This morning I was talking with my daughter about a situation in our home. I needed to move my outdoor cushions into our storage area. I wasn’t sure how to do this because my storage area has been filled with other belongings since we removed the cushions last spring. My gut reaction was to say, “That’s today’s problem.” But then I stopped myself and rephrased, “Actually, that’s today’s challenge. It isn’t a problem.” there is a difference between challenges and problems, and it matters.
What comes to mind when you hear about a challenge? Typically, the word challenge represents something we strive to achieve or attain. Incorporated in a challenge is the mindset that if we put our mind to it, we have the ability to do it. Challenges can be goals, dreams, objectives, longings, projects, achievements, and/or accomplishments. Here are a few that come to mind:
- Running a marathon
- Climbing a mountain or hiking to a peak
- Starting a new job or volunteer position
- Organizing a home or office
- Having a baby
- Creating a budget
- Participating in a contest or endurance test
- Performing a trick or activity
- Raising a sum of money for charity
- Planning a social event
- Taking a standardized test
- Seeking a new job or admission to college
Common to all of these challenges is a potentially positive outcome resulting from actively pursuing an endeavor. Also embedded in a challenge is some inherent difficulty. Challenges are not easy, automatic, or passive. They take effort and investment of time, money, and/or energy.
Challenges can be pursued by an individual singlehandedly or in partnership with others. For example, an Olympic athlete puts in a lot of his/her own effort, but also requires financial support, training equipment, coaching, opportunities to compete, proper attire, etc. Bringing home a medal is rarely (if ever) achieved by an individual functioning completely alone.
Problems are a bit different. Whether they result from external circumstances or because of our own choices, problems are issues that we wish we did not have. Problems need to be addressed, solved, fixed, managed, mitigated, or even simply survived. A few examples or problems include:
- Home repairs
- Loss of employment
- Damage from a car accident or a flat tire
- Identity theft
- Mental or physical Illness
- Misunderstanding in a relationship
When problems present themselves, we are thrust into the position of having to figure out how to proceed. Dealing with problems can be painful, expensive, frustrating, embarrassing, and more. Often, problems make us feel powerless, or at least out of control. Furthermore, not all problems can be “solved.” In some cases, the best we can do is process our emotions, recoup our losses, extend forgiveness, or otherwise find a way to move forward. Few people voluntarily seek problems in their lives, although they might be willing to help others alleviate theirs.
Why does the difference matter?
Acknowledging the difference between challenges and problems helps us to figure out what we can and should be doing. How we perceive a situation impacts our mindset and expectations, which then drives our behavior. Both challenges and problems require some form of action, but the specific next step may differ depending on how we see the situation.
For instance, if we perceive a challenge, we may start making plans, consider options, acquire needed supplies, allocate time, and/or get others involved. We may speak openly about what we planning to do and take pride in our results. I imagine superheroes having a “challenge” mindset when saving the world.
In contrast, if we see a problem, it is natural for us to despair, complain, avoid, procrastinate, or withdraw. It’s easy to get stuck when facing a problem, or to become angry. Problems make us ask, “Why me?” While this is perfectly understandable, it probably will not alleviate our suffering.
What can we do when facing problems?
Since challenges are easier to tackle than problems, one helpful strategy is to consider what challenges might be embedded in a problem. For instance, I may need to get a new job. While I can’t create a job out of thin air, I can challenge myself to put together a resume, meet with a career counselor, confide in someone about the fear and anxiety I’m feeling, or attend a networking event. I might even challenge myself to volunteer to serve others while I wait for my job search to yield results.
As another example, perhaps I’m struggling with an addiction. I’m exhausted from hiding my problem and am isolating myself from others. While I may not be able to fix my addiction on my own, I can seek out a support group, call a therapist, or even share my situation with a friend.
A matter of perspective
In some cases, the question of whether a situation is a challenge or a problem may come down to perspective. For example, often my clients see their spaces as problems, situations that they have no idea how to address and which feel somewhat overwhelming and insurmountable. In contrast, when I walk in and see their space, I get energized. Because of my experience and training, I have vision for what can be achieved. For me, getting organized is fun and positive, and often I can help clients shift the way they are thinking as well.
- A broken washing machine or dishwasher is a problem for me, but just a challenge for a qualified repair person.
- Carrying a full wardrobe box up a flight of stairs is a problem for me, but a challenge (or maybe not even a challenge) for a professional mover.
- A flat tire is a problem for me, but all in a day’s work for my roadside service repair person.
This is helpful to bear in mind because we may be able to turn our problems into challenges by bringing in the appropriate resources. Inviting others do what we cannot do ourselves is often the first step in moving toward positive results.
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Are you facing challenges right now? Do you have problems? Do these words seem the same or different to you?