The 5 Problems With Every Problem

What’s the #1 thing a butcher needs in order to craft excellent cuts of meat all day long? A sharp knife, of course! But what if, one morning, the butcher walks into his shop and realizes his knife’s edge is dull?

Like all of us in any given moment, the butcher has a million options. He could worry about how he’ll get through the day with a blunt knife. He could lament his inability to cut meat with a dull blade. The butcher could fear his boss’s criticism for producing bad cuts, or he could doubt whether he’ll find another knife in the shop. Of course, he could also just throw his arms in the air, start cutting, and let the chips fall where they may.

In the end, however, all of these options fall short. In Be Water, My Friend, Shannon Lee explains why:

“Worry doesn’t solve a problem; it makes a problem out of the problem. Pessimism doesn’t solve a problem; it makes a problem harder by implying it is impossible to solve. Fear doesn’t solve a problem; it stops us from attacking the problem because we are afraid of failing or making the problem worse. Doubt doesn’t solve a problem; it gives you an excuse not to solve the problem. And apathy doesn’t solve a problem; it leaves you uncaring about anything at all.”

Actually, the butcher does not have a problem at all. Just a tiny, additional to-do on his list of tasks for the day: sharpen his knife or find a new one. That’s it. “All this negativity,” meanwhile, “just blunts the tools you have at your disposal to overcome an obstacle,” Shannon writes. “It creates obstacles in front of obstacles.” The real wear-and-tear is not on the knife at all. It happens in the butcher’s head.

Circumstances come and go. The only real problems are the ones we project onto whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. “Realize that you are powerful,” Shannon reminds us. “Stepping stones or stumbling blocks—the choice is yours.”

The Kind of Simplicity You Want

The playwright Clare Boothe Luce once wrote that simplicity is “the height of sophistication.” Unfortunately, any height suggests a climb, and this one offers no exception.

Can you show up to a marathon in sneakers and without any training? Sure, but that’s not the kind of simplicity Luce meant. That one comes in the box, and it’s a plainness we must shake. Simple as in “simpleton” is the starting line, not the destination.

When it first yields to our mounting efforts, by definition, simplicity disappears. What we make may look as if made from one piece, but as any hardworking writer, mom, or manager will know, polished results rarely come easy. They demand study, patience, and sweat.

You’re reading one right now. I’m 32 minutes but only 127 words into this piece — and not for a lack of typing speed. The more we learn, the more beauty we create, but pull back the curtain, and you’ll find toil and turmoil instead of tranquility and ease.

Keep toiling, however, and as the years come and go, every now and then, a little bit of magic will flow from your tongue, mind, or fingertips. For the briefest of moments, some cosmic fairy dust settles, and your actions feel effortless. You’re a river running through the universe, and you know not where you’re going, just that wherever you’ll end up will be exactly right. Voilà! That’s the simplicity we’re looking for.

Not even a lifetime of practice can guarantee magical outcomes every morning. It is, however, our best shot at achieving the kind of simplicity we actually want — the kind that filters our very essence through countless layers of hard-won wisdom in an efficient but inexplicable ritual, with an outcome so bright it can, though rarely perfect, be only our own.

So, 100 years on, I have but one tweak to offer to Luce’s timeless truth: Simplicity can be the height of sophistication — if only we dedicate ourselves to the right kind.

Lifelong Learning Made Simple

Today, I learned two new words: “dotage” and “tutelary.” The former refers to the late stage of life when one is weak and fragile. The latter can be an adjective or noun describing someone who functions as a protector or guardian of some kind.

“I’ve tried everything to raise her well and give her a good life, so I hope my daughter will act as my tutelary in my dotage.” There we go! Two new words, one new sentence. That was easy, wasn’t it?

I heard these words while watching a Youtube video of a new game I don’t have the right console for. I can’t play it myself any time soon, but I can watch someone else do it and follow the story. I’ve been watching these videos during breaks lately, so actually, I didn’t really have to go out of my way to learn. All I had to do was pause the video, open a new tab, and google a word — twice. Total time invested? 20 seconds, maybe. Yet here we are! Two new words, one new sentence.

