IF everything is a problem, THEN nothing is a problem
What Really is A Problem?
Hi, and welcome to Problem Solving Inc. Thank you to all those readers who have given me their continued encouragement, support, feedback, and suggestions. Also, I want to thank new readers for checking out this newsletter.
This post will be structured a little differently than my other newsletters. I have organized the content into sections with titles and vertical purple lines (normally reserved on Substack to distinguish quotes but repurposed here). The primary focus here will be on the attributes of a problem. But first…
WHAT DOES THE TITLE MEAN?
The title, a seemingly illogical observation (which indeed violates Aristotelian logic by the law of non-contradiction), actually should provide a little more thought than just a brief nod or outright dismissal. It is not meant as some contrarian nonsense either…nor is it some absurd statement, puzzle, or riddle. It is more akin to a kōan, meant to be reflected upon, a statement about duality. The titled idea bears resemblance to, but is not based upon the quote by the American author of eleven books, Patrick M. Lencioni: “If everything is important, then nothing is important.”
What this musing suggests, and a conclusion I have reached, is this: Many situations are mislabeled as problems. The misuse of the word “problem” is itself, shall I say, problematical (like a problem, but not a true problem). Let me explain why…
Note: Some might find the subtlety in distinguishing between problems and non-problems to be a distinction without a real difference; hopefully, I will clearly lay out why this distinction becomes important as it relates to problem solving in general. Problem solving methods are pointless to use on non-problems.
We are often overwhelmed with “seeming” problems, what we think of, or what we describe as problems…but are they really problems? Many so called problems are questions, complaints, systemic issues, symptoms of something else that are not really a solvable problem.
Note: A bit of terminology definition is in order. In non-precise terms (I will have a more formal definition of what constitutes a solution to a problem later): A solution to a problem is whatever gets you from being stuck (not moving) to progress (moving forward). THE COMPLETE STEPS (WHATEVER THOSE MAY BE) FROM POINT A (WHEREVER THAT IS) TO POINT B (IF THAT IS WHERE YOU WANT TO GET TO) IS THE SOLUTION TO YOUR PROBLEM. Unfortunately, unless the solution is tested and can be shown to be correct, true (at least probably true to within some threshold), verifiable, and valid, a solution is only a guess. Also, solutions which are condition based are just that, conditional solutions.
10 Problem Attributes:
A problem must have a solution that can be shown to exist, may probably exist, or can be shown not to exist, in some finite time. A problem does not exist without any kind of possible solution (even no solution). Is a negative solution a solution? Yes. That there are no solutions to a problem is a solution. We cannot move from point A to point B. Problem solved.
The problem must be well defined enough to be understandable, have some logical structure, and have a solution that is at present unknown to the person or persons who have the problem.
The problem must have a solution that cannot be looked up in a reference source or answered by another person (or computer), or else it is just a question to be worked through…a “can you do this situation?” - like answering most “Problem Set” questions in a math textbook. These kinds of questions are not problems. Not being able to figure out those questions, or answer them correctly, can become a problem, however.
Questions are not problems (e.g., Why does the Earth revolve around the Sun?) At one point in time, this was a problem to figure out why. Questions often masquerade as problems. There exists certain types of question that are problems, but I refer to these either as meta-questions (questions posed as problems about other questions, or question based problems on how to answer those meta-questions, or questions about how to solve problems) or meta-problems (problems that pose questions about other problems, often whether a class of problems is solvable).
The problem must have a solution that is reproducible, explainable, and logical (valid). More than one person must be able to understand the solution. Even though Albert Einstein’s early works on space-time relativity, for which he would win the Nobel Prize, were comprehensible to only a few people on Earth at the time, the mathematics were provably true and verifiable, the mathematical techniques already developed by such mathematicians as Henri Poincaré (1854-1912). Interestingly, the concepts and consequences of Einstein’s ideas are still being investigated, researched, and thought about today, over a hundred years later. In a general sense, most valid problems are considered to be so by more than just one person. There should be at least a consensus of two or more people that a problem really exists.
Following (5), The problem must have a solution that is verifiable and falsifiable (a “solution” that could at least theoretically be proven wrong in the future), and that is not speculation. Checkmark for Einstein’s theories. Verified.
