When letting go means opening up...

All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on. - Havelock Ellis

We are natural-born problem solvers. By the time we reach adulthood, we have acquired an abundance of skill by training and experience. We have found our way through difficult situations that may have seemed insurmountable to our younger selves. We have learned to walk; we have learned to talk; we have learned to drive; we have learned to make (mostly) wise decisions on our own as we make our way in the world.

We are often rewarded for our ability to solve problems, which, in turn, motivates us to figure out how to keep improving that skill. We track our successes, and try to build on them. We might notice problem solving is aided by having adequate time, focus, milestones, and endpoints.

  • An infant finds her own path to becoming a sturdy toddler – there is a progression from holding up her head, to rolling over, to pulling and even crawling, all well before standing up and daring to take that initial step.
  • We each find a way to figure out things we want to do, although it may require time, tenacity, and even failure along the way. We reach new milestones; we solve that particular puzzle, and move on. Another problem-solving level achieved.
  • As we overcome obstacles, and make our own decisions, we build up capacity to do so, taking on more daunting issues as we gain confidence.

Yet sometimes the luxury of time, focus, and clarity is missing, and you have a big puzzle that remains unsolved. You may have bumped into such problems you cannot fully resolve.

Some of these challenges you try to alleviate, but find a way to live with. Perhaps the challenges are familiar ones, such as the recurring impact of family members’ different perceptions of tardiness, or tidiness, or (this list is endless). Other challenges are those you desperately want to solve for the greater good, such as ongoing poverty, or domestic violence, or (another endless list). Some problems are not clearly defined, such as when you feel dissatisfaction. You may be aware of your dissatisfaction, but you may not know specifically what you do want, much less the way to achieve it. These are all issues where you do not have adequate predictability or control – there is always some element of uncertainty, no matter how much you analyze the situation. You haven’t been able to solve the problem, but you can’t let go.

We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. - Joseph Campbell

I’d like to suggest that such problems are better understood as sticky issues – these are problems that recur, or linger, or seem too daunting to even approach. You may not have an idea where to start. You may start with a perfectly reasonable and useful solution, but that approach unravels as new, unforeseen obstacles or priorities emerge. Trying to problem solve in your expert way in the midst of uncertainty may mean you keep trying things, yet feel like all you have accomplished is to spin webs around yourself. There is no way to solve the problem, but you can’t let go. Sticky sticky sticky…do you have some of these messes in your life?

Such instances do not make you a problem-solving failure. Here is where you CAN let go: let go of the notion that every problem has a solution. You need a different way forward. When you call these messes “sticky issues”, you can begin to deal with them differently.

Breathe. Let go. And remind yourself that this very moment is the only one you know you have for sure. - Oprah Winfrey

Sticky issues have three things in common:

  • Edges are unclear. It is hard to describe the whole thing because more and more angles get pulled in once you begin. It can be consuming to try to give a complete and accurate description.
  • The parts you try to unravel and sort out turn out to be massively entangled. You find the pieces are dependent on each other, and shifting one thing may cause many other things to shift.
  • Connections among those parts and edges seem to feedback on each other. Just as you see and name an edge to the issue, it becomes a part of a greater piece, and you lose sight of where it could end. You may isolate a part, only to find that so many other parts are pulled into play with it, and choosing just one part gives you no clear advantage in choosing a way forward. Every action you may take will shift the whole thing, but in unpredictable ways and you are uncertain about what to do.

Our toughest decision making takes place here. How can you make a good choice amidst uncertainty?

A great place to start is to ask questions that help you explore the situation. When you cannot rely on your tried-and-true problem-solving skills, questions are a wise path forward. Bear in mind that the questions that will help you in sticky issues must take you well beyond your usual resources in problem solving. In this case, you must go to those questions that you do NOT already know the answer to. There is no reliable expert to ask, and certainly no Wikipedia article will answer your questions. You are in uncharted territory, exploring edges, parts, and connections. Sticky issues require you to go to the edges, tangle with the parts, challenge the connections, and find novel possibilities – you need questions that help you go beyond habit, and beyond known.

Here are six questions that can help you find new possibilities in the unpredictability and uncertainty of sticky issues:

First: gather data and clarify as much as you can.
What are the three most important things about the present in your issue?
This question draws your attention to what is, in the present, which will keep you from getting distracted by what was or what might be. Naming three gives you a useful starting set without getting bogged down in limitless detail.

What do you want to be same or different in future?
This question calls on your judgment, memory, and imagination to challenge what is, what could be, and what may pull you forward to the future you desire.

What do you know for sure, and what are your questions?
This question amplifies your inquiry, to delineate whatever certainty there is in the middle of the mess from the unknown. You may want to list “what do I know?”, “what can I find out (given time and resources)?”, and “what is unknowable?”.

What contradictions do you see?
Contradictions hold the energy for potential change. You need energy for change to happen. Find the contradictions, and you might find a useful shift that helps catalyze change that unlocks potential.

What has surprised you recently?
Naming surprises can give you hints about what future might be possible, or hints at information beyond your capacity to see clearly in the present.

Second: step back and look at your answers to the previous questions. If you have truly challenged your thinking, you have some new ways to consider the sticky issue. What new insights do you have? So what meaning do you make?

Third: identify action you can take.
Now, what is one thing you can do to make a difference?
This question moves you into action that enables you influence what is to create what will be. Just choose one action, no matter how small. With each little action, you can cycle back through the questions to explore what changed, and what resulted from that change.

These questions may not solve your problems for good, but they DO help you peer into uncertainty to find new options for creating a better future. When you use these questions in ongoing cycles, you will make some headway. You may already use some of them subconsciously – anyone in relationship with others (family, work, school, friends) is somewhat adept at dealing with a lack of certainty. My hope is that as you experiment with using these questions regularly, you will step beyond problem solving, and gain new insights in dealing with sticky issues!

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need. - Tao Te Ching

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