Attack Every Problem Like A Lion Traps An Ant

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Lately, my wife and I have been having trouble with our water heater.  Over the last few months we’ve been finding the blower blowing but no gas running along with it to actually heat our water.  Recently, the gas would turn on for only 10 minutes before shutting off, leaving the blower going, sometimes all night while we slept.

You don’t fully appreciate what you have until you’re threatened with losing it, especially hot water.  So my wife leapt into action. She engaged in a dialogue with a repair company (which sent their crack water heater man out several times) as well as with our water heater manufacturer.  Emails and phone calls were exchanged.  She read online manuals and articles, trying to diagnose our problem.  She went over her findings with me in painstaking detail, and we finally figured out the blower wasn’t generating enough pressure to safely expel the carbon monoxide waste so the gas was actually being shut off by the unit appropriately.  But because the water temperature hadn’t reached its set point, the blower would continue to run, further wearing it down and decreasing the amount of pressure it could generate, exacerbating the problem.

So my wife called in a plumber to drop a camera into our water heater exhaust pipe to see if some obstruction had arisen that had increased the resistance to flow just enough to cause the safety switch to shut off the gas to prevent a dangerous build up of carbon monoxide.  We found an excessive build up of lint in our drier line, but nothing in our water heater line.

As I watched my wife struggle with these issues, I couldn’t help but think of a famous Buddhist quotation:  “The lion king is said to advance three steps, then gather himself to spring, unleashing the same power whether he traps a tiny ant or attacks a fierce animal.”


A lion doesn’t judge the strength of its opponent and adjust the force of its attack.  It aims to completely overwhelm its adversary every single time with the full force of its might.  It doesn’t matter how strong or weak its adversary is.  The lion doesn’t care.  It’s intimidated by nothing because it considers itself supreme—that is, supremely capable.

Without a doubt, this describes my wife perfectly.


Many benefits exist to taking the lion’s approach to solving problems.

  1. A fearful person can accomplish little even with the most effective tools.  In dispensing with an assessment of its adversary’s strength, a lion maintains its courage.  A lion would never say to itself (if it could talk):  “This elephant is too big.  I can never win.  I won’t even try.”  Not that we should deliberately avoid analyzing a problem to figure out the best way to solve it.  But if we let that analysis discourage or intimidate us, we’re defeated before we ever start to fight.  Another great Buddhist saying applies here:  “A sword is useless in the hands of a coward.”
  2. Attacking everything with 100% effort guards us against regret.  Even if we fail, feeling as if we did our very best, that we pulled out reserves of strength we didn’t know we had, can engender a feeling of satisfaction, of a battle well fought, even if all our efforts come to nothing.
  3. Unforeseen obstacles almost always arise when we seek to accomplish almost anything.  If a lion is unwary, even an ant might find a way to escape it.  Many people get discouraged by everyday problems because they anticipate needing only 25% of their energy, or 50% of their energy to deal with it, when in reality they need 90% or more.  If we begin, continue, and conclude our attack with 100% effort the entire time, never relaxing our guard for a moment, we’ll enjoy the greatest likelihood of success, being as prepared as possible for a powerful obstacle we weren’t anticipating.  We’re most able to maintain that kind of intense effort if we maintain it consistently, not for a moment letting up.  We’re more likely to see more, catch more, and simply be more effective when our fires are fully stoked and therefore able to provide instant responses to surprising twists in the road.
  4. Winning builds confidence.  Watching our full power flow out of us as we repeatedly face down problem after problem engenders confidence we can succeed no matter what obstacle appears next.  Genuine confidence only comes from experience with victory.

In the end, my wife persevered and the water heater manufacturer relented by sending us a new blower.  When the water heater man replaced it, he found caulk had been inappropriately applied to the outflow manifold as well as to the joint between the blower and the outflow pipe, narrowing the diameter of the outflow path in two places just enough to increase the resistance to flow beyond what the blower could handle.  When he replaced it with the new one, the pressure increased by nearly 50%.

Though discouraged at several points, uncertain if we’d ever be able to diagnose the problem much less fix it, my wife never gave up, never slowed the pace at which she attacked the problem or decreased the energy she brought to bear on it, reminding me once again of this most basic formula:  tenacity + 100% effort = victory.

Next weekWhy We Don’t Know Better

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  • Nor matter what problems we face if we use the lion’s strategy (roar of the lion) we will definitely be able to overcome it. Winning is happiness but defeat is grief.

