This post is about problems: in proper “Writing my own User Manual” style, I’ll explore a few handy little mental tricks that make my life easier to manage. It’s a light interlude, I won’t delve into obscure philosophical problems and won’t include any reference to academic literature, for once!
The aim is simple: I’ll explore an odd way of classifying “problems”, one which I find useful. The way I see it, many problems need to be solved, but surprisingly some don’t, and some others qualify as “problems I should like to have“.
In some cases, the problem is that I don’t have a problem, in the sense that I have a problem because I don’t know I have another problem. Simple, uh? But I’m getting ahead of myself, so please bear with me while I rewind and organise my argument.
Starting point: problems are, by definition, the kind of thing that needs to be solved, right? Well, no. Realising this is one of the most useful insights I’ve gained in the latest years, so I guess it’s worth trying to convince you that seeing how problems belong to radically different kinds is worth the effort. Don’t get me wrong, many, probably most of the situations we naturally identify as problems actually do require a solution; however, by looking closer, we can find some more valuable insights (valuable to me, at least). But first, if we can’t define problems as things that need to be solved, we need an alternative definition, something that would still fit our intuitive way of using the concept. I’ll try this one:
A problem is a state of affairs associated with a clear downside. Hence, “solving” the problem means “eliminating the downside”.
The definition above suits my purpose: the “clear downside” tries to account for the intuitive definition. The second part links to the idea that a problem implies the existence of potential solutions. At the same time, this way of describing the concept doesn’t necessarily endorse the intuitive, but wrong implication that solving a problem is always the best thing to do. If anything, my aim here is to break this natural way of looking at things and convince you to look again. But first, let’s look at the obvious case.
Type 0 – Just your regular problems:
As you would expect, solving most problems is indeed advisable. For example, I have a bad hip, it aches, and that’s a problem. Getting rid of the pain would be better, and that’s that. If you don’t have enough money to pay the rent, that’s a problem: getting more regular income would solve it, and that’s also good. So far, nothing interesting to be said, however, I’m going to claim that there are other types of problems. In what follows I’ll list a few and explain why I think this quirky classification looks useful to me.
Type I – Problems that’s good to have:
Consider the following scenarios:
- You are looking for a new job, answer some job ads, get interviewed for a few and get offered two different ones. Both offers look promising, making the choice agonisingly difficult.
- Similar situation, even more prone to produce anxiety: one of your children got accepted to two different and prestigious Universities. As for case 1. the choice is very important: it will influence her whole life and you don’t know how to help picking the right option.
- You have a good job, you like doing it, and it pays very well. As a result, you have more money than you can spend: the problem is finding the right way of using/investing the extra money.
The problems above can and should be solved, albeit case 3., if you are lucky, it’s a problem that won’t go away. Still, for each extra penny, you can decide what to do with it and thus you can “solve” the problem until the next payslip comes in. For now, one consideration should be obvious: unlike chronic pain or being underpaid, having one of the problems above is the unavoidable consequence of something good; with all other things being equal, having to solve the problems above means you’ve been lucky.
Fine. The reason why this way of looking at this particular kind of problem is useful is that frequently “good to have problems” generate anguish or anxiety, I’ve picked the three examples specifically to make this aspect clear. For me, realising that not having to deal with this kind of problem means being worse off, helps mitigating anxiety a great deal. I suppose you can say the real problem is the fear of picking the wrong option, so looking at the original problem (too much choice) in this way actually helps solving the root problem (anxiety).
Type II – Problems that shouldn’t be solved:
However, we can dig a little more, and find a subclass of “problems that’s good to have”, which is even more surprising. I’ll argue that some problems shouldn’t be solved, they should be managed instead. See examples:
- Democracy is inefficient. MPs quibble, waste time in preposterous debates; sometimes people elect corrupt or inept politicians; sometimes the factors influencing an election are misrepresented; sometimes good policies don’t get implemented for petty contingent reasons and so on.
- Overworking. These days I have too much work to deal with. I have many responsibilities, can barely manage to stay on top of the business as usual demands and can hardly break new ground.
These cases belong to a class where the option of not having a particular problem is likely to be much worse than the problem itself. Life is complicated, making this odd situation quite common. For case 4. we all would like to figure out how to make democracy efficient, but we can’t: democracy works because of debate, the twists and turns that characterise democratic decision-making are essential to the democratic process. You eliminate them and you get into situations like Putin’s Russia: decisions are made swiftly and efficiently, but hey, inevitably, democracy fades away.
Similarly, I would love to always be in the Goldilocks zone of workload: having just the right amount of things to do so to be sure I realise my full potential without risking burnout or having to deal with stress. That would be wonderful, but is it possible? Once again, life is complicated, and workplace demands naturally fluctuate due to uncontrollable factors. For me, being underworked is catastrophic, it would hurt my self-esteem and produce waste. I’m lazy, so wasting my time by (not-really)working is among the worse sins. But alas, I can only pick between two options: I can try to get as close as possible to the average Goldilocks workload and inevitably increase the time I’ll spend underworked (considering the uncontrollable fluctuations). Alternatively I can deliberately err on the plus side and occasionally have too much work on my hands. Once I realise there isn’t a third “perfect” option, all doubt dissipates and I have to conclude that being occasionally overworked is a problem I want to have.
