right?
Many problems are a matter of perspective.
Now many problems we face in life are easier to solve than we think.
Like I wrote above, the simplest and quickest way to deal with a problem is to seek the root cause. Many people waste their time studying the symptoms of a problem, but they don’t deal with the actual cause of the symptoms.
If you have a bad cough, taking Strepsils will treat the symptoms, but you’ll probably need antibiotics to treat the actual viral infection that is really the root cause. When people face issues with other folks, their Strepsil is “Let’s be nice and see how things work out", but they do not understand nor deal with the actual issue.
For example, when people work in groups, there’s often friction between members for a variety of reasons. Group leaders often try to get people to work together by either
- forcing them to get something done no matter what or
- encouraging them to be nice to each other, after all, we’re a team right?
But group leaders often fail to ask the critical question: “Why is there friction in the first place? Why did I put these people together?”
Asking people who don’t like each other to be nice to each other doesn’t solve anything – it might even make matters worse because the root cause of their poor relationship is allowed to fester and boil over.
Some possible root causes in a conflicting team. These group members may not like each other for a variety of reasons:
- Envy about the other’s talent or reputation
- Some misunderstanding or injustice that was never resolved
- Mismatched skill sets
- Personality clashes
- Or that some people just won’t like the other person no matter what. Maybe their Eight Characters don’t align or something.
Nevertheless, I’m often baffled how many people approach people problems.
I hear this sometimes: “But XXX is such a nice guy! How can we tell him that he’s not doing the right thing?” We all like nice people, but woe unto us if we use their personality as an excuse not to deal with the real issue.
People do everything to attack the surface of the issue, but can never bring themselves to expose the root issue. As a result, the problem appears to become more and more complex, and they’re no nearer to an answer than before.
Or they add another problem unto the original problem.
You can probably think of a few examples right now, and here’s one we’re all familiar with:
- Back in junior college, it was a really cool thing to study together in the school’s void deck. The original premise is simple – by studying together, we can help each other with academic questions we might not be able to solve alone (we’ll call this Problem A).
- Hence it appeared that the solution to overcoming an academic challenge was to study together (We’ll call this Solution A)
- But another problem arose from hanging around each other – who could resist chit chatting and gossiping about that cute girl from the other faculty? Or even better, why not hang around that cute girl at the same table? Hence another Problem B arose from Solution A, and it impacted Problem A.
- So what’s Solution B? Why, studying together more often together should increase the knowledge sharing and aid in the building of friendships! Yes, we chat a lot, but if we spend more time together, that should allow us to cover more ground in this topic right?
- As a result, Problem A isn’t really solved since studying together can actually result in less info-sharing.
Of course, if you’re incredibly disciplined like some of my schoolmates who refused to talk to each other during those group sessions, Problem B would hardly arise. Yet from anecdotal evidence, most people succumbed to the distraction and ended up not doing that great during the exams despite all the group effort.
Now how did some of us solve Problem A?
Simple, we just borrowed each other’s work and copied the hell out of them. This way, you share knowledge without the chance of getting distracted. Of course, if you copied stupidly and did not understand what you were replicating, you wouldn’t get any more brilliant than you were before.
It all seems pretty simple, but the reality of life is that many of us don’t mind having Problem B around if it means that we have a chance to get to know that cute chick better.
Screw the grades, you say.
Indeed, it’s all a matter of prioritization – if you don’t think that getting good grades is more important than chasing a potential spouse, that’s for you to decide and not for others to criticize or solve for you. For many, Problem B is a happy problem…so no problem lah.
(Of course, having a spouse brings on a whole new alphabet of problems, but that’s another chapter )
The most difficult thing to do is to spot the root cause.
Like what I said to Uncle Tong Hai, most people are blind to the root cause of issues. It’s not necessarily because they are not intelligent, sometimes they simply don’t want to know or deal with the root cause.
That’s because dealing with root causes often demands a big dose of courage. Nobody wants to be a coward, but people are afraid of failure. They might think – “if I will probably fail at dealing with the root cause, I’d rather not think about the root cause…there must be an easier solution.”
That’s when they start thinking about all the symptoms and how to solve it.
Here comes another story:
The neighbour who stayed on the floor above me had this old air-conditioning unit that was affixed to the same wall where our king-sized bed rested against. The unit would vibrate so much in its wooden fixture that the wall would amplify the sound and generate a big buzzing sound in my room late at night.
