Sex, Drugs, and Problem Solving, Part IV

Overcoming the difficulties of the problem-solving approach

The Quick Fix

A drug dealer gives an addict a dose of drugs, a fix. Soon after the addict has had his fix, the addict will go back to the drug dealer for another fix. The addict is highly likely to deny his addiction and dismiss well-meaning friends and relatives who try to change his behavior in various ways. If he goes into rehabilitation, there is a good chance he will recidivate.

There is a saying, “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach him how to fish, you feed him for his whole life.” I think the implications of this saying are well-understood. However, I believe there are numerous exceptions which can be characterized as follows: “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, and he comes back the next day, probably with a friend who wants a fish. If you try to teach him how to fish, he goes to some one else who will give him (and his friend) a fish. Even if you succeed at teaching him to fish, he goes on fishing and forgets you eventually.”

A friend of mine is a computer expert. He is absolutely inundated with requests for advice from all kinds of people (myself included). When I asked myself why this was so, I realized that my friend tends to fix problems quickly, happily, and without volunteering much explanation. Without necessarily intending to do so, he cultivates an air of mystery that exaggerates his expertise. But the result is, people approach him for help and solutions to their problems. When they encounter others with similar problems, they are unable to solve them and instead refer even more people to my friend.

So, if you want the prospect to come back to you, you must give them a quick fix.

Please don’t think that I recommend becoming a drug dealer, but consider the potential for good that comes of being a benevolent supplier. Countries like Holland that have nationalized the supply of addictive drugs have derived certain benefits including:

  • reducing the number of criminal dealers and the crimes they typically commit (e.g. turf war)
  • identifying addicts whose addiction might otherwise remain unknown
  • reducing the crimes addicts commit in their struggle to obtain drugs (e.g. burglary)
  • reducing the death of addicts by overdose or poor-quality drugs
  • making it easy for addicts to enter rehabilitation programs, whether cold turkey or through gradual dose reduction

Although you may be tempted to withhold a quick fix from some one who is seeking help, consider the analogous benefits of providing that fix.

Breaking the Habit

Although the idea of giving some one a quick fix has merits, delivery of repeated quick fixes can also result in enabling of destructive behavior and in dysfunctional relationships that are strong but also co-dependent.

When you are approached repeatedly for a quick fix by a complainant, Brian Tracy, in The Psychology of Achievement, has advised responding with an immediate retort of, “So what have you done to fix this problem?” The idea is to make the complainant take responsibility for the problem.

When you find yourself complaining repeatedly about a problem, it is valuable to ask this question of yourself, even if it means acknowledging your contribution to the problem. When you take responsibility for a problem, you get a feeling of control over the situation that more than compensates for the bitter taste of such an acknowledgement. By asking this question of the complainant, you may hope they derive the same value.

But there are self-serving reasons for taking this approach: it gives you a feeling of superiority and control. It frequently succeeds in getting rid of an annoying complainant who then rarely returns to you with their problems.

I have concluded that asking this question tends to degrade the relationship with the complainant. (Indeed, this approach should be used when the relationship is dysfunctional and should be dissolved.) If deep trust has not been previously established, then the complainant will simply leave you and go to some one who can give them a quick fix. Even if a deep trust has been previously established, there is significant risk that the complainant will simply feel deeply betrayed by your throwing responsibility back at them. Therefore, although it is beneficial to take responsibility for solving a problem yourself, you must hesitate before dumping responsibility on others.

You might have tried this tactic with your children in an attempt to teach them to take responsibility for solving their own problems. However, instead of teaching them, you may drive them away and run the risk of their seeking out a quick fix from a less benevolent supplier. To summarize, the quick fix has the benefit of establishing a relationship with the prospect, but can lead to bad habits. It is possible to break bad habits by shifting responsibility for problem-solving back to the prospect, but this may degrade the relationship as well. We seek ways to build relationships without encouraging bad habits and to break bad habits without degrading relationships.

Having enumerated some of the problems of the problem-solving approach, I will start to explore solutions in Part V.

Tags: Business, Philosophy

Updated at: 7 December 2006 12:12 AM