I don’t hate problems. Problems are challenges, and all challenges are an opportunity for growth. Big problems are an opportunity for big growth. But a problem that has only grown through negligence yields little growth.
A small hole in your roof is a small problem. Sure, the occasional bug will come in, but it isn’t any risk to your shelter. If it’s hot out, turn up the air conditioner. If it’s cold, put some more logs on the fire. If it rains, put a bucket under it.
Perhaps you grow tired of these kludges. Every month you’re paying more on your electric bill. You left the house for a week, the bucket filled up, and the overage flooded your living room. The hole has grown a little bit. Birds are beginning to nest in your house. They are feasting on the lizards that have also found refuge inside.
The next step is to cover the hole. It’s still under control. Bits of your roof are being eaten away, but you can cover the hole with a frisbee. So you do that. The frisbee blows away. Darn it. Next step is to put a rock on the frisbee. You’re scared of heights, so it’s all you can do to go up there. In fact, the first time you threw it up there and got lucky. This time you aren’t so lucky and the frisbee lands far from the hole.
You don’t want to pay anyone to go up there and secure the frisbee, or, heaven forbid, fix the hole. This is because you aren’t convinced it’s a real problem yet. Instead, you fasten a rag to your inside ceiling with duct tape. The rag blocks the hole completely. A few rainy days go by, and only a few drops fall. You’re heating bills are back to normal. Everything seems alright.
Then, a big storm comes. Rain pounds your roof for hours. The small hole becomes a gaping hole. Your attic floods with water, until the whole roof collapses under the weight.
This is now a big problem.
All along, you had warning signs. The birds, the lizards, the leakage, the sagging ceiling before the collapse. Those events were all telling you to do something, pushing you, forcing you, yet you ignored the signs.
Don’t ignore the signs.
If there’s a problem, fix it now. If you don’t even know what the problem is, try to find out. Always be in motion.
I have a friend who didn’t want to fix her teeth when she was younger. She had all sorts of cavities and decay, but she’d protest that it wasn’t worth the money to fix. I don’t know if it was for lack of flossing and brushing. Her excuse was that she could wait till she’s older and have all her teeth removed and replaced with dentures. Coming from a woman in her thirties, this is nothing short of absurd.
Recently, she told me that she had $5000 in surgery done on a molar, with no insurance to cover it. The tooth had to be drilled out and bone had to be replaced. Knowing her, she waited too long; way too long. A relatively minor problem became a huge pain requiring invasive surgery. A little problem became a big problem.
Here’s another example. For six and a half months this site was richardxthripp.richardxthripp.com. I always intended for it to be a multi-user site, but didn’t consider Thripp.com because it was taken. I became convinced that richardxthripp.com was better, more distinctive, more interesting, despite it’s length.
I’d become increasingly aware of the length of the domain. When I moved to WordPress MU at first, I had to switch to subdirectories as my host wouldn’t support subdomains. I became richardxthripp.com/richardxthripp, but I continued using the subdomain in print (with an HTTP 301 redirect).
When I switched hosts, I soon became aware the new host supports virtual subdomains. “Can’t change it,” I thought. It’s too much trouble. It’s not designed to be changed. Subdirectories are better branded. Everyone’s used to it. This was actually sour grapes and complacency bias. I didn’t find out till thripp.com became available, which I immediately snatched up. After a couple hours of hard thought, I decided to switch to subdomains and move from richardxthripp.com to thripp.com all in one go. It was hard work, securing all the old links while making the switch, but it was worth it. At the same time, I chose to begin using “rxthripp.com” where convenient in print and in branding for this site, as a shorter domain, though it redirects to the formal address, richardxthripp.thripp.com.
I’ve already printed “richardxthripp.richardxthripp.com” on the backs of thousands of 4*6 photographs. I give them out to everyone I meet. It may take me years to exhaust the old stock. But the good thing is I’ve still fixed the problem early. I could’ve waited till 2030 once I’d printed the old site on millions of items. Perhaps I’d have published several books with the address. Either way, even the old URLs could easily work forever, changing them would produce huge discontinuties in my identity. Compare that to a small blip now. Before the switch, the problem seemed huge (WordPress MU doesn’t let you switch domains and URL structures easily). In hindsight, it’s nothing.
Don’t convince yourself that something isn’t a problem just because it feels safe. I’ve done it too many times before. If you’re a thief but you’ve convinced yourself stealing is okay, that’s a problem. In ethical dilemmas and beyond, I find it useful to ask, “If I had unlimited money / time / resources, would I think this is wrong, or a problem?” “If I had unlimited money, would I go to college?” If the answer is no and you’re in college, you have a problem. You shouldn’t be there. I have a problem right now, because I’m doing just that. The first step is acknowledging you have a problem for which you have no solution nor plan of action. That takes courage.
Is it really a problem?
The problems you have may be nothing. Think of the ideal you. The ideal you probably has loads of money—not that that defines him. It’s simply a fact that huge sums of cash can obliterate huge problems. If you have enough money, you can literally move a mountain. The money doesn’t move the mountain per se, but other people will be happy to do the work in exchange for it, because they know they can use it to get the food, houses, cars, and gadgets they need. The ideal you has a lot of money, because the ideal you has done so much good for the world that he is a magnet for coinage. People are literally forcing him to accept donations.
