Saturday, September 23, 2023

Gravity Problems vs. Anchor Problems: How Do You Know What Kind of Problem You Have?

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Shreya Christina
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Most of us have found ourselves staring at a life problem that makes us feel like we’re absolutely trapped. You brood and look for solutions, but the whole affair is caught up in a sense of compulsion. Just thinking about the problem may give you a tightness in your chest, as if you are being squeezed by giant rubber bands, or feelings of numbness or upset stomach.

When this happens, you may be dealing with an “anchor problem” or a “gravity problem.” This terminology comes from: Dave Evans and Bill Burnettco-authors of the book Designing your life and co-founders of the Stanford Life Design Labthat provide a useful framework for breaking out of that infernal loop.

Anchoring problems usually occur when we’ve turned a supposed answer into a question. Evans gave me this example: Now in his late 60s, he has found love again after his wife died several years ago, and he may be wondering if he wants to write a book about, as he put it, “two old people who fall in love .” Questions like this limit Evans’ options because it assumes he needs to turn his experience into a book, instead he might let go of that “anchor” – it must be a book – and is open to different solutions. “I could ask a question like: This experience has been so life-giving. What do you want with that story? A book is a godsend,” Evans says.

Gravity problems are defined by immovable conditions, either because you have no control over them or because you are unwilling to change them. Here, Evans generously pulled out of his own life: He lives in Santa Cruz and his sweetheart is about 75 minutes up the coast in San Francisco, depending on the day. “I really want to stay with this partnership, but I don’t want to have to change my lifestyle,” he said. “That’s a gravity problem.” For these kinds of problems, you have to accept the situation and find a way to compromise or work around it, such as dividing time between Santa Cruz and San Francisco.

Not all problems fall into the categories of gravity and anchor problems. They’re just two kinds of problems that have a special ability to make you feel stuck. Fortunately, acceptance is the key to dealing with both anchor and gravity problems, followed by reformulating the problem to make it more doable, then prototyping solutions to find out what really works for you. “Then there’s a feeling of expansiveness, like your chest is popping open,” Burnett told me. “There’s a rush of endorphins because you see possibilities.”

Acceptance can also be its own problem.

Before you can start brainstorming solutions to your problem, you must accept that you want to make a change in your life. “‘Accepting’ is probably the hardest part,” Burnett says. When it comes to gravity issues in particular, many of us find comfort in believing that we simply aren’t able to achieve what we want because that allows us to keep our dream in pristine condition – untouched by compromise or the threat of real-life failure.

Acceptance is also difficult to sustain. When you begin to prototype solutions to your problem, you will find that the journey is much more challenging than expected, and you may sink into wishing your circumstances were different. (Why can’t I have a relationship with someone who lives in my city?“If you can’t accept anymore, you’re stuck again,” Burnett says.

To make acceptance a little easier, Burnett suggests thinking of it as a short-term deal: You don’t have to accept your circumstances for the rest of your life, you just have to accept them while you’re doing a three-week experiment.

It is also worth bearing in mind that acceptance is not approval. For a young person fresh out of school with a desire to change the world and a mountain of student loans, it’s okay to accept that your priority is to find a job that helps you pay off your debt faster, in instead of a job that focuses on activism or creativity. “It doesn’t mean you accept everything that’s wrong in the world, it just means it’s not your time to make it the sole focus of your career and life,” Burnett says.

Burnett and Evans share backgrounds in engineering and product design, and in their books and Stanford courses, they apply the principles of formal design thinking to navigate your life and career. As they like to say, design happens in reality. “Acceptance is the door to reality,” Evans says.

Reframe and strap in for prototyping.

If you have an anchor problem, you’ve probably buried an answer in your question, severely limiting the options available. To continue, reformulate the question so that there is no hidden answer. “Do I want to go back to school to become a therapist?” could become, “How can I channel my desire to be of service to others?”

If you have a gravity problem, reframing may simply mean accepting your limitations and moving on with your life, or it may mean figuring out how to work around them. Suppose you want to earn your living as a poet. “They don’t pay poets very well right now,” Evans says. “What are the most commercially viable forms of creative writing in the post-internet world? That is a factual question. As opposed to, how do I make $200,000 a year as a poet?”

After you’ve reformulated your dilemma, brainstorm solutions and come up with at least three options to try. Prototyping is an important part of Evans and Burnett’s approach to design because it allows you to fail and learn. When conducting each experiment, pay attention to how it works and how it feels.

According to Burnett and Evans, there are two classic types of prototypes. One of these is a mock-up, where you actually perform the activity or simulate it as realistically as possible. (If you’re considering joining your long-distance honeys in the town they live in, you could spend your next visit just for the mundane activities that would encompass your daily life there.)

The second form of prototyping involves talking to people who already have the kind of lived experience you’re looking for. “By hearing their story, you get something called narrative resonance. You know when you have two tuning forks and you touch one and the other starts to vibrate? If there’s something about their story that feels true to you, you feel it,” Burnett says.

Remember that prototyping is an iterative process. “You go to the next place, get some data about that place, figure out what your next options are, and go to the next place, until you finally sort it out,” Burnett says. But while it can be a fair amount of work to arrive at that solution, Burnett and Evans find that the prototyping process often gives people an energetic boost and evokes feelings of curiosity and involvement. It’s the exact opposite of feeling stuck.

Eliza Brooke is a freelance journalist covering design, culture and entertainment.

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