The right problems.

Finding value and meaning.

Working on the right problems can bring someone an enormous amount of joy, and going through a happy life can make everything easier. It can bring good compensation, satisfaction, and even meaning to a person’s life. Finding the problems that are uniquely suited to your skills, abilities and interests is a wonderful thing. Like most valuable things in life, they can be done by anyone, but the struggles of patience, courage and creativity will always be there. If you’re willing to fight through those struggles, then I’ll layout some common elements of good problems to get your thoughts on the right track.

Problem Posing vs. Problem Solving.

Problems, work and challenges give our life meaning. If you look close enough, you will see our lives are filled with two paradigms of operation, problem solving and problem posing. The latter is where meaning is found more often, though most don’t recognize they are even doing it. Consider the mechanic who spends all day fixing cars for customers, then heads to the bar to have good conversations with friends in the evening. The problems he might be posing is “how to have a good conversation”. He doesn’t get paid for that, but he finds the joy of his life in it. That is why he spends his evenings at the bar conversing with friends.

Other types of problem posing include:

  • Inventing a gadget
  • Writing a play
  • Teaching

Just about anything you can imagine is problem posing. Once a problem is posed, it also has to be solved. That’s why posing problems give us more meaning. The problems we pose naturally have some value to us. Problems we solve are often foisted upon us by our careers or circumstances.

To reflect on what problems to solve, delve deep into what problems you’ve posed. That is a good place to start to find personally meaningful challenges to take up. Here’s a way to rank the quality of the problem:

  • Does the problem have value in being solved?
  • Does the problems devalue itself?
  • Does the problem have a singular solution?

Posing the right problem and working on it is the hardest part of life. Education. Talent. Interests. These items only provide clues, but they don’t provide a path. The path that so many are seeking, the valuable ones aren’t typically well-worn. They need to be cut in, so that others can follow behind us. Since it’s so hard to see them, I’ve done some thinking for you to illuminate your journey to finding yours. Let’s review these points deeper.

Problems that have value in solving

If you live in a village that is starving, finding and preparing something that can be eaten is an obvious and valuable problem. You would be a hero for saving the village! Which is what many of us want to be, a hero in our field of choice. Someone who others can turn to. A mechanic who fixes your car can be a lifesaver. The true struggle is seen in the starving village example, or the lack of that problem. Here in the United States, starvation is solved for most people. In such a wide open world, where the basic needs are met, how does a person find the right problems to work on?

One thought is value. Value is almost always based on supply vs. demand. So if it’s valuable, it means not many people know how, as a result it takes a bit of courage to tread where there is no path. If it was easy, plenty of people could handle it, and as a result it wouldn’t be highly valued.

Chrysopoeia and Self-devaluing problems

If you’re not familiar with the term, chrysopoeia, it’s the word for the transmutation of base metals into gold. It’s what many alchemists throughout history were working on. Chrysopoeia is an interesting study in picking the right problems to work on. What if the alchemists studying chrysopoeia were successful? They would be rich, right? They would be swimming in an abundance of valuable gold, right?

Possibly. However, gold is valuable because:

  • It has a nice luster,
  • It’s malleable and ductile making it easy to craft,
  • It has good conductive properties and high density,
  • and, most of all, it’s rare.

It’s been estimated that all the gold in the world melted down would only fill a 70’x70’x70′ cube. That’s big, but it’s dwarfed by steel or iron. There are many buildings and structures with a significant portion of that volume in steel. If alchemists were successful, they would have devalued gold. Gold would have been produced in quantities much larger than it was mined in, and eventually as the world’s supply increased, the value of gold would come down. DRASTICALLY. The first alchemist to discover this method would be obscenely wealthy, but over time if others found out the trick, the value would plummet.

Chrysopoeia is a problem where the first successful person gets huge rewards, and after that it fades. It’s massive speculation that either ends in disappointment, or crazy success. For most people, this isn’t the type of problem you should be seeking to work on. This is the type of problem that is going to end in heartache and disaster for 99.9% of people.

