Are you solving problems you don’t have?

Did you know that a major obstacle keeping people from achieving their goals is that they spend their mental energy on solving problems they don’t even have?I call this “The Governor of Kentucky syndrome”, as illustrated by a personal story I heard from Marilyn Graman, a Psychotherapist, Workshop Creator and Leader, Author, Interfaith Minister, and Shaman Practitioner in New York City:

Two women ate lunch together in a small Kentucky town after not having seen each other for some time.

The first woman, Mary, asked the second woman, Tina, to catch her up with what’s been happening in her life.

Tina sighed, and replied, “Well, I’m still thinking about going to back to school to get my master’s degree in Political Science.”

Mary knew Tina had wanted to go back to school for 5 years or more. In fact they had had this same conversation several years ago and Tina had sighed just the same way then. 

So she asked, “You’ve wanted to do that for a long time. Why don’t you finally do it?”

Tina sighed again, and said, “Well, it’s complicated. You see, if I go back to school for my master’s degree in Poli Sci, I’ll probably find out that I really like it. And if I really like it, I’ll probably do really well in it.”

Mary thought that seemed like a reason to do it, not to not do it. Confused, Mary said, “Yeah, and…?”

Tina hesitated, and then said, “Well, once I get my degree, I think that I’ll start getting more active in community politics.”

“Yeah, and…?”

“Well, if I get more active in community politics, then I’ll probably get elected to the local city council.”

Mary’s confusion grew. “Yeah, and…?”

“Well, if I get elected to city council, I’ll get more involved in city issues and might be inspired to run for mayor of our town.”

Mary could totally see Tina being the mayor of their town. “Yeah, and…?”

“Well, I’m sure that if I ended up as mayor, I would start to get involved with politics on a state level.”

This seemed like an even better idea. “Yeah, and…?”


Mary waited. 

“Well… if I got involved with politics on a state level, I might end up running for the governor of Kentucky. And if I ran for governor of Kentucky, I’d probably win.”

Although Tina stopped talking, it seemed like she had more to say. Mary waited. 

“Well,” Tina finally blurted out, “I don’t want to be the governor of Kentucky. I’m afraid it would take too much time away from my family. So, that’s why I haven’t gone back to school!”

You might think this story is farfetched, but I have seen real life examples of it more times than I can count during my 20+ years of coaching.  Like Tina, our imaginations take us so far out into the future that we get fixated on a concern that isn’t even a possibility yet, and mull over how to solve that future problem.  But since we can’t solve that problem, we use that as a reason to not take action now. Then we allow months or even years to go by while we justify our inaction because of that unsolvable future problem.

Take a moment now to bring to mind something you’ve been feeling stuck about.  What’s the story you’re telling yourself about the future that’s bringing up fear or doubt about moving forward?  Is this a problem you can take action on right now? If not, put that thought aside, and focus on what action you can take currently.

For example, I would coach Tina to get online and start researching universities.  She doesn’t have to commit to attending any of them, and she would have more clarity about what was involved with applying.  That allows a natural progression of events to begin to take place, and she’d be one step closer to a master’s degree.  Although Tina imagines in this moment that she will want to run for city council when she graduates, many circumstances in her life may be different by the time she gets there.

Your problem-solving brain is just as eager to fix a problem that’s out in the future as one that’s happening right now.  Speculating on solving those future, not-yet-existent problems is a distraction and a waste of your precious energy.  Bring yourself back to this moment and ask, “If I were going to accomplish this goal, what is the next best thing for me to do?”  And go do it.


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