The Joy of Solving Problems

April 13th, 2009 by Steve Pavlina

Life’s problems do not exist to beat you down. They exist to help you grow.

Do you ever go to the gym, stare at all the dumbbells lining the wall, and exclaim, “Dammit! Why are there so many weights here? I can’t possibly lift all of them! Look at how heavy they are! Why can’t they just have a few easy weights and let that be enough?”

Of course that sounds silly, but this is precisely how many people react to the various problems that surface in their lives.

“Dammit! Why do I have to be overweight? Why can’t I just be thin and fit? Why are there so many delicious foods that make me gain weight? Why does exercise have to be so hard? I’m so sick of being fat!”

“Dammit! Why does it have to be so hard to make money? How am I supposed to get out of debt when I can barely pay my bills? Why does it seem like every time I start to pull ahead, my car breaks down again? I’m so sick of being broke!”

“Dammit! Why can’t I find a girlfriend (boyfriend)? I’m a nice person, aren’t I? I’m tired of lame dates with total idiots! Maybe I should just be celibate. Why does this have to be so hard? I’m so sick of being alone!”

“Dammit! Why can’t I find a job I like? Why do I have to do stupid work I hate just to make money? What kind of life is this? How am I supposed to do what I love when I don’t even know what that is? I’m so sick of my job!”

Any of this sound familiar?

Problems as Obstacles

The attitudes reflected above depict problems as obstacles. They are roadblocks, annoyances, and irritations. They get in the way of living. They interfere with your peaceful enjoyment of life.

Given this mindset, you should do your best to prevent problems from arising whenever possible. If a problem occurs, it means something went wrong. It should have been anticipated and avoided. An unavoidable problem represents bad luck or a cruel twist of fate. Or perhaps it suggests you held the wrong thoughts and somehow attracted it via the Law of Attraction.

If you currently have problems on your plate, then you should try to eliminate them if you can. Aim for the delicious nirvana of a problem-free existence — everything in its proper place and nothing to worry about.

This is a terrible mindset to hold. The longer you think this way, the weaker you’ll become. This mindset puts you on a path with two primary branches.

The first branch leads to overwhelm. Eventually your life gets filled with problems you can’t easily solve. You’ll probably resort to some form of escapism to cope (such as via TV, web surfing, video games, excessive reading, alcohol and drugs, etc). You’ll get that slow sinking feeling that your life is slipping away from you. When new problems arise, you’ll become stressed, worried, or anxious.

The second branch leads to withdrawal. You gradually check out from the world in order to reduce the problems you’ll face. You may justify this with words like simplification and minimalism. If some part of your life gives you too much trouble, you try to surgically remove it. You probably live alone and have few friends. You favor work that’s easy, unchallenging, and unrewarding. The thought of living in a cave somewhere or meditating for days on end starts to sound like a good idea. All you want is peace, peace, peace, but you never seem to be able to stay there for long. Some annoyance always comes up.

There are other branches as well as variations of the two above, but for the most part, you’re either headed toward stressful overtraining or long-term atrophy. Either way, the longer you run these patterns, the weaker you become. Eventually problems that didn’t seem so big five years ago now feel like terrible burdens. “Dammit! Why did that light bulb have to burn out? Oh crap, I’m outta bulbs too. Now I have to go to the store. Ehhh… I’ll do it later. I just don’t have the energy to deal with this now.”

Problems as Opportunities

Let me offer you a different way of thinking about problems that’s a lot more empowering and a lot less whiny.

Problems do not exist to beat you down. They exist to help you grow stronger. Problems are like the dumbbells at the gym. If you attempt to lift them, you may feel tired in the short run, but you’ll grow stronger in the long run.

When you think about the various problems and challenges you’re facing in life, you may be tempted to assume that the goal is to reach the solution state — to get past the problem. But that’s a very narrow and largely disempowering perspective. That’s like saying that the point of going to the gym is to reach the end of your workout.

