Defining your Grand Challenges

In Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” he states that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I’ve seen it. The mass of men live from weekend to weekend. They let the random experiences of life dictate their happiness. Consider the following all-too-familiar examples.

  • Mr. Ellis spends several hours each day monitoring his blood sugar level as a result of adult onset diabetes. Three months ago both of his legs were amputated below the knee due to related infections. He is discouraged by his current lack of independence.
  • Mrs. Jarvis, widowed at 85, was raised in the Christian Methodist faith but has slowly become disenchanted by her religion. Unable to face the people at church, and being ‘too old to change’ she no longer attends worship services. She often worries for the welfare of her soul.
  • Mr. Green was laid off of his IT job at age 60. His lack of technical certifications makes him feel unqualified when compared to the crop of young college graduates in his field. He lacks the savings to retire and cannot imagine why anyone would want to hire him again.

These are real issues and they are painful. But were they not preventable? Are there not still options for these people? How often do we hop in the back seat and let our circumstances take the wheel while we moan that we don’t like the direction we are going?

This week I was reading an article called Grand Challenges for Engineers, which discussed the biggest problems of the 21st century that Engineers will be called upon to solve. The article is part of a movement to unite engineers on pursuing solutions to these problems. As I read, I thought “The NAE is brilliant for putting this project together.” You see, the first step in resolving these issues is making sure they are clearly defined. They defined the grand challenges.

As I read, I thought, what are my grand challenges? Do I tend to overeat. Do I dislike my job or field of work? Am I shy and lonely? Do I overwork? Am I always late? Do I fear change? Am I boring? We all know ourselves. Can I not look back in time and predict what issues will challenge me in the future?

If I somehow define my grand challenges, I can work on them. I can track my progress. In the biography of Larry H. Miller (arguably one of the most influential men in Utah), he confesses, “If there is one thing I’d do differently–only one–it’s this: I would have been there for the Little League games and the scraped knees and the back-to-school nights…” He admits, “…I didn’t know how to be a father.”

So here’s to living and dying without regrets.

My grand challenges are:

  1. Finding an Enjoyable and Satisfying Career Path
  2. Balancing Family and Work
  3. Conquering my Weaknesses
  4. Actively Contributing to Society throughout Retirement
  5. Being Healthy Enough to Live to see 100 years.

They aren’t quite as epic as the Engineering Grand Challenges (I’m not setting out to reverse-engineer the brain), but they are challenging, all right. Who really ever finds a truly satisfying career path? Who can die saying they conquered their weaknesses. I want to actually do it.  I want to live deliberately.