“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up
Buenos Aires, July 2002. Argentina has started the new millennium with an economic crisis of epic proportions: people were prevented from withdrawing their savings from their accounts. With no money and no access to it, some people became so hopeless that they lit themselves on fire in front of the closed banks, others engaged in protests that became known as the cacerolazos. These protests got their name from the cacerolas, or metal pots, which protesters would bang in the streets to make themselves heard. In addition to that, the payment system was broken by the circulation of over 600,000 bounced checks traveling across the financial system, creating a chain of commercial liabilities for everyone. It was economic pandemonium.
Since the demonstrations that had taken place six months earlier, in the middle of December 2001, that had ended with the former president leaving the government palace in a helicopter after resigning his position, the country went through four presidents in a period less than 10 days. The inflation and unemployment worsened and the exchange rate reached four pesos per dollar when 4 months later it had been a devaluation of 400%. Then, in line with our national currency, we all hit rock bottom.
Under these nerve-racking conditions and, as many owners of medium size companies at the time, we were frantically maneuvering to keep the company afloat and our employees stable. Our legal advisers and accountants offered us a myriad of potential solutions; some even made sense. But I found myself overwhelmed by feelings of ambivalence towards all the options at hand and getting nowhere while agonizing over the alternatives of either taking the company into bankruptcy — which would have mean to literally lose our position and reputation as a rewarded international company within a small community of film production companies — or, selling all our assets and assuming debts with no certainty of how would they be paid in such a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous market.
Why are choices some sometimes so easy and some other times so difficult to make?
It is because making a choice implies saying yes to something and no to other countless possibilities. The act of leaving this homeostatic limbo of non-deciding takes guts and determination to, first, deciding to decide.
With every choice we make, we affect our future, not the past, therefore, to understand the difficulties of a decision-making process, one must pay attention to the reasons and impact of choosing an option, as well to the strong reasons that keep us in the limbo of not deciding.
This means to let it shed light upon the hidden obstacles or barriers allowing us to take action upon them.
Problems are to be solved. Dilemmas are to be flipped.
Not all the challenges we face in life and business are the same and not all questions have right and wrong answers. A problem, no matter how bad, is a challenge to be solved. It’s a matter that can be quantified and broken down into parts or steps making it easier to tackle.
A dilemma is the dwelling in mind of two opposite ideas with no certainty about which option will be the best. The solution is not a given one for which one only must search; dilemmas confront us with uncertainty and force us to make choices.
Although a problem resolution means finding an answer to the challenge in question, when answering problems like mathematical ones, there’s only one right solution; whether or not we like it. If I check my credit card statement and I want to compare my level of spending this month to last month, the answer is my debt is either greater, lower or equal than the previous one. That is, we can quantify the solution in, so to speak, scientific terms.
However, there are solutions to complex and conflicting issues for which answers cannot be expressed in quantitative terms. Dilemmas create tension among different values, in which one alternative is not better than the other, but different in the types of pros and cons it contains. And because values —like beauty, kindness or justice— cannot be quantified on a universal scale, deciding on a solution to a dilemma can make us feel hopeless.
The art of flipping dilemmas into opportunities
Dilemmas often seem overwhelming but are full of potential opportunities, even if these are concealed.
Back in Buenos Aires, in 2002, my moment came on a cold morning after breakfast. I was leaving my house to the office when on the brink of desperation, I paused and I looked around me. I had all my skin in the game, everything I’d ever worked for was in front of me, and I was about to lose it all.
I stood very still for a while, feeling the impact of all this stress on my body. It was one of those moments in which we become aware of something that is right in front of our eyes, but we’ve been unable to see it. The world slowed down, I stopped seeking new solutions to my dilemma and simply started seeing with new eyes.
And a realization followed: I was fighting “to not lose.” I was fighting to not lose the company, the house, my assets; everything I had built. My decisions driven by fear and tied to the single premise of not being robbed of what I had, were sucking away my good health and ability to successfully manage the situation.
The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes…
—Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
That moment, and that realization set me free. I surrendered and accepted that if I had to lose it all, I would bear it with the conviction that I would recover it again. It was one of those moments of enlightenment in life when we can instantaneously clearly see through the chaos. The horizon appeared and I felt the relief. I was now on the other side; I flipped the dilemma into an opportunity, and from that moment on I had everything to win. And I won it all back with interest.
Dilemmas are often embedded with hope, even if the hope is hidden. Flipping them into opportunities first requires acceptance; it is what it is. Then one needs curiosity to question the obvious and turn up with the best insights. Ask or look for different perspectives; listen to people outside your circle or community; don’t resist the feeling of frustration for not having the solution right away; and most importantly, ask yourself about the purpose of what you are searching for.
We tend to assume that for each problem there’s one solution that follows a scientific thinking process because this is what we have been told holds the key to everything of importance in our world: yes or no; right or wrong; better or worse; binary thinking. But the world of human values is different from that of science, they can’t be quantifiable on a universal scale because everyone’s scale is different and every value has a unique weight for every person.
Dilemmas can present new win-win opportunities beyond the win-lose models common to the world of problem-solving, because they hold the potential of shedding light on untapped resources and dissolve the tensions at play based on a wise recognition of needs and points at which to succeed rather than forced ways out. To successfully choose within a dilemma, one must have an ‘opposable mind’ and learn to live with great levels of uncertainty, instead of craving answers we can’t know for certain.