Existential Confidence – Part 2

A New Take on Problem Solving

By Jim Selman and Srini Pillay, M.D.

This article, co-authored with Dr. Srini Pillay, offers a new take on problem solving. It was originally published on May 7, 2019 (Medium).


In today’s challenging and rapidly changing environment, senior leaders need to shift from a primarily problem-solving mindset to more of a “create-the-future” mindset. Why? The traditional orientation to problem solving is part of the paradoxical dilemma that has many, if not most, of our problems persist or recur.

Most businesses are now operating in an environment filled with uncertainty and unpredictability. In this context, existential confidence is an appealing prerequisite for creating the future. In Part 1 of this conversation, we outlined the first two of five constructs of existential confidence: Being and trust. Let’s now look at the remaining three.

3. See every problem as part of your path.

Most people think of problems as facts. When you treat problems as facts, you are essentially saying that something happened in the past that must be corrected. Examine that problem/fact and you essentially separate yourself from it. In the same way that you can’t think about your fear of riding a bicycle in order to ride it, you can’t think about a problem as something separate from yourself if you are going to master it.

Change how you relate to the problem and the nature and substance of the problem will change. In many cases, it will disappear as a problem.

A problem is an assessment you make that something is not as it should or could be. Existential confidence acknowledges the assessment, but then accepts what is as it is, without any shoulds or coulds. From there, you can then switch your attention to your commitments and the vision you have of the future, make adjustments and take action.

For example, for most people, getting fired or laid off will be a problem. Some income is necessary to maintain an acceptable quality of life in our contemporary world. If you find yourself in this situation and think your problem is “needing” a job or the money it provides, then the “problem” is outside of you. With an existentially confident approach, you see that your former boss and the company didn’t give you an unsolvable problem. They and the circumstances of your firing/layoff are part of your path. Accept your reality. You — not they — choose your commitments. If you are committed to having more money, you can act accordingly.

4. Avoid cause-and-effect thinking.

Many leaders try to solve problems by looking to remove or change what caused them. But determining what caused something can become a trap.

It is now widely understood that we cannot reliably determine the cause of anything. Causality is often an illusion or, at best, a premature place to stop thinking.

It is premature because, all too often, the solutions we come up with lead to more problems, creating a vicious cycle that is very difficult to escape.

The conventional approach to thinking about problem solving, like ordinary confidence, is based on the past. It puts our brains in reactive mode. It turns our causes and effects into a story about how the world works and does not allow for new insights. Often, it gives us excuses to not proceed further.

Also, you may think that the “cause” of the failure of your project is one person’s foul mood. But what if anxiety made everyone on the team misinterpret what has been going on with that individual and the project? What if their anxiety had them fixated on a recurring issue?

In a rapidly changing real-time world, you want to include all data as “raw material” in your thinking, rather than assigning causality. Switching to a framework that lies outside of cause-and-effect thinking means that data is simply information.

Relating to data as information allows you to make different connections between data points, and that leads to new insights that can inform what commitments you make and what actions you take to realize your vision. This approach is supported by research that shows that insights are more accurate than analytical solutions. In particular, breakthrough insights and actions occur, more often than not, when you are in a state of Being. When leading in this state, you will find yourself putting aside the need to identify and chase after conscious goals in order to realize your vision, and you will discover new openings for invention, experimentation and adventure.

5. Create problems worth solving.

Traditionally, you would react and respond to problems as they arise. Using the EC approach, you invent problems worth solving.

Run-of-the-mill problems may still come your way. But since you now confidently occupy the driver’s seat, you will assess and respond to these problems differently.

Problems worth solving emerge when you commit to a possibility that, by definition, is not yet reality. You literally create challenges for yourself and others that require the cultivation of existential confidence. You welcome doubt and angst, just as you welcome breakdowns and breakthroughs.

You are confident because you are “Being” (that is, you are in Heidegger’s undivided state in which subject, object, consciousness and the world are one confidence and in which you can commit to possibilities that are not yet reality.) Being exists before knowing. Therefore, certainty is never expected. And uncertainty will not thwart your ability to make decisions or move into action.