If you have goats you will have goat problems.
Last year my friend Grace said in passing, when I was worrying out loud about something or other, "Well if you have goats, you will have goat problems." Not that I had goats, but she had spotted that I seemed to talk a lot about problems. Problems associated with various things in my life. My schedule. My travel. The ability to meet deadlines. And I was working very hard at problem solving about those things.
“If you have goats you will have goat problems.” Says Grace. Her comment struck me very funny at the time, and then I started thinking: There was something to what she said.
If you have a car, eventually you will have car problems. And a house? House problems. And a family? Family problems. A boat? Boat problems? Not that any of those things are a problem—generally they are simply a part of life, often a good part. But rather than seeing that they are “just life” and that some of the dynamics of having them in our life are challenging I was calling the challenges “problems.”
And I realized that what was creating the problems was me. By naming the inevitable dynamics of the situations in my life as “problems” I was creating the problem, and then congratulating myself for being such a great problem solver. I was shaping the circumstances of my life into problems. Not that I didn’t have some challenges to wrestle with, but the challenges were life, not problems. And in naming them “problems” I changed them into just that and then cemented my attention on the problem that I had created. Leaving me little attention and energy for anything else.
I could have, instead, taken time to identify the life-affirming elements of the dynamics: Yes the family cottage needed a new dock since the water spout sucked up the old one and took it away. But the family cottage is very cool. And if it had to, it could do without a dock. And my brother David could probably figure out how to get a new one. And he did. Better than the old one.
So here are some ways I practice getting myself out of the “problem” orientation, and into the “it’s life” orientation, or even on my very best days, “It’s a life full of blessings.”
- I remind myself that solving a problem doesn’t get me what I want. It just gets rid of what I don’t want. So for me, getting more skilled at jamming more things into my schedule doesn’t get me what I want. That strategy is “time management” which I must admit I used to teach world-wide to Citibank executives—they say you teach what you think you need, yourself. Yes I have solved the “schedule problem” but I have not surfaced my deeper desire, my vision—which is a more balanced and peaceful life, in which I can be more present to the moment. When I turn toward that vision, I get clear on what I want rather than what I don’t want. And I naturally feel energy and motivation from that vision. But when I focus on the problem, I am unlikely to ask myself what I really want, what my vision is, and I am likely to feel a sapping of energy, just thinking about the problem.
2) I remind myself of the power of Appreciative Inquiry, the personal and organizational change theory associated with the work of David Cooperrider and his colleagues at Case Western Reserve University. The genius of Appreciative Inquiry, and an appreciative stance toward life, is our ability to summon to memory of a time when we had what we really want. So I would ask myself, “When have I really loved the pace of my work? When have I felt most alive and engaged, and really serving the world?” And if I think about that and the conditions that produced that, I am likely to gain insights (and the energy) to come to grips with my current situation.
3) I ask myself where the “spark” is in the situation. That notion of “spark” caught my eye in a TED talk by Peter Benson about the importance of engaging school children, about their “spark” about the thing that really gets them excited. Benson makes a very provocative case for changing the nature of parent-teacher meetings from conversations about the student’s performance and needs for improvement, to a conversation about the “spark” in the student, what the teacher and parents know about it, and how they can fan the flames of that spark.
But then, back to the goats. My husband and I sometimes visit a tiny island called Nevis. Nevis has goats—not just a few goats, but herds of goats, hundreds of goats running all over the place. Big goats, tiny newborns, brown goats, some that look like the Billy Goat Gruff. I worried about them. They seemed to be a big problem to me. Running loose. What if they get hit by a car. Our car? What about the mama goat nursing two tiny kids in the middle of the road? The old goat lying in the road and he won’t move. Who owns the goats? How do they collect them up? What if somebody steals the goats?
So I asked somebody about the goats, and they said, quite calmly that the goats know who they belong to, and at the end of the day when they’ve roamed the island as they wish, and eaten whatever they want, they go home. We noticed that they, unlike pedestrians state-side, are remarkably aware of traffic. In our times of driving the narrow twisty roads of Nevis, we’ve seen one run-over chicken but never a run over goat.
I have to be careful about my habitual problem solving. Even when I don’t own the goats, I create goat problems.