What’s your problem?

The art of proposing a question must be held of higher value than solving it.
Georg Cantor
This is the story of one of the most important lessons I ever learned, as it defined the very nature of how I look at the world. Many years ago I had the challenge of doing my thesis project. The topic of the thesis is irrelevant to the post, but how my mentor handled it is not. I wanted to do a specific topic, something that interested me since I began my studies. I viewed my thesis as the culmination of all my preparation, the end goal of a long road. As soon as I submitted my topic of interested, my mentor just looked at me and said something that I did not understand at that moment.

That’s not a problem.

He said nothing else. For the next few weeks I would rework the concept, looking for that elusive “go-ahead” from my mentor, and every time the answer was the same. Days turned to Weeks and Weeks to Months. Every day he saw me as he walked down the halls, he would just point at me and ask me point blank, “What is your problem?” Every day I would reply with a new version of a previously submitted idea, a new topic, a new concept. And every day he would just reply “That is not a problem”, and walk away. This torment lasted for the entire semester. I finally broke down, accused him of being of not helping me out, and just went into one of the worst rants I have done in my life. He smiled, beaming with pride. Was he actually happy to have broken me?

He asked me if I had a headache. Perplexed and confused with his question, I answered that I did. He pulled out a bottle of aspirin and placed it in front of me.

Here. Now, does this solve your problem or your symptom?

I froze for about a minute, the longest minute in my life. Part of me wanted to shove that bottle down his throat, but another part just went into an automatic overdriven analysis. I swear to this day, someone places a spotlight on the man while playing background monastic opera music as what he was trying to tell me finally made sense...

I was so focused on looking to justify the project that I wanted, that I was looking for whatever gave me the conclusion that I already had. I was researching what was convenient to me.  I was looking at the short and simple solution for a symptom that I never cared about looking at what was behind it, what caused it. It took me a while to refocus, to take all the information that I had and truly understand what was there. My thesis changed into something completely different than what I originally wanted. The change wasn’t because my interests changed but because my mind broadened.

We think that every question has just one answer, never realizing that it might be we are asking the wrong question to begin with. We focus on what is right in front of us, and forget to look for what is underneath the surface. No one is right or wrong. No one has a monopoly on the truth. Learn to read between the lines. And when looking at a person or a situation, always remember to ask one simple question that will make dealing with it a lot easier,

What’s your problem?


Look Past the Moon. The Dangers of Having Goals.

I have been in the revenge business so long; now that it’s over I do not know what to do with the rest of my life.
Inigo Montoya
So many stories are told of the single mindedness of Vengeance; movies where the action hero how must avenge something, anything, and that becomes his all-consuming goal. And the movie conveniently ends in the same right when he achieves his goal, as he kills the main bad guy, topples the evil corporation, frees the slaves, and “wins the damsel.” (Not going to comment on the “wins the damsel.” There is enough material in that aspect to make an independent post on the subject.) Cut to him riding into the sunset, queue credits.

This is the guys version of “happily ever after.” And just like “happily ever after,” it’s a load of cr…., an absolute LIE!

These stories focus on a specific time-frame, where what happens before or after have little if no consequence to the story. The reality is there IS an ever after, the repercussions of the grand victory, a constant continuation of the story. And when your focus your life on achieving a rather specific goal, no matter what it is, you risk three very real dangers.

The first danger of having an all-consuming goal is nothing you do will be viewed as valuable. Unless the final goal is reached, everything else is irrelevant, no matter how much good, or how well you do. Nothing will satisfy you. You will never be able to view how much you have traveled, as you focus on how much further you must go. And if you never get to achieve it, you will view your life as wasted.

The second danger is actually being able to achieve your goal. There is a dreaded sense of emptiness that comes from not having a target goal after you have spent part of your life with an all-consuming goal. What then? Look for the next challenge?

The third danger is usually the one least considered, and actually the most dangerous of all. When all your focus is placed on a pinpoint aspect, you will miss everything else around you. And that is where the value of life is really located, in the surprise, in finding the amazing in the random.

So, should you just float aimlessly though life? No. Have a north to guide you, and learn to navigate within this north. Set a goal, but not as a target. Bruce Lee said that “a goal is not always meant to be reached; it often serves simply as something to aim at.” Set a goal as a general direction, and learn to read the winds. Let life guide you within that direction. You will reach the stars if you don’t limit yourself to the moon. 


When Failure Is Not an Option, Pull a Cortés

You never know how strong you are, until being strong is your only choice.
Bob Marley
I try to avoid speaking in absolutes, because for every story and lesson I can express, there is another that could easily counter its argument by expressing a valid reason to do the exact opposite.

