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6 January 2021

Does solution fixation hurt your well-being?

Written by
Nicolai Tillisch

People are exhausted like I have never seen before. Executives who otherwise always keep their cool confess, unprompted, that they are tired. That goes for both those who have experienced an extraordinary and eventually positive 2020 as well for those for whom the year was a cascade of setbacks and disappointments.

It can be so tempting in such conversations to give people a little advice on how to recharge or how to take better care of themselves in the future. Maybe solitary meditation or social bonding could help. This or that diet or fitness regime could make a difference. Or it could be good to loosen up and not be so self-disciplined and orchestrated for a week or two.

Solution fixation

It’s so easy to get fixated on solutions. There are many reasons for this. One is that the idea industry works this way. Somebody starts with a rich perspective on the possible, and then they conceptualize, simplify, package, and promote, promote, and promote it. And they have to do this otherwise the economies of scale they wish for are not within reach. As a consequence, there is a plethora of solutions in your face even before you think much about what your problem is.

The limitation of solutions

However, no particular solution is a panacea when it comes to well-being, because well-being is not a problem – technically speaking.A problem is to be defined: this is what it is; that is what it’s not. Meanwhile, our well-being is entangled in everything we do, making it difficult to demarcate.

An illustration is the popular notion of work/life balance even though the term is unnecessarily paradoxical. There is also life in our work and work in our lives outside just our paid jobs. Where do the laughs among colleagues fit into the work/life balance? And what about all the dirty diapers and a possible marital crisis?

I have been working on a book for the last five years with my dear friend, Nicolai Chen Nielsen. (That has been a joy!) Fast Company Press is now publishing our book with the title Return on Ambition: A Radical Approach to Your Achievement, Growth, and Well-Being. We ended up looking at well-being slightly differently. Our curiosity radiated around what makes some ambitious people successful over time and feeling fulfilled in life. We surveyed hundreds of ambitious people around the world, conducted in-depth interviews, and trawled through the literature in multiple domains.

Our conclusion is that ambitious people who are successful and fulfilled over time tend to be much better than others at consistently nurturing their achievements, personal growth, and well-being. This trinity is self-enforcing. There might be bumps on the road, and they might temporarily put more weight behind one of the three than the other two, but they always return to embrace all three. Similarly, we came across so many real-life examples confirming what several partial research studies have already indicated. If an ambitious person continuously sacrifices one of the trinity members – achievement, growth, or well-being – then he or she risks jeopardizing the two others. For example, you can work tremendously hard for extensive periods of time while staying healthy and happy, but the risk of burnout increases substantially if you start compromising your personal growth. Growth is vital for both well-being and achievement. And the same holds true if you compromise well-being or achievement.

Polarities and multarities

The trinity of achievement, growth, and well-being is a multarity. That’s what Barry Johnson and Brian Emerson call the phenomenon, which is similar to a polarity but with more than two poles. Complex situations and issues contain polarities and multarities. The poles in a polarity are interdependent and cannot exist without each other. There is nothing new about polarities, which are as old as Yin and Yang. That said, polarities are alien to Western mainstream management thinking, which is still the most prevailing in international business. Almost all Western MBA schools build fundamentally on reductivism, implying that you can isolate any problem and resolve even the most complicated ones with an analysis, a strategy, and a plan. (Roger Martin addresses that in his most recent book When More Is Not Better.) Reductivism is certainly constructive in many regards, but it is largely ineffective with polarities such as innovation and efficiency. You cannot predict the subtle and ever-evolving interplay between the two. You must experiment and learn what works along the way, instead of trying to fix one solution once and for all. The same is the case for executives with big responsibilities who want to exhaust themselves less in the future.

An alternative recipe to well-being

Nicolai’s and my book offers a toolbox. Each of the tools in it can help if you aspire to enhance your well-being, or for anything regarding your future accomplishments or personal development more broadly. However, the tools are not solutions. You still need to make ongoing efforts to get any return.

One of the tools is the “Weekly Deliberation.” Reserve 15 minutes after finishing your workweek or before starting the next. It could be a small ritual on Fridays at 5 pm before you start your weekend. Make sure that you have the following ingredients:

  • Your calendar
  • Your to-do list (if you have one)
  • Something to write notes with
  • Your full, undisturbed attention (this is the secret sauce)

In the simplest form, what you should do is:

  • Identify three sound opportunities for either improving or learning about your well-being in the coming week. An opportunity could be a scheduled meeting or a pending task, or it could be a new activity or even some time that you carve out for not doing anything.
  • For each of the opportunities, formulate an intention and some tactics. The intention here is to focus on the improvement or learning to which you aspire. The tactics cover how you will act on the opportunity or how you will start out when the time comes.
  • Check whether you have enough space. People who try to do too much risk compromising what they do. Do you really need all the appointments and action points currently spread out over the next week in your calendar and on your to-do list? What can you skip, reduce, postpone, delegate, or outsource? (You should go through this contemplation whether your focus is on well-being or on something related to growth or achievement. Your degree of focus does ultimately determine your ability to advance and learn.)
  • Take a moment to reflect on your insights. Ideally, you should reflect within 45 minutes after having acted on each opportunity. There are neuroscientific reasons for this, but you will still benefit even if you save your reflecting on the recent opportunities to the time of your next Weekly Deliberation. You can ask yourself: Did I live up to my intention? Did my tactics work? Where was my attention? Did I experience any surprises – positive or negative? What should I keep doing or do differently in the future?

It is experimenting and learning in small chunks what works for you. As with anything, practice helps. You become more capable and conscious little by little. And yet only a couple of weeks can make a big difference.


Return on Ambition: A Radical Approach to Your Achievement, Growth, and Well-Being is now available. Order here.

4 thoughts on “Does solution fixation hurt your well-being?”

  1. I loved this article! Thanks for posting it.

  2. Darrel Blake says:

    I really value the article, thank you, Darrel ( in Johannesburg
    SA)

  3. Viswajit Iyer says:

    Hello Nicolai, what would your advice be for people who are not necessarily ambitious but would like to just do a good job, earn an honest living and still progress in their careers? Is being ambitious a pre-req for career growth?

  4. It’s a great question, Viswajit. My studies of ambitious people don’t qualify me to say much about those who are not ambitious. That said, if a person “would like to just do a good job, … and still progress in their careers,” doesn’t that mean that the person is ambitious to some extent? Nicolai and I introduce four premises of ambition early in the book to help the readers see how different ambitions can be. The first premise is specificity. You can have a very explicit aspiration with a clear picture of what, how, and when. Or you can do your best and see what comes your way. The former is much more specific than the latter. In the description of specificity, we quote comedian and talk show host Trevor Noah for saying, “Dreams will limit you.” Noah has come incredibly far, but he always has focused on doing his immediate work well and growing personally. That has been his version of ambition. How does that sound, Viswajit?

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