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“Don’t come to with problems, come to me with options"

McKinley Valentine — 3 min read
“Don’t come to with problems, come to me with options"
Photo by Amy Hirschi / Unsplash

You’ve probably heard the very annoying and useless phrase, “don’t come to me with problems, come to me with solutions”? Like a) you’re the boss, it’s kinda your job to have people come to you with problems and b) this toxic positivity bullshit where you have to somehow frame a flooded basement as an exciting opportunity to learn about black mould.

But today someone explained what it’s supposed to mean, and I actually approve of it, plus it’s good advice for employees. I’ve paraphrased it as “Don’t come to me with problems, come to with options”. It means that when you encounter a problem, think about the consequences and what it means. So rather than just saying “I can’t do that work, you’ve already given me too many tasks,” you say, okay, here are the options:

  1. Turn down the new project to prioritise the original project
  2. Cancel the original project to do the new project
  3. Do both but deliver them late
  4. Do both, but spend half as much time on each. A half-effort job would look like this: [….]

And then it’s the boss’s job to choose and you can wash your hands of responsibility, as it should be.

I think part of the reason for that “come to me with solutions” thing is you forget how feckless a tonne of people are.

(Americans: “feckless” means like… the opposite of showing initiative. Extreme passivity. Encountering a problem and just stopping instead of thinking for two seconds. It’s not stupidity — it’s not putting the effort into think, rather than being bad at it.)

It’s not just in the workplace, it’s like when you meet someone who says “I wish my life was different. Oh well. No follow-up thoughts.” I mean there’s lots of ways we don’t change our life because it’s hard, or are there external barriers — that’s not fecklessness. It’s when you just treat it as a done deal, when there are still many other options available.

So “come to with solutions” probably kinda means “please think about the problem for 5 minutes to see if you can solve it yourself”. If you ask someone for help and you’re like, “I already tried x, y, and z” people are wayyy more willing to help.

In psychology terms, fecklessness is learned helplessness. Like, I’ve been very poor most of my life, and so I just sort of forgot that you can buy things to fix problems. I never bought socks, people just gave them to me sometimes, often enough that I didn’t run out. One time I did run out though, and my thought was “I hope some more turn up soon.” I wasn’t even totally broke then, and socks are only a few bucks! I was just so used to not having any agency that my only “solution” was “hope they just appear”. It didn’t occur to me that I could take any action to speed it up. I thought I just had to have cold feet till some more socks happened to me. THAT’s fecklessness, and yeah, it came from a history of poverty (it’s called learned helplessness because I literally learned that I was helpless, I didn’t imagine it) but man, it’s no good.

Even very smart people often have learned helplessness around specific areas, like tech, or fixing mechanical things, or cooking. Like “I’m not good at cooking, so I just get UberEats for every meal” when there’s a million tutorials on youtube teaching beginners how to cook. “I can’t keep plants alive, guess I just have a black thumb! No I’ve never googled ‘how to look after [houseplant species]’”.

I used to have it with mechanical things too, but a boss cured me of it. I was a barista, and I went to my boss being like “coffee grinder’s broken” (it wasn’t wrecked, just some handle had come out of a sprocket or something) and he took me over to it and was like, “look at the sprocket part, look at the handle part, how do you think they might fit together? Give it a go.”  (If it sounds condescending, it wasn’t, it was just training.)

I dont remember if I fixed it or not, but I gave it a go, and learned that you can use logic to give it a try, you don’t just say “that’s not my area, I can’t fix mechanical things.”

I suppose too little fecklessness is a flaw too, when your landlord is like “I’ll fix that electrical outlet, no need to call an electrician, I’ll just tinker directly with the mains.”

But it’s not actually about DIYing it, anyway, it’s just about acknowledging you can make changes to your life instead of being passive. Calling an electrician counts. Fecklessness is when you just go “oh well, guess I live in eternal darkness now”.

This piece was originally published in The Whippet #106 – subscribe to get the next one in your inbox!

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