For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. Mencken

I recently had occasion read one of my graduate student’s papers. The assignment was to explore elements of a rather complex topic, and the student had done a thorough and articulate job with the task. However, he “slipped” with his last sentence by observing that future practitioners would need to get to the root cause of the topic being addressed. This basically contradicted the fine job he had done in analyzing the subject at hand.

In the past, I have explained the “myth of the root cause.” It has been said, “Only simple-minded people see simple solutions to complex problems.” That attribution clearly does not apply to my gifted student, but I fear that many of us fall trap to that train of thinking. As many of us search for the “root cause” of personal or professional problems like a sow rooting for a truffle, we stop short in our pursuit of a solution to a serious issue.

To paraphrase a principle from the “snowman,” we often do ourselves a disservice by seeking a single operative belief. This fallacy of logic is exacerbated by the reality that the identified single cause probably has some truth or accuracy to it. For example, a client who presents difficulties in maintaining a good relationship with his boss may lament, “She doesn’t like me. We have nothing in common.” It may be true that you lack a “good fit” with the boss temperamentally or with outside interest areas, but clinging to that belief allows the disgruntled employee to overlook his/her own shortcomings on the job. Adolescents may resent a parent’s disapproval of their boyfriend/girlfriend while choosing to look past the basis for their mothers’ or fathers’ concern.

Most issues in life are complex. Success at something usually involves a combination of talent, interest, and effort. Similarly, problem-solving generally invites an investigation of more than one cause. Solutions usually have more than one strategy to them.

Homework: Catch yourself in the act of landing on one answer for a difficult situation. Open your mind to more possibilities and remedies to improve life.

If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution. Steve Jobs