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The Problem with "Problems"

“That’s a fascinating problem,” I said.


My colleague across the table at dinner frowned. “I don’t like the word ‘problems.’ I prefer to think in terms of opportunities.”


When I asked her to explain she replied, “Problems are negative — things to be fixed. Opportunities are more positive, more hopeful. Opportunities are chances to make things better even when things are already great.”


She had an interesting point. Words are important. They help us define our thinking, shape feelings and inform our decisions. Sometimes it can be useful (and fun) to dig deeper into etymology to explore the roots of words and how their meaning has evolved over time.


“Problem” comes from the Greek problema meaning “a task, barrier or obstacle” while “fascinate” comes from the Middle French fasciner meaning to “put under a spell.”

In other words, a “fascinating problem” is one in which we are fully engaged in overcoming an obstacle.


“Opportunity” comes from Latin opportunitatem meaning “fitness, convenience, suitableness or favorable time” and shares the root ob(meaning “toward”) with “option” from optionem meaning “choice.”


Opportunities are choices; problems are obstacles. And a choice sounds a lot more positive than a obstacle.


So, it is just “semantics” or is there something deeper under these words?


Being fully alive, engaged in the moment, being “in flow” are times when our reasonable, choice-making minds are fully committed to overcoming the barriers of reasonableness.

Opportunities come from choice including the freedom to choose something else when we run into a problem. And the best problems are ones that are bigger than us — obstacles to something important enough to engage us fully in a commitment where “failure is not an option (opportunity).”


Maybe opportunities and problems are more than just different words for the same thing. Maybe an opportunity is a chance (or choice) to make things better. And maybe an opportunity is what a problem looks like before making a commitment.

And, while we may think in terms of different words, my colleague is definitely a trusted, committed problem solver.


It’s more fun to brainstorm about endless opportunities. But it’s often more satisfying to work on solving fascinating problems.

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