How to Eat Problems for Breakfast

I was looking forward to the meeting with the big guns of a public company. I was then in the psychiatric-hospital business, and we were about to do our first deal with an entity that large. Up until that point, I had only dealt with small companies, or single hospitals. I remember that as I walked into their headquarters, I was wondering what all goes into making something that big. I just could not imagine how that kind of growth occurred. Surely they started somewhere, I thought, but how they got from there to here was a little incomprehensible. Maybe it was because I was in that mindset that the experience stuck with me so vividly.

I went in, met the team, and the VP of marketing said, “OK, let’s go to the war room and get this done.” I did not even know what a “war room” was, but it was the inner sanctum where they did their planning. I did not know exactly what to expect, either, but I was new at this and pretty young, so I was eager to see what a war room was.

I do not to this day have any recollection what that room looked like—how it was designed, decorated, apportioned, or anything about it. All I can remember is that on the far wall was a huge sign that read:

No problems, no profit.

I just stood there for a moment and stared at it, and now, eighteen years later, I still stare at it frequently. It is forever etched in my mind. That’s because it answered the question that I walked in with and has been one of the answers to explain the growth and success of so many people I have seen since then. The ones who succeed in life are the ones who realize that life is largely about solving problems. The ones who can get with that find much success, and the ones who can’t, don’t.

Scott Peck, in The Road Less Traveled (Touchstone, 1978), began by saying, “Life is difficult.” And then he said, “Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.” It was a psychiatrist’s way of saying the same thing that the leadership of that company was saying to its employees who entered that war room: if you orient yourself to the reality that nothing good is going to happen if you can’t deal with the bad things that are going to happen, then you are ready to have something good happen. If you can get with that idea, then you are in the program.

But, if you can’t orient yourself to that reality, nothing good is going to happen, because that reality will not go away. It is still the nature of the universe. It will be true that in your business life, personal goals, and relationships, you will encounter problems. Period. If you are not prepared to meet them and resolve them, then they will be the end of your hopes for making anything work, either personally or professionally.

If Soichiro Honda’s orientation had not been towards embracing and resolving problems, we would never have seen the Honda motorcycle or the sweeping influence he had on the automobile industry. He was legendary for tackling problems and obstacles, and resolving them. He even went back to technical school once to figure out why he was having difficulty with pistons. Not allowing obstacles to get in the way, he embraced them and resolved them. That is character.

Orienting oneself to and intellectually understanding that life is about problems is one thing. Being equipped to deal with them and resolve them is quite another. This is one reality that requires mature equipment, very complete equipment if done well. It is only the equipment of character that is able to meet the demands of negative realities and transform them into all things profitable. What are the aspects of character that enable a person to “meet the demands of negative reality,” resolve them, and produce good fruit?

Does Not Avoid the Elephant in the Living Room

I was at an Easter gathering one time and my friend who is CEO of a company and I were catching up. I asked him how things were going, and he said, “I am about to hit a rough spot. I am leaving for a long trip, and before I go, I have some difficult relational issues this week that I have to face into. I need to get them cleared up before I take off, so I have scheduled an entire week of what are going to be difficult conversations. It could get pretty tough.”

I was struck by the phrase that he used: face into. On another occasion I heard him use the words lean into. It spoke volumes, especially to a psychologist who is trained to pick up on the “ontological” implications of people’s language. What that means is that we give away a lot about who we are by the way that we speak. Passive people, for example, tend to talk about events in a way that removes them as actors, and instead as their being “acted upon,” or not a cause of what has occurred. “I ended up” as opposed to “I chose to.” If we listen to the way people talk, we learn a lot about their “being,” and how they are “in the world,” as the existentialist would put it. The way my friend talked said a lot about the way that he is “in the world.”

He saw problems as issues to face and lean toward, not away from. And he scheduled the event, as opposed to waiting for it to happen, or worse, actively avoiding it and running from it. He wanted to deal with the issue promptly, actively, and directly. And he wanted to make sure that he did it before his trip, because he did not want the problem to linger and cause more damage than it already had, as well as hang over him while he was gone. He wanted it resolved and out of his life and company.

What occurred to me is that this is how he lives his entire life. He does not avoid the problems, personally or in his business. He has been rewarded in his career for his integrity and values-driven business and has grown a company based on prompt addressing of customers’ problems and solving their issues in ways that leave them better off than before the problem occurred. He has also been chosen by governments to do business in special projects that others were denied because of his reputation as a “fix what is wrong with integrity” kind of person. So, this one little instance was nothing other than the way he operates. In his wake he has left many satisfied partners, customers, employees, and others, as well as revenues in the billions. He epitomized “no problems, no profit” in the way of “face problems and become very profitable,” relationally and financially.

The key here for our look at character is twofold: First, integrated character does not avoid negatives, but does the opposite — actively seeks them out to resolve them. Second, integrated character does not see facing negatives only as something painful, but as an opportunity to make things better and get to a good place.

Profit comes as a result of facing problems, so doing it is seen as a good thing, not a negative thing.

A rough analogy is going to the dentist. If you have a tooth that is sensitive or you have difficulty using without pain, you can’t wait to get that fixed and get back to enjoying being able to eat or sleep through the night. You look forward to having it resolved. So, you want to get to the dentist as soon as possible so normal life can return. Right? Well, that is true if your past experience with dentists has been good and has led to resolution of pain without a lot of trauma. You see it as a good thing.

