What Happens When You Give a Man a Fish?

Have you ever done things that you wish other people would do just because it’s easier to do them yourself?

Of course, most people have.  And do you then resent how much you have on your plate and wish the workload were distributed more evenly?

I had such an experience recently.

For a long time I’ve wished that my husband and I could be equal partners in managing our technology challenges. These days, it seems that everyone must be a computer whiz just to accomplish day-to-day tasks. Watching TV, paying bills, using the phone and even setting up a new alarm clock all require the technical savvy we once expected from an IT department.

As someone with limited skill yet considerable persistence, I usually manage to figure these things out. However, it takes time and exhausts my finite supply of mental resources.

Recently, my husband has started showing more interest in learning. As much as I say I want us to share the responsibility, I often lose patience when he wants me to show him how I do something. After all, it’s easier just to do it myself.

The other day, he told me the laptop I’d set up in the exercise room was screwed up and useless. In an attempt to be helpful, I took a look at it, closed out the error messages blocking the web browser and declared that everything was all set. He stormed into the room saying, “You gave me a fish!!” (Instead of “teaching him to fish.”)

He sure called that one right. In spite of the fact that I often react to his requests for help with “I’m not your tech support,” I hadn’t taken the opportunity to teach him what I knew because I was focused on getting it done.

There is a classic systems story called Shifting the Burden that sheds light on the consequences of continuing to do something ourselves, knowing that the long-term solution is to help people become more capable.

It starts with using a quick fix to solve a problem rather than applying a long-term solution, even though you know there is such a solution. In this scenario, the quick fix was to do it myself. The longer-term solution would have been to take the time to show him what I knew.

Continuing to apply the quick fix produces side effects, making it even harder to apply the long-term solution. In my example, the side effects included resentment, frustration, and his continued reliance on me to manage our household technology. See the diagram below for a visual depiction of the scenario.

This experience was a good reminder of how easy it is to get caught up in this vicious cycle. Where are you seeing a Shifting the Burden story in your efforts to build capacity in others? What would be your long-term solution and how can you apply that when you have an opening? 

Shifting the Burden Laptop example.jpg