What’s the Real Problem I Am Trying to Solve?

woman solving engineering problems on board - photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

One of my most challenging classes freshman year in college was physics. I remember going through class after class being completely perplexed as the professor talked about things like friction, acceleration, and velocity with ease. I copied down formula after formula to feel like I was at least doing something. Halfway through freshman year, I was failing miserably. I started working one-on-one with my professor weekly and attending his office hours as well. We worked exercise after exercise in those sessions, and each time we started a new one, he would ask me, “Gretchen, what is the problem you are trying to solve?”

In physics, the problem was usually how fast an object was going or when an object in motion would no longer be in motion. Identifying the problem helped me figure out which formula to use and ultimately guided me closer to an answer. When it came time to study for the tests, I would painstakingly redo each exercise from every homework assignment. I would ask myself as I wrote each subsequent number down, “Gretchen, what is the problem you want to solve?”

Starting with that question is also key when it comes to Ignatian discernment. Before gathering the necessary information, making the pros and cons lists, and devoting time to prayerful consideration of the options, we have to know first what the problem is that we want to solve. Surprisingly, the first answer we give to this question is often not correct. For example, freshman year in college, I thought the problem I wanted to solve was passing physics. It turns out, the problem I wanted to solve, when I looked deep down inside, was what God was calling me to be. It took me years to drill down to the real problem, the real question I needed to answer. When I finally pinpointed what it was, I was able to go through the rest of the steps and reorient my life in a new direction.

What helped me identify the real problem I wanted to solve?

  • I named and let go of my fear. Back in college, I was afraid to ask myself if I was not meant to be an engineer. My fear of looking at the real problem was built up by many things: my high expectations of myself, other people’s expectations of me, society standards, and an overwhelming desire to prove I could finish what I started.
  • I paid attention to my emotions. Looking back, I realized I had great feelings of desolation not only in physics class but in all my classes. I didn’t look with joy towards what the future would bring when I completed my degree. In contrast, when I was volunteering with children or working with campus ministry, I felt joy and excitement. I looked forward to these things with anticipation.
  • I learned that God’s wants for me match my wants for myself. Ignatian spirituality taught me that my deepest desires match what God desires for me. In college, I was afraid to look at the real problem I was trying to solve, because I was afraid to look at what I really wanted. I worried that my calling wouldn’t match my heart’s desire or that my heart would lead me towards something that would not be practical, logical, or sustainable. Learning that God’s desires matched my own helped me recognize God would not call me to something without also equipping me for the road ahead.

Are you in the process of discernment right now? If so, ask yourself, What is the real problem I am trying to solve? Then name and let go of your fears, pay attention to and believe in what your heart is telling you, and then start discerning the answer with God by your side.

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash.


  1. Yes, in my childhood days even sometimes now, i missed up discernment. All i understand is i am in the right direction and just do what comes out to mind because i prayed. It is my tendency to leave it all to God to bless it, yet at the end failed. Faith, trust, and perseverance is all it takes, I thought, and praying is something that i would rather make when I need to succeed in all my endeavors without consulting things just right.

    Thank you very much Gretchen. Now I know.

  2. Thank you so very much for this post Gretchen. It reminds me so much of my own journey in college. Physics was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. (LOL) But instead of praying and looking to God for discernment of what I should do next, I listened only to my own voice telling me that I would never be able to make it to medical school and become a doctor, so I should just throw away all I had done in math and science and change my major to something I enjoyed (Russian Area Studies). I didn’t stop t look at WHY i wanted to me a doctor (to help people feel better) and that even though I may not have had what it took to be a doctor, I might have been a great nurse, or physical therapist, or a counselor. I ended up being an OK analyst for the Defense Department, but I don’t think that was where God really wanted me, because I didn’t truly feel like I was doing HIS work until I became a mom, took care of my elderly parents, and volunteered at the hospital. With my children mostly grown and my parents gone, I am looking to see where God will lead me to show me where my wants and His wants for me intersect.

  3. Gretchen, a thoughtful post, thank you. At this moment, my perception of where I am spiritually may not match the perceptions of some people around me. When I think deeply about it (and I do think deeply about it) I am happiest when I am charting my own course, with God’s love and help. Sometimes other peoples’ expectations and needs overwhelm and I am learning that trying to be everything to everyone is not possible. I’m perceiving that my personality type is of someone who likes to be alone (mostly) but enjoys company (sometimes). Where will that lead? To a road less travelled. I hope.

  4. I should also look deeper, not just within but to look at what is blocking me from achieving and understanding what I want in life to be completed, to be fulfilled. This is a very good example. Thanks a lot Gretchen.

  5. Great post, Gretchen. I’m going to borrow your ideas for myself as well as for those I direct in spiritual direction. I especially love the statement, “I learned that God’s wants for me match my wants for myself.”


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