Solving Big Problems

Written by
Michael Wells

Solving Big Problems

A Guide to Growth

Written by
Michael Wells

Solving Big Problems

A Guide to Growth

Written by
Michael Wells
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Look around your world right now. Do you see any problems anywhere?

If you're like most people, you see problems everywhere.

Problems in our relationships, or our lack of relationships. Problems in our health or fitness. Problems in our career or money. Problems figuring out what we want to achieve in life. We can even find problems in our thinking, our fears, our expectations and our emotions.

Some of our problems seem trivial, like "I'm out of toothpaste," while others are bigger, like "I don't like my job."

Still other problems are massive... like "I've suffered from social anxiety since childhood."

Many of life's problems are easily solved, but there are two types that I find particularly interesting, and that I encounter often in coaching.

I see them commonly enough, that I've given them names...

  1. "Iceberg" Problems - Extremely large problems, which present a challenge just in their size alone.
  2. "Walnut" Problems - Small, but extremely tough problems, which are difficult to break in to.

In this article, we're going to talk about both types.

We'll explore what makes them different from other problems, and how to approach them most effectively.

Although I'm going to focus primarily on internal psychological challenges- the kind we focus on in BROJO, many of these principles can be applied to external challenges, health challenges, relationships, career, or physical development challenges too.

But first... let's ditch the word "problems"

This might sound unimportant or even pedantic, but I find there's a very significant distinction between problems and challenges.

Read the article at that link to learn more- but for this article, perhaps the most important distinction is that challenges grow us, while problems do not.

For the rest of this article, I'll use the word "challenges" to keep that distinction clear.

"Iceberg" Challenges

Iceberg challenges are unspeakably massive... so big they damn near have their own planetary gravity.

Icebergs are also ancient, they grew over a long period of time, and they become such a massive part of our world that we struggle even to imagine life without them. If you have an iceberg challenge, it's probably become part of your identity - in the way that people with social anxiety often believe they are introverts.

To make things even more difficult, most of an iceberg is hidden from view. An iceberg is about 10% above water, and the rest is buried out of sight. In psychology, 90% of an iceberg challenge is in the subconscious mind where we cannot see it and it cannot be directly understood or confronted.

And, the deepest parts of the iceberg are the coldest and often the most persistent. These are far from the sun and well-protected.

How "icebergs" affect us

It's easy to feel overwhelmed by an Iceberg.

It feels like it's so big that no amount of effort would solve the problem. It feels like you can't reach most of the problem to even work on it - and even if you could conquer it, who would you even be without it?

I think most everyone has ( or has had ) an "iceberg" of their own.

My iceberg hall-of-fame

So far, I've faced and conquered a few icebergs...

  1. Social anxiety
  2. Stage fright - mostly distinct from social anxiety, but connected in some ways
  3. Depression & Anxiety - these were related, for me
  4. Perfectionism & the "Not good enough" syndrome - also related, for me
  5. Nice guy syndrome

When I began tackling my icebergs, I didn't have any idea at all how to solve them. I didn't even know where to begin.

Even thinking about confronting them felt overwhelming.

BUT... nevertheless, I managed to solve them.

Here's how.

How to Melt an Iceberg

You kill an iceberg by melting it.

In my personal experience, there are two things that need to happen to kill an iceberg. Neither of them work overnight, but with gradual persistence, they work wonders.

#1 - Raise the surrounding temperature

Just like global warming, you want to create an environment that the iceberg cannot survive in. You surround it with a kind of low-level stress that will continually disolve the iceberg, slowly but surely.

For you, this process may be a bit uncomfortable, but think of it as eustress, rather than distress. Stress is essential for growth.

For my social anxiety iceberg, that meant surrounding myself with "safe but uncomfortable" social situations. Continually.

  • I became a radio disc jockey, so that I would have to talk to people, even though I couldn't see them.
  • I joined a speech and debate club, so that I would have to talk on my feet, as eloquently as possible, and in confrontational situations.
  • I started a performing arts group, that performed Japanese taiko drumming, so that I would have to go on stage regularly, and perform for people.
  • I moved into the city, so I would be surrounded by people that I don't know.
  • I made it a ritual to go to coffee every morning, and say hi to people on the way there, and in the cafe. And learn the names of all of the staff.

None of these things were huge things, individually. But together, they created a continual stress against my social anxiety.

Over time, the anxiety caved.

Performing on stage is now intensely exciting, rather than terrifyingly anxious. So far my largest performance was to 4.5 million people on live world TV, at the grand opening of the Rubgy World Cup.

Talking to strangers is now one of my favourite hobbies, and most are shocked at how outgoing I am (and wish they were as "confident").

Social situations are now way more fun and full of adventure.

#2 - Chip away steadily at the visible part, one shovelful at a time

You cannot reach most of the iceberg, but you can reach some of it. Work on that part.

As you chip away at the parts you can reach, the rest of the iceberg emerges to the surface, and now you can reach it too.

To be even more effective, try creating the ideal opposing force. A flamethrower will probably work better than a shovel, because it's opposing the ice directly.

For my social anxiety problem, I found the best effect from the things that confronted it most directly. They were also the most uncomfortable for certain, but they worked the best.

And, as the deeper parts of the iceberg are brought nearer to the surface, they are also confronted by warmer water... which means they begin melting sooner as well.

Persist and you will prevail.

"Walnut" Challenges

"Walnut" challenges are small, but incredibly tough.

They have a hard outer shell that's very difficult to break. But inside... good stuff, if you can just crack that bugger open.

Walnut challenges often create frustration, because they seem small, and they feel like they should be solvable, and yet they resist.

Sometimes, you apply pressure, and pop! the walnut escapes from your fingers and goes skittering under the refrigerator, taunting you.

So damn annoying.

How to Crack a Walnut

You crack a walnut with heat and pressure.

If it's resisting, you're being too gentle... you can't tease a walnut. But you also have to have a very firm and solid grip on it so that it cannot escape.

I find that my walnuts challenges are more "immediate", in that I can see that problem right now in front of me. These problems respond well to brute force, delivered with precision.

An example of walnut challenges-

  • Feeling anxious in a social situation, seeing that, and choosing to smash through that anxiety just to see what happens.
  • Feeling lack of motivation to go to the gym, seeing that, and choose to smash through it just to see how I feel afterwards.

When I take this kind of brute force approach to a walnut, it works well, and I generally know quickly what the result is. Was there good stuff inside, or not?

And I also get more skilled at cracking that particular kind of walnut, with practice.

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First published on 
August 7, 2018
. Last updated on 
November 16, 2020

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      A smaller class of problem is the "walnut problem", which I think of as small but extremely hard to crack, with a slippery, smooth surface.

      For walnuts, I apply pressure (smack them around hard) and heat (toss them into a fire) to create cracks.

      Once there are cracks, it's not so hard to pry them open.