Mark Blasini


How we get into tactical hell


I've written before about how most of us are in what author Robert Greene (The 48 Laws of Power) calls tactical hell. This is a situation or state over which we do not feel a sense of control and leaves us constantly reacting to circumstances or people in our environment. In this state, things never feel like they are getting better. Some days we think we make progress, but other days we get right back to where we started. And often we barely feel like we're able to keep our head above water.

The core of tactical hell is that we all tend to think tactically instead of strategically. This makes sense, given that our school system raises us to think in this manner. In school, we are trained to do two things:

  1. Solve problems (e.g. answer questions, calculate math problems, write grammatically correct sentences, memorize the definition of words, etc.)
  2. Focus on getting results (e.g. stickers, grades, awards).

Even if you were a bad student, these two attributes have still probably become ingrained in your way of thinking. We go to college or get some accreditation so we can learn how to solve tough problems and produce positive results. And it is often said that the secret to a successful business is to "solve a problem" in the market.

This is the essence of the tactical approach. People who think tactically are results and problem-focused. They see a problem and they try to figure out how to solve it. They set goals, make them measurable and specific, and come up with a plan to reach them.

So if we are raised to be problem-solvers, planners, tacticians, how do we end up in tactical hell?

There are two reasons. First, it's important to understand that life produces problems at a faster rate than you or I have resources (time, energy, money, etc.) to solve them. This requires knowing not simply how to solve problems, but how to prioritize them.

The problem is that, in school, we were not taught how to prioritize problems. The role of a teacher isn't to teach you how to determine which problems are worth your time and which aren't. It's to teach you all the skills or knowledge necessary to solve the problems - to solve for 'x,' to research and write the essay, to answer the questions.

Since we are awarded based on our ability to solve problems - not prioritize them - that is what we focus on. Given that life produces more problems than we can solve, we are always kept in a cycle of allocating our time and energy to solving problems.

The second reason has to do with the fact that all of us, consciously or subconsciously, are constantly vying for greater control over our situations. We want to feel that we can control or influence our relationships, our work environment, our own growth and development. We don't like the feeling that other people have greater power or control over our situation than we do.

The problem with the tactical approach, particularly in situations involving other people, is that solving your problem (i.e. your feeling of a lack of control) does not necessarily solve the other person's problem (i.e. their feeling of lack of control).

Solving your need, for example, to curb spending between you and your spouse might not solve their emotional need to spend money.

Solving your need for alone time might not solve their need for more quality time.

Solving your need for recognition at work might not solve your coworker's need for recognition as well.

Solving your need to stand up against a person's comments on social media might not solve their need to complain or get recognition.

In school, we are not taught to consider the needs of others in problem-solving because the problems we solve in school are academic, not social. As a result, this skill is under-developed when we mature into adulthood. We think that getting the right answer should be enough to solve everyone's problem.

We think that making the right argument is enough to stop the fight.

We think that stating what we want clearly is enough to get what we want from our partners.

We think that producing positive results is enough to show that we should be rewarded or appreciated.

And when doing the above doesn't produce the results we want, we focus our energy in trying to solve the problem, doing what we know. We restate our case, repeat our points, keep trying to produce good results. Over and over again.

This is often what puts us precisely in tactical hell.

What's needed then is a more strategic approach to life, one that is focused less on problem-solving and generating results, and more focused on prioritizing and personal capabilities. A more elevated approach that allows us to assess what we want, what's worth focusing on, and what actions we need to take.

Getting deep into this approach goes beyond the scope of this post, but there are a few questions you can ask yourself if you ever feel you're in tactical hell:

  1. What kind of situation do I want? Not, "What's the problem I am facing and how can I solve it?" - the tactician's question - but rather, "What would be ideal here?"
  2. What skills, knowledge, or resources do I need to get what I want? What do I need to know, learn, or understand in order to be able to produce the ideal situation I want? What am I missing? What don't I know how to do?
  3. What simple, quick actions can I take to get the skills, knowledge, or resources that I need? What little steps can I take right now to help my situation?

Asking these questions consistently will help you get out of the tactical way of thinking and approach your situation strategically. While it requires a different way of thinking than we're used to, really it's making the effort that counts.