Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The problem with "no problem"

I delivered a speech to during the dinner the night before graduation here (the reason why I was the one giving the speech is a long but not particularly interesting story). Even though it's not, technically, library related, I thought I'd share it here. I did edit it to remove individual's names.


By looking at my family tree it’s hard to tell where my compulsive reading habit came from, but it’s no mystery where my obsession with language comes from. For that, we have my father to thank. Every once in a while—usually at the beginning of a school year—my dad will hone in on a word or phrase that has become overused to the point of meaninglessness—or was meaningless to begin with--and commence a quiet campaign to mock it out of existence. Think “think outside the box.” Think “issues." Think “robust” used to modify nouns and actions it has no business modifying. Think—and this isn’t one of his, but one I’ve learned from all of you--“legit.”

Inevitably, as soon as he points out these words or phrases to me, I see and hear them everywhere. And it starts driving me crazy, too. We share particularly egregious examples or new pet peeves as a father-daughter bonding ritual.

The first phrase I remember getting the Mudie treatment is “no problem.” And while many of the phrases my father has campaigned against have fallen by the wayside—people so rarely specify where they are in relation to the box when they do their thinking these days—“no problem” has staying power. “No problem” has become so ingrained in our speech patterns that I doubt you even notice it anymore.

Before I talk about “no problem,” I want to talk about the phrase that it has so unceremoniously replaced. "You're welcome." Even when it was more commonly used I'm sure most people didn’t give much thought to its meaning, but it's really a succinct expression of a really amazing idea. You are welcome. You are welcome to my time. You are welcome to my energy. You are welcome to my efforts, my thoughts, my emotional engagement—whether or not it's a problem.

When you say “no problem” you are, in a sense, implying that the thing you did might actually have been a problem. Everything from “can you hand me that pencil?” to “Thanks for staying up all night with me as I was having a nervous breakdown.” While I’m having a hard time concocting a scenario in which handing someone a pencil creates a problem, the big things like staying up with someone, helping someone move, taking care of someone when they're sick might not be actual, technical “problems”, but they certainly fall under the umbrella of things that are not always 100% easy or convenient. To brush such things off with a “no problem” is to dismiss not only your efforts, but yourself.

And therein lies the problem with "no problem." By saying "no problem" we are, in a sense, indicating that we wouldn't have helped if it had been, in some way, a problem; that you wouldn't, really, be welcome to our efforts.

And that attitude is part of an aggressively passive culture where pointing out problems is becoming the national pastime, but fixing them is considered, well, someone else's problem. Glenn Beck and Keith Olberman did not gain center --or right or left--stage because of their solution-oriented ranting.

Which leads me to The Noah Principle-- an idea I came across when working on what seemed like an unsolvable problem.

This was last fall, and I and others had been working for a while on how we could make more of the books taught at Forman easily accessible in digital and audio formats. There were questions around if we could get files from publishers, could we do the conversion in house, and if so how, and what would that require, and who would be responsible, and how would we distribute files, and what would be the copyright implications, and I could go on but this is your night, so I’ll spare you. It was, in short, easy to see the problems and hard to find the solutions.

And then you were all given "Nip the Buds Shoot the Kids" to read. And we knew that there was no commercial version of the audio book available, but that many of you would need or want the book to be available in audio. This was, maybe, a week before Thanksgiving break. And so, all of a sudden, the answer to the question, “When are we going to be able to convert books to mp3 format in house?” became “by next Tuesday.”

And I kind of freaked out a little. While many of the pieces we needed were in place, my first instinct was to think of all the problems that would, potentially, get in the way.

Those of you have seen my office know that it could charitably be described as “messy.” What you don’t know is that the dozens of scraps of paper on my desk actually contain important information. Often, when I come across a quote or an idea that resonates with me, I will write it on one of those scraps, meaning to do something with it. And then it gets buried under new scraps. But that afternoon, as I was at my desk thinking of all the problems that would keep us from converting a book to audio, one of those scraps made its way to the surface. And it said simply this: “The Noah Principle: No more prizes for predicting rain. Prizes only for building arks.”

No more prizes for pointing out problems. Prizes only for finding solutions.

That idea tipped the balance for me. Within 36 hours we had scanned and converted the book and made it available for download. Turns out, when you stop being distracted by the rain, it’s easier to find an ark.

And I would like to say a very public thank you to the IT department for removing technological roadblocks as quickly as I could run into them, and to colleagues who cheered us on and believed in what we were doing. And to all of you who made it a point to come up to me and say "thank you." Never underestimate what a powerful impact those two words can have. I could do a whole other speech on "thank you", but I'll leave it at this: the world would be a much better place if we all said thank you a little more often.

But back to the rain.

Too many people look at students with learning disabilities as simply just a "problem" that needs to be fixed. Or, sadly, as a problem that can't be fixed. They can only talk about the rain. They have no idea about the arks you can become. They have no idea.

And this, really, is what I love so much about here; I am surrounded by people who, no matter how much it rains, keep building the ark. People who, in turn, make all of you builders of your own arks. And if you don't feel ready to be an ark builder, I want you to remember this: the ark was built by amateurs. The Titanic, on the other hand, was built by professionals. Don't sell yourself short.

It's here. In less than a day you will be done with high school. It was not a short journey. Nor was it always an easy one—40 days and 40 nights of rain are a walk in the park by comparison. But you—and your teachers, and your advisors and your coaches and your family, and your friends—built that ark. And I'm going to go ahead and speak on behalf of all of us and say that you are entirely welcome.


  1. Beautifully written,and I am sure, well executed! Thanks for the pleasure of your prose!

  2. I love it, Sara! Thank you for posting it - Casey