Definitions, limit problems, and solutions

When we define problems, we often focus more on what we can’t do than what our solution could be. We narrowly define why we can’t instead of opening up the solution space to what we can. Working on understanding a problem means changing how we define the problem such that it includes a solution – whether that solution is direct change, adapting to an unchangeable aspect or completely bypassing the problem.

Defining what the problem is in terms of what is stopping you is an important first step. If you don’t know what the obstacle is and why that prevents progress, you can’t factor into your solution something that addresses that issue. However if this is where our defining the problem stops, we have only defined half of the problem. The interferes with finding a solution.

Looking at what a solution can look like allows the problem to be defined in terms of outcomes and possibilities. For example, I can’t move forwards. Ok, that is good to know. Why? What does forwards look like? How will you know that you have progressed? Is forwards the only way to get to your destination? The first definition – I can’t move forwards – is accurate but limiting. Incorporating these follow up questions into the definition of the problem allows scope for finding a solution that gets the outcome you are after.

Considering the scope of the definition is similarly important. If your definition is too broad, you can paralyze yourself in your analysis of the situation. If you don’t define enough, you limit the space landscape to find a solution. If you can figure out which way you have limited yourself, then you can adjust and compensate.

Feeling your way through an obstacle

Often we are hindered in our progress by an obstacle of some kind. Obstacles come in all kinds of forms, which can make it difficult to identify what has gone wrong. Indirect methods for understanding the obstacle are needed to help us plan how to adapt to that obstacle.

Blindfolded person running a race tied to a sighted person
Unseen challenges can tether us.

If we can’t easily directly identify what that obstacle is, then we need to know how to  indirectly learn about the obstacle. This is where the idea of Feeling the obstacle comes in.


Identify what feeling is attached to the obstacle that is hindering you – you are probably feeling frustrated that you are not progressing, but that is secondary to how you feel about the thing that is stopping you. Often fear is attached to the obstacle we can’t identify, or sadness or some other primary feeling.

Missing Step

Identify what point in the obstacle is in your plan. If you know the step preceding where the obstacle is, it makes it easier to identify what is supposed to come next, which facilitates you to identify what the obstruction is. It could be a person, a resource, knowledge or yourself.

Analyse and plan

Combine the emotion you have identified with the missing step to help get a sense of the shape of the obstacle. If you have identified what it is and how you feel about it, you can now start to create a plan to overcome this obstacle.

Sometimes the thing we identify is a symptom of a more complex obstacle which may need a bigger solution.

If you are still stuck, it may be time to call in an expert. Talk through with someone you trust – a friend or therapist – where you got up to, what the wanted outcome is and where you got stuck. Brainstorm what it may be that is stalling your progress and ways to get past it.


We make plans built on poor information and best guesses using techniques that are poorly streamlined and hopefully good enough to reach goals that we think might do. When we rigidly stick to these plans we are dooming ourselves to a poor outcome. Flexibility is the key to being able to evolve our dynamic plan as we go for better outcomes.

Bent pencil indicating flexibility
Making a dynamic plan by being a flexible person


First, recognise that there is a hell of a lot you don’t know.

It is okay to be ignorant – no one knows everything.

Ignorance comes in several flavours –

Known unknowns – what you do know that you don’t know. Often it is worth pursuing more information about these before making your plan. However sometimes the resources to do this are beyond your current ability, so make a good enough guess to get moving and update later as greater information becomes known. Check out the section below “Uncertainty”.

Unknown unknowns – what you don’t know that you don’t know. This is much harder as there will become holes in your plan and knowledge that you become aware of later. If you weren’t prepared for the likelihood that there were unknown unknowns this hole may blindside you, taking you longer to recover and adapt.

Knowing that you are ignorant is a first step to allowing new information in. Denial of one’s own ignorance is a quick way to keep bullying ahead into disaster.


Next, accept that most of what you do know you will find out later is wrong.

Some of this error will be 100% wrong. We thought black was white and white was black. Most of the time the error will be only partial – it turns out what we thought was black was mostly just dark grey.

Complete errors will usually require a larger update to the plan, while partial errors will require a smaller adaptation.


We can identify things that we have a high confidence is correct and things that we have a lower confidence with. Using this, we can begin to construct our plan, leaning mostly on the things we are more confident with. Critical phases of the plan need to have confidence, so that may require investigating low confidence things in critical places to gain more knowledge and certainty.

It is inevitable that you cannot know all the things you need to know to make a concrete and perfect plan. Accept the uncertainty of what you know and make a plan anyway.

Making a dynamic plan

As you travel along your plan you will learn more about your situation, gain resources and find holes in your plan that you didn’t and couldn’t account for. Being able to adjust the plan based on newer information is really powerful.

Concrete plans often end in failure, while dynamic plans often end in success. Being flexible allows you to change your plan without it being about you.

Do not be afraid to begin to plan, knowing that you don’t know. Just accept that the plan will change as you learn and experience more.

Evil thoughts?

It is not the thoughts you have, or the intention you mean, or the outcome that counts. Only the actions you choose and the acts you do which move you that count.

When challenged by a problem we reflect on what we have learned to see if there is an answer to this problem. This reflection may include ideas that are very incorrect for logistical, moral or ethical reasons. We will also have ideas that are excellent or just good enough for the same logistical, moral and ethical reasons.  Sometimes our dilema is pickign the least harmful bad choice.

The solutions that go through our mind for consideration do not define us. These thoughts do show the journey we have taken. What defines us is the choices we make from these solutions.

