A mistake I’ve made too often, is falling into “single flaw” thinking. This is where you spend time trying to find the single cause for your lack of success in some complex problem.
For example, in the first couple years of trying to start a business, I was struggling to make an income. In that frustration, it was very tempting to look for a single flaw. At first it was traffic, then when that didn’t solve my problems, I thought it was subscribers, then positioning or email. Always looking for the solitary cause underlying my frustrations.
The mistake here is that in a complex problem, there is very rarely a single obvious flaw contributing to a lack of success. Instead, it’s usually a bunch of little flaws, which seem minor in isolation, but combine to make success harder.
Complex Problems, Multiple Flaws
For simple problems, looking for a single flaw is usually enough. These are the kinds of problems we’re trained on in school.
If you can’t solve an algebra question, it usually means you’re lacking one or two key understandings to get the solution. We’ve been trained on problems like this, learning to isolate the key mistake to try to fix it.
Complex problems don’t usually work this way. Consider a different example, dating. Here you could make a list of all the factors that contribute to your success in finding a partner:
- Meeting new people
- Conversation skills
- Fashion and appearance
- Being funny
- Finding people with more common interests
- Situational experience
That’s just for starters. Dating may not be complex in the hard-to-understand variety we reserve for physics equations, but it is complicated in the sheer number of different factors that contribute to your success.
If you’re having difficulty meeting someone, therefore, it’s unlikely that there’s a single flaw which underlies your lack of success. If there are 20 success factors, it’s incredibly unlikely that 19 of them are perfect and the 20th is responsible for sabotaging your success.
Yet most people don’t reason this way. I’ve heard tons of guys complain that “being too nice” is their problem. Besides being ridiculous, it’s the exact single-flaw thinking that plagues most people facing complex problems.
A more likely cause of failure is small flaws in several or more factors compounding. If there are 10 success factors in dating, which multiply together to give your results, then being just 10% better in each of them would result in 250% more success.
The same was true with my business. The temptation was to look for a single cause, but the truth was there were dozens of minor flaws, each contributing to my overall lackluster results.
Big Results Through Little Improvements
Part of the cause of single-flaw thinking, is that people tend to view success linearly. If getting $100 per month takes effort, then getting $10,000 per month must require 100x the effort or skill.
This can be especially frustrating if you’re in the low end of those disproportionate results. You see how little results you’re getting for such hard work, and it’s hard to stay motivated knowing how much work is required ahead.
But when success factors compound, little improvements spread over a larger area can result in big eventual wins. If the guys complaining about being “too nice” made a plan to improve one success factor each month for a year, they might never fix a “single flaw” but still dramatically increase their results.
When my business finally tipped towards providing a livable income, it wasn’t the last change I made that did it. It was the accumulation of a bunch of steady improvements which magnified with time.
How to Solve Complex Problems
The alternative to single-flaw thinking is to optimize. That is, to list out dozens of areas which are compounding to success, and work on making many improvements to each of them. Rarely will a single fix be sufficient to cause a tipping point, but that doesn’t matter if you aren’t looking for the single flaw to solve.
Optimizations aren’t always little changes. It might take a lot of work to make even a small improvement in just one success factor. However, if you avoid single-flaw mentality, you won’t get discouraged when a single fix doesn’t immediately improve your results.