Seeing the Unseen
If you think about all the things in your life or in your job, there are plenty of things that need fixing or doing. You (or your team) can only see some of these things, not all of them. You can more easily see the little things than the big things. After fixing everything you can find, such as bugs in your software product or issues with your marketing or customer service, it’s easy to stay on top of it, keep your eye out for new ones appearing. It’s like a game of whack-a-mole: an issue pops up, you jump on it and resolve it, hopefully before the next issue appears. You may start with say 17 things to deal with, but you crunch thru them over time and get them all resolved, so now you’re on top of it. Your “inbox” is zero. Now you’re waiting – one new one comes in, and you’re on it! You look at it, discuss it, set priorities, fix the bug or clear the misconception through training, whatever it takes for each individual item – and you can mark it “done”. Wait for the next one.
This method of working is very satisfying work because you have very clearly defined rules about what needs to be done and how. What needs to be done, and what doesn’t. Any email coming in the inbox needs to be dealt with, and nothing outside of the email box needs to be dealt with. Black and white. Perhaps when a task is done the customer must be informed, when they’re happy with the results, you’re done – and you can check your inbox again, and nothing is left to do – that is so satisfying when you can stay on top of it like that.
But how many people do you know what have a job like that? With clearly defined work and not-work (things we’re told not to do), clear knowledge of how to resolve every kind of issue, clear expectations from the customer, with happy results at the end? Most businesses don’t work this way. With most businesses, the set of stuff you might need to act on is everything, or “infinity”. The advantage you have over your competition is in your ability to come up with new things they didn’t think of, new solutions to old problems, new actions they aren’t doing. Now, this is the hardest kind of work, and the most unsatisfying, because you never know when you’re done – you don’t know what it is you’re missing, from that set of “infinite” things you could/should be doing. At the end of the day you’ve accomplished a finite amount of stuff, with just as much “infinity” potentially being left behind for tomorrow.
If you could just think of those things you don’t know to think of, you could determine actions for those things, do those actions, and you’d be done again – reward.
If you work at a regular job with a regular boss telling you what to do, in many ways that’s easier – your boss will tell you what to work on, what the priorities are – turning the infinite into finite – you have a defined set of things to do. When you’re done, you tell your boss, and they give you the next set of work that they have been planning, and so on. If issues come up, you have people to turn to for answers – your boss can help you set priorities (decide if the new thing is higher/lower priority than what you’ve been working on). Easy.
You might, once in a while, get a great idea for something, and bounce it off your coworkers and boss, your department – to see if it’s something that should be worked on or not. You either get the go-ahead to work on it officially, or not. If not, then you have to make a call – do you work on it anyway, perhaps in your spare time (before work, during lunch/breaks, after work)? Because if you could just get something done about it to show others, they’re more likely to appreciate seeing it tangibly, interactively – rather than just pondering a distant concept. In the case of software, creating a mockup that looks mostly real and is somewhat interactive can produce amazing results – managers and coworkers may think of all kinds of new things to do with your new creation. They may say “we totally never need this thing,” in which case it can be ignored.
Or, they may like it a lot, and want it developed into a full product. Or maybe it’s a utility you created for yourself, a web page or a spreadsheet that’s useful to you, so you use it after that. But it’s also useful to the person replacing you some day, or people like you in other departments, you can share it and distribute the knowledge of some easier or better way of doing something. Sometimes people will like that you solved the problem but won’t like how you solved it – they want to see it done their way, for whatever reason, and an official solution will be settled on that has nothing to do with your creation. Don’t let that be painful to you – you were the one who came up with the idea that the problem could be overcome in the first place, and you proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that it could be, with your creation. You created vision in the minds of those around you, you inspired them, and the problem was solved from that point forward – just maybe not exactly the way you thought.
But there’s also a middle ground: the thing you created may not be appreciated, but maybe your boss sees the value of what you’re trying to do, maybe they understand the field better than you and think of 3 new features that you could add to your product/utility. And you have to decide – do you want to add those 3 features? It maybe affects your original intention of what the utility solves. Maybe the new way would solve a larger problem, or slightly different problem. Wouldn’t it be awesome if your boss allocated time and resources for you to more completely develop such a product and finish it, so others can use it? And after developing it, you will have accomplished something – you didn’t give up – you completed it, and it works, and it’s useful, even if nobody else ever uses it besides you.
It was valuable for you to go thru the whole process and reach the end. It gives you the talents and abilities to do that again and again and again – you never know what the future may hold. Perhaps a much more important project is coming your way, and this is the skill set you’ll need to really scope it out, implement it, test it, modify it, and release it.
Or maybe you’ll see a friend struggling at a point you’ve already conquered – and you say, “hey! you should finish that thing you keep talking about. You’ll get credit for it, your boss will like it, and you will have improved your department/company, or made your job easier to do.” You’ll be able to tell them about the time you did just such a thing, and how the results turned out positively. Also your mind works better now – you can see the completion of the project, when just thinking about the plans, because you’ve done it in the past. You can see it, you can taste it, and that can drive you to complete it.
