Solving Big Problems

Written by
Michael Wells

Solving Big Problems

Written by
Michael Wells

Solving Big Problems

Written by
Michael Wells

Some problems are BIG... big that they feel insurmountably massive - like an iceberg. So big that no amount of effort you can imagine would solve the problem you're facing.

I think most everyone has (or has had) an "iceberg problem" of their own. Mine was social anxiety. I didn't have any idea at all how to solve it. I didn't even know how to approch it. Even thinking about approaching it, felt overwhelming.

My social anxiety "iceberg" was gigantic. It was deep. And it felt entirely overwhelming.

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

Here's how.

Taking Apart the Iceberg

"Iceberg problems" are special. Let's have a look at what makes them challenging...

  • They're massive, which means you can't brute-force them, or simply wait for them to disappear.
  • Like an iceberg, most of the problem is invisible, and very difficult to reach. More than 90% of an iceberg is underwater.
  • The deepest parts of the iceberg are the coldest and often the most persistent. These are far from the sun and well-protected from your efforts.

How to Kill an Iceberg

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 whittle away at the iceberg, slowly but surely.

For you, this process may be a bit uncomfortable, but think of it as eustress, rather than distress. Sometimes stress is necessary 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.

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.

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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.