Sometimes we make a choice and the outcome doesn’t happen as we hoped or planned for. While this is sometimes due to poor planning, often the bad outcome is due to external circumstances that were either beyond our control or beyond our prediction. These poor outcomes don’t define us either.

The only thing you have control over is the action you chose to take. This choice is what defines you.

It is rocket science

The phrase “It ain’t rocket science” tries to make out that rocket science is hard – and for everyone who isn’t a rocket scientist it is. Rocket scientist don’t find rocket science hard. For those who find recovery easy, they don’t call it recovery, they call it getting on with life, while those who find it hard are clearly struggling to overcome something. It is very easy for someone who finds life easy to belittle someone who is struggling.

If you are finding life hard, consider what your obstacle is – it may be someone, a lack of some kind of resource, ignorance about how to solve a thing, something you fear or many other possibilities. Until you can identify what your obstacle is, you can’t solve it or find a way around it.

Your struggle is real. Those who try to shrug it off as nothing clearly are not experiencing what you are experiencing.

Moving through Recovery

In Mental Health, Recovery is the concept of reclaiming your life through an empowered journey  of self discovery and redefinition. Often with mental illness or distress, we can lose the active say in what happens to us and where we end up. Recovery helps us identify a set of goal posts on our way to our future self that guides our journey.

All people are on a life journey as all people grow and develop. People who have experienced mental ill health have usually stalled in the agency, the self decision, of their life journey. Instead of the life journey being a “choose your own adventure”, it has turned into a movie you are only watching and can’t stop.

It is time to choose a path, the default destiny or your own future. Recovery.
It is time to choose a path, the default destiny or your own future

The purpose of the Recovery concept is to bring that journey back into your own control. It is about moving on with your life. And for it to be *your* life, your actions toward recovery must be *your* actions, *your* plan, *your* recovery. That doesn’t mean you can’t get help along the way, but it does mean that other people can’t carry you.

It is commonly said that “the journey is more important than the destination”, and there certainly is an element of truth to this. The destination is a place that you would like to be at some point in your future, where place is not a geographical location, but rather a state of being. This being is made up of feelings, social contacts and safety.

It is easy to become lost the destination being the end. At what point in someone’s life do they become them? When they are born? When they become an adult? When buy their first house? People don’t actually reach a final point – they just keep growing and evolving. In a similar way, the “goal” that your recovery journey is heading to is not the end – it is just somewhere you’d like to get to in your life journey. It is the motivator for the changes you are about to do now.

Recovery focuses on where you are now, compares that to where you would like to be at some point in the future and how you are going to get there.

Last time we had a brief look at Risk Management. A decent journey includes risk. That doesn’t mean we should add danger to give the journey more meaning, it means that some dangers are going to exist regardless and we have to be aware and realistic about them. That shouldn’t immediately stop us from trying the journey, it just means we should factor managing those risks as part of our journey.

Recovery is not being stagnant. It is about making changes, it is about embracing those changes to move your life towards your goal. Recovery is about moving towards your goal.

For more, Wikipedia has a good introduction about the Recovery Approach.

Recovery includes going “backwards”

When attempting to recover your life, all your decisions should be based on “how will this improve my situation?” This can include a backwards step that helps leads to progress. Recovery includes going backwards.

Consider parking your car. If you come in wide, and can only go forwards, you will do your car harm.

Sometimes you have to go backwards and take another shot at it to safely go forwards.

Sometimes you need to think of trying another car park.

A good Recovery Plan includes Risk Management

A well planned recovery path includes risk management.

Mouse trap with cheese and "free cheese" sign - how will you manage risk? Risk management.
Goals and risk

First pick your goal. What does that outcome feel like? Do you like it? Is it really what you want? How far away is it? Check out more on Recovery [Link] to learn about choosing goals.

Once you have worked out your goal, it is time to identify the risks involved. While it is tempting to try to list every possibility, it is important not to get too bogged down on tiny details.

In risk management there are three important considerations.

  1. How likely is it to happen?
  2. How bad is the consequence?
  3. Is there something reasonable I can do about it?

The high the likelihood and the higher the consequence, the greater the risk needs managing. However it is important to identify risks that can actually be managed.

For example, a plane landing on the building I am in is possible, but very unlikely. The consequences would be very high – catastrophic would be a good description. There is nothing I can do about it.

How will you manage these risks to get your goal? We can affect the above questions in the following way:

  1. How likely is it to happen?
    What can I do to reduce the likelihood if this is high?
  2. How bad is the consequence?
    What can I do to reduce the severity of the consequence if it is high?
  3. Is there something reasonable I can do about it?
    What resources are needed to shift the likelihood and the consequence, and do I have them?

By having an identified goal we can begin to identify the risks involved in achieving this goal. By breaking down those risks into categories and into methods of management, we shift the focus from “it is too risky” to “how will I get what I want?”

This is a brief introduction to the concepts of risk management. For a more complete run down, check out the Wikipedia entry.

Doing is not being – Who am I

We humans wish to control or influence our environment to increase our safety and maximise our comfort. When we can’t do this, we feel incapable, question our ability and have issues with our identity and ego. In short, we feel powerless, anxious and depressed. We lose ourselves in our mad scrambling of doing and forget who we are. Who am I?

Remember that we are Human Beings, not human doings.

Our “being” is not defined by _what_ we do, but rather by _why_ we do. When we get back to this “why”, we get a closer glimpse of what drives us, about what kind of person we are and if we like that person. It informs what we do, why we do it and how we do it.

So first of all, work out who you are as a being – what is the you that informs your life?

Often we do things because we “should”, or someone tells us to. What are we telling ourselves? Find this core you and you find why you are doing what you doing, and that leads to greater contentment with your life.