Seeing Problems as Challenges and Opportunities

February 15, 2019

The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem. 

Theodore Rubin


A troubled individual seeking truth and enlightenment climbs a mountain to seek answers from a very wise old woman. When he arrives at her hut, the wizened old woman says, before the man can even speak, “Ha! You have a problem, my son!”


Startled, the man asks the woman how she knows he has a problem. The woman replies, “Because you have twenty-four problems.”


“How do you know that?” the man asks, somewhat indignantly.


As she sips her tea, the old woman replies, “The universe is very fair; everyone always has twenty-four problems.”


The man ponders this for a moment and then asks, “What am I to do with these problems?”


“Solve them!” the woman snaps.


“What will happen then?”


“Then you’ll have more problems. Because everyone will always have twenty-four problems.”


Then she adds, “There is only one other problem and that is the twenty-fifth.”

“What’s that?” the man asks in desperation.


The twenty-fifth problem is believing you shouldn’t have twenty-four problems.”


This fable has long stood the test of time, with varying numbers of problems. But the moral is always the same: we all have problems. Every life is a combination of both good and bad things. Personally, I’m not sure how many problems I have because math is one of them. I do know that running away from your problems is a race you will never win.


A teenage girl was talking to her father about all of her problems. She told him of the terrible peer pressure she faced, about conflicts with friends, and difficulties with schoolwork and teachers. In an attempt to help her put everything in perspective, he told her that life was not as dark as it might seem and, in fact, much of her worry was perhaps unnecessary.


“That’s easy for you to say, Dad,” she replied. “You already have all of your problems over with.” I can pretty well guarantee you will all have challenges and obstacles at all ages in your life. And no one is exempt.


Dr. Phil McGraw writes in his book Life Matters, “Most of us tend to think that life would be a lot easier if we could simply plan and execute the plan - no interruptions, no changes, no surprises; just do what we set out to do. There’s just one problem. Life is unpredictable. There’s no way we can know in advance everything that’s going to happen. We can do our best to anticipate, but we really don’t know for sure what challenges, problems or opportunities any day or moment will bring.” Who will ever forget the famous quote from the movie Forrest Gump, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get.”


So the answer is:



And the question is:

Name the one commodity where supply always exceeds the demand.


This is the last of three blogs that I call the ‘Reframing/Re-definition Series,’ where we look at familiar words with a general negative connotation and try to see them in a newer more positive perspective. Two months ago we looked at the word mistake. Last month we looked at the word failure. This month, we will look at the word problem.


Can you see problems as opportunities?


In 1948, Gene Autry was on the lookout for a Christmas song to match the success of his popular 1947 hit, “Here Comes Santa Claus.” He was ready to cut two records and had decided on three of the songs but a fourth was needed. He was having great difficulty finding an appropriate song.


About that time an aspiring New York songwriter mailed Autry a recording of his number called, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Autry wasn’t impressed but his wife was, and she believed children would enjoy it as well. In the final minutes of the recording session, Autry decided to record Johnny Mark’s Rudolph song as his fourth number. Autry may have thought it was silly, but it sold two and a half million copies the first year. There are no limits to opportunities; most of us only see a minute portion of what is possible.


Running away from your problems is a race you will never win.


The Chinese word for crisis is written with two brush strokes. The first is for danger and the second for opportunity. I’ve always enjoyed Ziggy’s take on opportunity, “Opportunity knocked once, but I was taking out the garbage.”


Opportunity is one of four things in life you can’t recover after it’s gone. The other things you can’t recover in life are: (1) A stone after it is thrown. (2) A word after it is said. (3) Time after it is gone. We will be reviewing all of these in future blogs.


Can you see problems a challenges?


A retired man was awakened from his afternoon nap by a noisy group of boys banging garbage cans beneath his window. Instead of yelling at them, however, he did something very odd. He leaned out the window and told them how much he liked the sounds of kids at play and would pay them each a quarter a day to play there.


The next week, however, he told them he could now afford to pay only a dime a day. Some boys left, but a few accepted the new rate.


