Solve Your Problems by Doing Nothing
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You should take proactive steps to address problems in your life.
Sounds like the most anodyne advice imaginable, on par with “you should eat food to survive.”
But lately I’ve found myself getting interested in situations where the opposite approach might be better. Is it possible that, sometimes, the best reaction to a problem is to do… nothing? I think it’s a possibility worth exploring.
Waiting it out: the solution that makes fake problems disappear
Often, the easiest way to “solve” a “problem” is to just wait until you realize that you don’t actually have one.
When we leap into action automatically as soon as we feel like there’s a problem, we’re forgetting that feeling like you have a problem and actually having a problem aren’t always the same thing. Sometimes I’ve thought I had a problem at work, or in a relationship, when really I was just hungry or tired or in a bad mood for no discernable reason. Our first instincts about how to solve a problem often optimize for addressing the anxiety we feel about the problem, not the problem itself.
As one of Those Guys™ who’ve studied Buddhism and never miss an opportunity to spout off about it, I can tell you that meditation teaches that all sensations, mental and physical, arise and pass away on their own. (Even a powerful, ongoing sensation that doesn’t feel like it’s passing away—say, intense, continual pain—is really, if you pay close attention, made up of a series of smaller sensations that do arise and pass away quickly.) But you don’t need to be a practicing Buddhist, or one of Those Guys™ like me, to realize that what you perceive as a problem can change fairly dramatically day-to-day based on nothing but your own headspace.
I have a friend who, when giving people advice about their first acid trip, always says, “If you start to feel like something is horribly wrong and you can’t articulate what it is, you’re probably just thirsty.” This advice actually applies all the time, even when you haven’t taken acid.
Some problems solve themselves; some solutions make things worse. (Or, why surfacing issues in your relationship is like screening for cancer.)
One of the many hard-earned lessons you learn as a startup founder is that lots of problems, if ignored, end up solving themselves. Sometimes this is because they weren’t really problems in the first place, but often it’s because, unbeknownst to you, they were actually just symptoms of a different problem, and when that problem gets solved, all these other problems that you didn’t even realize were related magically disappear.
For example: when my old company reached around 20 people, our employees started complaining—understandably—that salaries were set arbitrarily, with no visibility into what was required of them for a raise or a promotion. In response, we spent a lot of time and energy studying best practices and creating a clear system of levels, salary bands, and role requirements.
In retrospect, all of this was a complete waste of time. Our employees’ complaints were all downstream of the actual problem, which was that the company wasn’t growing fast enough. When a startup is growing fast, no one complains about leveling or pay transparency because there are constant opportunities for raises and promotions. Meanwhile, in the absence of that growth, we ended up shutting down before anyone on the team even had the chance to work their way up to the next level on our carefully-assembled chart.
If a problem is going to solve itself, trying to fix it usually just makes it worse. In the world of medicine, there are constant debates about the cost/benefit ratio of screening for different types of cancers: catch some early and you might improve outcomes, but other times, you might just be detecting and unnecessarily treating small, slow-moving cancers that wouldn’t cause any noticeable problems until long after their host was dead from other causes.
This is probably a terrible analogy, but I think a similar dynamic can emerge in relationships when trying to decide which potential issues to raise with your partner. (Now that I’m a whole three months into a new relationship, I’m a relationship expert and this newsletter is now a relationship advice column1.) Let some issues fester and they can eventually cause catastrophic damage (true life: this happened to me!). But sometimes, after a good night’s sleep, the thing you thought was an issue the day before no longer bothers you at all. Raise too many of those issues and all you’re doing is creating unnecessary conflict.
Slippery problems demand sideways solutions
A related category is what I like to call “slippery problems,” mostly because it sounds cool2. Slippery problems are stubbornly resistant to being solved directly. You rarely become happy by directly pursuing happiness, for example, or successful by directly pursuing success.
You shouldn’t do nothing in trying to solve for these larger, more philosophical pursuits, but neither should you try to address them head-on. They require an orthogonal approach, where they end up attained as the byproducts of seemingly unrelated activities. That’s why AA says that if you’re feeling unhappy, you should stop worrying about how you feel and go be of service to someone else, and why history’s coolest people never seemed all that concerned with being cool.
The real solution to feeling unhappy is obviously to read Candy for Breakfast. Subscribe to this newsletter and I guarantee you’ll never feel a single moment of unhappiness ever again.
I’m not 100% sure this section is that connected to the rest of this piece, but I really wanted to work the phrase “slippery problems” in here somewhere. They say in writing you should kill your darlings, but I chose to address the potential problem of this section not fitting in by… doing nothing.
Do things sometimes (my dullest section header ever)
Obviously, it would be a bad idea to never actively try to solve your problems. Take that to an extreme and you’d end up like the guy in this mind-blowing Reddit post, who claims to have only recently realized that he could use language to consciously think about and plan his life. (If you needed that spelled out for you, your problems are beyond the capacity of this or any newsletter to fix.)
I have a friend who works for one of the big tech companies that everyone, including them, hates. They took the job with the explicit goal of making a lot of money while doing as little work as possible, and boy are they nailing it. One of their secrets? Whenever someone asks them to do something, they wait until they’re asked twice before they actually do it. Most of the time, the task ends up being unimportant bureaucratic nonsense, and no one asks a second time3.
I don’t endorse this strategy in the workplace, where I doubt it will work for you as well as it works for my friend. But I do endorse a version of it internally, at least if you’re the kind of Type-A person like me whose default mode is to try to fix everything immediately. Next time you think you have a problem, pretend you’re a lazy employee of You Inc., and give doing nothing a shot, at least at first. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find it works more often than you might think.
If you liked this piece, don’t do nothing—hit the like button below so the mercurial Substack Gods think my writing is popular.
My girlfriend would say six months, but she’s counting wrong.
I Googled it just now to see if I could credibly claim to have coined it, and the top results are all about problems involving literal slippiness, like this informative CDC website about “slips, trips, and falls” on the job.
Either that, or they just get a more responsive employee to deal with it.