Upgrade your problems

Every suburban kid has their watershed moment of humility.

Mine was in the commune of Hinche, a year after the Haiti earthquake.

I was on a medical aid trip1. A dentist I was assisting told me something that blew my mind:

“If we don’t remove the abscess, the tooth can get infected and the patient can die.”


I grew up dreading regular trips to the dentist. It never occurred to me that someone could die from tooth decay.

This experience made me grateful about my problems at the time.

Getting good grades.
Graduating and finding a job.
Saving up more money to travel.

This isn’t a diatribe against “first world problems” and being an entitled millennial, which is judge-y and unproductive. We all have problems.

Rather, it’s a reframe through gratitude:

What problems am I grateful to have?

I don’t have to work. I get to make money.
I don’t have to write. I get to write for a living.
I don’t have to go to the dentist. I get to go to a dentist.

This mindset shift turns complaints into appreciation.

You don’t have to. You get to.

It also led me to ask a different kind of question.

Since problems are inevitable in life…what kind of problems do I want to have?

How I upgraded my problems

Last year, after reading this powerful passage from The Alabaster Girl, I immediately took a break from Tinder and booked a trip to South America:

“The size of your problems is the size of your life. If a man’s greatest problem is how to get a girl to text him back…that’s as big as his life is ever going to be. However, if his greatest problem is how he can help to get clean water to a village in Africa, or how he can become the greatest lover a woman has ever known, well then…things like a girl not texting him back make no difference to him whatsoever. Those are trivial problems, that melt away before his eyes like so much inconsequential dross.” – Zan Perrion

My life changed when I started to differentiate between trivial versus high quality problems.

And it all started from asking better questions:

Low quality questionHigher quality question
Why is this happening to me?
How can this be useful?
Why am I still single?
How can I bring joy to others?
Why is she not texting me back?
What kind of person do I want to draw into my life?

The common denominator of low-quality problems is that they’re positioned as external events outside of our control:
Why is this happening to me?

We can upgrade those problems by reclaiming that control, and thinking bigger:
How can I change this? What is a problem worth having?

This new personal responsibility is empowering. Instead of problems happening to us, we can choose our problems.

We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them. – Albert Einstein

It’s okay if you don’t care about starving kids

Whenever I start complaining about my trivial problems, I think back to my one transformative week in Hinche. The raw beauty of the land, contrasted against the poverty of its inhabitants.


While that’s a powerful memory and motivator for me, it’s not applicable for all.

It’s not useful to belittle other people’s problems. Instead, I hope this article inspires readers to not only appreciate their problems, but to also seek high quality ones that provide a better return on energy.

In the wise words of Mark Manson, you only have a certain amount of fucks to give. Give too many fucks about little things, and the big things will fuck you over. (So choose your fucks wisely.)

Let’s not wish to have no problems.

Let’s appreciate the ones we have, and to seek high quality problems to focus on our time on.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.