We Cannot Escape Problems
Problems appear everywhere, all the time!
The purpose of this newsletter is to address two separate but related ideas: 1) How the concept of the entropy of systems contributes to the creation of problems and, 2) The fact that problems are an inescapable fact of life. My conclusion is this: Only by becoming the best possible problem solvers we will be able to successfully navigate through our lives to achieve both happiness and prosperity. I realize this is a fairly bold claim, but I will present a detailed argument why this is true.
Hello readers, and welcome back! Thank you for all of your continued support and encouragement!! It has not escaped my own attention that many of these newsletters have delved (pretty deeply) into the philosophy of problem solving, rather than actual problem-solving techniques. This is by design, and hence not an oversight of what is the stated intent of this newsletter: to help produce great problem solvers. I believe this “philosophical” material mixed in with practical techniques and observations helps set the foundation for a deeper understanding of both problems and problem solving. I would describe my approach so far as that of a wide definitional and descriptive overview of the field and what it encompasses. Behind my philosophy of problem solving, though, lies a keen practical understanding of techniques, methods, and strategies that can be employed to solve real word problems. I hope you will find the wait worth the time spent with preliminaries. There is a lot of great material on the horizon!
To begin with, I will briefly describe what “entropy” means in a very non-technical manner: The idea of the “entropy” of a system is used in diverse fields such as information theory, economics, social science, but it is originally a concept of thermodynamics in physics. In a nutshell, entropy is a measurement of the disorder of a system, the randomness of such a system, and the eventual decline in that system to the disorganization that inevitably results.
The idea of order is critical in the definition. Think of ice. Water freezes. There is order. Molecules arrange themselves structurally. Melting ice reverses the process. Disorganization within the system emerges. As a result, once ordered molecules are free to move back to their “natural state.” The ice will eventually turn into a puddle.
Ok, you may ask, what does this have to do with problem solving?
As an example, well ordered systems (think of any union or marriage) often start out relatively problem free. Sure, certain problems may exist that set the stage for future problems, but few people argue as they walk down the aisle. There is a stability, so to speak, around a certain fixed point (relative happiness). Without a lot of work, as is evidence from divorce statistics, a majority of marriages end up in divorce. Why? MARITAL PROBLEMS! Order (happiness) dissolves (pun intended) into disorder (unhappiness).
If marriage counseling (my beloved father was a psychotherapist, highly skilled clinician, and marriage family therapist - thank you Dad for all your insights!) teaches couples anything, it is that problems need to be solved BEFORE they get so bad that they cannot be solved. It is not a stretch to say that successful marriages (or any kind of union for that matter) is a prime example of problem solving in action.
This newsletter cannot even begin to touch on the importance of entropy in understanding our world, let alone the mathematical and physical explanation, or even its application in so many diverse fields. Suffice to say, if your are interested in learning how the universe works, get a solid grasp on what entropy really means and all of its conceptual implications. Fascinating stuff indeed!
Lesson to be learned here:
In our entropic world, there is almost always a move from order to disorder without applied work to keep a system from going from gradual decline to complete disorder.
Things” (current states/situations/events) tend towards an equilibrium (their “natural state”) if left alone. Problems rarely solve themselves.
Unpredictability in Problem Solving…and its consequences
In a related idea, randomness and uncertainty in life are omnipresent, because the world is fundamentally unpredictable in so many ways. A simple case to show why this is true: Try to accurately predict the weather a year from now on a given day…Good luck! No weather prediction model would even dare to state with absolute certainty that the prediction would be exact. Yes, this is a physical system, and many physical systems (orbits of the planets for instance) can be accurately predicted from Newtonian physics, but this quickly breaks down in many applications. This lack of “predictably” can present enormous challenges, and the problem of unpredictable systems remains a constant source of frustration in planning for the future. (See the Three-body problem in physics for more insight into this kind of problem and how it can be generalized to everyday life).
Belief in a “clockwise” (fully predictable) universe was completely disrupted by advances in quantum physics that took over much of that scientific field in the 1930’s and still continues to this day.
As an aside, one current way this will dramatically impact our world is the development and deployment of quantum computers. Quantum computation has the potential to help humanity solve problems that would be way beyond the scope and speed of classical computers, even current supercomputers that are billions of times faster and more robust than your average laptop.
Simply put, we don’t control our world; our world controls us, no matter how much that may seem counterintuitive. Our notions of passive (as opposed to active) control over most situations are largely illusory. As problem solvers, we must combat this reality by being flexible, adaptable, responsive. Always be on the lookout for new problems that present themselves. Fluidity in problem recognition means that one is sensitive to conditions as they change over time.
Lesson to be learned here:
Obvious though it may be to some, the lesson here is that no matter how many problems you may have solved before, there are always more problems right around the proverbial corner. As I have plainly stated in other newsletters, life is not a “problem” to be solved, nor is it productive or accurate to see everything as problems, but the fact remains that problems crop up everywhere, and it is our readiness to confront them that often is the difference between success and failure. That is why the study of problem solving matters.
Reality itself is Problematical
Problem solvers often have to reconcile what they can solve versus what they cannot solve. The nature of reality poses profound questions and problems of incredible complexity. As we have explored the world over the centuries of civilization, we have encountered more and more that we need to know, more and more questions, more and more hurdles. Technological advances of all kinds have benefitted us for the most part, but even those solutions have created new problems.
