Stephan Joppich (aka Leo Sharp)

The solution is the problem

published2 months ago
4 min read

This newsletter is a fortnightly meditation on living a more intentional, fulfilled life.
Every edition includes exclusive updates, intriguing ideas, and meaningful content recommendations.

Today: Why your sense of time went bananas and how (not) to solve problems

Hey there!

Recently, I realized my sense of time has morphed into a gooey porridge. Whenever I go to bed, I think, "Wow, this day passed super quickly!" But then, when I remember what happened on that same day's morning, I'm like, "No way that happened today. That must've been a week ago!"

But, as it turns out, I'm in the majority. Most people experience a distorted sense of time these days.

Researchers blame the pandemic. See, our sense of time constructs around "temporal landmarks." These include daily routines (like commutes) but also big events (like dinner parties, concerts, new beginnings). When these landmarks -- big and small -- suddenly disappear, days and weeks lose their cornerstones. Time fades away.

But I think it goes deeper. Here's my (completely unscientific) theory:

Ever since life returned to normal, the opposite happened. We launched ourselves into all sorts of events, trips, and all the other things we couldn't do for two years. For my part, I visited festivals, went on hiking trips, and traveled around Northern Europe, hopping from hostel to hostel. And so, a kind of "temporal landmark overload" smashed into an empty sense of time without any foundation. That's too much to handle for our bonobo brains.

The result: Time moves at a snail's pace and light speed simultaneously.

Now, as someone with a background in engineering and Western mindsets, my first instinct is to un-pretzel this unsettling feeling. And, lo and behold, researchers suggest a solution: *drum roll* mindfulness. But as I pointed out in my last newsletter and article, it's not very helpful to treat being in the present as the solution to a problem. In fact, the solution becomes the problem because we create a bunch of new to-dos, anxieties, and stressors on top of our existing situation.

It's worth repeating this as it's such a common phenomenon in our daily lives:

The problem is not the problem.
The problem is our desperate belief that there's a solution for every problem.
Therefore, the solution is the problem.

Let's unpack that idea.

Idea: The solution is the problem

Imagine you make two lists. On the first, you write down all the things you want in your life -- for most people that's money, happiness, meaningful work, and fulfilling relationships. On the second list, you pen down all the things you don't want in your life -- illness, loss, poverty, etc. So in other words, list 1 is about solutions while list 2 is about problems.

Now, let's imagine someone casts a spell. They banish the problems on list 2 from your life entirely and make all your wishes on list 1 come true. Life would be pretty great, wouldn't it? You'd get everything you ever wanted. No more problems.

Unfortunately, that's a lie. And here's why:

Your goalposts always shift.

It's human nature to be constantly dissatisfied (which also explains why there isn't just one pyramid in Giza, but an entire pyramid complex). As soon as we reach one goal, we'll always strive for something else. And so, it's starry-eyed to pretend that if you only have "this one thing" your life will be amazing. Ever-lasting satisfaction is an illusion.

Ignorance is abyss

Whenever we believe that we need something else to be happy, we deny to accept how things really are. And that's dangerously ignorant. For example, breaking a leg is painful. We can all agree on that. But what's even more painful is the desperate desire to undo this event like an action in Photoshop. Or the fear that your friends are going to make fun of you. Or the anxiety of not being able to walk for a few weeks.

All these mental problems create the illusion that, once we're healthy again, everything will be fine. But obviously, new things will come up. Sickness. Natural disasters. Work. And that, in turn, will worsen our suffering because we'll be so disappointed that we're not as happy as we'd hoped.

A way out

The only way out of this vicious cycle is awareness. Seeing things as they really are. Not desperately forcing life to be other than it is. It reminds of a great quote by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard:

"Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced."

And by the way: this ability of seeing the raw reality of life -- without biases, judgments, or stories -- that's what the Buddhists call enlightenment. Because deep down, there are no problems. There are only problematic perspectives on problems.

Content: Four Thousand Weeks

Every once in a while you pick up a book that radically rewires your perception of life. And recently, I was lucky enough to pick up a book like that: Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman.

His main argument: we'll never be able to stay on top of our time, complete our bucket lists, and clear the decks. And that's okay. If we acknowledge that there's never enough time, we can (ironically) find peace and clarity.

Here's a great video by the author himself that summarizes some of the key lessons:

(I'll also run an article on the book soon, so keep your eyes peeled for that!)

Something to think about

A quote from Four Thousand Weeks that really resonated with me and incorporates the idea that solutions are often problems:

"if you succeed in fitting more in, you’ll find the goalposts start to shift: more things will begin to seem important, meaningful, or obligatory. Acquire a reputation for doing your work at amazing speed, and you’ll be given more of it."

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Until next time,


Bonus: friend links to newest blog posts

  1. Don't be in the moment (an expansion to the idea from the previous edition)
  2. I lived with 49 items for 30 days -- this is what I learned