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Your Mind Wants Problems, So Give it Some
Why you will always have problems and why finding better problems might just be the best way to improve your life.
Hello, good people! I hope you’ve been well. Let’s jump into today’s stuff!
One From The Ages
“A man is worked upon by what he works on.” - Frederick Douglass
One From Today
Author, Mark Manson, on why you need to find worthwhile problems.
“I once heard an artist say that when a person has no problems the mind automatically finds new ways to invent some. I think what most... people consider life problems are really just side effects of not having anything better to worry about. It then follows that finding something important and meaningful in your life is perhaps the most important use of your time and energy.
One From Us
For about three years while in college, I spent the majority of every day fearing fear – trying to argue my way out of an obsessive anxiety disorder. I’ve recounted the details a few times and usually credit exposure therapy and meditation for helping me retrain my mind. However, my first big breakthrough actually came from a program called the Linden Method.
Charles Linden created this program after stumbling onto a cure for his own agoraphobia, a crippling social anxiety disorder. Linden claimed that all anxiety disorders stem from a fight or flight system that has gone haywire as a result of our hectic, unnatural lifestyles. The subconscious mind is somehow tripped into a perpetual state of threat detection. His solution was a combination of relaxation techniques and a steady diet of heavy mental engagement. He recommended getting a notebook and filling every second of every day with mentally stimulating activity – the more challenging and immersive, the better. The mind was looking for a problem, so give it plenty to chew on.
I went to work filling my days. As a book-loving college student, I already had plenty to keep me occupied. When I started obsessing, I could plan my critique of John Rawls’s political theory or recount Piaget’s stages of cognitive development. I printed off a folder full of riddles for the times when I needed something more. My favorite was Einstein’s famous five-houses riddle, which took me about four days of steady work (I still contend every high-school student should have to work through it before they graduate).
The Linden Method was not a cure-all, which is why I usually credit meditation for overcoming my anxiety. But meditation may not have been as effective if I had not first learned the power of redirecting my focus toward solving better problems. The two approaches balance each other well. One built the capacity to relax and allow thoughts to come and go without over-reacting. The other taught me to focus my energy on a more productive endeavor.
We’ve all heard that we should focus on what we can control. This is one of those obvious truths that is much easier said than done. The problem is that we often interpret this as “stop focusing on the thing you can’t control.” Like telling someone not to think about an elephant, this directive has a way of emphasizing the thing you want to stop focusing on, leaving you frustrated by your inability to stop thinking about it. When you focus on not hitting the ball in the water hazard, your mind just hears “water hazard.” Likewise, when you think about trying not to be anxious or depressed, then you’re just obsessing about feeling anxious and depressed.
Often, the best strategy for improving our lives is to identify hard problems that we want to tackle and specific behaviors we want to adopt. Solving problems is inherently pleasurable. It is what the brain was made to do. This is why we love shopping, crime mysteries, and telling other people how to solve their problems. Our brain loves to be engaged and play with different scenarios.
Frustration stems from problems that we don’t want or that we are not making progress on. I did not want my weed-eater to break this weekend. I did not want my child to get sick nor to shuffle my schedule. In college, I could not think my way out of anxiety and the more I tried, the worse it got. Some annoying problems just need to be endured, but sometimes they are an opportunity to take a new perspective. For example, I hated math in high-school and convinced myself that I was not a math person because I had friends who picked up new concepts more quickly. But when I got to college and I got all hot and bothered about trying to get a 4.0, I found math enjoyable. Science too. I put the necessary work in so that I wasn’t feeling behind in every class and, all of a sudden, it was just a fun puzzle. That revelation was unbelievably empowering.
It can be useful to take some time and think about the quality of your problems and the ways in which you relate to them. Is there a common thread between many problems? Are you constantly plagued by your lack of organization? Are you always expecting other people to accommodate your emotional state? Finding the root of many problems can be a good way of finding a more important challenge to work on.
Today, one of the most common problems is the combination of expecting not to have any problems and not having any problems that feel worthwhile. Young people in particular can get so lost in their infinite social media scrolls that they don’t care about anything else. A malaise settles over their life and they become apathetic. In short, they lack problems that they want to solve. In the absence of worthwhile problems, the mind goes to work finding problems like FOMO, depression, and keeping an account of every possible way life has not been fair.
The absence of good problems invites bad problems. Thus, as Mark Manson suggests in today’s quote, one of the best things we can do is to actively find better problems. In the short term this may be doing a Sudoku or learning to replace a weed-eater carburetor this weekend. But the problems that create a sense of purpose are usually problems that connect you with other people. There is nothing like sharing a sense of mission.
Regardless, the best place to start is by actively pursuing better problems. Action creates more opportunities and more understanding of what to pursue next. Over time, you may find there are more problems that you want to tackle then you have time for. And that’s a good problem to have.
Thank you very much for taking the time to read today. Please share if you think someone else would enjoy this.
Oh, and if you aren’t currently in the middle of a juicy problem you are trying to work out, I challenge you to Einstein’s riddle. Einstein estimated that only 2% of people who tried would successfully work through it, but I think it is more a feat of endurance. As Einstein, himself, said, “It’s not that I’m smart. It’s that I stay with problems longer.”
Life is too short to be normal,