Let me tell you a story.

A while back my computer died. The hard drive was failing and it wouldn’t boot up past a blank screen with a folder icon. This was in the middle of an important project, so I quickly replaced the drive with a new one, a faster and better SSD.

And all the memories were gone. The photos, the bits and pieces of text, the small videos. I had backed up most of it, but a lot of it was just, gone.

I was not going to give up. With some research and help from friends, the problem was clearly the motherboard of the hard drive that had malfunctioned. The possible solution? Buy the exact same model and try replacing it.

There was also a clicking sound. A small click that could indicate something was wrong at a mechanical level. To make it worse, the screws of the motherboard wouldn’t come off no matter how much I tried.

Back and forth between friends and one of them types.

— Give up. It's mechanical and beyond repair.

Maybe it was and maybe it was lost forever, but I had to try everything and anything at my reach. I simply could not let it go easy. Someone else types the following.

— Don't ever tell someone that it can't be done. Bruno, bring it to me and we will try to get that motherboard out.

This small exchange and feeling that someone was stepping in on my defense had an impact on me, and it grew stronger this last year.

You see, at some point I was going through hard times and making every effort to fix past mistakes and amend broken bridges. While I did that, everyone around me, in one way or the other offered the only solution they knew.

— Give up

— Let go and move on.

This frustrated me, made me angry and more fixated in standing my ground. I’m not mad at them, not in the slightest, just didn’t like feeling alone and without support.

Our tendency to find solutions before understanding the problem

In a parallel line of thought, I have always been on the lookout for problem solving techniques and found that they all make the same strong point: Define the problem first, don’t just into conclusions or solutions.

On podcasts that I have been listening to, about how we relate with each other and how we can communicate better on a personal level, a similar points are made: listen first, and make sure to find the underlying reason for a person’s behaviour or opinion.

It’s about asking why and instead of “fighting back” with a counter argument, trying to ask “Why is that important to you?”. Another great piece of advice was to, instead of offering solutions, ask “Is there anything I can do to be more supportive at this time?” (Unfortunately I couldn’t find the references to these episodes.)

At the end of the day we are animals and programmed to react and fix what we consider bad. We are always in a pendulum that swings between our comfort zone and our desire to explore.

Putting it to practice

It’s hard when we are in the receiving end of discouragement, even when we know that the other party just wants what is best for us and to see us happy. When this happens it’s easy to take refuge in motivational posts and quick off-the-shelf philosophy on life and living. It’s no wonder that motivational facebook pages and instagram accounts thrive so much.

On a recent personal exchange a friend tells me about applying to a job. “Do you think I can do it ?” I paused for a bit, and managed to fight that urge to say no and to point out what was the better route in my perspective. Instead, I described what that position involved, the tasks and hard bits of the daily routine. My next addition to that talk was “Here’s what you will need to learn to be good at that job”.

We keep putting forward the idea that it is good to challenge the status quo. That it is important to bring innovation to the company we work for, to our lives, to escape our comfort zone. Every once in a while we see our friends roll up their sleeves and start a business of some sort. And they struggle, like all business struggles at first.

So my suggestion is that we put this to practice in three levels.


Fight that urge to discourage. Point out the steps that need to be taken to move in the direction of that goal. If there are obstacles along the way, help the person find out about them as soon as possible so that you can both discuss ways to overcome them.

In society

Start making your voice heard when you believe something is good and positive enough to be worth the effort. If someone is putting forward a business, buy something at full price, and tell friends about it.

If you see a piece of work or art that you like and seems surrounded by discouragement, step in to stand by its creator. For me, what kills most of my ideas is the feeling that I am alone in pushing them forward.

At work

If there is one place where negativity soars to new heights, is the corporate world. Those of us that have walked the halls of misery of an office building know the stories too well.

Your idea needs to be disruptive, but not too much!

It needs to be creative and original, but it needs to have proven that it works!

You need buy-in from every stakeholder, you need to make sure they don’t feel threatened if anything goes wrong.

If it fails, their ass is on the line and they don’t want anything to do with it. If it succeeds, they want to take credit for as much of it as possible.

Emails are traded back in forth in a strange negotiation and placement of chess pieces to make sure everyone is happy with the idea before it moves forward. By the time you actually start working on your idea, your motivation as dwindled and you keep thinking “How did I get myself into this?”.

There has been too much written on this subject so I will go back to a talk I saw at UX Lx.

In Dance of the Possible, Scott Berkun took the audience on a trip through time and around the construction of the Eiffel Tower. At first, the project was seen as an aberration and faced a deluge of criticism.

"The only reason for the Eiffel Tower to move forward, was because Eiffel put its own equity and reputation behind the project. He faced opposition from 300 of his peers, accusing the project of being a monstrosity."

It was during this presentation that I learned about the Idea Killers. This set of posters concentrates all the blockades we get in a corporate environment when we propose new ideas. It is so entrenched into corporate culture that we don’t even notice the dissonance between these phrases and the yearly meetings with incentives for creative and disruptive ideas.

The solution, fight it. Fight it by standing up for your ideas and also the ideas of others. It’s always worth to try, to learn new things even if they don’t work. The alternative is to stay stuck in the status quo, like an eternal groundhog day.

Don't tell me what I can't do

Next time that you have that urge to steer someone in the path that “you know is right”, stop. We don’t have the right to take motivation away from someone or to push our perspective of the world unto them.

Let them try, let them fail, be there for when they fall and when they win. They will eventually do the same for you.

Like Pedro Aniceto did for me, when he offered to help fix that failed hard drive. In the end, I lost those files but came out of it feeling like I had tried everything I could and with a lesson that I make an effort to apply daily.

Podcasts around these subjects

avatar Bruno Amaral
Bruno Amaral

I am a Digital Strategist, divided between tech and creativity, working for the Lisbon Collective and teaching Public Relations at the …