by Lael Ewy
Almost all of our self-help and management literature is infected with the co-occurring disorders of goal-setting and problem-solving. The problem I have with goals is that they're poor ways to live your life. We live a continuum, not from discrete moment to discrete moment.
Goals are preferred by power structures because they can be easily quantified, listed on a resume or in a quarterly report. But they're also defined by their completion, by the discrete nature of their own parameters. Once reached, they have an effect similar to certain drugs: momentary euphoria followed by a crash (another reason, no doubt, that those power structures prefer them). If the meaning of what you do is entirely goal-defined, you'll be at a loss about what to do and how to be after the goal is achieved. And if the goal is not achieved, you may be in danger of not knowing what the point of all your work in fact is.
Goals, then, while useful for marking work and organizing it, can also become traps, catching people in such a way that they define themselves in terms of what is or can be achievable or accomplished instead of as persons who are having experiences, learning, becoming.
Likewise, we fall into traps when we problem-solve. Almost all problem-solving techniques begin with defining the problem clearly; some even advocate defining the problem in a way that can be solved. This presupposes a certain kind of solution: one already implied in the way a problem presents.
This approach restricts the possible solutions and outcomes. It also often leads us to define problems in ways we're comfortable with instead of ways that address difficult truths. The “problem” of education in America, for example, is presented as a problem of achieving certain measurable outcomes, namely, student performance on standardized tests. This fails not only to address issues such as preparing students to apply what they know in the real world; it also fails to address the person as a learner, as someone who will have to keep on learning in an unpredictable (and unstructured) future environment.
Furthermore, we know that in the real world, problems are seldom defined in the abstract, prior to their being tackled. It's much more likely that real-world problems will be defined and redefined as they are being solved. Once we've (pre)defined what a problem is, brainstormed solutions, and selected a plan of action, there's little room for changing course. This is how we tend to get literally lost, how economies fail, how people get mired in “stuck” places. The problem has been so clearly defined from the outset that even firsthand observers sometimes fail to see what the problem really is.
We all know from experience, as well, that a structured problem-solving process, as good as it looks on paper and as easy as it is to teach, is seldom how problems actually get solved. Ideas often come to you while you're doing something other than actively thinking about them. But employers would probably not pay employees to creatively go do something else until a solution appears, as that's, also, nearly impossible to account for. So we continue to pretend our problem-solving techniques are the way things really work, content to have defined the actuality, safely, away.