“There is no such thing as an absolute ally or enemy in this world. It’s merely a jungle. And is the king of the jungle the lion or the tiger? No, it’s the hyena, which survives at the end … Don’t trust anyone, follow your instincts.”
With these parting words from his older brother, 18-year-old (17 in Western age) high schooler Lee Min-seok was left to navigate the corporate jungle as he took on the identity of his 28-year-old look-alike sibling in a real estate consultancy when the latter got into trouble. The audience was then put on a thrill ride as Min-seok came under the intense scrutiny of his explosive superiors, his disdainful veteran subordinate and a two-faced, calculating elite director wary of the new competition. Yet, while Min-seok had his doubts, fears and anxieties, they barely lasted beyond the first two episodes.
What took center stage for almost the rest of the series was an artless Min-seok who embraced his colleagues like family, fought for his company like a loyal soldier, spoke up for the interests of powerless parties like an authentic leader and loved like he would never be hurt. Unlike the bootlickers inundating the firm, he did not care who he should ingratiate or what he could profit from his actions. The young man simply took on business challenges with derring-do and called out people for what they were, sparing no words with compliments and criticism alike. Even after people were revealed for their true colors, he had no qualms defending their interests when they were in need. Aside from his double identity secret, Min-seok was, ironically, easily the most open and sincere individual around in this adult world.
As the series evolved, even former naysayers and rivals gravitated towards him. His superior put in a glowing testimony of him before his prospective mother-in-law; his veteran subordinate addressed him respectfully as “chief director” even after his identity reveal; the elite director he traded not a few blows and insults with lent a listening ear for his academic woes over fried chicken, beer and cola. While such a rosy view of interpersonal dynamics in the working world may appear slightly unrealistic to some, it has some consistency with how complexities can be simplified in general problem solving.
To elucidate a systematic approach to complexity simplification, it is necessary to first identify the major elements of problem solving. For the purpose of this article, these are: problem detection, problem selection, agent action and solution finding. We will find that opportunities to reduce complexities exist at each step.
To begin with, the simple fact is that an issue becomes a problem in our perspective only when we identify it as such. While a vigilance to threats can alert us to danger and the corollary need for protective measures, turning more issues than necessary into problems can drain our energy and resources. Worse, some matters take a malignant turn when we view them with colored lenses. A case in point is the Golem Effect, under which supervisors under the (sometimes misinformed) impression that a particular subordinate has low performance potential manage him/her in ways that trigger downward performance spirals. Conversely, when people perceive that they are liked, they are more likely to respond in positive ways, which would explain why everyone warmed up to Min-seok by the end. While the mechanisms behind these phenomena are not always clear, it is easy to imagine that a powerful tool, applied to the wrong object, only mangles it. Perhaps, when the nature of things is unclear and precautionary measures available have dubious effectiveness, it is better to give the subjects of concern the benefit of the doubt and strike them off the watch list.
Even when problems are concrete, not all of them are worth one’s attention. The problem solver usually exists not to resolve all conundrums under the sun, but to fulfill a set of goals that are born out of personal aspirations or agreed upon with other parties. It is thus vital to examine, prior to any problem, one’s own values and duties. Min-seok was clear-headed about this: he went to great lengths to correct all the wrongs that came his way as a chief director – the maligned veteran, the wrongfully dismissed contract worker, his brother’s devious plan to drive the company to bankruptcy – to the extent of exposing his actual identity to all and sundry. The wrath that he risked incurring and the company president’s contribution to his father’s death were hardly on his mind.
Having confirmed that a problem needs to be redressed, the problem solver can decide whether action is required from himself or others. If he is inextricably involved in the problem, however, chances are much angst can be saved by putting in his best effort before concerning himself with the quality of cooperation from anyone. After all, stepping away from his own role to scrutinize people subtracts from the time and focus available to fulfill his share of the work. Moreover, people management is a tricky art that few has probably mastered to perfection – depending on the matter at hand, it is conceivably easier to rely on one’s own strength to reach personal goals than persuade others to change the scheme of things. At this point, it should be emphasized that the key matter at stake is action. Emotions count only insofar as they lead to productive interventions – otherwise they are just baggage that paralyzes the will and dampens morale. Indeed, Min-seok hardly second-guessed the intentions of his co-workers or indulged in the kind of self-pity his head-banging, mock-crying older colleagues comically wallowed in.
Finally, after eliminating all the superfluous distractions, one needs to draw up an approach to deal with the complexity inherent in the nature of the problem. There is, unfortunately, no one-size-fits-all solution at this step. Nevertheless, a useful tip to consider would be the identification of commonalities. Sometimes, the different pieces in a puzzle have a common thread running through them. Tracing the thread means linking the pieces. In a similar vein, while humans are diverse, they are somewhat united by their basic desire for warmth and kindness. Min-seok appealed to people of all stripes with his unconditional, unadulterated love and friendship.
“Min-seok, I’m sorry. I thought revenge was the best for our late father. I regret to burden you so much. Still, you did very well in the grown-up world, in your own way that did not hurt anyone or let yourself be hurt. I’m truly proud of you.”
The hyena that survives alone in the jungle does not rule anyone. It is the human species which moves out of the blood-stained jungle into the warmth of nurturing communities that sits at the throne of happiness.