Living problem to problem

Frank Zappa’s paternal grandfather didn’t like taking baths.

It doesn’t take a genius to guess what problem this created. But he was no fool, old Zappa. He found a solution: he wore lots of clothes and doused himself with an excessive amount of cologne.

Here in 2019, we might scoff at this unhygienic, Sicilian, turn-of-the-century solution to a problem, but it’s really no different than the way most of us solve most our problems.

What particular pickle are you in at the moment?

I’m always in some kind of pickle, real or imagined. And there’s always a solution to it.

Not only that – there’s always a good solution. There’s a solution that doesn’t merely kick the problem down the road a little, but one that makes it go away for good.

Alas, I very rarely find these higher solutions, because I’m so desperate for any solution that I settle far too soon for one that doesn’t really solve anything.

You see, it’s very difficult to see good, long-term solutions, because when you’re in the moment, all emotional about the urgent situation you find yourself in, you think that all you need right now is a quick fix – something simple to allow you to breathe a little air – and if you can find it, then “everything” will be okay.

And since you’re so desperate to find a solution – any solution – you look extra hard, and you find one quite quickly. You tell yourself that’s it’s just this once, and that when you’re done with this immediate fix, you’ll make sure to sit down and figure out a real, long-term solution.

Except that you don’t. You’re so relieved that the problem appears to have gone away for a while that you relax and forget about the whole thing.

Until next week, when the problem is back, with a vengeance.

The short-term

The solutions you find in a panic, just to make the problem go away, are created by short-term thinking. Short in terms of time, and short in terms of space. Here are the characteristics of these solutions:

  • They are overly simplistic. They don’t take into account the whole picture, but are satisfied just to fix just one piece of the puzzle. Inevitably they cause some negative knock-on effect you didn’t foresee.
  • They are egotistical. They revolve around you and your immediate animal needs. They don’t consider that other people, or your future self, might end up paying a higher price as a result of this fix.
  • They only work temporarily. If they solve the problem at all – often they just mask it – they do it for a very short time.
  • They make you spiral downward. Each short-term solution is as if you were drowning, and you were given the ability to tread water. It’s an improvement, sure, but after enough cycles of this you’ll wear yourself out and sink

Long-term thinking

What about the other side? What do good, long-term solutions look like?

  • They are elegant. They take into account all the necessary elements, ignore the irrelevant ones, and then weigh up the possible interactions between all the branches of potential consequences.
  • They are universal. They solve your problem whilst making the world a better place in general.
  • They last. The problem is solved for a long time. It’s not coming back soon, and if it ever does, you will see it coming way in advance and have time to act before it causes any damage,
  • They make you spiral upward. Each long-term solution is an investment in future time and space. You feel continually more resourceful and free, ever less desperate and time-bound – you have more time and space with which to actually live.

Why are short-term solutions so popular?

Because we’re humans. And without going into the whole hunter-gatherer, running away from a tiger spiel, getting out of danger – real or imagined – is the natural thing for humans to do.

You have to actually learn how to make good long-term decisions. You’re born knowing how to make short-term ones.

I’m not going to argue that sometimes short-term solutions aren’t necessary. They are. Just nowhere near as often as you probably think.

One key take-away

Long-term thinking does away with the need for short-term thinking.

The reason you find yourself feeling desperate for a short-term fix is because you failed to invest in a long-term one. If you had, you’d never have created the situation where you needed a short-term fix in the first place.

Taking short-term solutions simply guarantees that before long you’ll be in the exact same position again.

A caveat regarding the extremes

It’s not “live fast, die young” or “become a monk.” That’s not at all what I’m talking about.

Thinking long-term has absolutely nothing to do with avoiding pleasure, or not allowing yourself to enjoy life in the moment. Conversely, it actually increases your ability to do both.

The “live fast, die young” crowd have to do that because they don’t know how to simply “live.” All they can think about is satisfying their immediate animal needs.

I think we can do better than that.

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