If you have a problem that can be solved by money, it isn’t a big problem. A big problem is being at the end of your life but not having found your purpose. A big problem is dying from cancer but not knowing the cure. A big problem kills you, or has a highly damaging effect on the health of you or your family. Most of life’s problems are not big problems. For the purpose of comparison, small problems can be called big problems. Life isn’t objective.
Persistent problems require persistent solutions.
Thirst is a big problem. If you refuse to drink liquids for a few months, you will die, no doubt about it. If you drink sixteen gallons of water today so that you can go on a liquid fast for the next few weeks, don’t be surprised when it ends disastrously. Thirst is a persistent problem. You can’t drink your life’s water now to get it over with. You have to take in fluids every day. You have to eliminate these fluids every day once they’ve served your body’s purpose. Most people have to do this many times per day. It never ends. The problem cannot be stopped. A one-off solution simply won’t work; you must be constantly fighting the problem to keep it at bay.
A normal problem requires a heroic solution; a singular, overwhelming assault in which the problem is systematically slaughtered. I borrow this terminology from heroic medicine. In heroic medicine, if your arm is itchy, the solution is to chop it off and cauterize the flesh (I exaggerate). But let’s think of a less extreme, yet still heroic, solution. You know your arm is going to feel an itch again. It’s done it before, hundreds of times. You’ll have to scratch it. It will distract you many times. Why not just scratch it now until it’s scarred and bloody, so you never have to do it again? Of course that’s a horrible idea and won’t work. After the mutilation, the scabs will prove themselves far itchier. The next heroic solution is to remove the sensation of touch from your arm. This can be accomplished through the marvels of modern surgery. Maybe you won’t be able to feel anything after electrostatic shocks?
Obviously, applying heroic solutions to persistent problems is completely ridiculous. Yet you see people doing it every day without realizing it. Usually it just isn’t so blatant.
The Case of Cancer
Cancer is a good example of a persistent problem being attacked with a heroic solution. What are we told? The solution is early detection. This requires regular probing. Once you’ve been probed, and the cancer, discovered (it’s inevitable), the next step is to forcibly remove it. If it’s not in a position to be cut out of you, we’ll poison or burn you till it dies. If this were a Pokémon game, the battle would be Human [Pikachu] vs. Cancer [Mewtwo], and the theory would be that Pikachu has 250 hit points (HP) and Mewtwo has 240. Mewtwo’s only known skill is “String Shot,” which reduces your agility but doesn’t reduce your HP. However, after being hit with String Shot 25 times, you die. Letting the cancer live isn’t an option. The only way you can effectively hurt Mewtwo is with Equal Damage, which reduces Mewtwo’s HP by 10, but also brings you down by 10. Think of this as chemotherapy treatment. After 23 rounds of “treatment,” the cancer is weak and near death, with 10 HP. You are weak and near death with 20 HP, but the cancer is weaker. The doctors and your family are cheering. “We’ve almost done it!”, they shout. Then, Mewtwo unleashes his secret weapon, a move called Recover which you didn’t know about. In one turn, his HP shoots up to 130. He’s stronger than ever. You use Equal Damage one more time, and it’s 120 to 10. Then, he knocks you out with one String Shot. My cousin had brain cancer, back when we didn’t know the cure. He was doing well with radiation treatment. Then, the cancer came back, stronger than ever, and killed him just like nothing.
Little did we know that Pikachu has a secret move called Fruit Seeds, in which he attacks Mewtwo with the seeds of fruit that break down his defenses, cutting his HP by 100 while increasing ours by 50. The cure for cancer, which I’ve written more about here, is a vitamin found in the seeds of fruit such as apples, watermelons, and especially apricots. Rogue healing cells, unassigned a duty, reproduce swiftly, clogging your internals with unproductive tumors. The only way to kill them is to provide your body with the enzyme (vitamin B17) that breaks them down. Cancer is a persistent problem; the persistent solution is to eat fruit every day, whole with the seeds. If you already have cancer, the tumors won’t go away, but they’ll stop growing and you’ll live. But if you’re at the point that three String Shots will wipe you out, it may be too late.
Attacking cancer with cutting, burning, and poisoning is archaic. It’s a heroic solution attacking a persistent problem. It doesn’t work. It’s a leftover from the dark ages.
Don’t let mismatched solutions invade your life. Instead of belatedly masking tooth decay with expensive, painful root canals, start flossing your teeth now, every day. [Tip: bleeding is normal because your gums are damaged from unrelenting exposure to bacteria. It should subside within two weeks.] If you hate your name, and you know you’re always going to hate your name, change it. My Dad did this back in the 80′s, and from him I got the Thripp name. Don’t wait. Start telling people your new name before you even try to have it changed. A terrible name is a big, unceasing problem, and it requires a big, unceasing solution.
If you’ve come this far, you may now realize you have no big problems. Get some, because in part 2, I’ll be tackling intermittent and singular problems.