I know that I have said time and time again that life is not about reaching a goal, but enjoying the trip. I know that I have mentioned many times that you should let fate guide your life, and that a goal is just a general direction and not a destination. This mentality and general attitude will allow you enough breathing room to reach what destiny has laid out for you, giving you the ability to live to the fullest and see all the other opportunities that might happen to appear in the corner of your eye.

I know that I have said time and time again that it’s OK to fail, just as long as you learn and turn your failure into a learning experience. Successful people are not successful because they win every time, but because every time they lost, they learn from the experience and the loss didn’t stop them. You actually learn more in life from your mistakes than from your successes.

And I stand by these attitudes… until you hit the reality that every rule has an exception. You will be confronted with situations where you have to do what you have to do, where failure is not an option, and where you realize that you either succeed or die trying. That is when you have to pull a Cortés.

In 1519, Hernán Cortés, with some 600 Spaniards, 16 or so horses and 11 boats, had landed on the Yucatan Peninsula, with the intent of conquering the Aztec Empire. Every previous attempt by Conquistadors, with far more resources at their disposal, had failed miserably. So how did Cortés succeed where so many others had failed? Because for him and his men, failure was not an option. After an fiery speech to invoke the fighting spirit of his men, Cortes finished his elocution with 3 simple words, a simple command that would define their attitude for the rest of the expedition:
Burn the boats.
Cortés and his men had now only two options; ensure victory or death. In 1521, Cortés declared himself governor of Mexico.

What some people don’t know about this story is that Cortes and his men had burned their boats long before they reached Yucatan. This expedition was actually unsanctioned, an act of mutiny against a high ranking member of the Spanish government, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar. So the day these men set sail, they knew the only way to avoid being condemned as traitors was to succeed in such a way that they couldn’t be accused of anything. Burning the boats was just to make sure the men remembered and so those who might go back on their word couldn’t get any ideas.

Sometimes you will be faced with situation where you will have to stand strong, where it’s all or nothing. Too many people fail because they understand that failure is an option. They plan ahead an exit strategy and already have prepared excuses on why they could fail. And this attitude creates a self-fulfilling prophesy.

To overcome this, your resolution has to be absolute. “Well, if this fails, I can always…” cannot even exist within your mind. Every breathing moment in your life must be dedicated to achieve your goal. Anything and everything else must be eliminated. You must remove your pride and your comfort. Live Spartan. Anything less will guaranty your failure.

Constantly consider what you are doing, not under the mentality of questioning it, but rather of seeing how to do it more efficiently and effectively. Results are the only thing to consider here, as time is of the essence. Intentions are a great thing to have, but unless they provide a measurable result, they are useless. Be daring, as fortune favors the Bold.

Believe in yourself, for you only have yourself at this point. By the time you are pulling a Cortés, it’s because everyone else already gave up on you. Prove them wrong. Remember those few that stood by your side during this time. It’s easy to stand by someone when everything is going great, but standing by someone while they battle a storm proves true loyalty.

Before you start considering taking this attitude as a life philosophy, keep in mind that a Cortés is the last result of desperate men, of someone that have nothing else to lose. These acts are not done looking for glory or for fame or even for success. These acts are done by men fighting for something greater than themselves. Only then can you draw strength from your soul, only then can you know just how strong you can be.  


Phenomenal Woman, By Maya Angelou

Women might wonder what is the feature that men find the most attractive in a partner. And I could go on for post after post trying to define and explain the mysteries of women, and wouldn’t even come close to the eloquence and beauty used to explain women better than the late and great Maya Angelou. So with that in mind, I leave you with:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size,   
but when I start to tell them,
they think I’m telling lies.
I say,
it’s in the reach of my arms,
the span of my hips,   
the stride of my step,   
the curl of my lips.   
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,   
That’s me.

I walk into a room
just as cool as you please,   
and to a man,
the fellows stand or
fall down on their knees.   
Then they swarm around me,
a hive of honey bees.   
I say,
it’s the fire in my eyes,   
and the flash of my teeth,   
the swing in my waist,   
and the joy in my feet.   
I’m a woman

Phenomenal woman,
that’s me.

Men themselves have wondered   
What they see in me.
They try so much,
but they can’t touch
my inner mystery.
When I try to show them,   
they say they still can’t see.   
I say,
it’s in the arch of my back,   
the sun of my smile,
the ride of my breasts,
the grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
that’s me.

Now you understand
just why my head’s not bowed.   
I don’t shout or jump about
or have to talk real loud.   
When you see me passing,
it ought to make you proud.
I say,
it’s in the click of my heels,   
the bend of my hair,   
the palm of my hand,   
the need for my care.   
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
that’s me.