You ever watch a knife or other sharp edge get sharpened, and see the sparks fly?

(Never mind the original processes that led up to it being a blade attached to a handle — the smelting, the heating, the hammering, the folding of the soft metal onto itself, the submersion in cold water only to be thrust back into the flame.  That’s a process for another blog post.)

I’m just talking about the sharpening process.  It seems simple, right?  Rub a hard edge against a hard edge, and do it often enough in the right motion with the right angle and you’ll sharpen the edge.  Miss any of those important parts to the equation, and you don’t have a sharpening process.

Hard edge against hard edge.  The best problems are the ones we face head-on.  If we allow them to rub up against our other problems — no matter the friction and sparks created — and keep doing so with perseverance, we’ll gain a solution or a new way forward.

Let me give a basic example from my life.  I have a really bad ankle, the long-term repercussions of playing on a sprain for an entire football season without letting it fully heal.  I also had old, bad running shoes.  I knew that I needed to run, but my ankle hurt every time I started to run so I didn’t do it often, and when I did, I did not sustain the activity.  The ankle was a problem to my physical fitness, and was beginning to be a problem to my daily mobility.  The shoes were a problem because they were old and had lost their support (but I had not wrapped my mind around them being a problem too, in fact, I was doubling down on wearing the shoes and trying harder to run, all to worse and worse results!).

Two problems rubbing against one another, and the sparks ended up starting the fire that solved the problem.  I’ll be totally honest, I was not the one who solved the problem!  My wife got sick of me complaining, got sick of me being a cheapskate, and she bought me new shoes.  They are great shoes, with great support, and within a week my ankle felt much better.

The solutions are often, in hindsight, incredibly simple.  But when we’re in the heat with the sparks flying, we don’t feel or think so. Typically, the solution also has to do with understanding that one or more of the problems we face are created by ourselves in some way.  With a change in mentality comes a change in direction.  Often, the change in direction leads to a massive release of new energy, and we’re off and rolling once again.

Sadly, in my case with the running shoes, I was unable to change my mentality until I had help from someone who cared deeply about me.  Or maybe, just got tired of my whining!  Either way, part of the “problems are sparks” mentality is knowing when I need to ask for help, or be open to someone helping me.  Just to be completely clear:  the “problems are sparks” mentality is not some solo, tough-guy gets even tougher by bearing down approach.  Its a mentality that refuses to see problems as just problems, but chooses to engage them in the search for solutions, and chooses to include others in the task.  One hand makes for good work.  Two hands make for great work.  Four hands–even better.

I’ll share more about the other elements in “the problems are sparks” mentality, but for now just meditate on these macro questions:

  • What are some problems rubbing together in my life?
  • What sparks are they throwing off?
  • What fires could those sparks create that might help solve the original problems?