Phillip Smith

From frustration to emancipation, from anger to acceptance

A journey toward creative problem solving.

Quesadilla Stand

I had a mini-revelation the other day that I feel is worth sharing. I also want to document it so that I can remind myself and, better yet, so that you can remind me.

The long and the short of it is: when I experience anger or frustration – for me, they are very similar feelings in my body – I am going to try to use those as a sign that there is a problem right there in front of me just waiting to be solved creatively*.

There’s a Mexico story here also, not quite like the last one, but it requires a bit of background first…

Some days, I know that I fall into the male technology nerd stereotype: I can be gruff, short tempered, overly direct and concise in my communication, and tend to put off that “why does everything take so long?” vibe. Those are not my best days.

One of the triggers of that pattern is interruptions. Here in Oaxaca, Mexico there are, thankfully, relatively few interruptions. There is noise, to be sure – marching bands, fireworks, church bells, and more – but the real interruptions are few and far between. Yesterday, however, was another story…

Around 9AM the doorbell rang. It’s not a doorbell to my apartment, however, it’s a doorbell to the inner courtyard that is shared by a handful of apartments. My neighbour, like me, has a habit of not answering the door unless she’s expecting someone, and we have relatively few friends that pop by unannounced. I happened to be on a conference call, so I didn’t answer the door either. Five minutes later, it rang again. Another five minutes, another ring. Ring, ring, ring: the doorbell rang regularly through enough of my meeting that I excused myself and went to answer the door. Grumpy Phillip was on the move! “Who the hell could be ringing the doorbell like that?,” I grumbled.

I opened the door and looked around confused, only seeing the family that operates the quesadilla stand in front of the property. In my confusion, the young son of the family, probably eight or nine years old, asked to come in to retrieve the large jug of drinking water that they’d left inside our gate the day before. This left me fuming, unfortunately, because I’ve wrestled with this particular interruption before and discussed it with the property owner at length. And, in that moment, I was quite short with the young boy and his mother.

As I left the property a short time later, I had a conversation with the señora that operates the quesadilla stand to explain that my home is also my office, where I work during the day, and that if I don’t answer the door it’s because I am working. I asked her to only ring once and – if there’s no answer – to simply wait until someone enters or exits. However, as I walked away, I realized that I had that conversation with my very dark sunglasses on and probably not in the most polite way possible. Certainly, it was not a conversation based on the premise of problem solving, which is the meat of why I’m writing all of this down.

As I ran my errands, a suitable amount of guilt welled up inside of me, some of it justified because I wasn’t as polite as I could have been, and some of it probably from being a foreigner and a person with a lot of privilege. When I returned, I had already had the mini-revelation described above – i.e., that frustration is a sign of a problem waiting to be solved creatively – and decided to start down a new path. First, I apologized to the señora and explained that I didn’t intend to direct my anger at her personally (she makes very tasty quesadillas!) and that I was simply frustrated at the situation. It was an amicable conversation and she also apologized for the interruptions.

The “situation,” put simply, is that the property owners sometimes let’s the family store things in the courtyard so that they don’t have to carry them here from several blocks away, but the property owners are often not here to let them in in the mornings, nor is a key provided to them for the outer gate. I have empathy for the family, as my guess would be that making quesadillas is not a hugely financially rewarding business (however, it may provide many intrinsic rewards), and having to carry the various pieces of their stand from several blocks away – the table, the comal, the tarp, the buckets of this and that, as well as heavy jugs of water – probably does not make their work any easier. All assumptions, I admit.

I left that entire interaction with a burning new question: how can this situation be solved creatively? With this new frame, the entire relationship between the people in our little community – me, the quesadilla family, the property owners, my neighbours, and so on – changed into something very exciting and positive.

All that said, I don’t believe that this problem is something an outsider like me can or should try to solve directly, but it is an good opportunity for me to ask questions, to listen, and to learn. For example, to get a better understanding of the dynamics of the situation, I could ask:

  • What is the history and a relationship between the property owners and the family that works in front of the property? It’s visible that there is a relationship in place, but the context is unclear without asking;

  • I’m assuming that the property owner doesn’t want to be responsible for the family having keys to the courtyard (and thus access to the whole property). Again, lots of assumptions here and it would be good to enquire further;

  • There’s also the built-in assumption that anyone believes anything should be any different, or that there’s a “situation” at all. When sharing this story with some local friends, they mostly said “Not your problem. That’s just the way it is.”

On this last point, I struggle. On the one hand, I don’t want to be a “fixer” in a land where I don’t understand the complexity of the issues and problems at hand. I also don’t want to assume that anything needs fixing at all (other than the part that interrupts my ability to make my living). Perhaps everyone is happy? Or perhaps that is not the case, and there’s a opportunity that things could be better for everyone involved.

If we all say “Not my problem,” or “I’m going to focus exclusively on my problems and let other people focus on their own problems,” then how does the world improve? Or, more specifically, how does our little community improve? By not sharing this opportunity for learning with everyone in the community, I believe that the community could miss out on an opportunity to grow together by working together, and solving problems collectively.

I’ll finish this off by making my own personal commitment to recognize anger and frustration in myself and others as a sign of a problem in search of a creative solution. I will choose to work to improve my ability to turn that frustration into emancipation by setting myself free of the limits of my current view of the situation, and to turn anger into acceptance by recognizing the opportunity to receive the learning that the situation is offering me.

* I feel compelled to give a tip of the hat to my old friend Rob Purdie who shared with me the wisdom that almost all inter-team tension and frustration stems from a person feeling “blocked” from doing their best work. My thought above, looking at frustration and tension as a sign of a blockage that is preventing the best possible outcomes, are concepts that I am taking from those wise words so long ago. Thanks Rob!


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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