The problem with advice to focus on solutions

So, I’m going to try to write this in general terms because I’m trying to keep trigger warnings off this post since I want it to be as accessible as possible. If I seem vague or if it seems like I’m not providing an example where one is needed, that’s why.

I’ve seen, both in meatspace and elsewhere on the internet, people extort others to “focus on solutions” to problems rather than problems themselves, because it supposedly will make the person in question happier and it is supposedly more effective. I think that’s bunk. Why?

Simply put, advice to focus on the solutions misses the fact that before you can focus on solutions, three conditions need to be met.

  1. You need an understanding of the depth, scope, and breadth of a problem. In the case of any major problem, you need to understand how it arose, what forces drive it, what enables it, and what its effects look like. You need to understand how far the problem reaches, and you need to know what actions need taking in which order. If you don’t have this, you could very well make the problem worse in a ham-handed attempt at solving it. Those who are oppressed often have intimate understanding of the nature of their problems and know exactly what would fix it if only they had the support and resources. Those who are privileged, on the other hand, need to do their homework in this stage.
  2. You need others to recognize the problem is in fact a problem. Aside from the most trivial of issues, no problem in this world can be solved by any one person. You need to convince others to help you solve the problem, and to do that, you need to get them to realize that the problem is in fact a problem. In the case where societal ~isms are involved, this can be very difficult when trying to recruit the privileged, since the status quo benefits them, and since they’ve been socialized literally since birth to think that This Is The Way Things Are, Always Have Been, and Should Always Be. Consider how many people will recognize in principle that an ism is a bad thing, and then turn around and justify some aspect of said ism because “I’m not a bigot, but the truth is [bigoted statement].”
  3. You need the resources for the solutions to the problem to be feasible. In the case of improving an individual’s life, this might mean money for food/housing/medication, skill training, or networking contacts. In the case of ~isms, this means a large, organized movement.

Until those criteria are met, the problem will remain a problem.

Now, why do people criticize others for “focusing on the problem” when they’re trying to satisfy the above conditions? If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say they’re privilege-blinkered. They falsely assume that 1, everyone understands every problem they face, and every problem being faced by people right now has had the requisite amount of study given to it by academia, 2, everyone recognizes that all problems are in fact problems OR that all problems are the sort of issue that can be solved by the effort of one person through hard work and boot-strapping, and 3, that everyone has the resources to start effecting change.

So, if I had advice to give to anyone who’s tempted to extort another person to stop focusing on the problem? Stop. Talking. Listen to the person who’s complaining. Expand your understanding of their problem. And then, help them fill their conditions. They’re not complaining about the problem because they’re defeatist, they’re complaining because they can’t effect change yet. Either they don’t have the energy to do all the work required, or they don’t have the networking contacts, or they don’t have the time, or they don’t have the help, or they don’t have the money.

And I speak the above to myself on issues of race, class, gender identity, and the ableism issues on which I’m privileged, because all people privileged on the axis of oppression in question, myself included, could use a reminder to talk less and listen moar.

7 thoughts on “The problem with advice to focus on solutions

  1. autisticook says:

    Great explanation and definitely does to be reminded of!

    • ischemgeek says:


      I was trying to keep it as general as possible, since I sometimes need the, “Stop talking and listen moar” advice, too. It’s as much a self-reminder as anything else. XD

  2. invisibleautistic/Robin says:

    My NT relative doesn’t know she’s doing it sometimes, but she will throw a solution in my face without understanding why my problem began and even though I told her why I have the problem! Once, I prodded her further, asking her how I should go about with “the solution,” and she admitted she didn’t know. Very unproductive, lol! I ended up ignoring people when they offer solutions but don’t listen to what I have to say.

    • ischemgeek says:


      I have a mental rule that advice that includes the word “just” is really code for “I don’t care.”

      i.e. “Why don’t you just _____?” = I don’t understand your problem, but I don’t want to listen to you complain anymore so I’m going to make you shut up by pretending your problem has a simple solution and belittling you for not seeing it.

      So like you, I ignore such advice, since I find it usually doesn’t come from a legitimate desire to help. I can tell it doesn’t come from a legitimate desire to help, since when it’s explained that the problem isn’t that simple, the other person will resort to victim-blaming to get you to shut up. “You’re just being defeatist” etc.

  3. Alana says:

    Thank you for the reminder! I get annoyed when people do this to me, but I also do this to people all the time. So it really is something I need to work on. (I hadn’t really thought about it as an issue or really thought about it at all, until I saw this, so thanks again for hopefully helping me be more helpful).

  4. […] the topic of my earlier post today: Here’s a real-life example of a problem that’s a fuck of a lot more difficult […]

  5. […] do doesn’t “look right” to others. (Sidenote: This is an example of the kinds of unproductive advice that ischemgeek […]

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