Battling the Problem-Monster

How to Battle the Problem-Monster

James Buckhouse

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A few months ago, I gave a lecture at Stanford’s d.school on the terrifying (yet thrilling) call to do your life’s great work. Excerpted here is the emotional heart of the lecture: How to Battle the Problem-Monster. Read this when you need a boost. It starts out rough and dives all the way down to the pit of despair, but then rises up and pulls you along to help propel you ever upwards. So if the first paragraph or two are depressing—keep going! —happiness awaits just on the other side of the struggle. -Buckhouse

[Start of recording]

[Dark room, deep voice… cinematic lecturing…]

Our old problems gain strength while our new problems multiply. We are surrounded by difficulties… near hopeless struggle… a restless disillusionment. If ever there was a time to wallow in the cold, near-blind worry of night, these times might be those. This is the midnight hour of our great discomfit.

And yet…

[voice starts to brighten]

And yet we are cursed with the blessing of a calling, even if some of us might still be refusing the call. We are called. We hear it, and we know it knows our name. We find ourselves pulled towards the calling. Pulled through that ink wash of night—pulled towards a life dedicated to squaring up against intractable problems. Overwhelming odds. Immeasurable challenges… and then doing that one thing we can do. Moving forward. Naming the problem. Not just the large problem, but the causes behind the causes. The chain of challenges that interlink until we find a place to get to work. A way we can diffuse the bomb. Right a wrong. Add a chorus to the song of life. Turn, ever so slightly, the circumstances of our situation into something that has a chance of turning out alright. We face the Problem-Monster and we use our intelligence, not our might, to find a way to transform a moment of peril into a path that we, and others, can follow towards peace.

This is the calling of the learner. This is the life of the designer. This is the way of the artist. This is the road of the founder. This is the hope of the changemaker. This is the self-selected kinship of those people you know with an indefatigable light just behind their eyes and glints when they look up from some task and in that moment—that thrilling flash of recognition—you believe they will do something great in the world. And suddenly, you imagine that you might be able to do something great as well.

This is what I see in you. You are not here to hustle and crank just to propel forward someone else’s ambition. The goal is to be awake in the moment when you are pulled… mid-dream… mid-nightmare sometimes! Pulled towards a problem you cannot refuse and instead of turning away you open your eyes and get to work.

So let’s get to work.

We never stop seeking the music of the universe. That noble exhalation. That big bang and big collapse. The rhythm of eons. The heartbeat of the cosmos.

We are members of a self-appointed fellowship—no authority, deity, or royalty touched us on the shoulder and gave us this new title. We are pulled to it until we become it. This is what it means to be a designer. To be an artist. To be a founder.

Our patron saint is DaVinci. Our hero Ada Lovelace. Our soundtrack by Bach. Our math teacher Hypatia—the woman who ruled the Mouseion at the Library of Alexandria. Hypatia got to work.

Just as we will get to work.

We will learn and get the job done. We will face the Problem-Monster and pull the dawn from the night.

We get to work and we join the fellowship of the few. Why? Because we cannot imagine moving through life as anything else. Our way is an exalted path. Treacherous. Rewarding.

So what is our work?

Our work is transformation.

We take what is, and we turn it into what could be.

We take whatever the situation is, and we find a way to transform it into something different, not merely better.

Making something slightly better is not transformation. It’s merely improvement. This is a noble undertaking, but it is not how we approach the Problem-Monster.

Transformation requires difference.

For founders, artists, and designers this is critical. Launching an endeavor with a better way to do something is tempting—I mean, who wants to do something that’s worse? But being merely better is the path to ruin. Better means you are in a race to the bottom. Being merely better means you have to be cheaper, faster, or do more until you’re eventually you’re doing everything instantly for nothing. That is no way to run a business or have a career. That’s no way to change the world. That’s just an expedient solution for someone else’s main concern. What is your main concern? What is your Problem-Monster? What pulls you to it the way the moon’s gravity pulls the tide to the shore?

I want you to lead a transformed life and a life of transformation. I want you to find a way to become the best version of yourself—to become the person you want to be—and to do that, to really do that—you need to think beyond yourself to the change you hope to engender in the world. To transform yourself, you must transform others.

How do you do that?

You set yourself to tasks worth doing...
towards problems worth solving...
that help other people become who they hope to be.

This happens at every level. You create a new art project not just to prove you can paint, but because in the painting you transform the viewer as she sees herself in a new context, equipped with a new language system through which to process the world. You join a company because it will teach you something you need to know to start your own. You start a company, not to get rich, or to gain social status, but because the project you have chosen has a shot at making a difference in the lives of others—the people who will use the product or service you create—and the pain that exists because your company does not is simply intolerable for you. You create a company to change the way people see the world as your idea becomes a new way for all of us to move through our brief lives.

I have the honor of operating a bit like a librarian in the archives of Sequoia, a partnership that has helped five decades of founders along the journey of starting something different, not merely better.

Next, we are going to crack open the secret Sequoia vault a little bit today and I’m going to share a few stories I’ve unearthed from there. And I’m going to offer up a few ways to organize your story that is distilled from what I’ve been able to abstract out, factor out, from the successes and failures of past Sequoia founders.

Ready?

Let’s get to work.

[end of recording]

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James Buckhouse

Design Partner at Sequoia, Founder of Sequoia Design Lab. Past: Twitter, Dreamworks. Guest lecturer at Stanford GSB/d.school & Harvard GSD jamesbuckhouse.com