When you go to a doctor, usually you bring symptoms. You’re looking for a diagnosis—and a solution to fit that diagnosis.
Patient: My arm hurts a lot! (symptom)
Doctor: When did it start?
Patient: Right after I fell out of a tree.
Doctor: I see. The x-ray shows it’s broken. (diagnosis)
Patient: Well, I did hear a snapping sound when I hit the ground.
Doctor: So I’ll set the bone and put it in a cast, and you’ll be fine in six weeks. (solution)
Patient: That makes sense.
Seems simple, right?
The Age of Self-Diagnosis
Since the rise of Google, people are more likely to bring their own diagnosis to the doctor. This is something doctors complain about. It’s harder for the doctor to do their job when the patient thinks they already know what’s wrong.
I know exactly how they feel. In business consulting, the same kind of thing happens all the time.
“We need a marketing plan to increase sales.”
“We need a hiring strategy to get better people.”
“We need new pricing to improve cash flow.”
People combine into one thought their assumed problem with the assumed solution. But this isn’t critical thinking. It’s like saying, “I need a stomach transplant to help with this indigestion.” Slow down! Indigestion is a symptom of probably thousands of ailments. Maybe you just need to stop eating extra-hot buffalo wings every day.
Solving the Wrong Problem
I had a client once who was more than a hundred pounds overweight. He hired me to help him with his business, but his health became an issue. I couldn’t convince him to look carefully at how he was using food to numb down his feelings, and he spent $30k on lap band surgery. I warned him that he wasn’t dealing with the root problem. He lost five pounds the first month after surgery, then gained it back and has remained there.
Solving root problems isn’t magic. If you spend enough time doing it, you learn to see them like reading code in The Matrix. When you learn to see this way, you see that all suffering in our world is caused by the treatment of symptoms that don’t address root problems. All of it.
Pain is Your Teacher
Let’s look at one of my favorite examples:
We need to get better at communication.
The experience of the client is that communication is poor in their organization. That’s definitely a symptom. But if you accept this also as the diagnosis, then the client will look for communication training. This is like using a topical anesthetic for a broken arm. It will make things feel better for a while, and everyone will improve at talking about what isn’t the issue.
By the time a client comes to me, they’ve usually been trying topical anesthetics for a while, whether they realize it or not, and they’re ready for an x-ray. Their pain has convinced them there must be something deeper going on.
Pain, unfortunately, is the greatest teacher we have.
A Failure to Communicate?
When I began working with “Dave” about a year ago, poor communication in the management team was one of the primary symptoms he presented with. But what was really going on? It only took a short time to see the problem clearly:
- The management team was trying to be friends and coworkers at the same time.
- Therefore, accountability was weak.
- Therefore, people couldn’t be counted on to do what they said.
- Therefore, efficiency suffered, management was strained, and results were compromised.
- Therefore, the business missed its numbers and burned too much cash.
The management team had all the communication skills they needed—they just weren’t using those skills to have the uncomfortable conversations they sorely needed.
The structural solution was to get agreement on the team to leave their friendships at the door and be “all business” at work.
A True Diagnosis
The skill that was missing was turning toward those difficult conversations, every time. But this became much easier once the friendships were out of the way. Do you see how what was needed was a completely different kind of training? Their business might have failed if they had pursued becoming better communicators.
In fact, this is exactly how most businesses fail. It’s not because they’re unaware of their problems or not trying to fix them. It’s because they’re fixing made-up problems—the comfortable ones that are easy to face. They’re temporarily masking symptoms before they’ve ever gotten a true diagnosis. What’s the underlying issue?
We Deceive Ourselves
What I find fascinating is how unreliable we humans are, to self-diagnose. We think we know ourselves far better than we actually do. To me, maturity means you can go to an expert, present your symptoms, and evaluate the logic of their diagnosis regardless of how it makes you feel. But if you put that expert in the position of having to navigate your resistance, then you limit their ability to help you, and you prolong your suffering.
Generally, we’re quite good at this with auto mechanics, plumbers, and other professionals who won’t threaten our incomplete view of ourselves. But as soon as the issue has something to do with who we are and how we’re showing up, we’re blinded by self-deceit.
Recognizing and correcting this dynamic is one of the most important things you can learn to do.
By all means, get a second or third opinion, but in the end, you must surrender and realize that sometimes other people can know you better than you know yourself. If you have a long-standing problem you have been unsuccessful in solving, consider that perhaps you have not yet arrived at the true diagnosis.
Real problems have real solutions. False problems don’t. It takes strength and courage to keep searching until you can find and solve the real problem.