One of the biggest realizations I’ve made is how our brains will always try to find new problems, even if we don’t have any real ones. And because of this, it’s important that we consciously decide for ourselves what problems we want to focus on. It could perhaps even be the key to fulfillment.
“The brain has not evolved to make us happy. It has evolved to keep us alive”A tweet I remember reading
Our brains are addicted to problems
The human brain likes to focus on problems, things that may be a potential threat to our survival or continuous well-being. You can imagine how this probably worked well when we needed to focus on surviving harsh environments, physical threats, and other real-life dangers.
However, if you’re living in a rich developed country in the 21st century, such dangers are most likely removed from your life.
Instead, our minds start focusing on smaller inconveniences and hypothetical future scenarios, making them seem bigger than they are. Such problems could be future financial difficulties, worrying about the infidelity of romantic partners, or stress regarding potential social situations.
That’s why people with too much idle time, too much money, or a too easy and unchallenging life, can still be anxious and depressed. The brains of those with a too comfortable life may even start focusing on problems that have no possible solutions, such as existential questions. Why are we alive? What is the meaning of life? And so on.
This is what Mark Manson refers to when writing about how we need to choose our own problems and that the solution to existential crises is to re-focus our energy on helping others and solving a problem.
Focusing on problems can be good
When we consciously choose our own problems, we take control over the part of our mind that seeks and wants problems. Instead of letting our minds run wild on worst-case scenarios, we can choose worthy problems to focus on, which are problems where a solution can help other people.
Not choosing our problems
If we do not take control and let our minds focus on whatever worries and problems it wants, such as jealousy, anxious attachments, the possibility of a humiliated ego, and so on, the solution will not help anyone except ourselves. We may protect our own ego and our own perceived social status, but that comes at no benefit to other people.
Choosing what problems to focus on
On the other hand, if we choose to focus on a challenge that solves a problem for a large number of people, the effect of our efforts and energy will be much more impactful.
Such problems to focus on are often tied to work- or organizational focuses such as:
- How can we make communication easier across the globe?
- How can we cure a global deadly disease?
- What can I do to lessen suffering?
- How can we create more freedom and happiness for people?
- In what ways can we identify, reach out to, and support people in need?
The above-mentioned points are all problems that we can decide to focus on instead of focusing on hypothetical minor inconveniences in our personal lives.
The helpful problems we focus on can of course also be smaller, which is why all organizations and businesses are encouraged to ask themselves their ”why”. The question of why we are carrying out a task is precisely the problem we are willingly choosing.
Choosing problems creates purpose in work
From my line of reasoning, choosing what problems one wants to focus on in life can also lead to a purposeful work-life. If I choose my work based on what problems I want to help solve, doing the work will feel purposeful and meaningful.
For example, any skills in themselves (e.g. programming, designing, communication, writing, marketing, public speaking, being able to use a specific software) are just ways of thinking, doing, and reasoning that can be applied in a wide variety of cases. And the act of performing those actions in itself does not provide any purpose or meaning.
It’s when you apply those skills, in order to solve a problem or help other people, that purpose and meaning are created. That’s why it’s important to start with the why, the vision, the problem, and the people we want to help. From that, we can go down to the details of what, how, and who.
So, choosing your own problem doesn’t only free you from unnecessary anxieties and small thinking, but it can also help you to find meaning and purpose in your work and life’s mission.
How to do it
When it comes to how to actually start consciously choosing your own problems, these are some methods that have helped me.
1. Become aware of the current focus
Firstly, it’s a matter of being mindful and aware of what’s currently filling your mind. What problems is your brain currently focused on? You can figure this out by practicing mindfulness and observing your thought, or by starting a journaling practice with your stream of consciousness whenever you feel anxious or worried about a problem.
2. Decide to change
Secondly, when you know what problems you’re currently focused on, you need to be firm with yourself and decide that you will no longer focus on those things. Decide that from now on, you will just let those thoughts and worries go when they come because you have more important things to focus on.
3. Determine new problems
Lastly, decide what new problems you do want to focus on. For this, I’d recommend you to sit down and write down what things you do find important in life. What problems or challenges would you want to work on and help contribute a solution to? Decide on 1-3 problems you will willfully dedicate your future to solving.
Then, of course, you need to practice these new ways of being. It will probably be a carrousel of ups-and-downs, and on some days you might do really well, focusing on the right things. On other days, you will most likely find yourself falling back on old habits. But that’s okay. With time, you will replace old patterns of thinking with new ones, until the new ones become your default.
To summarize, our brains will always make us see all the problems that exist or could exist. To not fall victim to wasting our energy on useless problems, we need to consciously be aware of what we are focusing on, and decide for ourselves what we think is important. What problems do we want to focus on? What problems do we want to solve? How do we want to help other people? By using this method, we can step away from meaningless worries and anxieties, and instead spend our lives doing something meaningful.