Not Every Problem Needs a Solution

This past year, I’ve received some difficult pieces of news at broad and personal levels. I’ve made it a goal to be mindful of it all, without taking everything as a problem for me to fix.

When I see something wrong, my first impulse is typically to diagnose the problem and solve it. In math classes and in my career, diving into the root cause of a problem has been difficult, but often satisfying. Dealing with quick questions has been a good, but not particularly lucrative, side business for me for much of my life. In college, I worked an hourly job at an information desk, providing directions to campus buildings and phone extensions to different departments. I became so known at a previous employer for my personal finance advice that, after changing jobs, I wrote a book to avoid the temptation to answer the same questions repeatedly in a new forum. I still like helping out curious and confused coworkers on different topics, although I have to balance my shallow Q&A with a duty to “dive deep” on meatier technical problems.

A news story, whether a health update about a relative or a disaster far away from me, is not typically a problem, and I cannot solve it. Even the decision to share the story shouldn’t be taken lightly: we should all know by now that the “share” button can cause a strong emotional reaction. My response to many emotionally charged messages had been, “How can I help?” Now, and without condescension, it’s more likely to be, “That sucks.”

“Do you want to be helped, heard, or hugged?” is a question I read about earlier this year. It comes from teachers with young, emotionally overwhelmed students, but with a little wordsmithing, the question also works well for adults talking with adults. In some cases, a person in a bind really needs a question answered with facts or advice. In other cases, the question is rhetorical, and even trying to answer it could be seen as disrespectful. In others, the person asking the question wants a little compassion. The “hugged” can even be done in text: Slack and Discord have reaction emoji including a hug and many hearts, and I’ve seen a lot of people using them recently.

I only worked at Salesforce for a couple of years, but I credit the company and its culture for getting me to try a mindfulness practice. I learned that mindfulness isn’t about tuning out to the world. I was expected to pay more attention to the world around me, whether or not my eyes were open. I was often advised, by the disembodied voices of the Calm app, to observe things, notice them, identify them, and let them go. That was a good plan to deal with much of the unpleasantness of 2020 and 2021. I still return to mindfulness practice when I feel particularly overwhelmed, though it isn’t a daily habit for me anymore.

After starting to pursue an appropriate level of outrage with respect to political news in 2017, I’m continuing to stay current on news about matters personal, local, national, and international. I try to detach without coming across as overly cold or uncaring. Sometimes, people sharing a problem are seeking help with it. At other times, they want to vent, and I have to choose whether I want to be a sounding board. At other times still, I accept that people want to be hugged; sometimes, a hug comes with an acknowledgement that a bad situation is out of all of our control. “That sucks” is a perfectly fine thing to say, although I lament how often I’ve had to say it lately.

Disclosure: As of the original posting date, I own shares in Salesforce. This article does not represent the opinions of my past or present employers.