When we think of healthy habits, like learning something new every day, our brains throw discouraging words at us, like “big,” “change,” and “effort.” Those words needn’t be true at all. Perhaps we should try some new ones, like “small,” “easy,” and “effortless.” Keep it simple when simple will do — and that is most of the time.

Don’t try too hard to stretch your mind. Stay curious in the fringes and around the edges, and it’ll learn all by itself.

Monogamy in the 21st Century

Certain corners of pop science like to frame monogamy as a cultural bug that has somehow snuck past evolution. Others argue it did come with survival advantages for a time, but now it’s an outdated feature. Divorce rates of 50% and above sure seem to add fuel to this fire. Why spend 60 years with the same person when you can spend 20 years with three each? Different partners for different seasons, and so on.

Yesterday, I reflected on my own hunter-gatherer instincts being alive and well — but I also realized I’m harnessing those instincts in ways suited to the 21st century. And while redirecting nature where possible is efficient, advisable, and often sufficient, in some cases we can and will override it altogether. If the men of today don’t need to chase wild animals down the street with a spear in order to satisfy their inner neanderthal, they don’t have to spread their genetic material to every homo sapiens with two X-chromosomes either — and can even get through life without doing so at all.

Monogamy may be the most prominent example of annulling our biological roots, but actually, we’re choosing sacrifice and service over self-preservation all the time. Why become a bodyguard, firefighter, or policewoman? Why try to leave your kids an inheritance — a concept universally accepted and even tax-advantaged by governments around the world — when you can spend every last cent you have on staying alive as long as possible? Why ship food to another nation? Why send in the army to support another nation’s cause? Perhaps anti-evolutionary behavior isn’t as uncommon or unreasonable as we think. What if it’s not anti-evolutionary to begin with?

In a world where everyone has more digital connections than ever yet fewer real friends at the same time, a world where work has fully permeated our lives and developed the potential to creep up any minute on any day, a world where dating apps have destroyed natural relationship economics and the illusion of infinite choice encourages us to never commit to anyone, well, maybe in such a world staying with one partner for your entire life isn’t a bug. Maybe it’s a superpower.

Why spend 60 years with the same person when you can spend 20 years with three each? Because the last 40 years are not the first 20 repeated twice. A great relationship, like everything, gets crispy at the end. For all their hardship and health problems, I bet if I asked my grandparents about their 60-year marriage, they’d say the last ten years were some of the best. But you don’t get those years if you don’t work together through the early struggles, the messy middle, and the inevitable end. You’ll get an expensive divorce lawyer and the emotional scheduling nightmare that is shared custody instead — plus all the other chaos that comes with our modern high-volatility life, of course.

Marriage and monogamy are not perfect concepts. From religious bias to routine and boredom to keeping the romantic spark alive, they come with plenty of knots to unravel. But when you’re part of a generation for whom it’s harder than ever to own a home, own a job for the long haul, or even own a community you’re proud to be a part of, the one thing that should almost feel easy to own is your commitment to another person — especially when maintaining that relationship is no harder than stringing together a chain of loose connections.

The Western individual is as liberated as he or she has ever been. But are we any happier for it? Having lost plenty of its 20th-century shine, monogamy may feel like handwriting letters in a hologram-fueled, cyber-connected world, but sometimes, new is just different, and the old way, having never stopped working, may yet turn out to be timeless.

Evolution Dies Hard

I just spent 23 minutes hunting for a song. This is a common occurrence. It always goes something like this: I play a random collection of music on Youtube. One song jumps out to me. I identify the name of the song. If I’m lucky, it’ll be in the video description. If not, I’ll use Shazam or browse the comments. Then, I try to find just that song on Youtube, save it to a playlist, and, in some rare cases, download it as an MP3 to sync to my phone. Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? There might, however, be obstacles.

In this case, the song artist name in the video description was wrong. So first, I had to find the correct one. Once I had that and had found the song on Youtube, I realized it sounded different from the one I’d just heard. As it turns out, in the collection video, they boosted the bass of the song and somewhat cropped the beginning and the ending.

