What’s the problem?

Over the holidays I took some time to revisit the teachings of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. In his book: Peace is Every Step, he elegantly explains systemic principles with the metaphor of lettuce. Thich Nhat Hanh points out that when we plant lettuce we do not blame the lettuce if it grows poorly, pointing out that we consider soil, sun, rain and other factors when plants do not grow. So why do we blame people or single out one cause to any problem? Furthermore, why do so many people try to find one simple solution to a complex problem? If defining a problem by looking for things and people to blame, solutions will be elusive and the same problems will resurface in various forms. 

Systems thinking suggests that we look at the big picture, zoom in to the individual parts and recognise the relationships between the constituent parts of any whole. Everything is a system and yet we continue to look at things in a linear (cause and effect) way to identify problems and find their solutions. If I work with a company to help them change their culture I may focus on the leadership team but not before first looking at the company as a whole and examining business areas and processes from different perspectives. The same approach can be applied to countries, companies, family or individuals. If I work with an individual we always take a quick look at their whole life before the problem they have identified can be addressed.

I am quite wary of anyone offering one solution to all of our problems. Not only is each of us a complex system but we live within many complex systems. This needs to be considered as we look at which problems to tackle both as a society, in organisations and as individuals. Poverty, the environment, geopolitical conflicts, economic stability, and public health are all important concerns but how do we define one specific problem within each of these areas? If we find it difficult to determine one problem how can we decide on any one solution? There is not a political decision, an electric car or a vaccine that will provide all the solutions we are looking for because complex systems often require us to consider a variety of approaches to identify and solve our problems. 

As you start this new year you may be thinking about things you want to change in your life. Remember that one habit or action will not be the solution to all of your problems. Naturally, it is important to start somewhere and take the first step that will lead to incremental changes but don’t expect one thing to change your life. A new job, a new relationship or winning the lottery will not solve all of your problems. To repurpose an old saying, if you see nails as the source of your problems then you may think a hammer is the only solution. 

Thich Nhat Hanh recommends a daily mindfulness practice to allow us to consider the complexities of life with an open mind and from multiple perspectives. Mindfulness may not be the solution to all of our problems but it can allow us to see the world more clearly, helping us to address problems with less fear and more compassion. Wishing everyone a happy, healthy and mindful 2022!