Dulltown, Europe: Today’s unusual pencil sharpener is the one shaped like a flag in a gale.
When I was at school, many years ago, in science and maths lessons as part of our learning we were asked to solve ‘problems’. Sometimes we solved them and sometimes, when they were very hard, we didn’t, but we occasionally learned how to solve them later on.
In the surprisingly small, but heavy textbook, at the start of each one would be the word ‘problem’. This would be followed by something like: A man weighing 175 pounds is standing half-way up a 20 foot ladder which is leaning against a wall; given the coefficient of friction between the foot of the ladder and the ground calculate the angle at which the ladder will start to slip… Or perhaps: Problem: An artillery shell is fired from a gun at 300 feet per second; the angle of the gun barrel is 30 degrees from the horizontal; calculate (1) the maximum height that the shell will reach, (2) how far it will go, assuming the terrain to be level, and (3) how long will it take?
Hm, these were ‘interesting’ problems. Why am I going on about this? I hear you ask. Well, I was recently in the cafe thinking about the word ‘problem’. It was after being told by the cheery barista that my not needing any milk for my tea was ‘not a problem’ – I replied that I was very glad to hear it…
I remember whilst working (designing and building stage sets) for a theatre company several years ago, the administrator and the director of the outfit went on some sort of short course; it apparently involved changing one’s language to enable business things to run more smoothly and efficiently. The main gist of it seemed to be the banning of that awful negative word ‘problem’ – and replacing it with that lovely positive more confident word ‘challenge’.
‘Now then, look, we have the problem of how we hide the funny boots, the big floppy hats, oh, and not forgetting the yellow suitcase, on stage somewhere, so that the actors don’t have to go off in the middle of the scene to get them…’
‘No, no, Dave, stop right there, it’s not a problem…’
‘No, it’s a challenge, which can be overcome!’
‘Oh good… How?…’
‘Well, you are so marvellously inventive Dave, I’m sure you’ll come up with something brilliant…’
Of course these little theatre problems were a lot easier to solve than shells being fired at people, and those poor chaps stuck half way up slipping ladders – mind you, in my experience, ladders slipping with people on them was not an uncommon occurrence in the world of theatre – dozy buggers!…
Calling something a challenge rather than a problem kind of takes the edge off it don’t you think? I wouldn’t really call the fact that half the people in the western world are obese a ‘challenge’ – or that our lovely capitalist system is based solely on greed and relentless growth, a challenge… These are problems – big, very hard ones…