A more productive perspective is to consider that the activity of solving problems is what really matters. It’s the activity, not the final solution state, that helps you grow.

Suppose that one of your problems is that you’re broke and in debt. If so, I imagine that’s a problem you’d very much like to solve. You may feel desperate to arrive at a solution as quickly as possible. But the greatest value is found in the activity of solving this problem, not in the end result.

One of the reasons I’m doing well financially today is that I solved the problem of being broke about 10 years ago. It was definitely not an easy problem to solve. I had to go through a lot of difficult intermediate steps to become strong enough to solve it. I made many adjustments to my attitude. By lifting those weights, I grew stronger mentally, and my finances soon followed.

Consequently, I know that if I ever found myself broke at some point in the future, I could solve that problem again, probably much more quickly than I did the first time. Even though I have more to lose these days from a financial perspective, I don’t fear losing it. I know I have the strength to bounce back. My real gain wasn’t money. My real gains were inner strength, knowledge, and skill.

What would my life be like if I jumped instantly to the solution state without actually solving the problem on my own? Suppose I won the lottery. At first it might appear that all my financial troubles were solved. But I’d actually be in a far worse position.

As I was going through that period of financial scarcity, I prayed that I didn’t experience a cash windfall. I knew I had to solve the problem on my own. I didn’t want to accidentally get a big inheritance and rob myself of crucial financial lessons and training. When someone gave me lottery tickets as a gift, I got nervous because I was worried I might win.

It was hard dealing with some of those challenges, but I could see that my problems served a greater purpose. They were helping to train me up.

Another benefit is that by solving these problems for myself, I’ve been able to write many articles to share what I’ve learned. I couldn’t have done that if I bypassed all those difficult lessons.

Physical problems build physical strength. Mental problems build mental strength. Social problems build social strength. And all problems will on some level build spiritual strength (or strength of character).

This mindset has a positive long-term outlook. The longer you hold it, the stronger you become.

Problem-Solving Attitude Adjustment

I’m pretty sure I learned the value of problem solving from my Mom. For pretty much my entire life, she was a college math professor (and still is). She would often buy me books filled with problems to solve — math problems, visual problems, word problems, logic problems, etc. You can find these books in any local bookstore. That was her way of keeping me busy during summer vacation. :)

I grew to like these books, so I was exposed to lots of different problems as a child. At first I was baffled by most of the problems in these books, and I could solve very few of them. But I gradually got better.

When I was in the the fifth grade, I started learning BASIC computer programming, so that exposed me to even more problems. I began to see problem-solving as something to do for fun and as a way to get smarter over time.

By the time I was in high school, I really enjoyed solving interesting problems. If a teacher assigned more problems for extra credit, I would always do them — just for fun. It was almost an addiction. If I saw a problem, I got really curious and felt compelled to solve it.

Other students would sometimes come to me in the morning before school to ask for help with their math or science homework. And I’d help them. Often we weren’t even in the same class, but I had a school-wide reputation as a good problem solver. With the encouragement of one of my teachers, I also did some tutoring in math. That was even better because I got paid to teach people problem-solving skills.

One morning my physics teacher walked up to me at my locker before school and asked me to step inside his classroom. He presented me with a physics problem that he couldn’t seem to solve. I solved it easily, not because I was better than him at physics but because I’d been exposed to such an enormous variety of problems that my mind just saw the solution. That physics problem fit the pattern of a class of problems I already knew how to solve. My solution was unusual for a physics problem, but it wasn’t that unusual for a math problem.

During Christmas break in my senior year, I was bored during the two weeks off from school… partly because I had no serious problems to deal with. So I opened my calculus textbook and started reading ahead and working through some problems. I did it simply because I enjoyed the challenge.

After the holiday break (at the start of my final semester of high school), I went up to my calculus teacher and handed him a big stack of papers. I told him that during the holiday break, I completed all the homework he would assign for the rest of the year.