The following week he apologized profusely but cut their wages to a nickel a day. There was no way they would play for one nickel. The remaining boys departed in a huff, never to return, leaving the man without the joyous sound of children playing but for some strange reason smiling to himself.


Muhammad Ali adds, “Looking at life from a different perspective makes you realize that it’s not the deer that is crossing the road, rather it’s the road that is crossing the forest.”


To be successful, you must accept all challenges that come your way. You can’t just accept the ones you like. 


‘Problem’ is one of the words I have chosen to remove from my vocabulary. I have been very fortunate in my life to have had a couple of wonderful mentors. I will always be thankful to Merv Cundell, whose leadership and coaching really helped me in so many areas of my life. The one thing I most remember about Merv was this: he would never let me bring him a ‘problem’ without bringing some possible solutions. And he would hammer in the perspective that, “Opportunities come disguised as problems in work clothes.”  


Read this slowly:




What did you read?






Life is about how we look at it!


John Maxwell writes: “Opportunity is a peculiar thing. Two people with similar gifts, talents, and resources can look at a situation, and one person will see tremendous opportunity while the other sees nothing. Opportunity is in the eye of the beholder.


A shoe factory sent two salesmen to a region of Africa to study the prospects for expanding business. When the first salesman arrived at the destination, he discovered no one wore shoes. He wrote back that he was coming home because there was little to no opportunity for sales there. The second salesman arrived in the same country and when he discovered no one wore shoes, he wrote his office and told them to increase production because the potential was great. Attitude can make a powerful difference. Joyce Meyer adds: “Being negative only makes a journey more difficult. You may be given a cactus, but you don’t have to sit on it.”


To be successful, you must accept all challenges that come your way. You can’t just accept the ones you like. 


It seems that there was an old farmer who had suffered through a lifetime of troubles and afflictions that would have leveled an ordinary mortal. But though it all he never lost his sense of humor.


“How have you managed to keep so happy and serene?” asked a friend.


“It isn’t hard,” said the old fellow with a twinkle in his eye. “I’ve just learned to cooperate with the inevitable.”


This same farmer tells a story about when his favorite donkey fell into a deep precipice. He couldn’t pull it out no matter how hard he tried. He saw no way of saving his donkey. He therefore decided that the merciful thing to do was to bury it and put it out of a certain long painful death.


Soil was poured onto the donkey from above. The donkey felt the load, shook it off, and stepped on it. More soil was poured. It shook it off and stepped up, the more the load was poured, the higher it rose. By noon, the donkey was grazing in green pastures.


Cherie Carter Scott writes: “When you consider the hardships of life - the disappointments, hurts, losses, illnesses, all the tragedies you may suffer - and shift your perception to see them as opportunities for learning and growth, you become empowered. You can take charge of your life and rise to its challenges, instead of being defeated, victimized or cast adrift.”


In ancient times, a king had a boulder placed on a roadway. Then he hid himself and watched to see if anyone would remove the huge rock. Some of the king’s wealthiest merchants and couriers came by and simply walked around it. Many loudly blamed the king for not keeping the roads clear, but none did anything about getting the big stone out of the way. Then a peasant came along carrying a load of vegetables. On approaching the boulder, the peasant laid down his load and tried to move the stone to the side of the road. After much pushing and straining, he finally succeeded. As the peasant picked up his vegetables, he noticed a purse lying in the road where the boulder had been. The purse contained many gold coins and a note from the king indicating that the gold was for the person who removed the boulder from the roadway. The peasant learned what many others never understand. Every obstacle presents an opportunity to improve one’s condition.


Imagine renting a rustic wooden cabin in a beautiful setting for your honeymoon. The place is delightful. At dawn, however, a woodpecker starts its loud rat-a-tat pounding on the roof. The noise is so loud you couldn’t sleep. It happens at dawn the second morning, again on the third morning, and so forth. What could you do?


