Seeing Problems as Challenges and Opportunities

A hiker overlooks the sunset. Text "Not all classrooms have four walls" appears on the graphic.

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 and the moral is always the same: we all have problems. This is just a fact of life. Every life is a combination of both good and bad things. Personally, I’m not sure exactly how many problems I do have, but I know for certain that running away from your problems is a race you will never win. Struggles are required in order to survive in life because in order to stand up, you got to know what falling down is like. Ally McBeal once stated, “Even if I get past all of my problems, I’m going to go out and get some new ones.”

The refrain ‘when one door closes, another opens’ is actually an Alexander Graham Bell quote, which he followed by saying 'but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.'

John Maxwell tells us a story about a philosopher who commented that an eagle’s only obstacle to overcome for flying with greater speed and ease is the air. Yet, if the air was withdrawn and the eagle were able to fly in a vacuum, it would fall instantly to the ground, unable to fly at all. The very element that offers resistance to flying is at the same time the condition for flight.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were the co-founders of Apple Inc. When they were developing the first Apple computer, they ran out of money. They could have given up on their dream of building a computer but instead, they chose to persevere; Steve Jobs sold his van and Wozniak sold his graphing calculator to raise some money.

Once upon a time, there was a teenage girl who 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. Olin Miller writes, “What a pity human beings can’t exchange problems. Everyone seems to know with certainty how to solve the other people.”

Every life is a combination of both good and bad things.

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 Sally Field in the movie Forrest Gump, “Life is like a box of chocolates Forrest, you never know what you are going to get.”

So, the answer is: Problems.

And the question is: Name the one commodity where supply always exceeds the demand.

Do you see problems and challenges as opportunities? Let’s turn to the music world to illustrate the principle of these two supposed villains 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.

“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.”

In our second illustration, a young boy growing up in west Tennessee had a burning desire. It appeared, however, his disadvantaged childhood would restrict his dreams. Told that he was from the ‘wrong side of the tracks.’ He nonetheless sustained his desire to do and be something special.

He had a battered, second hand guitar but had no idea how to tune or play it. His cousin, country singer Lonzo Green, came for a visit and met this anxious youngster wanting to learn the guitar; Lonzo took the time to tune the instrument and teach him a few basic chords.

In a few short years he turned a slim opportunity into a career that won the hearts of Americans everywhere. Elvis Presley sustained his hunger for music even though the odds were against him. An ancient proverb states, “Desire is possibility seeking expression.”

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 lessons.

Albert Einstein once wrote his ‘Three Rules of Work:’

Out of clutter, find simplicity.

From discord, find harmony.

In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity.

Muhammad Ali wrote, “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.”

A small trouble is like a pebble. Hold it too close to your eye and it fills the whole world and puts everything out of focus. Hold it at a proper distance and it can be examined and properly classified. Throw it at your feet and it can be seen in its true setting, just one more tiny bump on the pathway of life. Samuel Grafton adds, “A penny will hide the biggest star in the universe if you hold it close enough to your eye.”

Perspective is everything. 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.”

‘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 and career. The number one lesson I learned from him was this; never bring me a ‘problem’ without bringing some possible solutions. He would also repeat, “Opportunities come disguised as problems in work clothes.” Remember, it takes only a slight shift to change ‘nowhere’ into ‘now here.’ 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. To be successful, you must accept all challenges that come your way. You can’t just accept the ones you like.

Perspective is everything.

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 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.” I trust you are as thankful for Google Maps as I am. Unfortunately, sometimes in life there really are unanswerable questions and situations that cannot be solved and must be accepted.

Quoted from Mother Goose Rhymes:

For every evil under the sun,

There is a remedy or there is none.

If there be one, try and find it,

If there is none, never mind it.

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.

One of my favourite role models is actor/writer 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.”

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.”

Life can hard, but is it possible that sometimes we make it harder than it is, that sometimes the questions may appear complicated but possibly, the answers are simple.

There is a tale about a king who wanted to pick the wisest man among his subjects to be his prime minister. When the search finally narrowed down to three men, he decided to put them to the supreme test.

Accordingly, he placed them together in a room in his palace. On the room door he had installed a lock that was the last word in mechanical ingenuity. The candidates were informed that whoever was able to open the door first would be appointed to the position of prime minister.

The three men immediately set themselves to the task. Two of them began at once to work out complicated mathematical formulas to discover the proper lock combination. The third man, however, just sat down in his chair, lost in thought. Finally, without bothering to put pen to paper, he got up, walked to the door, and turned the handle. The door opened to his touch. It had been unlocked the whole time. It’s often all in your head. You have the power to make things seem hard or easy or even amusing. The choice is yours.

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.

A farmer tells a story about when his favourite 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.

Are there times in life when perhaps our best response is to ‘shake it off’ and step up? Problems and challenges 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. Wayne Dyer writes, “With everything that has happened to you, you can either feel sorry for yourself or treat what has happened as a gift. Everything is either an opportunity to grow or an obstacle to keep you from growing. You get to choose.”

Food for Thought

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

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

What makes life feel so complicated?

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?

Choose one quote every day or perhaps one or two every week if you like. How do these quotes speak to you? What applications do you see in your life? Share your chosen quotes with a family member, a friend, a business colleague. Create a ‘quote of the day’ club at work.

In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity.

- Albert Einstein.

It’s the rough side of the mountain that’s the easiest to climb. The smooth side doesn’t have anything for you to hang on to.

- Aretha Franklin

When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.

- Henry Ford

If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.

- Abraham Maslow

I do not fix problems. I fix my thinking. Then problems fix themselves.

- Louise L. Hay

Indecision is the thief of opportunity.

- Jim Rohn

Opportunity’s favorite disguise is trouble.

- Frank Tyger

Problems are not stop signs. They are guidelines.

- Robert H. Schuller

If you find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.

- Frank A. Clark

The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.

- Eden Phillpotts

Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.

- Tina Fey

I have always grown from my problems and challenges, from the things that don’t work out-that’s when I’ve really learned.

- Carol Burnett

One of the secrets of life is to make stepping stones out of stumbling blocks.

- Jack Penn

The reason so many people never get anywhere in life is because when opportunity knocks, they are in the backyard looking for four-leaf clovers.

- Walter P. Chrysler

Your biggest opportunity may be right where you are now.

- Napoleon Hill

Sometimes opportunities float right past your nose. Work hard, apply yourself, and be ready. When an opportunity comes, you can grab it.

- Julie Andrews

Opportunity doesn’t make appointments. You have to be ready when it arrives.

- Tim Fargo

If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.

- Michael Jordan

Distractions and excuses will always be there. Opportunities won’t.

- Brad Turnbull.

Challenges are gifts that force us to search for a new center of gravity. Don’t fight them, just find a new way to stand.

- Oprah Winfrey

If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort and keep on learning.

- Carol Dweck

Next Lesson: Good Habits are the Foundation of Success

Subscribe to get updates when new lessons are published >