Or you may have a freelance job, you might be a self-employed person. A contractor, a consultant. A one-person-company. This is the most free form of all – it’s the most difficult to nail down exactly what you should be doing, and not-doing everything else. What should you spend your time on? There isn’t enough hours in all the days in a year, to do everything you can think of. So what are your priorities and why? Sometimes it can be really hard to see what you should be focusing your time and energy (and money) on. You’re too close the problem, and you’ve thought about it now from too many directions. Mentally running in circles, confusing yourself. You need a viewpoint from the outside. With this kind of work, that which you cannot see becomes the most important thing to be able to see. But how can anyone do that?
What you cannot see
So: what is the thing you can’t see? You must think differently than you do; someone else is going to see it for you. In a company sometimes it’s your boss, or your boss’s boss, or your marketing department. In a family, it’s your other family members. In a neighborhood it’s your neighbors.
What if you’re trying to solve a personal or health problem? Who are you going to recruit to help you with that? Think about the experts in your life, or people who can act as experts to help you with the problem. For medical problems, you need to see a doctor, but maybe that doctor can’t figure it out. Then you need a specialist, or at least, a different doctor. You need to find an expert to help you with the thing you’re struggling to solve. When immediate experts don’t work, you have to expand your horizon and look at alternatives. For example, to cure your allergies, doctors are no help at all. No doctor is ever going to cure your allergies for you. It’s not what they do. You need to do research on the Internet and figure out how other people like you are fixing their allergies. Do your research. Because they are out there, fixing their allergies. You may not know about that – you gotta find it.
A really good thing to do is to have a mentor in your life – you share all various aspects of your life with them, where you feel stuck at, and ask for help. They aren’t living the life you are, so they have a fresh perspective for you to listen to. And you should, listen, to them. Because you’ve probably already tried a lot of things that you thought of that didn’t work. So now, try the new things they’re proposing! Worst case is they won’t work either – you’re no worse off than you were before.
If you can’t find any mentors, you might choose an alternative, which is to create some mentors yourself – by starting a brainstorming or thinktank group. You invite usually 5-8 people to meet once a week in person, and each person takes turns giving a brief summary about themselves and their situation, and 1 big issues they’re facing right now. Everyone else gets to make suggestions for them to think about. Because no two people have had the same life experience; and even if they had, they would have absorbed it differently, interpreted its meaning into themselves differently. These sorts of groups work really well for this reason. You may not think you’re an expert at very much, but you’ve certainly handled various problems in your life. You have knowledge that can help others related to that experience, and so does everyone else. It’s quite a good feeling to have a handful of people pondering your problem for a few minutes, giving you 3, 4, 5 good ideas of things to try, as well as maybe some not so good ideas. (The rule of brainstorming is: say whatever ideas come to mind, even if you think they’re dumb, to get them out of your brain so you can move on to better ones. If you don’t say that bad idea, your brain will probably lock onto it, and you won’t be able to move beyond it.) Everybody gets a chance to talk.
Expressing your problem out loud – that alone helps you process it in a different light. Being able to describe it concisely, as simply and quickly as possible, helps you think even more thoroughly about it, about what parts of it are really important and why. That alone can give you fresh ideas of things to try to resolve it. You have to be able to speak quickly, because everyone else needs their turn, too. Also, you’re going to see the same set of people over and over again, so all together you’re going to learn more and more about these people, which helps future problem solving sessions. It gives them more ability to gain insight into the solutions to your problems, because sometimes it’s just easier to see other people’s problems and solutions than to see your own. And, in return, you’ll see more clearly into their lives and issues and solutions, as you get to know them. Some people make the same mistakes over and over again, or see things incorrectly the same way over and over – when you know them, you can gently help them re-realize that with each new issue they present. And, chances are, you’re the same way – they’ll help you in the same way with your issues so quickly it might amaze you.
It cost them nearly nothing to help you – and it cost you nearly nothing to help them – and everyone benefited massively.
Sometimes the advice might be, “I don’t know how to solve your problem, because I had that problem once, and all I know is, don’t do what I did – I ______________.” Well, that was useful advice, something to avoid.
Sometimes the advice might be, “I don’t know how to solve your problem, but this one guy I know, who I just talked to last week, would be a perfect guy to talk to about your problem” – the value of the network. When you think about how many people you know, and all the people that everyone in the Brainstorming meeting knows – that’s a lot of people with a lot of experience! If these people know an average of 10 people each, and you have a meeting with 8 people, that’s 80 potential people who could help with any given problem. And I’m sure you know more than 10 people in your life.
The thing is, it’s hard to admit problems and mistakes and situations that you’re facing in your life. You have to be OK with telling those other people, and trust them that they will be nice to you about it, and sincerely help you with them. And, you must do the same for them.
This is the most powerful way of seeing that which you cannot see, and solving those long-standing, unsolvable problems in your life.
I highly recommend it.