Well, I wanted the version I had heard — so off to Google I went to find a tool that would let me crop out a small section of a Youtube video, then save just that as an MP3. After striking out a few times with various websites, eventually, I found one through Reddit. Cool. But now I had to convert the timestamps from the original video to an exact number of seconds. Okay. Did that too. I double-checked that the loop was giving me the right song with a decent beginning and ending, and pressed the button. Phew! Finally!

With the song playing on repeat and me finally emerging from my tunnel-vision focus, I realized something: First, I had just wasted 23 minutes of my 25-minute writing block on chasing down a four-minute instrumental — and second, I absolutely love falling down a rabbit hole like this. In fact, I do it all the time.

I love searching for a tool that lets me do exactly what I want in one go instead of chaining together several pieces of software to achieve the same outcome — and probably a lot faster. I love scrolling through various Pokémon card shops, deal sites, and comparing prices on different sites until I find the absolute best bargain on a sealed box or particular card. I love hunting video game achievements, to-do list items, and, yes, new songs to put on my playlists.

It’s true that we’ve come a long way from our hunter-gatherer beginnings — but it’s also true that evolution dies hard, or perhaps not at all. Somewhere in me, the ancient find-a-target algorithm is well-alive and kicking. Chances are, you, too, have not been left unscathed by evolution. Whether that’s good or bad we can debate all day long, but we have evidence aplenty that we can direct our ancient instincts towards new ends.

Are you a hunter? Gatherer? Or something in-between? Don’t succumb to your nature. Harness it. It won’t always lead you up the right mountain, but if the worst you’re doing is wasting 23 minutes finding a song, then even evolution won’t manage to carry you off some metaphorical cliff.

The Benefit of an Easy Job

When you’re self-employed, work can be a series of challenging projects you’ve never done. It’s exciting, and you’ll learn more than at any job, but it can also be exhausting. With some luck, you’ll eventually find a rhythm, and work becomes a bit more predictable. Settle into too much of a routine, however, and for one, it might stop working, and for another, you’ll think, “Wait…that’s not why I became self-employed!”

Where entrepreneurship often offers too much volatility, employment frequently offers too little. Even as a lowly intern ten years ago, I already had 99% of my tasks down pat within five months. I remember longing for something new to learn and being glad that my internship didn’t last forever. There was, however, a benefit I clearly recall enjoying but that I can only fully appreciate now, a full decade later: Since the job was rarely too challenging, there was lots of room for genuine self-expression.

Wait a minute. Isn’t being self-employed all self-expression? How could a job get any better? While technically, that’s true — when you’re flying solo, you have infinite options on how to do anything — at the end of the day, your self-expression better make money. That commonly throws a real wrench into the system. At times, the financial pressure will consume all of your creative energy, and whatever you originally envisioned will arrive in a corrupted form. The bills are paid, but your conscience is not.

During my internship, I was nervous for some of the big events, but mostly, going to work meant hanging with coworkers, cracking some jokes, and spooling off the usual program. I felt confident yet at ease at the same time. Since I knew what I was doing for the most part, there was no need to take myself so seriously, and that made the hours at the office mostly frictionless.

And while I didn’t fully appreciate them yet nor use them to their utmost extent, the hours outside of work also came with completely uninhibited space to be creative. On some of my off days, I went to a coffee shop to build my first website. And then another. And another. The time was limited but untwisted by a need for the projects to make money, and that was its own kind of gift.

There is no perfect work-life situation, and sometimes, “too hard” can be a blessing in disguise. But so can be “too easy” — it all depends on how you use your excess time and energy.

Watch the Credits

My girlfriend and I just finished It Takes Two, a creative co-op game in which you must navigate different areas of your own house in order to save a family from falling apart. After the final screen turned black, I sat there for a good ten minutes, watching the credits roll.

I don’t always stay for the full “who made this”-list at the end of a movie in the cinema, after I’m done with a video game, or whenever a long Youtube production comes to a close — but I try. It’s nice to pay your respects to the people behind a work of art, even if they can’t hear it. Plus, the extra five, ten, 15 minutes give you some time to breathe. To reflect on what you just witnessed and let it sink in.

