How to give yourself better problems to solve.
In 2018 a group of young students from my old school took time out of their trip to Nepal to visit us and witness the work of From the Ground Up.
Nick and I spent the day with them discussing the story of the organisation, the communities of Ghumarchowk and Sankhu that we were working in, and we toured our projects and brick factory.
At the end one of the school teachers made a point to the boys.
She pointed out that whilst Nick and I could be doing anything with our lives, we were choosing to help people. This was meant to be some form of self-sacrifice on our part, a point she wanted to make to the young seventeen-year-olds who were of course, at a very formational time in their lives.
I couldn’t help feeling at odds with this compliment though. I really didn’t see it that way.
What was I giving up? What was I sacrificing?
Spending a couple of years running a small-scale nonprofit was without-a-doubt the greatest of adventures. I cannot think of anything cooler and more stimulating I could have been doing with my time back then.
This is not fake modesty on my part – my experience has, if anything, made me critical of how much social approval we give to nonprofit, charitable and aid sectors.
The way I saw it – what could be more interesting and compelling than working on a real grass-roots, entrepreneurial initiative? Engaged with real people’s problems in a corner of the world incredibly different to the one I was used to.
Nick had set up a brick factory that was sustainably employing more than twenty locals at that point in construction and manufacturing roles. We were in our early twenties wondering… was someone meant to give us permission to do this?
So what exactly was I turning down?
Was it the chance to sit in lecture halls or shut myself off from sunlight, studying diligently for exams?
Was it the chance to slouch around at home watching TV and Netflix?
What exactly was I turning down? What better, more stimulating use of my time was available to me?
It’s not as though I lived in Nepal for three years.
Something I still laugh about is the disproportionate amount of the credit I personally received for the work of From the Ground Up. After all, it was Nick who spent the better part of some three-to-four years actually living there.
I ran operations from Australia, weighed in with strategic decisions and direction, and would then visit Nepal for two weeks every so often.
There was no problem more fascinating
One of the reasons I found this work so enjoyable was that it was deeply stimulating and compelling. The challenge to make an effective model of impact in a far-off place was an incredible privilege for me – I’d certainly spent enough time fluffing around at university doing a whole-lot-of-nothing.
In 2015 I was trying to figure out which train was the best to take into class. The more comfortable train that took longer, or the shorter but more crammed option?
Just a few years later I was hearing stories from Nick about people like Bina, Bishnu, Binod, Surrendra and of course Damphu, who told Nick on the back of a bike that he’d do anything to be able to send his daughters to university – even selling his land.
So let’s rewind and clarify why we need to give ourselves better problems to solve.
Your brain is run by a dog called Astro.
We’ve talked about Astro the Dog before. This is the character I imagine who is sitting in the control room of the subconscious part of our brains – a frightened little dog who does not understand English, nor the complexities of the modern world.
Our brains do not update very quickly over time – they are massively out of date as our culture and environment change much more rapidly than we do. We can fully update the software of our phones and computers every couple of months, but our minds do not have this feature. (More on this here).
So whilst there is a conscious part of our brain, the part that you can hear reading this, we need to be mindful that each of us has some version of this ‘Astro’.
Astro wants to avoid threats.
It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective to be very sensitive to threats in the environment. How can you learn by trial-and-error that you should not fall off cliffs for example?
As such we needed a lot of pre-wired fear.
So Astro is wired to continually scan the environment for threats. Think of your own dog, or your neighbour’s dog, and all the irrational scenarios in which they start barking or reacting wildly. Think of Astro as this overly sensitive ‘guard dog’ for your brain – if something looks remotely threatening, Astro will bark.
That’s a ‘problem’ when the world is not as life-threatening anymore
Throw the guard dog into our modern world, where danger is not necessarily lurking around every corner. Try explaining that to a guard dog!
So what does Astro do?
Astro turns smaller problems into threats. In my real estate work, I’ve dealt with far too many Astros…
It’s the people with too much time on their hands who complain the most about their neighbours, or little problems in their home.
Even when life is objectively good, we cannot turn Astro off.
If you are someone who diaries or journals frequently, you might take the opportunity to go back now and read Astro’s voice in the things you’ve recorded about yourself.
Life seems like an impossible game when you feel discontent, though the objective viewpoint of your life tells you that it is really good, and that you should be feeling good about it!
The little known fact is that you have as much chance of turning the threat-detection mechanism off as you do silencing your neighbour’s dog, who barks in the night at very non-threatening shadows.
The dog still thinks it is fighting for life-and-death, protecting your genetic material so you can procreate. So if we can’t turn off the threat-detection system, we have to occupy it with better things.
Give yourself better problems to solve.
With this terminology I want to be very delicate. The best way to think about this in my opinion is to align what gives you meaning and fulfillment with providing value for others, and helping them overcome their challenges.
It also helps to lean heavily into the Interest Mapping exercise – what challenges do these interests intersect with?
Asked in another way – what problems in the world do you care about and want to see solved?
This is the entrepreneurial pattern of thinking
All entrepreneurs are, at their heart, dynamic and passionate problem-solvers. It is much more engaging to resolve an issue or improve a service than to take advantage of a one-off financial opportunity.
Elon Musk cares about diversifying humanity’s home planet – that’s why he cares about going to Mars. Sara Blakely noticed a problem with women’s undergarments when she was inspired to start Spanx.
Much closer to home, my friends Scott McKeon and Will Scuderi were sitting together one day and bonded over a common frustration – a lack of screen-space. Next thing you know, we had Espresso Displays.
Real entrepreneurs solve problems. They’re not concerned by a leaking tap when they’re trying to help us get to Mars.
So what sort of problems are you going to concern yourself with?
Are you going to gossip and obsessively pick flaws in others, or are you going to be open to seeing your own weaknesses?
Are you going to complain that the world is against you, or are you going to complain that the world is not a peaceful and opportune enough place for others?
The direction you point Astro in is a delicate and nuanced challenge for you. Our challenge, all of us, is finding the balance and being able to better control Astro.
Finally, go inward and listen to your inner voice. Craft your own music.
Of course the problem with many entrepreneurs is they can’t switch off the over-active threat-detection mechanism. They use Astro to make bigger and better achievements, but in many cases they are also more critical in places that are less productive, like relationships.
So for the purposes of living a fulfilled and meaningful life we have to ask, what is the solution here?
The answer for me has been active appreciation. This is something we traditionally get better at with old age which is why we must accelerate midlife crisis. Having frameworks that keep me in a mode of appreciating what I do have rather than musing on what is still lacking made all the difference in life, without changing my address or income.
It’s that inner voice – the music we want to create – the music that depends not on what the audience or the other musicians want us to play, but the music that comes truly from us.
With these tools I am given daily reminders that problems are not problems. They are barks from Astro. To quote Anthony de Mello:
Problems only exist in the human mind. Reality is not problematic. Take away human beings from this planet and life would go on, and nature would go on, in all her loveliness and her violence.
Where would the problem be? No problem, You ARE the problem”