Language is one of our strongest capabilities to transform the things we experience into things we can understand. As such, the vocabulary I use when shifting my focus to a problem is a leading factor for helping me through it. One example I am quite fond of is 'approaching' a problem rather than 'attacking' it. I prefer 'building' a solution instead of searching for or finding one. These are simple changes but allow me to view the challenges ahead with more clarity. Very often, the use of more adequate words can help me feel less stressed and more optimistic. A particularly tricky word to navigate is 'impossible'. My immediate reaction to a word like 'impossible' is that of hopelessness. No matter the effort put forward, the result is non-existent. Recently I have come around to the concept of impossible as something more than a pessimistic but nonetheless realistic view of difficult problems. As a student in college, I often feel that my margin for error when learning something new leans towards zero. Assignments must be completed on time and correctly to earn a grade which affects everything after it. While I currently have enough hours in the day to complete these assignments, it feels very difficult to derive much value from my time spent 'learning' when much of it is just to get a grade.
This is a good example of an 'impossible' problem. I cannot do anything to change the process of submitting assignments for a grade and being evaluated on exams as a metric for my academic success. At least, not in any reasonable time frame to the point that it would help me. So I have to approach this challenge with a different mindset than just removing the 'real' problem. I must evaluate what resources are available to me and begin to tinker with them. It's not about what I can do to remove complexity from the problem, its about what I can bring to the table to make the problem less difficult. Now that the problem is a downgraded level to difficult and not impossible, I have a much better chance of approaching it and seeing what it's about. Another feature of language that helps here is description. A phrase that seems a bit too obvious or useless on the surface has removed so much resentment I have towards problems that afflict me personally is "Difficult problems are difficult". This description quiets the layer of self-judgement associated with not being adequate for solving a problem. It reminds me that this is the way things are and there are ways to change them, they just might not be so obvious or immediately available. By following the path of language to concept, I can now start forming actual ideas for how to build a tangible solution.
The resources I have at my disposal for a problem such as school are as follows:
- Additional time dedicated to school efforts
- An Internet full of videos and guides to specific topics
- Systems I have developed to make habit change easier
- Tools to document what I have learned
I would encourage those reading this to take a look at the words you use to describe problems that you feel can be turned from the depths impossible to the realm of the difficult.
This post was inspired by my recent listening of NPR's Life Kit podcast: