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Problem Theft: How to Handle Other People’s Problems

“Kindly let me help you or you’ll drown”, said the monkey, putting the fish safely up a tree.

Alan Watts

He was barely clinging on with his hands. His feet tried to get a good foothold, but they kept slipping away. I remember it like it was yesterday. For months he had practised his moves down at basecamp. Today was supposed to be the day. But I was about to take it away from him. I was about to become a thief. It wasn’t my son’s fault. He was less than a year old when he first attempted to climb up the couch. While watching my son struggle, I was reminded of a principle I knew from teaching and psychology: the unhelpful habit of stealing other people’s problems.

The Problems With Stealing Other People’s Problems

We can think of a problem as an obstacle that prevents us from physically or metaphorically moving forward in the world. There’s an infinite amount of potential problems, some more trivial than others. Your coffee machine breaks so you can’t go to work in the morning. The oxygen tank of your moon lander explodes so you can’t get back to earth. Your couch is too high so you’re struggling to climb up.

Obviously, the ability to overcome different types of obstacles including the most difficult and complex ones is a life skill worth developing. That’s why each hurdle we encounter can be seen as an opportunity for practising the art of problem-solving. We could even argue that the whole idea of school is an institutionalised and professionalised way to throw problems at our kids. Interestingly enough, that makes problems a precious possession we wouldn’t want to give away all too easily.

Now, what happens if those valuable possessions are stolen from us on a regular basis? Just imagine you’d turn twenty and never had to overcome any obstacle in your life. Well, now you have. What was taken from you were not only the problems themselves but the opportunities to become ever more skilled at solving them.

It’s a counterintuitive change in mindset for anyone who’s in the business of coaching others to be more independent. But it’s a necessary one. Because stealing other people’s problems that aren’t yours is not only counterproductive for the theft victim but also for the thief.

Just think about it at scale. What would happen if we took not only ownership of our own problems, but also those of our kids, our students, or our employees all the time? How are we supposed to solve all our kid’s kindergarten conflicts, all our student’s Yak Shaving issues, or all our employee’s Bikeshedding problems?

We can’t. In reality, these are other people’s problems and we don’t have the time or the resources to think through each and every single one of them, develop solutions let alone implement them. What we have, though, is a meta-problem of distinction.

The Meta Problem of Distinction

It seems to me that part of the solution is acknowledging the fine difference between special-case obstacles and the general principles of problem-solving. If we focus on the latter by turning people into good problem-solvers, we’re less likely to steal problems that aren’t ours and can potentially help more people as well.

The whole idea of teaching, for example, is to present someone with a problem and tools to solve it alone and/or in a group. Perhaps you model the method first, let your students go through the routine and finally discuss how the method can be applied to similar questions. Part of what makes teaching so hard is that ideally, you have to determine the exact amount of help each of your 30 students needs to reach the goal at any given time; from “I don’t get it at all“ to “This is way too easy, I’m bored.”

The best lessons I ran as a teacher were always those when I felt redundant and out of place because my preparation allowed the students to work maximally independent. Though occasionally, I might’ve been equally effective as a teacher by screwing up a lesson so badly that the students felt highly motivated to go home and learn for themselves. In any case, it looks like helpfulness is the crucial intermediary between problem theft and neglect.

The Bewildering Benefits of Helpfulness

Other People's Problems

Typically, helpfulness is considered a positive trait, as it should be. There’s no shortage of benefits we get from helping others. Studies have associated helpfulness with an increase in pleasure, happiness, social connection and overall wellbeing for the helper.[1] It can even create more meaning in your life. This is unsurprising, I think, given that helping is all about identifying a problem and doing something about it by taking personal responsibility. So it’s understandable that helpfulness is often encouraged by emphasizing the benefits for the helper.[2]

There’s this idea that on your first day at a new workplace you should ask a colleague for a small favour. It creates the feeling in your colleague that you owe them something, which in theory triggers a long-term game of reciprocity and collaboration. Sounds much better than gaining a short-term advantage at the expense of somebody else. Because the truth is, we won’t be able to overcome obstacles in our lives without the help of others.

What also becomes clear is that reciprocity and collaboration are not to be confused with bearing the world’s problems on our own shoulders. And while helping others is an admirable trait, it’s not as purely altruistic and selfless as we might think. In fact, helpfulness can be a source of our next dopamine kick, too. So it seems like we have a potential motive for becoming problem kleptomaniacs at our hands. Coupled with the possibility of hiding behind a smokescreen of virtue, problem theft comes with the perfect alibi.

How to Handle Other People’s Problems

So the question is how helpful should we be? The answer is that it depends on the circumstances and has to be decided in any given situation. We can’t get this right with good intentions alone. In other words: I’m sorry, it’s hard.

Firstly, it’s worth asking how much help is needed. This of course depends on the person’s goal. If they’re trying to learn something new, we should assist just enough so the person can manage the task or parts of the task themselves. We would want to keep the person seeking help in the zone of proximal development.

Having said that, you’re absolutely right. There’s really not much for a person to learn if they broke a leg and could theoretically walk to the ambulance on the other one — even though some may want to. Not every hurdle is a learning opportunity and we don’t want to create new ones unnecessarily by overanalysing.

Secondly, we may want to ask ourselves how much help is actually wanted. Some people who seek our help don’t need it. Others who don’t want help actually do. We’ve all heard stories of people intervening in an emergency and getting lambasted for it.[2] The trick is to figure out which is which without being taken advantage of or using a seemingly good deed just to make ourselves feel better.

Thirdly, with all the above brainwork done, we may still run into an unexpected problem. What if a third party’s assessment of a situation differs from yours? Probably, they think you should’ve done more, less, or something entirely different to help. Even worse, that third person might even be right. That’s particularly true in situations when we’re talking about abstract challenges such as writing an essay. How much help someone actually wants or needs may depend on who asks and how.

In sum, we should distinguish between other people’s problems, those that belong to ourselves and the ones that are shared. It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that the key to getting those tricky borderline cases right is entering into a negotiation with ourselves, the person in need and potentially anyone else involved. Even though at some point, we’ll have to make our decision and live with the consequences.

Closing Thoughts

Helping others is neither virtuous by default, nor is it a purely analytic exercise. A helpful mindset, though, can ensure our responsiveness does not go from asset to liability. Alan Watts’ fish from our opening quote would’ve been better served if the benevolent monkey had neglected the water creature altogether. Stealing other people’s problems – imaginary or real – can be as harmful as denying someone assistance they need.

Problems themselves can be precious learning opportunities. In the end, mastering the art of being helpful is a perpetual negotiation about how much intervention is appropriate. It means to have the wisdom, patience and courage to find the right balance in every interaction.

Sounds like an impossible task, doesn’t it? It is, and mistakes are inevitable. Sometimes we realise we should’ve done more, on other occasions we end up taking away too much agency from a person in need. But imagine what would happen if we got it right 100% of the time? Nobody knows the limits of the growth that could come from it. So it’s certainly worth aiming for.

As for my son, I could tell that he was close to making it up the couch if I only let him try a little longer. I resisted my inner kleptomaniac. And indeed he made it to the top all by himself. He was visibly proud, which he celebrated by sliding down the couch and doing the whole climb again and again. From that day on, the ceiling was his limit. The backrest of the couch looked like the perfect next challenge.

What had I done?!