But, and this is a big but, if your past experience with dentists has been traumatic, and painful, you have a dentist phobia, and you avoid going. So, the avoidance keeps the pain going. You don’t face the problem, so you don’t experience the “profit” of getting it fixed. The difference is in facing the demand of reality, and having the character to do so, based on experience.

As a result of the character abilities, successful people face into embracing problems and negative reality. The equipment they carry inside allows them to do this. And part of it is this mindset and attitude that facing it is going to be a good thing in the end, not a bad thing. But that has everything to do with a person’s past experience. I have been amazed at how talented and competent individuals will allow their careers and relationships to be stalled or even destroyed by avoiding the negative realities that make them uncomfortable.

When Tiger Woods was still an amateur, unproven as a professional, the whole world waited for his entrée. Sponsors stood in line to give him unprecedented amounts of money. Some said Nike was crazy as they forked out $40 million, and Titleist another $20 million. Sure, he was an amazing amateur, but the PGA is a different world, and he had just not proven himself. But, everyone waited to see if he was going to live up to the expectations. Not since Nicklaus had we seen anything like this.

Golf is measured in the majors, and Tiger’s first Masters as a professional was watched by the whole world. What happened? He won. Not played well, mind you. Not beat the cut or was respectable, but won. And not only did he win, but he won by twelve strokes. Unprecedented. They were right! He is in another world. We have never seen anything like this. The whole world felt what Bobby Jones had said about Nicklaus: “He plays a game with which I am not familiar.”

Now, think about this. You have just won the first Masters you competeinasapro.You set a record for how big your victory is.You have more endorsements from everyone than you can ever deal with. You are on the top of the golf and sport world, being named PGA’s Player of the Year and Associated Press’s Male Athlete of the Year. What does he do?

He decides that he has some problems with his game that need to be addressed if he is ever going to reach his goal of being the greatest player in history over the long haul. So, he goes to work on his game, making some huge changes that are difficult to make, enlisting a teacher along the way to reconstruct or reengineer his swing. If you are not a golfer, there is something to understand about this. When a golfer does something like that, it is not instant improvement. It is not like “Oh, I think I will do it this way and things will get better. I will beat everyone by twenty shots tomorrow, not just twelve.” In fact, it is the opposite. Things get worse before they get better. It is like remodeling a house. You basically can’t live in it while the remodel is going on. But, your eye is on the future. It will be better in the end.

So, things got worse. He had what was described as an “off year.” He was in the remodel. But, what happened after that shows the truth of what we are saying, “no problems, no profit.” He emerged from having the character to “embrace the problems” and tied the PGA post–World War II record of consecutive wins and then goes on to win all four majors, in a row. He has continued on since then to break all expectations and will continue in the future. Why? Talent? Certainly. But there is a lot of talent in the world. My view is that it is also character. His “ability to meet the demands of reality” is what is breaking records. He met the demand of fixing the problems in his swing, faced into it, even if it meant great pain, bad headlines, losses, critical people, and the like. He was not afraid of going to the dentist and getting it right. Today, he is enjoying the fruit of not only his golf swing, but his character.

The masses enjoy the “comfort zone.” They do whatever is most comfortable, even if it is not going to get them to “profit,” whatever that is. But the winners see putting their arms around the problem as their way to the promised land, and their character will allow them to do no less. It is a good thing, and you virtually can’t keep them away from embracing the negative realities that they need to address. What you hear is “I can’t go skiing that day. I have to go to the dentist.” Or from Tiger, “I might not be able to win this year. I have to re-create my swing so that I can be the best in history.”

To do this requires an absence of internal and interpersonal fears that facing negatives can bring about. If my friend above were too afraid that facing into those confrontations would bring him rejection, or someone would no longer like him because of what he had to say, then he would avoid the conflict. If Tiger were afraid of the bad press or people thinking he was just a flash in the pan, then he would have protected his lead and status instead of ripping it apart. But they were not. They had the internal equipment to desire the outcome and weather the process. “The only way out is through.”

One of the surprising things about working with adults who grew up in homes with an alcoholic or abusive parent who truly was the “bad guy” is the set of feelings that they find they have for the other parent, the loving one. Even though the good one was the one who gave them the love and affirmation that they needed, they often have to work through deep feelings of disappointment and betrayal at that parent’s avoidance of dealing with the other parent. They struggle with why the good parent never did anything and then often suffer with their own patterns of allowing negative realities to persist long after they should, as that was what was modeled for them. Avoiding the elephant in the living room not only allows the problems to continue, but erodes trust in the one who does and in the nature of love itself.

And this occurs not only in the personal context. The person in charge of a team or an organization avoids dealing clearly and decisively with an obviously hurtful person and loses the confidence of the other people in the team. The leaders who are respected are the ones who can be depended on to deal with things directly and competently. Recently I consulted with a company that was in turmoil for three years, lost several key people, and was not reaching many of its objectives because of the CEO’s avoidance of dealing with the president’s dysfunction. Finally, the board had to step in. They intervened with the CEO and made him deal with the problem.

What occurred is a lesson for all. Within a few months the entire organization turned around because the problem person had been removed. He had been causing division, a lack of morale, discouragement, and a pervasive negativity, and when he was gone, all of that went with him. The climate changed. You could feel the difference in the energy, as the team clicked and good things began to happen. The lesson is that when problems are truly addressed, they are addressed. The pain can end, and it surprises people who have grown accustomed to putting up with it that things can actually work. And another part of the lesson is just how quickly that can happen. The avoidance takes years sometimes, but after things are decisively addressed, within weeks and months normalcy returns. Even in Tiger’s case, in the whole of a career, an “off year” is nothing.