Imagine that you’ve woken up and it’s pitch black.

First you are afraid to move because you don’t know where you are. You wonder how it is you got here. What could you have done to get to this room? But then you realize it doesn’t matter because you are here right now and you can’t see.

Slowly, as minutes pass, your fear starts to ebb and you start moving around. You stumble around on the floor. It feels like some kind of rough wood. Finally you find a wall, and putting your left hand on it, you move around the room.

Four walls, maybe 10 feet each. It’s just a small square.

There are no windows. One of the walls houses a cheap feeling wooden door, but it’s locked. Reaching up you feel nothing, but a jump into the air reveals a low ceiling.

As the time continues to pass, you realize you’ve got a problem. You’re trapped. The way out is locked and nothing indicates anyone is coming for you anytime soon.

What do you do?

Problems like this

Everyone finds a problem like this at some point.

Maybe it’s the job you are in. Maybe it’s a financial situation. Maybe this is something you’ve been asked to program for a client. There is no way out—no good solution. The problem is perfect, there is no answer.

We can wonder how it is we got there in the first place, but typically speaking it doesn’t matter in the moment. We can run retrospectives later. In a closed off pitch black room only the problem matters.

The Rules

These type of problems stem from rules. Boundaries, whether physical, emotional, or something else are the walls that hold us back. The floor, the ceiling, the locked door. Sometimes the rules are self imposed, world imposed, or sometimes they are imposed by an organization or authority figure.

Whatever the rules are for your problem, try to identify them. Define them for yourself to understand them, because understanding the rules will help ebb the fear. It will give you the courage to stumble through the room and find the walls.

Some rules may not be obvious at first. “Rules” are perhaps an incorrect word for these kinds of constraints. You may need to jump a bit to find them. In a job search this could be a limited network, or a needed skillset you haven’t developed yet.

Change the Rules

Once you know what the rules are, change them.

I know it doesn’t feel like you can change the rules. That’s what makes the problem perfect, the rules leave no way out. But as hard as it seems, either the rules change, or it’s a slow march to futility.

Changing the rules is not easy. It can take time and it can hurt. Changing one rule may force you to change others as well. Making sure you know what the constraints are means there are more things you can look at and consider as a possible solution, though.

Seth Godin wrote about getting unstuck years ago on his blog and his suggestion is completely removing one of the constraints.

Don’t just bend one of the constraints, eliminate it. Shut down the factory. Walk away from the job. Change your product completely. Ignore the board.

I’ve not found going to this extreme is always necessary, but I do find that examining the elimination of a constraint can help me see if a solution lies down a particular path. Then I start thinking through what that path actually means and what rules need changing, or occasionally, what rules really do need to be eliminated entirely.

The Shawshank Redemption

If you have not seen The Shawshank Redemption, I recommend it. I enjoyed it immensely, but more than that, it’s an extreme example of what I’m talking about. (Spoiler Alert)

Andy Dufresne has to use his cunning and wits to literally scratch a hole in the wall of his small prison cell over the course of years. He saw the opportunity, and worked within some constraints to remove the wall holding him in, and ultimately, found his freedom from captivity.

It’s unlikely we will find ourselves in that extreme of a situation, but changing the rules of a problem means recognizing the opportunities in front of you. For Andy, eliminating that constraint took years, and he had to bend rules the whole way through to allow him to keep chipping away at the important one that was holding him prisoner.

Real World Rules

A friend was talking to me recently about how constrained she feels in her current job. She’s a designer in a corporate position where the work available is unfulfilling, unchallenging and the culture isn’t a good fit. She’s miserable, but her expenses mean that she can’t just walk out the door. As I’ve talked to her, she’s interested in pursuing some kind of distributed or semi-distributed position.

I suggested she take a look at Bourn Creative because listening to the Dradcast recently, Jennifer announced they were hiring. I’ve only had limited exposure to Bourn Creative, but from everything I understand, I think it would be a great fit culturally.

Enter the perfect problem. My friend feels under-prepared, talentless, and is afraid to apply.

Her rules:

  • She is completely drained of energy by the end of her day working in her current environment.
  • She is a print designer and has limited web experience.
  • Quitting her job would cause a massive financial crisis for her.
  • She feels responsible for her company as the primary designer. Leaving could create a massive hole and possibly incite retaliation.
  • She feels like she’s not talented enough for other possibilities (this is far from the truth).
  • Her portfolio has not been updated in several years.
  • The work she’s doing is not what she wants to do in the future, so she doesn’t feel it should go in her portfolio.
  • She does not have a website.
  • She hasn’t been super active on social media.

Ultimately she feels trapped. It may seem like a lot of excuses, but fear and other emotional constraints are very real. Every reason, fear, and rule is a valid plank in her walls.

So lets consider what rules she can change.

First, she needs to see if the room is empty. She’s felt the walls and the low ceiling, but what about the floor? Are there tools? An overlooked person or people who could help? It’s easy to have tunnel vision when staring at a problem. There are some truths here that don’t feel like truths.

  • She’s not responsible for her company, she’s responsible for herself.
  • She can develop her web skills. And she has been through and Codecademy. It’s a slow process since she is exhausted when she gets home. It’s challenging for her because web hasn’t started to get her excited yet – but Andy Dufresne had the same situation.
  • Web design is not the only opportunity available. There are an incredible amount of possibilities out there that don’t require web skills. Working on building and using her personal network could help bring more of these to light.
  • She can strategically take time off to increase the time she’s not feeling tired to work on her learning and portfolio.
  • She could quit and deal with the financial crisis. Painful yes, but it is possible.
  • She can actively seek peers and mentors to help guide her progress and provide emotional support when she’s feeling down on herself.

This is not an exhaustive list, but the point is ultimately she can change her rules. I hope she takes note of her tools, resources, and talents to get out of her dark room. It takes work, and sometimes you have to scrape and crawl through muck that you’d rather not think about, but if you are mindful of the rules you are changing, you can come out clean on the other end. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with.

What’s your dark room? What rules do you believe are closing you in? If you’re not in a dark room anymore – how did you break out? Pay it forward if someone helped you.