Problem solving is a very important and useful skill. We face a lot of problems on a daily basis, and if you weren’t able to cope and solve them, you wouldn’t last very long.
But there’s so much focus on problem solving — problem-solving techniques, problem-solving skills, problem-solving ideas — that we start to think that problem solving is the goal. That if we can just get good enough at it, we’ll be able to solve all of our problems, and then we’ll be happy.
And fascinatingly enough, there are actually two falsehoods in that belief: that we can solve all of our problems, and that we’d be happy if we did.
Everybody has problems. 64 of them
My very favorite Buddhist story is of a man who went to see a buddha (it’s unclear whether this was The Buddha or just a buddha — a very wise man — but that’s not important to the story).
Anyway, the guy goes to see the buddha, and says “I want you to help me. I have a wife, and she’s a good wife, but sometimes she nags me. And I have kids, and they’re good kids, but sometimes they don’t listen to me. And I have a job, and it’s a good job, but sometimes my boss wants too much. And…” On and on, problem after problem, until the buddha interrupts, and says,
“You’re saying you have problems. And you want me to get rid of them. But I can’t help you with that. Everyone has problems. 64 of them. If you get rid of one problem, another will rise to take its place. You will always have 64 problems.”
The man explodes. “What do you mean you can’t help me get rid of my problems? What good are you anyway?”
The buddha smiles and says, “I cannot help you with that. But I can help you with the 65th problem.”
“The 65th problem? What are you talking about? You said I have sixty-four problems. What’s the 65th problem?”
“You want to have no problems.”
Everybody has problems. Always. No matter how good your life gets, the most annoying thing in your life will always be your “problem”. And since the world isn’t a fixed, static, monotonous place, solving a problem today doesn’t guarantee that it won’t be back in a week, or a month, or a year. You can no more solve all your problems forever than you can point a car down the road and be done with all your steering forever. Adjustments have to happen, and when that occurs, we call it a problem.
You cannot solve all your problems.
Also, problems aren’t so bad
“I hear the rich man holler
’bout the shrinking dollar,
cry about a luxury tax.
They won’t let him write off
his little 80-foot yacht…
I’d like to have a problem like that
– Joe Diffie, “I’d like to have a problem like that”
Whatever it is that annoys you most — whatever your problem is — there’s almost certainly someone out there who would trade you places without hesitation.
- Gaining weight? Millions of people are starving
- Frustrated with homework? Millions get no formal education at all.
- Sick of your job? Thousands are unemployed.
- Lost a loved one? Hundreds are sitting at home lonely, with no family or friends to lose.
With every opportunity comes problems. In fact, if I could put you in an environment where you have no problems, you’d be clawing at the walls within weeks. You’d be bored. You’d be seeking out problems, not because you want problems per se, but because you want challenge and excitement and fun, and those things are worth the problems that come with them.
When it comes right down to it, we’re actually happier having problems.
Do you solve problems or select them?
Stephen Covey recognizes four levels of existence: survival, stability, success, and significance.
The first two are primarily focused on problem-solving: how can I get enough food? How can I pay the bills? How can I get the kids to soccer practice?
But the latter two are focused beyond problems into long-term results. They’re asking proactively, “What do we want to accomplish? What goals do we have? What difference can we make in the world?” Someone at that level certainly has problems (64 of them), but the focus is not on solving problems for their own sake, but rather on solving problems so that goals can be accomplished, success realized, and meaningful change created.
If you decide to become an entrepreneur, you will have problems. You may not have more problems than you do now, but you may very well have harder problems. More frightening problems.
But you’ll also have problems that matter. Problems that you chose because you want to solve them. Problems that, even if you don’t solve them entirely, you’ve made the world a better place for trying.
The question is not whether you’ll have problems. It’s which problems you want to have, and what you’ll get for having them.
“Imagine life some other way:
a cozy fishbowl on display,
with no chance that we might drift astray….
so they say
‘Vacation in Eden…
bring an apple a day.'”
— David Wilcox, “Apple A Day”