In a sense, extending on the previous cases, just realising that a given problem should not be solved is the solution to the problem. In part it boils down to reducing anxiety, but at the same time it’s also about breaking my natural intuition that if something annoys me, it necessarily means I wish this something to go away. I’m annoyed by lots of the side effects of democracy, but I’d still be much, much more annoyed of the side effects of dictatorship.
Some problems need to be managed, not solved!
The conclusion of this short analysis is that we should embrace some problems, stop trying to solve them in the sense of making them go away and concentrate on managing them instead. That is: any problem is by definition the source of some downside. In some situations, the aim shouldn’t be to eliminate the source of the annoying thing, because the same source is inevitably also the source of something we value more. In these situations the aim should be to manage and minimise the downside. At the very least, this kind of outlook offers a few advantages:
- First and foremost, it allows to minimise the risk of making the bad mistake of eliminating the source of “good to have problems”. Turns out that solving the inefficiencies of democracy by electing Mussolini wasn’t a good idea. I’ll let you draw the parallel with a famous candidate who’s attracting a lot of supporters right now.
- Symmetrically this outlook allows to concentrate our efforts on not counter-productive ways: it’s frequently a case of finding the right balance between opposite options. Life is complicated, identifying optimal compromises is hard, but we’d better do just that: frequently what looks like a simple solution is worse than living with the problem.
- Third but not least, as for Type I problems, identifying a situation as a “desirable problem” allows to reduce anxiety, which is often the most effective way of minimising the problem itself.
Type III – Problems we don’t know about:
The third and last class of problems I wish to discuss is unrelated to the previous two and somehow counterbalances them. Let’s see some typical scenarios:
- It happens frequently to me that I mindlessly carry on routine tasks in sub-optimal ways. As a result I waste time and effort, or keep doing something in a somewhat annoying way. The problem is: I have not realised that I could do things better. In such cases I have two problems: the annoyance itself and not knowing I have a solvable problem.
- Extending on this trivial example, we can generalise to the case of sub-optimal solutions. Once a solution is found, it’s quite possible that it will self-reinforce and become the norm. The result is waste, unless someone spots the, ahem, “sub-optimality” of the currently accepted norm.
These might seem minor quibbles, but such cases are all too common. Think of office practices, established long times ago by people who are now happily retired and were responding to needs that might have disappeared. Frequently, new technological developments allow to do things in new, much more efficient ways. These improvements may be there, available at our fingertips, but never implemented just because we never spotted the possibility. Another (only partially surpassed) example would be global warming: before finding out about the greenhouse effect, we already had a problem, but didn’t know – we just kept going into deeper and deeper trouble, unwillingly and unaware (yes I know, we are still going, even if willingly and aware 😦 ). The list of this kind of problems is just endless: I could go on and on for days. Unlike the previous classes, realising this is quite disruptive. In the first two cases, the conclusion to be drawn is a little conservative: the status-quo isn’t perfect, but the alternatives are worse, so we should learn to live with the imperfection.
In this case, the opposite is true: the status-quo isn’t perfect and we should significantly improve it. The problem is that we don’t know about the imperfection, so how can we tackle it? Being a meta-problem, it requires a meta-solution: the only way to respond to this kind of challenge is to be challenging. The issue here is over-reliance on habit and/or received wisdom. Thus, the solution lies in cultivating curiosity and encouraging experimentation. The problem of unknown problems is the one strongest reason why conformism should never be encouraged (most humans long for acceptance, so we can be sure that some degree of conformism will always be preserved). Sure, a society animated with too much anti-conformism will be plagued with inefficiency: valuable energy will be wasted exploring dead ends. However, a society with too much anti-conformism is inherently unstable: if everyone does things differently, you may not even call it a society! Thus, too much anti-conformism inevitably self-corrects and will, without exceptions, tend to generate new self-sustaining norms (because you know, natural selection operates on all structures). Thus, the waste that comes with too much experimentation is a clear example of the second type of surprising problems: the ones we don’t want to solve, we want to manage them. In order to avoid repeating always the same errors without even noticing that something is wrong, we should always try different routes as a matter of routine, in this way we maximise our chances of actually making progress while keeping the downside automatically under control (I hope you all spotted the antifragile angle).
The above is a short list of handy heuristic ways of classifying problems. Each class comes with generalised strategies, ready to be deployed without too much effort. Although I am trying to challenge some of our natural biases and tendencies to over-simplify (i.e. “You have a problem? Solve it!”), I guess you have already realised that this classification is itself an over-simplification. That’s right, but is also the point: my approach is not supposed to be perfect, it should be an easy-to-apply outlook, good enough only because it is workable and better than the alternative.
In short: some problems should be solved. Some problems should be welcomed and solved. Some others should be welcomed and managed. Finally, perhaps the most useful thing we can all do is spend some time and energy questioning ourselves, actively trying to identify problems we didn’t know we had (as individuals, organisations and societies). Overall, life is complicated, full of hard to solve challenges, but that’s how we want it: if life were easy, we couldn’t truly achieve anything.