  • “which sent their crack water heater man out several times”—

    Sorry, Alex—a ribald snicker here. You know the bad joke about plumber’s dishabille…

    Good post on winning or losing with what you have on the battlefield, once decisively engaged. He who hesitates is lost.

    Lisa: 😉


  • But what qualifies as “a problem?” As a wife, mother, housekeeper, and 60-hr-week worker, I cannot afford to give 100% to everything in my life. How do I choose? In between springs, the lion is doing, well, nothing. I cannot think of a 30-minute block of time when I have a choice of doing nothing. 🙂

    Julie: I get it. And yet, isn’t the issue you’re describing separate—more about having too many things on your plate or doing too much literally at once (the dangerous multitasking of which so many of us are guilty)? Why couldn’t and shouldn’t you give your all to every activity you choose to do? How would that leave you less time to do all the other things you need to do?


  • Alex,

    This is an interesting, insightful posting. As a cancer survivor, I know what it’s like to attack and fight, giving 100 percent effort. However, sometimes it works to cower first, which is what I did when I was first diagnosed. I wanted to give up the fight before it was fought, but this spell lasted for only a few days.

    This past Friday, though, after a CT Scan, I got a scare. Turns out it was nothing, but after having been through medical hell in the past and having scares before, I once again cowered. I think sometimes it’s OK to shrink first and attack later.

    Beth: Well said. I often have the same reaction when first confronted with a shock. The key, I think, is not letting that first impulse to shrink become our second impulse as well. At some point, when we’re ready, it’s time to attack.


  • Julie is exhausted, for one thing, Alex, all the time. Lions never have to go attack anything with toddlers attached to their legs screaming full-blast or spilling apple juice. Just imagine repeating your internship year with a toddler on each leg. Not a pretty picture, is it?

    That lion probably sleeps through the night, too, and eats its meals seated, and I bet Julie doesn’t. Sounds like her husband doesn’t help out a lot here. (Feed him to the lions?). Okay, just kidding here…

    She can’t give 100% to everything because she is only one person. She has no time to herself. I’m willing to bet she can’t even take a bath in peace and privacy. This, too, shall pass, but still, the poor woman is totally exhausted.

    She can’t give 100% to anything because she doesn’t HAVE 100% of her energy, her sanity, her peace of mind, always thinking about the pile of laundry she’s not doing while she’s at work or at the pediatrician’s office.

    Ants are easier to capture and make less noise than toddlers, too. 😉

    Julie, I don’t know the answer. People much smarter than I have tried to figure it out. But I do know what you mean, and very few men can relate to hearing “Mommy!” every time they try to sit down for ten minutes and have a cup of coffee.

    Is there anything major you can cut out of your budget so you won’t have to work so many hours? I hope you at least get overtime pay for those 60-hour weeks.

  • We all wish for the fearlessness of your wife.

    Debbie: So do I.


  • Ahh…but your wife knew, more or less, what steps to take to work towards a solution to the water heater problem. She knew, for instance, that calling her neighbor to kvetch wouldn’t help, I suspect, nor would it help to take out her frustration on the plumber, just as, by instinct, a lion knows how to hunt, knows how to pounce, etc.

    Attacking like a lion is good if you know exactly what the source of the problem is or whose help needs to be enlisted to fix it. But in those other cases—and they are the most numerous, I believe—cases in which the source of the problem is beyond our ken or—more disastrously—beyond our power to affect, attacking like a lion may exacerbate rather than solve the problem. Simple example: teen with skin problem attacks blemishes with everything he’s got. It gets worse. He attacks more ferociously to no good effect. Turns out it’s not acne, he has scarred his face, maybe it’s even a sign of a condition that has worsened while he was mounting his attack.

    I don’t mean to nit-pick; I just worry that many, many people don’t really know how to address the problems with which they’re faced. Attacking like a lion without knowledge just creates wider circles of pain (think Stanley Kowalski). Or, in the earlier example of your wife running towards the woman crying in the car, what if the guy had had a gun and had pulled it on her? (BTW, I relate to this impulsive approach myself. Many years ago when my husband and I lived in a house in a gentrifying neighborhood we were often disturbed by boom boxes and shouting in the street in the middle of the night. One night it seemed particularly bad. People playing a boom box sat on our stoop and just carried on. I suddenly leapt from the bed, threw on a robe and dashed downstairs and out the front door. I felt utterly certain I could speak reasonably to these folks about our need to sleep because we had to get up early in the morning, etc. My husband was probably terrified of what would happen, and tore down after me. The guys on the stoop felt threatened and smashed beer bottles to use as weapons if needed. It was a tense few minutes that resolved without anyone getting hurt, but it could have played out tragically.)

