Problem vs. Mystery: A Vital Difference

Keeping the horizon in view

Keeping the horizon in view

Gabriel Marcel was a very interesting French philosopher and playwright (1889-1973), labelled by some a Christian existentialist, but her preferred to be regarded as a neo-Socratic. Why? Because he accepted a certain kind of not-knowing that he believed was inherent to the human condition. It was especially tied to our capacity for appreciating the mystery of being. As you'll see, it's an idea that has practical relevance for us in everyday life and in leadership.

In this regard, he differentiated problems from mystery. Problems are experienced as mental states in which we don’t have enough of the world before us (facts, data, information) to figure things out. There is something knowable, which we don’t know. But if we did know we could solve the problem. Mysteries on the other hand, are states in which the world gives us more than we can understand or articulate.

Mystery is not to be construed "as a lacuna in our knowledge, as a void to be filled, but rather as a certain plentitude."

An interesting question, then, concerns how we are to recognize and respond to these two experiences in everyday life. But it’s more than interesting when the answer to this question is consequential. And since my readers are mostly interested and concerned with human development and performance in the workplace, I feel obliged to show that the problem-versus-mystery distinction has practical relevance at work.

Perhaps Demystifying is Overrated

There are few values more prized in business than clarity of thought, proactivity, and pragmatism. The first produces strategy, plans, and goals capable of directing action. The second, proactivity, represents a bias for doing, initiative, and the energy to drive execution. And pragmatism is about accountability for results, doing what works, and staying on task. So, it’s no surprise efforts to “demystify” are praised.

One way to demystify complex issues is by “problematizing” [1] them, a practical-instrumental mode of thought that transforms our ways of construing a presenting situation. It involves conceptualizing the situation as a problem and makes it amenable to solution in a way that realizes our practical goals. It reduces the original plentitude and complexity to something simpler. It delimits the scope of analysis, identifies key variables, and looks for causal patterns of interaction to guide planning and execution.

This intensifies and focuses our mental, emotional, and practical energies and actions. It empowers us to act upon a now objectified situation. We’re no longer overwhelmed, frustrated, or feeling stuck. We are now empowered to act with deliberate purpose, strategy, and objectives. You can hardly do too much of this kind of work. When done in a group, it aligns our thought and actions and positions all to lead. 

What this brief discussion suggests so far is that there are three distinct modes of consciousness at play: 1) the everyday immersion of self and others in the immediate course of routine-habitual activity of the workplace; 2) the reflective-critical appraisal of the presenting situation, which problematizes what would otherwise be experienced as routine; and 3) the experience of mystery, “a certain plentitude.”

Mystery, then, might be regarded as an impediment to the operation of either reflective or habitual mind. But what if it’s not? What if an attitude of humble, non-problematizing wonder has intrinsic value for us? That’s what Marcel suggests, that responding to the plentitude of mystery with passive-receptive wonder informs, affectively moves, but also stills the mind to see, hear, notice, and most of all to appreciate what lies before it in a state of mystery – values, reasons, people, circumstances that need to be understood. [2]

How is this appreciative state of mind and being of value? How does it relate to our other modes of consciousness? The simplest answer, which is what I will offer in this brief article, is that an appreciative consciousness of mystery conditions us to see and act with greater wisdom and prudential judgment in all areas of our life. It also affects what, when, and why we are prompted to problematize matters.

We are most fully human, and we lead with greatest virtue when we pause to ask ourselves:

  1. When is it fitting and appropriate to treat the challenge before us as one of problem solving?
  2. Which situations most properly demand humility, and a curiosity that's satisfied with gleaning appreciative insights that condition our attitude, feelings, and action tendencies?
  3. When do we press too hard because we wrongly treat a situation as merely a problem space to fill and resolve?
  4. What kinds of mysteries do we overlook that might make us wiser, more prudent?


[1] Problematizing is a kind of critical thinking and dialogue used to examine the concrete aspects of a presenting situation, the parties involved, and the dynamics of interaction. It highlights and reframes challenges in ways that invite transformative action. We suspend reactive, habitual, taken-for-granted attitudes, posing the situation as problematic. This reflective stance invites consideration of new viewpoints, raises self-other awareness, and generates hope. This qualitative shift in thought, feeling, and relating to others reveals new pathways of action.

[2] These are values that make a claim on us for their own sake, e.g., truth, beauty, love, compassion, and fairness. They give us reason care about others individually and collectively, and to be concerned about greater goods. They cause us to see people as ends not means, worthy of being treated with dignity and care. They cause us to recognize circumstances of suffering that arouse feelings of kindness and compassion.