He said, “But how did you know which problems I’d assign?” I said, “I didn’t, so I just did them all.”

Typically he’d assign 12-15 problems from each chapter for homework. I probably did about four times that amount.

Of course that left my calculus teacher wondering, “Now what the heck am I supposed to do with Steve for the next five months? He’ll be sitting in class twiddling his thumbs the whole time.” He actually found creative ways to push me, giving me special assignments and take-home exams to do on my own. During classes, I mostly tuned out from the lectures and wrote a blackjack game for my programmable calculator. More problem solving.

It was only later in life that I realized how helpful it is to generalize this attitude beyond math, science, and logic problems and into the realm of practical daily existence.

For example, it’s no secret that I despise accounting work. I find it to be the most boring part of running a business. I outsource most of it by using an accountant, but you can never totally disengage yourself from the numbers and financial obligations when running a business… unless you’re in a position to request a government bailout because you’re “too big to fail.” ;)

Instead of resisting the accounting work, I decided to see it as a training exercise. The point isn’t to get to the end of the work and be done with it. The point is to use the work to grow stronger. Keeping the financial side of my business in good order helps me become more organized and efficient. I know that if I can get really good at managing the financial side of my business, that training will serve me well for many years to come.

I could outsource more of this work, but right now I don’t want to. It wouldn’t be a good idea to do that yet. This work is teaching me important lessons I need to personally integrate at this time in my business life. Otherwise I risk screwing things up when I have more money and more business complexity to manage. I can outsource more of it later, but right now I can tell that this training is still helping me get stronger. I have to master the 20-lb dumbbells before I can progress to 25 lbs.

Overcoming Overwhelm

If you’ve been slacking off due to escapism, when you pull your head out of the sand, you may find yourself surrounded by problems that seem too heavy to lift — deep in debt, a dead-end job, a sucky relationship situation, a big belly, no sense of purpose, etc. That’s okay. Just start with the lightest weights, and train up from there. As you clear some of those minor problems, you’ll begin feeling stronger and more hopeful. Eventually you’ll be ready to tackle some mid-sized problems… and then the really big ones.

Cleaning, organizing, and minor repairs are great places to begin. Straighten your desk. Clean the toilet. Organize one shelf. Clear your email inbox. Hang that picture. Remove the expired food from your fridge.

You can also use timeboxing for this. Set aside a fixed period of time, say 30-90 minutes, and just make a dent in some of your problems. When the time is up, you’re free to stop, regardless of how much progress you’ve made. I often use timeboxing for tedious tasks like cleaning up a hard drive that needs better structuring of its folders. I’ll chip away at it for 30 minutes every few days until it’s complete. That way the task never feels too overwhelming. The long-term benefit of dealing with little problems is that you get good at processing them quickly. My parents are masters at this. Every weekend they would tackle little problems in batches, so the house was clean, neat, and in good order at all times.

Think of a problem-solving session as a short workout for your mental discipline, much like going to the gym. If you conduct these problem-solving workouts regularly, you’ll gradually get stronger, and little problems will no longer seem so troublesome.

Getting Stronger

Solving problems increases your resourcefulness. The more problems you solve, the better you get at problem solving.

This attitude adjustment can be very effective. If you start seeing your problems as training exercises intended to make you stronger, you’ll be able to face your problems with a can-do attitude. You know it will be hard, and you accept that it’s supposed to be hard. The weight is supposed to be heavy, and the workout is supposed to be tiring. If it was too easy, it wouldn’t help you grow.

You may feel some stress and strain when you’re in the thick of a tough problem, but you’d feel the same way doing a tough workout at the gym.

Don’t bemoan your problems. Be grateful for them. They’re training you to become smarter and stronger. Learn to enjoy the training you’re receiving. Years from now you’ll be grateful you had to deal with these problems because of how much stronger you’ve grown.

Don’t resist resistance training. ;)


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