We put up with it for months before I approached the old man. He insisted there was no problem and he needed to switch on the air-con for his grandkids who stayed over during weekdays.
To cut the long story short, I lost my temper with him over the next few months but he refused to acknowledge there was a problem, even when I invited him to my room to take a listen for himself. The town council and HDB were of no help. Things got really ugly between us.
Me and my wife were furious at this old man, but we could do nothing.
I did think about soundproofing my room, but in this case, it would be treating the symptom.
So I reached into the root cause – I forked out over a grand to replace his airconditioning wall unit with an inverter style unit that would be affixed to another wall and not produce the same sort of “harmonic distortions”.
It didn’t matter that he nor his family never once thanked me for doing that, I solved the problem and we now sleep in peace. (Another lesson: money does solve many problems, that’s why we should save more for a rainy day like this)
So what was the root cause in this case?
An easy answer would be “It’s the old man!”, but from my perspective, the root cause was actually the cranky air-conditioning unit and where it was positioned. The old man was simply a layer between me and the damned air-con.
If I had tried to “solve” the old man, I would have gotten nowhere because you can’t change people. But if you offer them a solution that was free and benefited them, both parties win. I did the right thing by my standards, but most people will not accept this solution because they think that the old man should fork out money for the air-con and he’s obviously in the wrong for not being a good neighbour.
But if he didn’t see my problem as his, I would be unhappy and sleepless for many more years.
People often reject the simple solutions
Another perplexing thing about man is his desire to complicate matters. Some people actually feel better if things got more messy. “Surely,” they say, “the solution cannot be that simple.”
Don’t ask me why lor, I think we’re just wired like that.
Know yourself, know everything, solve (nearly) everything
The old adage “if you aren’t the solution, you’re part of the problem” holds true for many problems we face. Sun Tzu also recommends that we know ourselves (as well as the enemy) to win a thousand battles. If we isolate ourselves as being NOT part of the problem, you’re halfway to the solution.
But how well do we really know ourselves?
I spend a lot of time thinking and rethinking about the things that I’ve done in the past. Yes, I know in Chapter One, I said we should live life without regrets, but it doesn’t mean we forget the things we’ve done, for better or worse. Self-reflection and soul-searching on a constant basis is important, because we use that to re-affirm who we are, and who we want to become.
We all think that we know ourselves better than we really do. I might say : “I think I’m really a nice guy.” but I’m sure a lot of my buddies and non-buddies would chime in with their other opinions. “Nice” is subjective, especially when people feel that you’ve not been nice in a particular way to suit their personal definition.
If we are able to take our personalities, our actions, our biases and lay them out in a calm and collected manner, we would come closer to understanding how others see us and how we should see ourselves. Then we are able to locate our role in the problem and get a clearer picture immediately.
The person who says: “I don’t care what other people think of me!” is most probably lying. And most of the problems we face in life, arise due to some level of contribution from us.
Let’s throw around a few examples again and in the brackets, I pose the questions people avoid asking themselves:
- I’m in an unhappy marriage (How much is it attributed to me as a lousy spouse?)
- I’m in a lousy job (Why did I take up this job despite knowing better?)
- I’m going to be poor forever (What choices did I make in my life to stay poor and not become wealthy?)
- I’m crippled and miserable (What have I done to make the best of my remaining abilities?)
And so on.
To conclude, solving problems requires one to simply peel away the layers and peer underneath the symptoms for the root cause. But first, clearly identify your own contribution to the problem.
Great problem solvers are often deemed intelligent because they seem to be able to deal with issues quickly where others have failed repeatedly.
In reality, they’re simply able to distinguish between symptoms and root causes more quickly than others, and have the expertise and experience to reach for the core and work on it.
Beware though, because when you solve problems so directly like this, there are those who will be impacted or hurt if you steamroll through their feelings and pride.
Great problem solvers are those who are able to navigate through the scary mess of egos and emotions of other people, and deal with the issue at hand without causing significant collateral damage. Personally, I’m still working on how to become a better problem solver, and how to strike a better balance between the means and the end. I ask those whom I might have hurt over the years to forgive me if I solved problems at your cost.
The good news is – with age and repeated practice, we’ll all get better at solving problems.
In closing, here’s a verse from the Bible that I often think about when things get really tough:
And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.