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?