The Upstream Solution: Treat the Source of Your Problems, Not the Symptoms

There once was a town called Downstream, which rested on the banks of a raging river.

For many years, the town prospered. All was well in Downstream!

Until the first body appeared in the river.

The person was still alive. But they were struggling to keep their head above water. In that moment, the townspeople sprung into action. Downstream’s brightest minds devised a solution, and they saved the struggling swimmer.

The town rejoiced! Until the following day when the next body appeared in the river. Fortunately, they had a solution to the problem. It took a great amount of effort, but they saved the next victim.

As the weeks went on, more and more bodies appeared in the river. Not just one a day, but three…five…ten people who needed saving each day.

So Downstream devised more powerful solutions. They built boats and formed a town Coast Guard. They built a school to teach these coast guards how to navigate the treacherous river waters. They built a new hospital right along the shore to treat the survivors from the river.

The Downstreamers grew proud of their support systems. Years after the first rescue,it’s hard for the children of Downstream to comprehend that they once struggled to save one person a day from the waters. Because these days, they’re saving a dozen or two each day.

Downstreamers will tell you that they’ve never had a death in their waters.  Sure, they invest a massive amount of resources into these rescue efforts. But isn’t it all worth it to save human lives?

Every once in a while, someone will ask: “What’s going on upstream of Downstream? Why are these bodies in the water in the first place?” But there’s so much to do just to help the people in the river that nobody bothers to look into it.

Why Some Challenges Keep Coming Back

Every challenge in life has two main pieces.

The symptoms of a challenge are what grab your attention. The symptoms alert you that there’s something to address. (e.g. a painful sensation, an uncomfortable thought, making a mistake, etc.)

The source of a challenge is whatever created those symptoms in the first place.

In Downstream, they were great at treating the symptoms of their problem. (Bodies in the river.) They created robust defense mechanisms to deal with a problem that kept building over time.

But they never got to the root cause of their problem. What was causing so many people to fall into the river in the first place? Was there a bridge in disrepair? Were unaware tourists swimming in an area with fast currents?

Downstream could have saved countless resources by first going upstream to understand the source of the problem.

It’s easy to get so focused treating the symptoms of a problem that you don’t think about anything else. After all, the symptoms are what grab your attention in the first place.

But you’re wasting your energy unless you…

Treat the Source of Your Problems, Not the Symptoms

When you address the source of a problem, the symptoms go away on their own.

Which means it’s a tremendous waste of resources (energy/attention/time/money) to treat the symptoms of your problems without addressing their source.

Treating symptoms without treating the source is like trying to cool a pot of boiling water by adding ice cubes instead of turning off the burner.

In other parts of life, it often takes more consideration and effort to treat the source of a problem. But you reap the benefits of this short-term effort in the long run.

Because when you fail to address the source of a problem, your problem will persist.

Beware the Downward Spiral

If you fail to treat the source for long enough, your symptom treatments might become the source of new problems.

For example, you might have an energy problem, and are feeling symptoms of fatigue and grogginess. So you treat your grogginess by having a couple cups of coffee throughout the day.

But the caffeine stays in your system. So you don’t feel like going to bed early. And your sleep quality suffers as well. Which makes you feel less grounded and more impulsive…and the spiral continues

But you needn’t fall into any downward spirals if you treat your problems at the source. There’s a simple approach you can use to locate the source of any problem. I call it “going upstream,” or The Upstream Solution.

The Upstream Solution: How to Address the Source of Your Problems

Whenever you find yourself face-to-face with a challenge, ask yourself “Is this the symptom of something else? What’s upstream of [this symptom]?

Sometimes, there are many sources to a problem. Other times, a symptom will be multiple steps downstream from the true source. And other times, you’ll be staring the source of the problem in the face.

No matter where you are, asking “What’s upstream?” gives you clearer awareness of the nature of the challenge you’re facing. And with that awareness, you an act more intentionally and effectively.

The Upstream Solution in Practice

Let’s take a look at this approach with some common challenges you might experience.

Health Challenge: You have a headache.

> You could treat the symptom by taking a pain reliever.

> But what’s upstream of headaches? Dehydration. So staying hydrated could also solve the problem.

Energy Challenge: You’re fatigued and groggy.

> You could treat the symptom by drinking more caffeine.

> But what’s upstream of fatigue? Sleep. So prioritizing sleep quality and quantity will solve the problem more effectively.

[Related Reading: Energy Management 101: How to Live With Increased Vitality]

Habit Challenge: You’re struggling to go to the gym on a consistent basis.

> You could treat the symptom by paying for a personal trainer to motivate you to do exercises you don’t want to do.

> But what’s upstream of motivation? Desire. So choosing to move your body in a way that you love might make exercising easy. Reconnect with why movement is important to you. What’s life like when you exercise every day? What’s life like when you don’t?

Relationship Challenge: You keep having arguments with your partner about the same topic.

> You could treat the symptom by trying to figure out better ways to “win” the argument.

> But what’s upstream of arguments? Misalignment and misunderstanding. So creating space for a conversation to explore the expectations each of you have about that topic could stop the feuds at their source. Listen without judgment to understand their perspective. Seek to arrive at collective understanding and acceptance. And then, create agreements on what it looks like for you to address that topic at your best moving forward.

Focus Challenge: You’re struggling to stay focused and productive at work.

> You could treat the symptom by working longer hours to compensate for your scattered approach.

> But what’s upstream of distracted attention? A clear state of mind. Start by getting your energy fundamentals in order: sleep, exercise, hydration, and nutrition. Then practice cultivating focused attention through meditation.

[Related reading: 21 Proven Ways to Stay Focused Every Day]

Nutrition Challenge: You keep eating sugary sweets throughout the day.

> You could treat the symptom by mustering all of your willpower to only eat the sweets on certain days.

> But what’s upstream of eating sugar? Buying the sugary snacks in the first place. The battle of nutrition is won in the grocery store. If your healthiest, most radiantly alive version of you wouldn’t eat it, don’t buy it in the store!

Make a Habit of Your Solutions

Once you find the source of a recurring problem, make a habit of doing whatever treats the source.

For example, I treat the source of my energy and focus challenges via my daily bookends. And I stay accountable to other key habits that support the vitality of my body, heart, mind, and soul with my Daily Wins Checklist.

When your habits automatically address the sources of your most common challenges, you rarely get dragged down by them in the first place.

And when you avoid the energy drain of those challenges, you have a whole lot more energy and attention to invest in whatever you care about most.


  1. The story in this article was inspired by The Parable of the Downstreamers by Donald Ardell. I heard the story first from Alex Haley during the Mindful Leadership Conference at the University of Minnesota.
  2. I first heard the terms “symptom” and “source” in this context from Greg Faxon.
  3. The photograph in the title image was taken by Bryan Carlson. The first photo in the article was taken by Matt Power, and the second by Appolinary Kalashnikova.

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