    Anyway, I think the hard thing is to know when you have ENOUGH accurate information to make attacking like a lion appropriate! Perhaps the formula should be sufficient knowledge/wisdom + tenacity + 100% effort = victory.

    rdp: I like your amendment to the formula.


  • I like rdp’s amendment as well Alex. I take it as having “sufficient knowledge/wisdom” not only from a skill point but also from the point of acting from our own higher knowledge/wisdom, i.e., making choices within solving the problem from our higher self and not reactionary ones (like taking out frustration on a plumber).

    As usual a wonderful post. 🙂

  • Hi Alex,

    I enjoyed your post.

    I’m curious to know what you think of the quote below. I’ve found this approach to be very affective in problem solving as well.


    “Nothing in the world is more flexible and yielding than water. Yet when it attacks the firm and the strong, none can withstand it, because they have no way to change it. So the flexible overcome the adamant, the yielding overcome the forceful. Everyone knows this, but no one can do it.”

    -Lao Tzu

    Andre: Wonderful. I drew a similar comparison to water and patience in a post called Patience.


  • I think this strategy is true under all circumstances. It basically means ‘throw everything you’ve got into it’. Sometimes that may mean exercising patience, or being extremely gentle, but whatever it is—do it completely.

    I like the way this quote sums it up: “People are defeated in life, not because of lack of ability, but for lack of wholeheartedness.”—Norman Vincent Peale

  • This article made me chuckle with recognition about attacking problems with 100% effort. I’ve experienced success with similar household and other issues involving the phone company, cable company and other such groups. While many will accept the “policies” these companies put in place to fight back the timid, I actually am empowered with “lion’s strength” when I know I’m right and fighting for something I consider essential.

    The key is whether a fight is essential and important to you. This is where the phrase “pick your battles” comes in. Fighting every single issue with 100% effort would be exhausting and self-defeating. When I see a shopper in the grocery store rushing to be first in line ahead of me, for example, I slow down and gently wave them to go first. This is not an important battle to me.

    When my 2nd child was in second grade and had a teacher who was not to my liking, however, that was worthy fight. Because I’m a teacher, I knew the principal would not want to see me in his office, and he definitely didn’t want to give in to my request to change teachers. More important, he didn’t want to be seen as a pushover for every parental request. Too bad for him. I gave this 100% effort and got my child transferred to a better teacher.

    In the process of my confrontation with the principal and school policies, I learned that the other parents at this school requested placement of their children with the best teachers a semester ahead. That’s all I needed to know. The game was afoot for not only that child, but the other two of my children who followed her.

    To treat all issues with equal importance is not wise. Setting priorities and picking our battles is what matters. That way we have 100% energy to give to the things that matter most to us.

  • I agree with what your saying in that you have to be fully present in your actions, whether when yielding or going full-force when solving a problem. I just don’t think that’s very clear in the article.

  • My initial reaction was like rdp, but over this week I ran across some articles talking about “child prodigies who talk about their ‘rage to master’ an expertise in their area of interest.” That seems to be, in one researcher’s opinion, the essential difference between gifted children and non-gifted is that unending passion—combined with focusing on their areas of weakness. That is, two kids can put in 10 years of piano practice, and one will care more, practice in a more focused way, etc. I’m a little skeptical—chicken and egg, that if you know where your weaknesses are, then you’re probably a lot better than the average child anyway.

  • I work as a State plan review engineer which is very detail oriented. Complex projects like wastewater treatment plants can not be built without State review and approval. When I bring my full attention to a plan review I discover a variety of issues and concerns and provide them all to the project owner, no matter how small or insignificant. I have learned that small concerns can become large and large can become small under withering scrutiny. What I think may have been a minor mistake, or a compromise, can turn out to have been a calculated risk by the design team. Always express your concerns until the truth emerges.

  • As a multi-skilled tradesman with many years of experience, I have a saying: “If man made it, I can fix it. If it is hard, you’re doing it wrong.” Step back, go for a coffee and let the patience of mind offer its solutions. This has worked for me many, many times. What if I am the “broken water heater” and I come to the Good Doctor for a solution. I am not man-made. Sometimes I cannot be fixed, even if I am new. Is it faulty engineering or the failure of the Good Doctor who needs to refine his/her craft?