Macro world events matter tremendously, because that is where we live and interact with others, but so too do the everyday realities we encounter (what I refer to as micro events). These lead to what I refer to as “macro and micro problems.” Our world changes, grows, evolves constantly. Life is challenging, complicated, confusing, often chaotic. The barrier of solving macro world problems is that one person alone rarely is able to have the mental or physical resources necessary to do so, unless they are a genius, an incredible innovator, or ultra-wealthy. That means solving these macro problems requires collaborative effort, teamwork, and a certain consensus on the main features of both the problem and the solution. However, thankfully most micro problems are within our individual reach to effectively tackle and solve.
Additionally, in our technologically sophisticated society, the more we know, the more we have, the more we feel we need to know, the more we want. The more answers, the more questions. The search for better and faster always seems to be an optimization problem. There is no end in sight, hence a seemingly infinite series of potential problems.
One piece of advice to those that may not believe that macro problems affect them: They do! Unless one is a hermit with no outside contact with the rest of the world, one must interact and engage with the circumstances they find them living with at that time. That means that everyone is subject to the world as it exists…a world full of problems that in some way or another may have an impact on your life, whether you are aware of these effects or not. Denial of a problem, lack of recognition that a problem exists, failure to act on a problem that needs a solution, or inattentiveness to problems will not make them disappear. Even if a problem is not solvable by you, it is better to know and understand it, rather than ignore it.
I believe there is a crucial distinction between seeing the world (both in the macro and micro sense) as it exists now, and as it could exist if we identify and solve the right problems. In order to be able to do this, it is necessary to identify if the problems we encounter in our lives are indeed real problems that need immediate action/solution, and if so, if the utility of solving those problems instead of solving other problems of higher overall utility is preferable.
Currently, I am in the process of writing a book on problem solving preliminarily titled “Solving Problems In Action - How Businesses Grow and Thrive” that will be released in 2023. A central premise I explore in the book, and why it is so titled, is that I believe it is a good overall practice to consider one’s life, in a proverbial, non-technical sense, a business. Solving problems is a part of daily operations of any business. Businesses that fail to adequately solve problems fail. Not losing track of that fact is also applicable to one’s personal life as well. Life is a type of business, regardless of the emotional significance we all place on events in our daily lives. Learning how to run a profitable business can translate to running a happy, successful, profitable life! One of the primary concepts of the book is the idea that not everything you, or a business (or the world more generally), might consider a problem even needs, or should be, considered a problem. One conclusion I discuss is that not every problem is solvable or needs to be solved (at the current time or at all). The focus of our efforts must be on those problems that should be solved NOW. Substantial effort on problems of relative unimportance or priority is wasteful of resources. Every problem has connections not only to the real world, but also to other problems. No problem exists in a vacuum or does not have future consequences.
Potential vs. Actual Problems
Separately, and not often mentioned in the various descriptions of problems, is discussion of the idea of potential vs. actual problems. An actual problem presents the potential for change and improvement. These actual problems are kinetic…their solutions provides momentum, that is movement towards some “real” goal state. If present reality is missing something you (or society) wants or needs (more money, a better relationship, an improved method to produce cleaner energy, a faster algorithm), future reality offers the possible becoming real if a solution is obtained and the barrier (to a need, want, desire, answer) is removed. In contrast, a potential problem, though a solution may be desirable in some sense, is not necessary (and/or sufficient) to meet or improve some condition. For example, getting a passport, while it can help solve a potential problem in the future if you want to travel internationally, will not help you solve an actual problem if you only want to travel domestically.
Regressive & Pop-up Problems
Finally, there exists two other types of problems I would like to examine:
1) “regressive problems” that may impede that search for a quick solution to a particular problem or drown the original problem in a series of other problems, and
2) “pop-up problems” that occur unexpectedly or as the result of some action in the problem-solving process.
Since obstacles to growth are also everywhere, anything that prevents us from either removing that obstacle or getting around it may constitute a problem. Regressive problems are those problems that have a backward chain of other problems or complications. Pop-up problems may arise as an effect as one problem is either partially or completely solved and another problem appears as a result.
For instance, say you want to become a medical doctor and specialize in cardiac surgery. This may become a regressive problem for you if you do not have the proper education. Since you just cannot call yourself a doctor and start practicing without serious consequences, a certain “group” of problems will need to be “solved” first. Assuming one has graduated college, the next step is to take the MCAT, pass, apply to medical school, get in, complete medical school to get your degree, complete a residency, specialize….there are a lot of steps (mini problems to be solved). The main problem rests on the solutions of many other related problems, which themselves may create even other problems like how to pay for all that. Problems can not only be cyclical (recurring), but also co-dependent on the solution of other related problems.
As an example of a pop-up problem, imagine a scenario where you have bought a new house, solving a bunch of other problems in your life. You are happy and satisfied with your purchase. Problem solved. Until you find out your neighbor’s backyard tree overhangs your property, and as autumn arrives, leaves are constantly falling, leaving you to clean up a problem not of your creation, and which may cause further disputes down the lane. This problem, maybe overlooked at the time, has now “popped up” as a result of your solution (buying a house). The problem did not exists for you prior to buying this house. Such is life!
My final thought is this: Enjoy the problems you face. Revel in the challenges they confront you with as you move towards a solution. Delight in the intellectual and emotional work required. Appreciate what a solution may reveal as you move on to the next problem. Repeat the process to find the success, prosperity, and happiness you deserve. Help others as much as you can solve their problems.
Happy Problem Solving!
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I really enjoy reading Evan’s newsletter! There is so much to learn about problem solving. He makes the subject very interesting. I look forward to reading more in the future!