A friend from South Africa was recently sharing stories about how even though they abolished institutionalized racism in 1994, discrimination remains common day-to-day. The challenge, he explained, is that when anyone brings this up, people’s reaction is usually along the lines of “I’m tired of talking about this, didn’t we already deal with it 30 years ago?”.
Didn’t we already deal with this?
This line had a familiar ring to it. Similar sentiments seem to be common in all contexts of life like work, politics, personal relationships, most recently the COVID-19 pandemic, and even things as simple as our appliances breaking down. Dealing with problems that seem to keep coming back can be incredibly frustrating, and yet, we can’t seem to avoid it. What I’ve found, is that most of these instances are not about issues getting unsolved. They’re about premature celebrations; situations where we consciously or subconsciously choose to believe that we’ve solved something, when we in fact haven’t. Simply put, when we mentally check the box for something we’re not actually done with. A few thoughts on identifying these:
Acknowledging an issue is not the same as solving it.
To fix anything, we must first recognize it, and the truth is that many times, just getting to this point is an extraordinary accomplishment on its own. The challenge is that by the time this happens, it isn’t uncommon for one or both sides of the issue to be exhausted and call it a day.
Addressing an issue is not the same as solving it.
When it comes to proposed solutions, they often turn out to be wrong, only partially right, or take a long time to pan out. We’ll dive into all three below, but in general, we must remember that attempting does not equal accomplishing.
Sometimes we try and fail.
That’s okay. It’s important to recognize legitimate efforts, but it’s equally important to avoid feeling satisfied by these recognitions. When a solution falls short, as painful as it is, we must own the fact that the problem remains, recalibrate, and try again.
Partial solutions are tricky.
They are typically better than no solution, and can even be sufficient at times. Some issues, however, merit absolute resolutions. For these, while celebrating progress can help generate the momentum required to take the next step, it shouldn’t become a distraction from the work left to be done.
Problems in the process of getting solved aren’t solved yet.
When there’s a delay between actions and results, we mustn’t forget that the issue — along with its negative effects — is still very much present. During this period, we should do our best to attenuate its negative effects, and actively seek out ways to accelerate the timeline, even if it means considering alternative solutions.
In short: a problem isn’t solved until it’s solved.
This should sound obvious, but my hope is that by being more explicit about these traps, we can develop the foresight to avoid falling for them in the future. After all — regardless of whether we’re dealing with racism, a threat to our business, climate change, differences in a personal relationship, or yes, a global pandemic — training ourselves to face the truth about our problems will not only spare us unnecessary frustration, but make us more effective problem solvers.
Special thanks to Afika for inspiring this essay + Ben and Kesava for reading early versions.