What to do in an Impossible Situation
Somehow I've already given this advice twice this morning so I figured I should write it up. Enjoy!
There are times in your career that you will find yourself in a seemingly impossible situation. You are handed a poorly conceived problem to solve with too few resources and time. Things don't make sense, pressure is high and you are letting it eat at you. Your work satisfaction plummets, your sleep and relationships suffer, you begin to question your very existential worth and/or start looking for the exits. Sound familiar? If so, then you have three choices when coming up against an impossible situation.
1. Internalize it. This is what you are probably already doing. You fail to realize the situation is impossible and so you think you are the problem. If only you were smarter/faster/taller/better looking you could solve the problem. So you beat yourself up, internalize the insanity and start looking around for a savior--someone better who could fly in to save the day. Stop it. You are the right person for this situation. Why do I know this? Because you are taking it personally and have not quit yet.
2. Quit. This is always an option, and often the right one. Some situations are so poorly conceived, driven initially by fear and ego instead of strategy, that not making them your problem (any longer) is the right idea But if this essay speaks to you, it is because you don't really want to quit. Whether it is your ego refusing to let you quit, your belief in the importance of the problem you are trying to solve, or both, you are in it. You are not alone in your indecision. So be in it. Just remember the sage advice from the Eagles: "So oftentimes it happens that we live our lives in chains...And we never even know we have the key." If you do quit, quit well, with grace, gratitude, allow appropriate time for transition and do not place blame or burn bridges. How you do anything is how you do everything.
So if torturing yourself is not working (duh) and you are not going to quit, what can you do?
3. Change the rules. As usual, science fiction shows us the way. When you are up against an impossible situation, you must first realize that the game is rigged against you. This is important because it will help you STOP internalizing the failure and the injustice is often enough motivation to not quit. Once you know the game is rigged, you also know that the game is open to rigging, so start rigging in your favor.
First, change your definition of success. Abandon notions of a perfect game and try to get out alive. It will do wonders for your ability to problem solve. Next, treat the current impossible situation as the first step in fixing the larger system that created it. First stop the bleeding--figure out how to make your situation non-catastrophic long enough to go solve the real problem. Third, start investigating (data helps, conversations are better) to find the real problem wherever it lies. Protip: the problem always lies with someone who has more power than you, outside of your sphere of control. Fourth, once you realize how the game is rigged, build a coalition to solve the larger problem. It is crucial that you abandon the mindset internalized failure so that you can abandon the whiny, self-pitying "I statements" and instead make inspiring "we statements."
And if that fails, you can always quit!