On my office wall hang photos of six individuals who’ve shaped my thinking (and my living). I could have twelve or eighteen photos, but I could only find six matching frames at the local discount store. And I am kind of cheap. Anyway, one of my wall-of-fame photos is of the great economist Thomas Sowell, a man whose values and insights I find to be clarifying, inspiring, and downright helpful. Recently, I was reflecting on one of my favorite Thomas Sowell quotes:
“There are no solutions.
There are only trade-offs.”
We live in a world of options, choices, and remedies. If I want a pair of jeans, I can go online and find thousands of options that will fit me and my needs. If I want a hot sauce that isn’t too hot and is also gluten-free, I am highly confident that I will be able to find it. I could probably even find it in a blue bottle. If I want to learn Mandarin, there is an app for that, a class for that, and even a private tutor who will come to my house in Hickory, NC to help me.
In so many ways, the world is at our fingertips. And not just in consumer situations. I can also listen to the best preaching in the world via podcasts. I can talk with a healthcare professional over the internet to get a diagnosis and then have my prescription sent to me.
In a world with so many options and so much convenience, it’s sometimes challenging to remember that not every problem has a highly desirable solution. Not every situation can be improved in a way that works for us. This is the punch I experience every time I read Sowell’s quote. Even in the examples I shared, none of these “solutions” come without a cost. I cannot have my jeans and my money and my data privacy.
If I want the jeans, I have to trade some money and if I want the convenience of buying them online, I have to trade some degree of my personal privacy because of the data that will be created, captured, and shared without much, if any, of my consent.
In our hearts, we know Sowell is right. Life is filled with trade-offs. Singapore has incredibly low crime and is highly prosperous, but the trade-offs include some personal liberties and a rather harsh criminal justice system. My college-aged son can make an A in all of his classes, but it will cost him time away from his girlfriend, the gym, the PlayStation, and sleep. In your own life, there are “solutions” you choose not to pursue because the trade-off is too high.
Sowell makes his rather obvious point in relation to social issues. We may wish for pie-in-the-sky realities such as equity, but the trade-off for equity in one arena must entail a gross lack of equity in some other arena.
Okay. But what does this have to do with coaching?
Many times our clients want solutions – remedies that come with no strings, no costs, and no downside.
For example, about once a week I have a different client seeking a “balanced life.” What they mean by this is they want more time and energy for family, hobbies, personal development, etc. Their life is too lopsided toward work-related stuff and they need to bring it back closer to balance. That’s not a bad thing to desire. The problem comes when the client refuses to acknowledge that a balanced life can only occur with a trade-off. In other words, there will be a cost.
As coaches, it’s our job to help our clients dream of a preferred future. In today’s world, a client can almost literally have anything they desire. But as productivity guru David Allen says, “You can do almost anything you want, but not everything you want.”
When it comes to time, energy, money, attention, and other resources, we must prioritize and we must be willing to discern the difference between what we want and what we want more.
Recently I had a client who wanted her company to reach a new level of profitability. It had chugged along for nearly three decades without ever really taking off but also without ever really crashing. She makes a reasonable income from the company, which manufactures specialty furniture. But she wants more. She wants a company that is attractive to an outside buyer so she can sell the company someday, retire, and provide a nice sum to three of her siblings who are also employed by the company. Her dream is doable. She also wants to keep an employee who’s been with the company for two decades but who is a major interference. The long-time employee is a kind and caring person who is also not at all competent.
And she is in a role that touches 90% of the company, thereby slowing everything down dramatically.
My client can have a much more profitable and attractive business, but it will come at a cost. There is no solution, only a trade-off. She’s still not sure if she’s willing to make the trade.
I have another client who heads up a public school. He wants to turn the school around. This is not a “good to great” situation, but the much more challenging journey of taking the school from “unacceptable to acceptable.” He knows the biggest interference comes from the myriad of disciplinary problems the school deals with.
The school faculty and administration are less educators and more crowd control. Reducing this interference would require shifting the trouble-making students from school to home. Kicking the kids out of school so their trouble leaves with them. Of course, this runs against the grain of public educators’ desire to serve and educate every child. The pinch is the tradeoff. Improve the quality of education for 85% of the students by removing the 15% who cause trouble. Or keep all the students coming to school and pay the price of disciplinary distractions.
Sometimes there are creative ways to mitigate the pain of making a trade-off, but the higher the stakes, the more complex the situation, and the scarcer the resources, the less likely a trade-off will not entail at least some pain.
Our clients chose to work with a coach to help them navigate their challenges successfully. We should not get duped into thinking that “successful navigation” means no trade-offs. Instead, we should approach these situations by embracing the reality of trade-offs, supporting the client in seeing the situation as clearly as possible, and being willing to make decisions that involve a trade-off worth making.