Ten Lessons from 2012 – Nine: “Life is just a series of small, manageable, problems.”

What will I eat for breakfast?  What do I need to get done next, at work?  What book would best advance my knowledge in this important field?

One of the most important lessons that I began to internalize over last year was the idea that life is just a series of small manageable problems.  The sum total of these problems, when staring us down, is intimidating enough to move us into paralyzation.  Individually however, the problems are more than manageable.  They are laughable.

This has become my strategy in confronting any major project or day of difficult challenges.  When I am faced with a problem that even in and of itself seems far to big, I break it down into the smaller tasks that comprise it.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Laozi

I get it.  It seems so easy to say it and so impossibly difficult to actually live it.  I struggle with this as well.  It is human nature to connect the dots.  We want to see the big picture.  The only problem comes from when the big picture is so intimidating that it stops you from ever starting.  Then – what began as a very manageable set of seemingly complex problems has evolved to a problem where you literally are too pressed for time to complete your work.

This philosophy doesn’t just apply to the simple things you need to get done in a day, a week, or a semester.  It applies to the way we approach living our lives.  If we outline the major things we want to accomplish in our lives – the major contribution we want to make in our work and our living – it might seem impossibly difficult.  Life is long.  It is made of individual days.  Single steps, count, on the journey toward the completion of our life’s ambitions.

We shouldn’t be afraid to outline grand plans and change them along the way.  What we should, however, be particularly mindful for are the moments where the big grand plans seem so intimidating that we forget to take the single modest step.

Another key element of this way of thinking is recognizing that progress is not only about the end but about the means as an end in and of itself.  It is crucially important that the journey we are on toward the completion of our day and of our lives is an end in and of itself – transforming ourselves into the kind of people we want to ultimately become.

Life is a series of small manageable problems, and solving those problems is how we learn to grow.  It used to be that your parents fed and dressed you.  They did everything for you.  Slowly but surely you had to confront the most basic of problems – how to get dressed.  Do you remember that time you put your shoes on backwards?  Do you remember the arduous process of learning to tie those shoes?  Today these are problems that don’t begin to cross our mind.  At one point they were seemingly insurmountable, wrought with frustrations.

The hardest problem you are facing today could become a normal part of your routine and easily solvable with the passage of time.  Human beings are creatures of change and adaptation.  The reason we have excelled on this planet is the very fact that we are capable of transforming ourselves into masters of a given field of expertise.  It is in our nature to struggle – to fail – to struggle more – and eventually succeed.  And of course that success is the best feeling in the world.  It is a moment in which we realize the true strength of our potential, as craftsmen and as human beings.

When I face a task that seems unbelievably difficult I am trying to commit myself to seeing it for what it is – individual tasks – each manageable and solvable – and as an opportunity for me to grow.   Each problem is a chance to express my values and to express my joy for life itself.