Complaints and frustrations are not problems (for those of you who watched the television show Seinfeld, “The Cartoon” episode had a hilarious take on unresolvable complaints). Unfixable situations are not problems, but annoyances. “I have a problem with the service at this restaurant” does not qualify as a problem. The REAL problem is… can you find a restaurant with better service…a solution probably exists. One may state “I have a problem: I can’t win the lottery.” This is NOT a real problem either (I realize of course that some people use the word “problem” as a placeholder, a proxy, maybe a substitute word for “frustration”). This can lead to confusion, though, because sometimes it is hard to determine whether a person who describes a situation in this way is being serious or mislabeling the situation intentionally or unintentionally). This situation might become a problem for one person if another person is dependent on the first person winning the lottery. How to reliably win the lottery is a solved problem, so it is not really a problem either, unless one does not have a lot of money, which then it can be classified as a “personal problem” (a special type of problem unique to an individual, and for which some, but not all, of the “rules” can be waived in consideration of UNIQUENESS - much more later on these kinds of problems). What may be a problem for one person may not be a problem for any other person or group of people - but it still is a problem for the individual - hence these personal problems are a special case scenario.
Denials by a person or persons of a valid solution to a problem voids the problem for them…a problem ceases to be so after already having been solved. The question (not a problem) becomes: Why the resistance to the solution? A proper problem to be solved might then be stated as, “How do you end that resistance?” For instance, there were many people who denied the “solution” to the problem of how the Earth revolved around the Sun (they didn't believe it). This particular “problem” for the most part has a closed solution, not arguable mathematically or logically. This denial would then be a question of faith in science…a debatable topic, perhaps, but not a problem.
Supernatural, mystical, and otherworldly phenomena do not present “problems” in this schema because such beings may not follow our Earthly concept of rationality or understanding, regardless of society, culture, or religion. Aliens beings, if they exist, would not be “problems” to solve, because any solution that might exist could violate our human conception of a solution.
Beliefs are not problems. I believe X is the better candidate. Someone has a “problem” (their own belief) with that belief. This is not a problem, but a disagreement. Also, dogma, or a declared solution to a problem, is not a real solution to any problem (the original problem is then voided).
These attributes of a problem are provided as possible guideposts to consider when confronted with any problem. Things (conditions, situations, questions, circumstances) are often referred to as a “problem” or “problems” when that might not be the most accurate description, or might not fit with most traditional definitions of a problem. This distinction is important, because how we perceive a situation, and if it is or is not a problem, determines both our understanding, and our approach to solving that problem:
Takeaway: If it don’t have a solution, it ain't a problem!
Example: Is there an unlimited supply of renewable energy?
Is this a problem? Or just a question? Mere speculation?
Conclusion: Not a problem as stated.
Example: If we run out of energy sources, humanity is in big trouble.
This is a true statement, but not a true problem. It is a conclusion. It will be a problem when it happens, though.
A different question, which I believe would satisfy the conditions of being a problem, is this:
Energy production from fossil fuels has dropped 10.5% over the last year (made up for this example). How do we turn natural energy production (wind, solar, etc.) to make up that difference within two years.
This formulation of this problem allows for a possible solution.
Example: I can’t get someone to agree with my opinion?
Is this a problem? I believe it could be if there is more information. If getting this person to accept your opinion poses some sort of opportunity, then yes, it is a problem…and if a solution exists, that is, some series of actions you perform can or will alter this person’s non-acceptance. The issue may be that you may not ever know what exactly would change that person’s mind, even if you asked them, hence no definable solution.
Conclusion: This is NOT a problem.
Question: 1+x=2, solve for x.
Is this a problem? My answer may be a little controversial; some may or will completely disagree, but my answer is NO, even though it clearly has a solution.
The conditions exist for this to be considered a general problem. True. Is it a problem for most people to answer? No. It may be a problem to someone unfamiliar with algebra, someone who cannot read, someone bad at math. The solution clearly exists. But the answer can be easily looked up or worked out with a little effort. There is no doubt about arriving at the answer once the mathematical procedure is learned.
Confusing what is solvable versus something we must live with, something that has already been solved before, or something that is impossible to solve, can cause great frustration. Thinking of a situation as a problem may both mischaracterize the situation itself, as well as impede the hunt for a satisfactory resolution. This “problem” description puts the situation in a conceptual box, and additionally mislabels it. The prescription doesn't fit the description, so to speak.
Caveat: As I will address in the following newsletter, whatever you consider a problem IS a problem for you, any formal definition aside. Unfortunately, problems (for the most part) have negative connotations. Even though I personally believe every problem is an opportunity, the question remains, exactly what is that opportunity?
Finally, the point of the quote at the beginning can be explained by a strange analogy I once heard (maybe in Philosophy 101?): If we were all cars, if all we saw were other cars, if everything in our car universe resembled cars and was made of tiny cars, the idea of a car itself would lose all meaning. There would be need for labels. All you would see is just what is. There would be no distinction between a car and anything else.
Problems are like that too.
Again, thank you for reading! In the coming newsletter, I will continue with more information on the historical, academic, and cultural definition of a “problem”and how this all relates to problem solving.
Happy Problem Solving!