Sunday, June 29, 2014

Problems and Opportunities

There are two types of problems which exist. There is the kind that foreshadows success, and the kind that foreshadows failure. The first is like a mountain that must be crossed , beyond which lies a fertile country. The second is a void from which nothing can come. And when facing a particular problem, it can be very helpful to know which type it is. Life can be fairly overwhelming when you are getting hit with problem after problem, but knowing what you're dealing with can take some of the stress out of it.

And let me say, I've come to absolutely love the first kind of problem. I get excited when I discover one, because it is an opportunity. Mind you, solving such problems aren't always easy. Sometimes they can be extremely frustrating and take years of work to overcome. But, what's awesome about them is they can be overcome, and when they are, good things happen. Such problems are not impediments to success, they are the path to success. They are what make success at anything possible. Success is essentially the solving of one or more problems.

One of my mad projects, possibly my most central project, is a language based on mathematics and logic. It has been a long, frustrating, off and on project that I have worked on for many years. In making it, I have encountered many problems, and every time I solve one of these problems it typically reveals many new ones in its place. For many, this would be enough for them to give up and find a less aggravating hobby. But every time a new problem pops up, I find myself feeling giddy, because when I solve that problem I am one step closer to making that language a reality. Each new problem is an opportunity to move forward. And move forward I have – compared to even a year ago I have made measurable progress that has recently lead to the first usable forms of that language. I still have a mountain of problems to solve to make it work, but I know that these problems mark out the path to making my vision become a real thing. Those problems are the path to success.

So, what about the other kind of problem? The one that is just an empty void, and foreshadows failure? Well, those aren't always so pleasant to have, but they do have a silver lining. When you identify that you really are at a dead end and no good can come from continued effort in a particular direction, you have a wonderful opportunity. That is the opportunity to back up and change direction. You can save yourself loads of heartache and disappointment by identifying when there is nothing to be gained by carrying on with what you are doing. You can stop wasting your effort on what won't bear any fruit and start focusing it on something that will. This isn't always an easy thing to do. Sometimes it might mean giving something up that you wanted and admitting that the effort you made to get it was wasted. Sometimes that might represent years, or even a lifetime of personal investment. But, if you are indeed dealing with a dead-end problem, you wouldn't have gotten it anyways – or if you did, the price would have made the gain a loss. But when you give up chasing something that you can never have, or beating your head against a wall that will never budge, it means you now have the opportunity to go after something new, and you might just succeed at it.

The key, of course, is not confusing these two types of problems with one another. And this can be very difficult. I don't have an easy answer or a step-by-step guide on how to tell them apart. It can sometimes be hard to tell that dead-end job apart from the one that just requires a lot of effort to move forward, but will truly reward you down the road. It can be hard to tell the person who you can help from the person who will just drag you down with them. It can be hard to tell the visionary idea from the fanciful daydream. The mountain might be high and difficult to climb, so you don't know that the reward is in fact beyond it. The void might be foggy and shrouded, so you can easily deceive yourself into thinking it is solid ground. As hard as it is to tell them apart, sometimes just knowing that there are these two types of problems can help us feel them out. We can prepare ourselves to act on both possibilities.

Don't give up just because the going is difficult and the reward seems far off. And don't keep going when it's clear you're chasing false hope. Don't waste your energy doing what won't bring results, and don't waste your energy not doing what will. I don't say that as a good example of this myself, but I say it to myself as much as to everyone reading this.

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