Rolling credits are only one, if perhaps a more formal, kind of appreciation. So are name tags, the little signature in the corner of a painting, and the “you were served by…” line on your restaurant check. Take note of these notes. They’re the rare breed truly worth acknowledging.

You Can’t Do It…Yet

When she trained kickboxing with six-time world champion Benny Urquidez, Shannon Lee never gave herself enough credit. “He would ask me to execute some kick or some move, and I would try it and blow it, and then I would say, ‘I can’t do it,'” she explains in Be Water, My Friend.

Urquidez, however, had a different interpretation of the events, Lee explains: “He would freeze and look at me with his piercing eyes and say, ‘Yet! You can’t do it yet.’ And he would say this over and over and over again to every complaint and frustration I would spew.”

Sometimes, the only difference between inevitable success and guaranteed defeat is a single, three-letter word. “Yet.” “It was positive framing, and it was firm.” Shannon says. The logic is undeniable. “If you just keep practicing, then one day you’ll get it.”

No, it’s not that you can’t do it. It’s just that you can’t do it…yet.

The Undrawn Sword

As he awaits the signal to storm the enemy fortress, soldier Zack Fair notices something about his friend and commander Angeal: “You know, I’ve never actually seen you use that. Don’t you think it’s sort of a waste?” “That” is Angeal’s massive broadsword, which he carries on his back at all times. “Use brings about wear…tear…and rust,” Angeal says. “And that’s a real waste.”

Before he can properly mock Angeal for being a cheapskate, the explosion sounds, the mission begins, and Zack charges headlong into the battle. Not much later, Zack has bested every enemy in sight — except the one giant, flail-swinging monster attacking him from behind just as he wants to head out. With his back quite literally against the wall, Zack seems to be out of options. The monster raises its arm and…zing!

Shining bright and silver, Angeal’s sword hasn’t just deflected the enemy’s flail — it has cut him right in half. “You owe me one!” Angeal says. “Uh, yeah,” Zack stammers. “Oh, sorry if your sword got any wear, tear, or rust on it.” With a grin, Angeal admits: “You’re a little more important than my sword…but just a little.”

Whether your sword is a pen, a checkbook, or your ability to sprint very fast, don’t blunt its edge for the wrong causes. If you do, it won’t be sharp when you really need it. Exercise your right to do nothing wisely. Save the big aces up your sleeve for when it truly matters.

You’re a hero fighting for a great cause and the people you love — and in that lifelong battle, the only real waste is wear, tear, and rust on the very weapon that’ll win you the war.

Standing on the Shoulders of Shrimps

When Isaac Newton talked about “standing on the shoulders of giants,” it’s not clear whether he wanted to pay a compliment to René Descartes, whom he mentioned two lines before, or make fun of the recipient of his letter, a man of small stature.

Had Newton been talking about my grandpa, he might have slotted him into the latter category. For one, my grandpa only stands at 1.65 meters short, and for another, his tiny fashion shop in his 900-soul village went bankrupt in 2013. He was 73 at the time. Still working. Still trying. But the numbers had been going down for years — and neither the second nor the third mortgage could prevent the inevitable.

Clearly, my grandpa is not a giant, and yet he taught me an incredibly valuable lesson: I will never start pouring outside money into my bootstrapped business. If it can’t carry itself, perhaps it’s not meant to be carried at all. Because of this principle, I might get a 9-to-5 this year. It might not make my life easier, but it will prevent me from going into debt to save an asset that may have become a liability. It’ll allow my project to continue to exist in a slightly altered state, and who knows? In this new mode, it could even unlock more creative and ultimately financially sound ways to work on my enterprise!

Make no mistake: We can learn from the slip-ups and successes of the everyday people around us just as much as we can learn from the greats in the history books. We stand on the shoulders not just of giants but of shrimps, pipsqueaks, and snapperheads — individuals cosmically insignificant yet still of immeasurable, infinite value to all the other humans around them. To you. To me. To us.

Learn from who you can learn, not just from who you think you should. Even Newton learned how to walk from his immediate family, and if we are to stand on our own two feet, then we better do it on whatever foundation — or whoever’s shoulders — will hold up to the task.