No solutions, just trade-offs
No solutions, just trade-offs
We’re vulnerable to the fantasy that says “once I fix this problem everything will be sorted”

“There are no solutions, just trade-offs,” says the economist Thomas Sowell. He’s speaking to the messiness of life and the difference between ideas — constructs of the mind — and lived experience. We’re all liable to get carried away with ideas, especially when one seems like a magic bullet. We’re vulnerable to the fantasy that says “once I fix this problem everything will be sorted”.

I hear this line from all sorts of people. Wealthy business owners and ordinary folk at the pub are no different. It’s an illusion. Life has an abiding quality of unsatisfactoriness, as Buddhists would call it. It’s as true in commercial settings as it is in relationships. There’s never a moment when you’ve got it all right, and even when people have had close to total control, such as in centrally planned economies, or controlling relationships, things haven’t been any better. In fact they’ve been a lot worse.

So it is in dental practice ownership. There are things you can trade for future benefits, like cash for investment, time, and security. People say a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, but owners tend to want to hold on to the bird in their hand and still get more, unwilling to step into the unknown. This way of thinking is reinforced in popular culture, especially films, with the idea that something or someone will suddenly save the day. It’s actually a plot device from ancient Greek theatre called deus ex machina.

If you ask any dental receptionist, her story will be that she’s too busy and needs more staff — then things will be OK. Ask any principal and they’ll say they just need a better treatment co-ordinator or business manager. It’s not that these things aren’t true, but they’re an abdication of the real problem. Similarly, a popular story we hear today is that a Covid vaccine will save the day. Some people thought this would happen by September. But if the vaccine does come, it won’t be the solution, it will be a trade-off for something else.

Whatever we do, though, we will always find the next round of problems. One way to think about solutions and trade-offs is using the psychologist Jordan Peterson’s dichotomy of explored versus unexplored territory. Explored territory is known, predictable and ordered, which are desirable qualities unless they become tyrannical and you become a slave to that order. On the other hand, unexplored territory is where opportunities and freedom to recreate the world lie, but so do all the monsters.

Often in business people stay in the ordered world and become fixated on the idea of getting it to function better via solutions. That’s not always helpful because sometimes you need to go into the chaos to break and rebuild and burn off the deadwood. If you’re always trying to find solutions to yesterday’s problems then you’re missing the point. I’ve witnessed practice owners fix everything in their businesses at great expense but avoid the simple things that ensure targets are hit, such as how they communicate and coach staff. That’s harder than buying something but gives the bigger return.

The response to Covid feels similar. Our ‘solution’ is a trade-off with damage to the economy, schooling, tax revenues, communities and social wellbeing, healthcare and so on. It might seem bizarre, but when understood within the logic of a finite game it can be rationalised. That is the danger of a solutions-focused approach. If you gain something from a solution you also miss something, and it could be much more profound.

The psychologist James Hillman warned therapists of this, encouraging people in general to sit with their problems for a long time before taking action. He saw our addiction to ‘fixes’ as a sickness, and would have said that wanting to be happy all the time is deeply misguided — a point my brother Zac made to the Sunday Times columnist Matt Rudd in a panel discussion with Mariella Frostrup.

We are not designed to be happy all the time, and if we were to materially pursue this goal, like in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where people are brainwashed to feel content, and any residual unhappiness is resolved by an antidepressant drug called soma, there would be a cost. Or are we half way there already?

If you need a straightforward solution we can’t help, but if you are interested in taking control of your trade-offs please get in touch.

Dan Fine
By Dan Fine Management Consultant
If you have any questions or comments about this article, please get in touch.
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