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Got a problem to fix? Don’t even try – it’s better to think afresh | Life and style

We’re often told about the benefits of experiencing failure, but what’s usually meant is grand failure: flaming out, crashing and burning, losing your livelihood after sinking your savings into an ill-fated toothbrush-sharing startup. Yet much failure is gradual and dull. You resolve to make some improvement – to your life, your relationship, your finances, your community – and it works, for a while. But then it peters out, and you resume your old ways. Maybe you blame a lack of self-discipline, or conclude that circumstances were against you. But there’s a more intriguing explanation for this sort of defeat: paradoxical as it sounds, what if solving the problem was the reason you failed to solve the problem?

The creativity coach Robert Fritz explains this idea in his 1984 book The Path Of Least Resistance, and once it’s been pointed out, it seems obvious: if you have a problem, and take action to lessen it, you’ll have less of a problem – so of course you’ll be less motivated to keep addressing it. He uses the example of the Ethiopian famine of the early 1980s, which triggered a worldwide response, until eventually “the situation got better. The media lost interest. Fewer pictures of starving children made it to primetime newscasts. Contributions slowed” – even though the problem was far from solved decisively.

Perhaps it’s tasteless to draw an analogy between humanitarian tragedies and, say, your marital troubles or your unfulfilling job. But there is one. If things are intolerable, and you take just enough action to render them tolerable, you’ll go back to tolerating them, until they grow worse again. So things never lastingly improve.

The underlying issue is that you’ve got two contradictory goals: you want a happy relationship or meaningful work, but you don’t want to face the discomfort of transforming or leaving your current relationship or job. So you act in service to the first goal (pursuing an improvement) until it starts to conflict with the second goal (avoiding an uncomfortable change), whereupon you reverse tactics.

Fritz asks you to imagine standing in the middle of a room, with two huge rubber bands around your waist, each of which is attached to opposite walls. Move towards one wall, to release the tension on one rubber band, and you increase the tension on the other, until it’s big enough to send you pinging back to the middle of the room.

What’s the answer? Fritz’s fills several books, but to oversimplify, the trick is to stop focusing on problems (except in emergencies, when you’ve hardly any choice) and to ask, instead, what you want to create. When you focus on solving a problem, you can’t help inheriting the assumptions baked into it – including a very narrow range of successful outcomes, all of which amount to, “I want this problem to go away”. Forget all that. Decide what you want, take stock of your reality, then take the necessary actions to invent the outcome you seek.

This broad-brush summary makes it sound easier than it is, of course. But simply dropping the problem-solving outlook is a great start. What emerges in its place might not work; but at least you won’t be at risk of improving things just enough that they don’t get any better.

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Robert Fritz sets out his programme for creating anything in The Path Of Least Resistance (1984) and Your Life As Art (2003).

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