The incident with the woodpecker happened to Gracie and Walter Lantz on their honeymoon. They were a happy, playful couple and they discovered an opportunity. By the time they had returned from their honeymoon, they were inspired to create the cartoon character, “Woody the Woodpecker.” Walter was the illustrator, Gracie the voice. Many years later, when interviewed on their 50th wedding anniversary, Gracie said, “It was the best thing that ever happened to us.”


I love to play golf. My biggest challenge in golf is I’m often too close to the ball after I hit it. What follows is an interesting piece on the history of the design of our golf ball today. A display of golf balls that spanned many years revealed how they were transformed by the addition of one significant element. The first golf balls manufactured had smooth covers. A young avid golfer experiencing financial difficulties staring playing with beat up golf balls. His playing partners noticed their smooth golf balls did not fly as accurately or as far. Today, golf balls have as many as 432 dimples. These “rough spots’ enhance the ball’s accuracy and distance. And so it is with life. Rough spots have a tendency to sharpen our performance.


I have taught the following learning for over 40 years when I am facilitating ‘Managing Stress’ workshops. Inevitably you will face difficult situations in life. We all are subject to ‘problems’ and challenges no matter what age we are. You basically have 3 options to choose from. (1) Stay and attempt to change it. (2) Stay and live with it (acceptance). (3) Leave it.


Milton Berle, the comedian, once quipped, “Every problem can be solved, except maybe how to refold a road map.” But sometimes in life there really are unanswerable questions and situations that cannot be solved and must be accepted.


One of my favorite role models is Michael J. Fox. He writes, “I have no choice about whether or not I have Parkinson’s. I have nothing but choices about how I react to it. In those choices, there’s freedom to do a lot of things in areas I wouldn’t have otherwise found myself in. Life delivered me a catastrophe but I found a richness of soul. Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation. It means understanding that something is what it is and there’s got to be a way through it. The more I expect, the more unhappy I am going to be. The more I accept the more serene I am.


One of my learnings is if we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d probably grab ours back. My opening exercise in Managing Stress workshops has been for each participant to write down all their worries, problems and stressors on a piece of paper, then fold it in three, place it in an envelope, seal it, and write their name on the front. Then I gather up all envelopes. I am taking on their worries for the day. At the end of the day, the closing activity is to return the envelopes to their rightful owners. Before doing that, my last question to all is, “How many of you would like to trade your envelopes with anyone else’s sight unseen?” I’ve only had two people who were eager to trade. I wonder what was in their envelopes?


Jim Clemmer in his book, Growing at the Speed of Change, shares this story. A 38-year-old man was at his parents’ home for Sunday dinner. He mournfully turned the discussion to his many problems: “I’ve just left my third marriage. I can’t hold onto a job. I’m in debt up to my ears and will have to declare personal bankruptcy,” he whimpered. “Where did you go wrong?” I guess he never heard of the common denominator theory! Funny how people prefer to stay with problems they understand rather than look for solutions they’re uncomfortable with. Rolling Stone journalist P.J. Rourke adds: one of the annoying things about believing in free will and individual responsibility is the difficulty of finding someone to blame your problems on. And when you do find somebody, it’s remarkable how often their picture turns up on their driver’s license.


We may not be able to prevent the worst from happening to us but we are responsible for our attitude toward the inevitable misfortunes that sometimes darken our lives. Bad things do happen, to good people. How we respond to them defines our character and the quality of our lives.


A person was once asked, “What’s the best part of life every morning?” to which they replied, “You have a new opportunity to become a better and improved version of yourself.” Always remember to do something each day that your future self will thank you for. The best preparation for tomorrow is doing your best today.


‘Problems’ are like washing machines. They twist us, they spin us and knock us around but in the end we often come out cleaner, brighter, and better than before.


Previous month: Failing Well, Failing Forward

Next month:  There is No Single Definition of Success


Why don’t most of us view problems as opportunities or challenges in our everyday lives?


What’s a life lesson or insight you’ve gained from a recent struggle?


Is it possible that what you are labeling as a ‘problem’ today, could, at some point in the future, turn out to have been a good thing?


What is one challenge that you hope to overcome this month?





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