Deal with problems before they derail you

Columnist Harvey Mackay says troubles are inevitable, but how you deal with them will determine how much they impact you.

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In one of my favorite "Peanuts" comic strips, Linus says to Charlie Brown, "There's no problem so big or so complicated that it can't be run away from." I chuckle every time I think about it because it sounds like such a simple solution to a problem.

We all have problems. It's how we deal with them that matters most. Problems move through three phases:

  1. The proactive stage, when problems can be solved fairly simply.
  2. The reactive stage, when remedial steps are necessary to turn the situation around.
  3. The crisis stage, when immediate action is required to avoid permanent damage.

Unfortunately, some people live their entire lives in the crisis stage, while others can go through life avoiding rough times. How can this be?

My good friend Nido Qubein, president of High Point University in North Carolina, told me that if you address problems while they're still in the proactive stage, it will prevent unimportant things from turning into urgent situations that divert your time and attention away from important things.

Problems seem much worse in the middle of the night. If I wake up thinking of a problem, I tell myself that it will seem lighter in the morning. And it almost always is.


Whenever I feel overwhelmed by one of life's little problems, I reflect on the story Pope John XXIII told about himself. He confessed, "It often happens that I wake at night and begin to think about a serious problem and decide I must tell the Pope about it. Then I wake up completely and remember I am the Pope."

Certainly, few of us face that level of responsibility. But worry is universal. We all have problems from time to time.

Try not to borrow other people's problems. I must confess that I have broken this rule because I wanted to help someone, or I thought I was more equipped to handle a situation. As difficult as it may be, wait to offer advice until you are asked, and don't be offended if that request never comes or if your advice is not heeded.

Problem solving is not easy, so don't make it harder than it is. Ignoring a problem rarely makes it go away.

Perhaps the worst thing to do is to act as if there isn't a problem. It's like the battered fighter who hears his trainer say between rounds: "Champ, you're going great! He ain't laid a glove on you!"

The champ says, "Well, you better keep an eye on the referee then, because somebody in this ring is beating the hell outta me."

The best place to solve a problem is at the point of complaint.

American Airlines has always had a commitment to customer satisfaction. Years ago, American realized that a large percentage of its passengers who made complaints had them around the ticket counter and boarding gate. To head off complaints before they got started, American created a special service position to deal with the problems as they arose so that the customers' problems could be solved before they could criticize the airline.


And then there is the story of a woman who hired a carpenter for repairs on her farmhouse. One day, a flat tire made him lose an hour of work, his electric saw quit and then his ancient truck refused to start, so the woman drove him home. He invited her in to meet his family. As they walked toward the front door, he paused briefly at a small tree, touching the tips of the branches with both hands.

Inside, he smiled and hugged his two small children and gave his wife a kiss. As he walked the client out to her car, she asked him about the tree.

"Oh, that's my trouble tree," he replied. "I can't help having troubles on the job, but troubles don't belong at home. So I just hang them up on the tree every night when I come home. Then in the morning I pick them up again."

"Funny thing," he said smiling, "when I come out in the morning to pick them up, there aren't nearly as many as I remember hanging up the night before."

Wouldn't it be great if we could leave all our work troubles at work and not bother our families or leave our personal problems at home and get on with our workday? Find your trouble tree and put your problems in perspective.

Mackay's Moral: Get control of your problems before they get control of you.

Harvey Mackay is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive." He can be reached at , by emailing or by writing him at MackayMitchell Envelope Co., 2100 Elm St. SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414.

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