How to Solve Life's Worst Problems

As he told me the story, he kept emphasizing how the phrase "Some problems need to ripen" had changed the way he thought about work and, in fact, how he interacted with people.
11/27/2013 04:22 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2014

My friend's response surprised me. He said, "Some problems need to ripen."

We had been talking about work, and I was complaining about a few situations that never seemed to get better.

He told me about a problem at his office earlier that week. Letters hadn't been sent to some of his company's clients. These were legally-required communications and people were freaking out. His smart phone had been blowing up with emails and texts. People were calling for investigations and team meetings to look at process. Phrases like, "This is serious, maybe catastrophic" were being thrown around. His phone kept ringing.

He didn't respond right away. In fact, he went to lunch.

When he got back he called his colleague who had started the tornado of communication. He asked her, "Will the problem be fixed if we send out the letters by the end of the week." The woman paused, and then agreed.

My friend asked her to send an email letting everyone know that the situation had been resolved.

As he told me the story, he kept emphasizing how the phrase "Some problems need to ripen" had changed the way he thought about work and, in fact, how he interacted with people.

I started using it.

When I felt my stress response trigger, meaning the alarm in my brain noticed something that needed my attention, I first asked, "Does this problem need to ripen?"

Problems very quickly began to fit into three categories: lions, black holes, and tomatoes.

Some were absolutely urgent. A child runs into the street. A car swerves into your lane. These problems are lions that need to be tamed immediately.

The good news is that the alarm in your brain is ready for this kind of situation. When a problem we face is dire, our brains send a spike of adrenaline to our systems and we react. We protect the child. We swerve our car out of the way without thinking.

Some problems, however, are a result of natural law, and quite frankly, we can't solve them by ourselves. Poverty and mental illness: These are black holes. They are the inevitable result of human nature and an imperfect world. They are big and heavy and they will suck you into a dark place if you take them on alone. That may be what happened to Mother Teresa. Perhaps the way she thought about poverty caused one of the most faithful women in history to feel God, according to her journals, had deserted her.

I believe we can't treat the worst problems as problems. They cannot be fixed. Instead, when facing ongoing suffering that feels endless, we have to find teammates and together, day by day, find new ways to make small, sustainable improvements to heavy and painful circumstances.

Some problems, however, need to ripen
. Like tomatoes, there are some situations that trigger our stress response, and if we let them mature, one of three things happen.

The problem goes away.
The problem has a simple solution.
Or, the problem reveals itself to be the kind of challenge that needs a plan.

Where we all get into trouble is that we don't differentiate the kind of problems that set off our alarms.

Imagine if you could look at every problem in your life like a scientist observing cells under a microscope.

You wouldn't overreact when your spouse says something silly or your co-worker does that thing that always drives you crazy. You wouldn't raise unnecessary red flags when situations didn't demand them and you wouldn't feel totally out of control all the time because everything feels so urgent.

So here's how I use this new model and I hope it will help you too.

Step One: Notice when your body or brain identifies a problem. Become a scientist about your own life. Observe rather than react. Appreciate the unfolding of a moment instead of being taken over by a situation's emotional weight.

Step Two: Name the problem. Is it a lion, a black hole, or a tomato? Silly names, sure, but they help me remember that each kind of problem demands a different response. Tame the lion. Find teammates to work on the black holes. Let tomatoes ripen.

Step Three: When dealing with tomatoes, watch and discern whether the problem is going away, whether it has a simple solution, or if it needs a plan.

Everything can be a problem if we want it to. And what I learned from my friend is that most problems can be calmly taken care of in good time when we recognize the kind of problem we face.