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Do You See a Problem or an Opportunity?

The idea that our lives should be a certain way is one thing that can suck the fun out of our experience with unprecedented ease. A few key components of our vision board don’t pan out, or we aren’t where we thought we would be at this stage of life, and we get laser-focused based on what is missing. Not fun. Perhaps it is a relationship that ended or a job we hate. Maybe we don’t feel like we are doing anything meaningful, or our savings account has the same balance as our kid’s lunch account at school.

When we only focus on what is lacking, we fail to notice the things that are good in our lives. While it sounds like feel-good positive psychology, the truth is that what we focus on expands. It becomes larger because we are actively looking for it.

I had two professors in college who were good friends. One was a Jesuit priest with a black belt in jiujitsu. The other taught Hebrew along with classes on peaceful reconciliation, and he was a fun-loving running aficionado who always talked about the beauty of San Diego.

One day they shared a story about going to the mall together to watch a movie on a Friday night. After the movie, the martial-artist priest kept making comments about how many shady people there were at the mall. He sensed that everyone seemed on edge, forcing him to be on guard so he would be ready to use his skills in case anything dangerous went down. On the other hand, the Hebrew teacher noted how beautiful the evening was and how everyone seemed so happy to be outside after a long week of rain. He thought it was moving to see people from all walks of life congregate to share a meal or people watch. These two men walked the same path, saw the same movie, and interacted with the same people, yet they had completely different experiences. They each saw what they had trained their minds to notice.

We see the world based on what we train our minds to believe. If the narrative you have on repeat in your head is “I am unlucky in love,” then you probably will be. Or if you believe you’ll never have enough money, you most likely won’t. Our brains are powerful and want to prove us right. That is why changing the way our minds interpret our circumstances is essential to adapting when things don’t go as planned. To do this, when you encounter an unforeseen event, ask yourself, What if my problem isn’t a problem?

I recently met a guy who had been diagnosed with a severe form of Mono in the middle of his senior year of high school, ten years earlier. He had been a football player, and he missed his entire senior season. He didn’t get to go to prom or do any of the things he’d been anticipating; those activities took a back seat to sleep and getting well. For the first few weeks after his diagnosis, he was depressed and devastated, but then he decided that he wasn’t going to feel like a victim. Instead, he decided to see mono and the resting it required as a gift that he could use for good. He set a goal to write a letter to every single member of his senior class, telling them each three things he appreciated about them. He shared with me that he had just attended his ten-year reunion a few months before, and at the reunion no one talked about whether they won the homecoming football game or who they took to prom. But you know what everyone remembered about their senior year? The letters he wrote them. Sounds pretty fun to have that kind of impact.

What do we do when we are in the in-between space of disappointment? Just wait it out until we’re on to something better? The fun response is to do what we can, with what we have, where we are right now. Stop waiting for what you think you need, and start working with what you’ve got.

Because maybe your problem isn’t a problem; maybe it’s an opportunity for fun

by Mandy Arioto


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