Gerald (Jerry) Zezas

Home » Business Philosophy » Problems and Challenges-What’s in a word?

Problems and Challenges-What’s in a word?


This commentary is the result of a conversation I had with my brothers the other day. One is a business-man; the other is an upper-level manager at a large retail chain.
Some time ago, someone sent an email asking me to meet them at a particular place and time. The following line stated that if I had a “challenge” with that time, I should contact her to reschedule. If I had a “challenge” with that time, we could reschedule.
Somewhere in the distant past, someone decided that turning the word “problem” into the word “challenge”, made the circumstance it was describing less of a, errr, ah, problem. Somehow, anything with any negative connotation, either real or perceived, was taboo in business-speak. Words like “problem” become “challenge”, words like “no” become “yes, but” or are just never spoken, not to mention “salespeople” becoming “account managers” secretaries becoming “administrative assistants”, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
Merriam-Webster defines “challenge” in many ways having nothing at all to do with this current usage, although the most similar is “to arouse or stimulate especially by presenting with difficulties”. Challenges include things that are typically referred to as tasks, tests, trials and contests. A challenge is when the ball is coming at you. Your challenge is to swing the bat, hit the ball, and run the bases to home plate. Challenges are typically things that are met. You rise to meet challenges.
Webster defines “problem” as a “question raised for inquiry, consideration, or solution” and “a source of perplexity, distress, or vexation”. A problem is when the ball coming at you is a 20 lb. projectile, the bat is a foam pool noodle, and your feet are stuck in cement. It’s a problem because if you don’t solve it, you could be in pain. Problems are typically things that are solved. You work to fix problems.
Climbing a shear ledge on a snow-covered mountain is a challenge. It’s something that requires skill, knowledge and some degree of luck in order for you to meet it. You study and practice the skill necessary to meet that challenge.
Slipping and falling from the mountain without a safety line is a problem. It is something that must be solved. You can’t practice falling off a mountain in order to meet the challenge of having done so. You must resort to problem solving skills to avoid death.
Using these two words interchangeably artificially reduces the significance of a genuine problem and artificially inflates the significance of a simple challenge, all for the ostensible purpose of sounding positive in everything we say. Hogwash.
As we see so often in the business world, this sanitizes our speech with dime-store, Psyche 1 detritus, prevalent in the ideas promulgated by those who believe that as long as they mimic Pavlov, those of us who haven’t spent much time thinking about it will salivate as directed.
When faced with this problem, you should have the courage to challenge it.

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