Your Problem is as Bad as You Think

in Note to Self

“He who is most powerful has power over himself.” — Seneca

Every problem you face is processed by your brain in two parts:

  1. Observation (good)
  2. Perception (bad)

The observing mind see’s exactly whats happening. With no judgment or emotion. Being assigned a project at work is just that — being assigned a project at work.

The perceiving mind says “This sucks. I have to do a project that I don’t want to do. I’m already up to my elbows in work. How the hell am I going to make this happen?”

That’s why your problem is exactly as bad as you think. Rather, its only bad because you assign it the quality of being bad. This perceiving mind is weak. The obstacle is the obstacle. You don’t have the choice of giving up. So you might as well think about the best way to tackle that obstacle.

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” — Marcus Aurelius

When I was in college I was living in a questionable neighborhood near campus. The street was lined with small, old houses. Half of which were occupied by 20-somethings and half by struggling lower class families. Above ground power lines decorated the overgrown front yards. the backyards backed up to a massive highway. A real paradise.

One morning, I came home after a night out and found a size 15 boot print on my now broken back door. Not to my surprise, everything I owned was either missing or destroyed.

My reaction was, of course, outrage. I got upset, and I added to the mess by attacking the walls of my bedroom. I made the problem worse. Getting robbed happened. And that is an event. I can’t control people who want to break into my house and steal my stuff. I can control my reaction. Like Marcus Aurelius said, the pain was not due to the thing itself, but my measurement of it. And I had all the power to say: “This isn’t ideal, but it happened. Now, how am I going to use this to become better?” But you see — it became exactly as bad as I thought.

I had two choices…

How I Reacted

I pushed open the door that was barely attached and, in horror, saw that all my stuff was gone. My immediate reaction was outrage. I started tearing threw my trashed belongings like a yeti, assessing how much was truly gone. I already knew the answer — everything of value. I have no clue how I’m going to recover from this. I’m a broke college kid. How the hell am I going to afford to replace this? And there’s no way that these people are going to get caught. No one saw them — and no one in this neighborhood would say if they did. This is the worst thing that could happen… Or…

How I Should’ve Reacted

I pushed the door open that was barely attached and, in horror, saw that everything I owned was gone. I was angry, but I kept my cool. I made sure Nora, my cat, was still in the house. Then I immediately called the police.

My girlfriend helped me pick up, and by the time the police arrived the house was almost looking acceptable. We were supposed to leave for a weekend trip that morning. Seems like it was going to be delayed a couple hours.

I got in touch with the insurance agent and they couldn’t come until Monday anyway. I fixed the door and we kept on with our plans. These two examples have one thing in common: the obstacle.

They also have a major difference: The solution. The first was an emotionally drenched pout-fest. The second was an observation followed by action. And in one of the situations, the solution was quickly found and finished.

This isn’t an exercise in positive thinking or anger management. And, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be upset when you get robbed. It’s the art of attacking each problem we face without emotional bias. It’s a lesson in controlling your mind so that you’re better equipped to overcome obstacles. After all, your mind is the only thing that exists that you can control. You have the power to not let pain or anger creep into your life. You have the power to see an obstacle as a way to grow. And, no it isn’t easy. It takes practice and acknowledgment when you fail to be bigger. But it is possible to become an observer, rather than a perceiver.

When you face your next obstacle, how are you going to respond?

With a cloud of emotional perception that makes you unfit to tackle this issue?

Or, are you going to see the problem, understand it for what it actually is, and come out the other end a better you?

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