Compare this speculative alchemy method of making money to making cars. Is there a way to make the “perfect” car? Making a “perfect” car for a specific person, sure. Making a “perfect” car for everyone, not a chance. There are tradeoffs like design, fuel efficiency, safety, power, smoothness, turning, seat materials that change for everyone and all this choices are configurable in infinite ways. That’s not possible with turning metals into gold. Gold is gold. Any meaning in your life that is derived from that problem will melt away and while you’ll be financially secure, the rest of your life may not feel as grand as you envisioned.

Iterative Design and Self-Perpetuating Problems

Modern vehicles didn’t come about in one go, they came about over a 100 years of iterations. Government, businesses, writing a book, designing a car, building a house, etc. They all require making choices, that affect the choices down the line, that may affect the original choices we made, and on the iterations go.

Many people are scared to work in systems of this level of complexity. Part of the fear comes from the fact that the systems are complex enough that all of the ramifications can’t be completely known or foreseen. Part of the fear comes from the fact that it may not work. Part of the fear is that the next iteration will be worst than the last. And the last part of the fear is fear itself.

Tasks that require iteration are the hardest things to automate. While thinking as an engineer or mathematics, these would be the physics problems that have no closed form solution. When that’s true, judgment and design decisions themselves influence the behavior of the system. The shape of an airplane wing influences the way the air moves around it. There is a feedback loop with room for experimentation and improving on the existing ideas of what is best.

Projects that are so large and so complex that they don’t have a single solution are the ones that should be celebrated. They are the ones where there is an opportunity to make things better. Seek them out. Here’s some good characteristics to look for:

  • Workable at any scale
  • Highly differentiable
  • Low cost to entry

Who picks out the cars for Jerry Seinfeld?

On the show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee Jerry Seinfeld picks up other comedians in a different car. Every episode the car represents the guest on the show in a way that Jerry loves to tell them about.

This job can’t be delegated. You need a car guy who knows all of these famous comedians. Jerry must do this job himself, but it also fits those characteristics listed above.

Jerry Seinfeld has the money to hire people, but the most important work, the work we would like to do and the problems we’d like to solve, is the work that no one else can do for us. Jerry poses questions like “What sort of car would Kate McKinnon be and why?”

  • Finding cars that represent different comedians is a problem that Jerry poses.
  • Is it valuable? Sure, as entertainment to the group who is going to watch his show.
  • Does it devalue? I don’t think so. If anyone else followed this same problem, they would be derided as a ripoff imitator.
  • Is there a single solution? No. The answers can be anything. He just has to justified why he picked it, and he does so with every comedian on every episode.

It can feel like a nightmare to find your problem. Like everything out there is already taken. I can assure you that’s not that case. We have no idea how many prime numbers there are, or if they are infinite. In the same manner, we have no idea how many new fields there are to be invented or worked on. The world isn’t running out of things made by combining those skillsets together to make something new. The world is full of infinite possibility in that regard. We can keep counting forever. We only have to create new terms for numbers of astronomical size when the old ones run out.

Picking the types of problems to work on, the risk levels, and the rewards that are required for us to do our best work defines who we become. Don’t get stuck in a problem that doesn’t fit you. If you are risk-adverse, don’t pick Chrysopoeia to work on. In a world of growing complexity, the largest challenge ahead of you is staying patient long enough to find your problems that fit the criteria worth following, and then finding the courage to follow through on them and finally the generosity to share your work with the world. Decide who you are then the problems are likely to follow suit.

None of this is Right is about seeing opportunities to apply creativity, patience, courage and generosity to improve your life and the lives of those around you. The great part is that it doesn’t require and specialized knowledge or experience. If you can’t see those opportunities, or if a reminder is useful from time to time, subscribing below is valuable. I generally send 1 email a month, so it’s low effort on the inbox management.

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