As a kid in elementary school, the math problems we did in class were always easier than the ones we had for homework. In class, we’d practice our understanding of addition with problems like “what is 2 plus 2?” During homework time, however, I was forced to navigate my way through more complex problems like “what is 2,762 plus 3,937?” The principles of addition were the same at home as they were in the classroom, but the application was a bit trickier.
In adulthood, my real-life problems show up in the same way: I learn all sorts of valuable lessons like “be yourself,” “be honest with others,” “keep an open mind,” or be persistent” and it all sounds so simple and practical. But once I put my self-help books down or once I hang up the phone with my mentors, or once I finish watching inspiring YouTube videos, I have to face problems that are far more nuanced and demanding than any of the hypothetical problems that are used to illustrate the kinds of life lessons found in good advice.
Here’s the lesson I’ve learned from all the lessons I’ve learned:
Every problem has a personal dimension that can’t be understood or resolved in terms of universal principles, common-sense wisdom, and general advice. Real-life problems always place a greater demand on our creativity and critical thinking skills than the theoretical discussions we have about problems. Good advice is never a final solution. It’s only a starting point for further inquiry, further work, and further growth. Ideas don’t work. People work. Whenever ideas seem to work, it’s only because we do the work of figuring out how to apply them to our particular situation.