“A problem well put is half solved.”
― John Dewey

“Zebra” is a slang term in American medicine for arriving at an elaborate medical diagnosis when a more mundane one is more likely. It comes from the analogy of hearing hooves, seeing a mane and tail and guessing zebra when it’s far more likely to be a horse.

What I’ve noticed is that the tendency to draw abstract conclusions from common symptoms is not limited to the field of physical health. What happens is when there is a sticking point in someone’s life that they are committed to changing, they will tend to think about it. A lot.

The more they think about it, the more things they will see that both cause and perpetuate it in their life. Explanations and efforts to change grow increasingly abstract as the obstinate issue remains.

For example, for a long time I believed my trouble with relationships stemmed from my having committed suicide in a past life, being “wired wrong”, having an entity attached to me, and more. All of these explanations were exotic, abstract, and didn’t give me any footholds to create change.

I certainly tried. I did ceremonies to let go of karma, to rewrite my contract for this lifetime, and more, but nothing shifted the trouble I had dating.

Essentially, having diagnosed the problem as a zebra, I was trying to solve it as a zebra. It didn’t work and had the effect of growing the problem in my life. Now it was bigger than the few years I’d been struggling with it, it spanned multiple lifetimes. It was deep and wide, going into the core of my identity. To shift it I had to shift the entirety of who I was as a person.

It was a big giant zebra, and I was its helpless victim.

Finally, after much help, I was able to shift the mindset that it was a big problem. Once that was done, I was able to do the only thing that I really needed to do:

I took a class on how to date.

It sounds silly and I feel a little vulnerable admitting it, but somehow in my development I’d missed the lesson on how dating works. Feeling the gap in my knowledge, and having an emotional charge around it, I’d explained the problem in terms that fit my emotions but had little to do with the actual issue.

Once I filled in the missing data, I became successful at dating and met my husband two months later.

Taking this metaphor further, zebras are actually not very friendly animals, which is why humans never befriended them the way we did horses. In general, zebras will bite and attack people, where horses will let you ride them and even become a companion.

Problems that are diagnosed as horses tend to have a tangible, solvable quality to them, whereas zebras will feel overwhelming. It’s the difference between, “I need to learn how to…” and “I have to change my karma”. One is actionable, the other impenetrable.

Once the mindset changes from “it’s impossible” to “what’s needed?” the solutions become clear and the problem becomes an inspiration for action. I am not saying that big, complicated problems don’t exist, but that how we approach them can either exacerbate them or simplify and even make them easy.

For now, to the problems that feel too big, ask yourself: “What is the most useful thought I can have about this situation? What is the most useful action I can take right now?”

Whenever your mind starts to spin about what a big, complicated problem you have in your life, deepen your breathing and return to these questions. Let them guide you away from the scary zebra and toward the friendly horse.