On Growth and Problem Solving July 2018 • 8 minutes

The hard thing about hard things is that the reason they are hard tends to differ significantly person to person. The Tolstoy quote about all happy families being alike and all unhappy families being unhappy in their own way comes to mind. I’m finding that the reason having kids or starting a business is hard for me seems to be pretty different from the reason that various other people I know find these things difficult. Being resilient or capable in one arena doesn’t necessarily translate well to others, which causes issues that are challenging because they aren’t common. The internet helps because you can expose yourself to similar people, but only to a degree. For things where the solution tends to be more consistent, you have conventional wisdom. But conventional wisdom applied to an unconventional problem can be worse than simply toughing it out. Not everything can be transferred among problems.

It stands to reason that a good way to solve a problem would be to talk to trusted advisors. The challenge is that those kind of problems (advice driven ones) tend to be easily solved by Google. The hard kind of problem to solve are those that take some kind of limited resource, like will power, effort, energy, time, money, relationships, popularity and luck. Depending on the problem you face and resources available to you, different solutions might be the right fit for the same problem. This effect devalues the potential impact of advice. Perhaps that is the difference between advice and wisdom: wisdom can be universally applied where advice is specific. That is a pretty good counter-argument to consulting: just because you have solved a problem for another business doesn’t mean that solution applies to the current problem. The only sustainable approach would be to have significantly more of a certain resource than the client. In theory that would be intelligence of problem solving ability but I struggle to accept that a company with a fixed amount of resources would not justify having that ability in-house if it were to be so material. Likewise in our personal lives, it is hard to see at almost any level of wealth why solving for the bottleneck problem should not be the priority. People like avoidance.

The key to solving a hard problem seems to be considering heavily the wisdom of the situation and ignoring the advice. A good deal of bad seems to come from blindly following advice: if the outcome doesn’t reflect the advice then not only have you failed to solve the problem, you also feel a certain loss of agency and shame at having not executed on the solution adequately. Wisdom is nice there too because it tends to be implicitly aspirational: people are not necessarily faulted for not following wisdom the way they are for not following advice. This effect pretty much calls into question the merit to advice at all: if it isn’t wisdom and doesn’t apply universally and non-specifically, it probably isn’t worth sharing. The thing about advice though is that it usually isn’t matched to the situation: some people constantly seek advice they don’t take, where others refuse all advice in favour of learning things the hard way. If advice doesn’t prevent failed attempts and doesn’t contribute to learning, it again seems like a bad solution.

Wisdom also has to pass the test of time. The challenge there is that a lot of modern problems seem to be recent: there are teenagers for whom the biggest bottleneck to quality of life might be addiction to their cell phone. There isn’t much time tested wisdom there: just because old people use their phones less doesn’t necessarily mean you should as a young person. For that matter, many of the more socially, financially and relationally successful people seem to use their phone more often: it can be a symptom of responsibility and success. What is the difference between when an unemployed underachiever plays video games in the evening and a tech billionaire does? Are both wasting time or can you derive nothing from it? Only time will tell with these issues, which is a problem because people on the wrong side of the divide may ruin their quality of life in their teens or worse yet form a lifelong dysfunctional habit. It is hard to see until we end up on the wrong side of an issue just how wrong we are. And the more afraid people are about cultural upheaval and politics, the less likely we are to really know. What things are people doing that would significantly improve my life that I am either willfully or knowingly ignorant of? They must exist, for every person and in every situation, but are so hard to arbitrage between groups of people. It’s like politics: liberals and conservatives both tend to have an accurate perception of the things they care about, and a distorted perception of things they do not value. Both are simultaneously right: we have to move past right as a determinant. Conservatives and liberals don’t disagree about climate change, they mainly disagree about what to do about it (spend more than we can afford to vs. do nothing and see what happens).

It is interesting the extent to which people want to find some overarching problem solving framework to solve all problems. Unless you are talking about physics and physics is rarely the right framework for solving a quality of life problem, you pretty much can’t do that. And yet so many things seem to be the basis of this (yoga, meditation, medication, working out, fancy clothes, religion, scapegoating, social media) all competing as the one true solution. Presumably it is all basically a distraction from the reality of our situation: some people have a greater will to survive and our brains simply can’t handle the bandwidth requirements of modern life. It is a weird problem to have too much information on an environment, but you really should not have to care what the central bank’s interest rate is on a day to day basis to make financial decisions or what gas prices are on an hour to hour basis to get where you need to go. Distraction is the bottleneck to progress at this point, as opposed to some other more worthy constraint. Things may be a little bit 1984, but they are acutely Brave New World (or Wall-E, if you prefer).

What kind of progress could humanity make if not mass distracted by mimetic assimilation machines? What I mean by that, in English, is what could we get done if everyone wasn’t sucked into a pretend internet world most of the time. I forget the last time I didn’t scroll through some manner of feed or another for a single day – it has been several years at least. And yet I feel like I get so little merit from the barrage of information that I’m exposed to it seems hard to understand why we go back to it. The hard problem usually involves the rejection of a socially accepted default. And at this point, those socially accepted defaults have become so widely distributed and effectively messaged I’m not sure what level of original thinking still exists. Presumably if exposed to it, it would be lost on me as some banal internet novelty. The unusual and creative is the norm, the conventional and historically normal is the enemy. Progress has not historically been one way: we may need to delete some things before adding more.

My final point in this rambling post about problems, culture and progress centres around the concept of wealth and the concept of being a good editor. At this point, I tend to gain as much by removing a complexity or a stressor from my life as I do from adding new sources of upside. This, along with what I see and understand of the current landscape for automating human labour, leads me to believe that in the future a life well lived may be led by editors rather than accumulators. Accumulation is the convention, or historical default, to constantly make up and to the right progress without giving too much through to the displacement that progress creates. I think in the future we will have infinitely more wealth, inequality of capital (but not of quality of life – what would you actually spend a billion dollars on? Pretty sure aristocrats still use iPhones and Google), and infinitely more need for careful editing and curation of culture. The constant expansion, at least on earth, for humans and with our current resources, won’t continue. Not because of politics, but because of natural laws. Constant expansion hasn’t worked out for more or less any being of physics of culture in history: eventually it ends.