Nobody likes to face unpleasant truths. In fact, there’s nothing in this world quite so much like an invisibility cloak as a willingness to try to get people to face facts they don’t want to face.
Tell a man his house is burning down, and he won’t listen. Tell the very same man his house has already burned down, and he’ll scream at you and demand to know why you didn’t tell him it was burning when he could have stopped it.
Of course that’s taking things a little too far, but the point remains. We’re generally pretty blind to things that threaten to undermine our paradigm. Human beings like to think they’ve got everything pretty much figured out, or at least that they’ve got the main things figured out and they only have to worry about the details.
The really unpleasant fact is that we really know almost nothing. As individuals, we mostly know only what we have to know to get through our days in one piece and in order to avoid smashing the illusion that we actually know what we’re doing. Collectively, we’re a little better. As a group, we can use things like peer review and the scientific method to steadily chip away at the massive list of things we don’t know and can’t understand.
But one of the most persistent facts about the human race is that we’re not very good at remembering important truths. Most reasonable people will listen to you politely when you say people don’t like to face unpleasant facts, but the idea doesn’t stick. It stays somewhere back in the long-term memory where they never think about it and never even think of using it on an everyday basis.
And why is that? Simple. It’s because we don’t like to face unpleasant facts. We’d rather write them down on a list of things we should take care of, someday, maybe, eventually. When you take the time to face the fact that we don’t like facing unpleasant facts, it requires a lot from you.
It requires you to take the time to dig into problems.
Now, let me tell you a little bit about problem solving. We act like problem solving is a simple thing that everybody knows how to do, but it’s not. The sad truth is that most people don’t know how to solve problems. Sure, they could tell you a nice little story about how they would solve a problem if they ever solved it, but generally we like to palm off our problems on somebody else.
The main reason for this is that most people don’t like to face unpleasant facts. Because if problem solving requires one thing, it’s a willingness to face unpleasant facts.
Now what is problem solving? Problem solving is using the human mind to do what the human mind is for. The mind is a highly temperamental machine for finding and solving problems. Once you understand that, you understand why most of us don’t like to face unpleasant facts: we avoid problems because we’re stuck in the default mode of trying to solve the problem that there are problems.
The first key to problem solving is to remember this: there is no perfect solution, and the problems only stop when you’re dead. Trying to solve the problem that there are problems is a self-defeating process.
So the next key to problem solving is to choose the right problem. Another way of saying this is to say that you need to set the right goal. Of course, it’s possible to work towards many goals at the same time. You can have a short-term goal of driving to Starbucks to get a cup of coffee, mid-term goals like raising company revenue by 15 percent this fiscal year, or long-term goals like living on Mars when you retire. You can even have highly abstract goals like “trying to be a good person.”
The thing to keep in mind is that the structure of your goals determines the structure of your life. That’s why you can exercise a high degree of freedom in picking your goals, but you don’t want to choose any problems that are intrinsically unsolvable.
That’s the unpleasant fact I’m really trying to get across here: some problems really are unsolvable. No matter what you do and no matter how smart you are, you’ll never get rid of the fact that there are problems. There are always going to be problems in life, and there are always going to be challenges. When you set out to get rid of the problem of having problems, you magnify the suffering in your life. Paradoxically, nothing in the world causes quite as much suffering as the utopian drive to get rid of all suffering.
After you’ve identified the problem, you come up with a plan for solving it. If it’s a fairly mundane or familiar problem, your first solution will probably work when you implement it. If it’s a more complex problem, it will take longer and be more difficult to solve. The thing we have to remember is that problem solving is a repeated, iterative, and continuous process leading to continual improvement.
There’s always an urge to give up and say, “I can’t do it. This problem is too hard.” I won’t say that’s never true, but it’s very rarely true.
Why does it happen then? This comes back to what I was saying about how much we hate facing anything unpleasant. Failure hurts. It’s discouraging. It makes us question whether we’re ever going to solve the problem we’re out to solve. But if you try you’re going to fail, at least sometimes, and a lot of us get into the habit of not trying instead of risking the pain of failure.
If you’re going to win in life, you have to embrace the fact that it’s going to be painful sometimes. You’re going to fail sometimes. You’re not going to like that, not one little bit.
But when you fail, you’re going to get up and try it again. Because you know your goal is worth reaching.