How to Solve Our Wild Problems
QTHESE ARE THE PROBLEMS that can be solved through a simple cost-benefit analysis. But there are problems where the solution is more than that – something deeper – something irrational. The big decisions in life, what Russ Roberts calls them Wild Problems — whether to marry, who to marry, what career path to follow, ethical dilemmas — “can’t be done using data, or science, or conventional rational methods.”
In 1838, Charles Darwin faced a serious problem. Darwin is trying to decide if he should get married. Like many, he made a list of pros and cons and wrote them in his journal. But marriage, like most wild problems, cannot be reduced to quantifiable rational reasons. It’s more nuanced than that. Not everything can be boiled down to yes or no. But more than that:
Making a list of pluses and minuses when faced with alternate universes is a way of trying to imagine what it’s like underneath each option. Thus it seems reasonable and a version of trying to maximize what economists call it expected use—your expected benefit in the future.
Above, he wrote, “This is the Question – Marry – Not Marry.” Then on the pro side, he tried to imagine what it would be like to be married. On the right side, he tried to imagine what it would be like to not marry.
Darwin looked at marriage from what you see from the outside—the outer life of marriage.
Darwin’s list tells us more about Darwin than about marriage. His list of pluses and minuses—especially the pluses—is the kind of list that someone who has never been married and has no access to the upside of the inner life of a married man would make. Darwin’s ignorance is part of the reason that his negatives about marriage (eviction! Degradation! Idle fool!) are so emphatic and his positives (female chit-chat) so mild.
It’s hard to explain what the consequences of the choice you’re about to make are if you don’t have the experience of the choice you’re about to make. You never know the costs and benefits of a choice until you experience it. Darwin could not correctly judge the upside of marriage and therefore he could not know if the expected cost outweighed the expected benefit. Not only that, when he gets married, the experience will change him in ways he never imagined—what he values and what is important to him.
Moving beyond cost and benefit—pain and pleasure—is the idea of improved. “Growth involves living and acting with integrity, virtue, purpose, meaning, dignity, and autonomy—aspects of life that are not only difficult to measure but that you can put front and center, no matter the cost.”
So what do we do when faced with a wild problem?
Roberts suggests that we begin by approaching the issue through privileging our principles. That means considering what kind of person you want to be and what you want to become.
Your decisions define who you are. Don’t make tradeoffs when it comes to your essence. Live with integrity. Do the right thing and respect yourself. That should at least be the starting place.
One way to do this is to have rules that you follow no matter what. This helps make deciding what to do simpler. For example, your rule might be, “I’m the kind of person who doesn’t make fun of my spouse in front of other people even if they’re really funny.” Roberts added, “Rules are useful for maintaining who you are, our sense of self. But perhaps they are even more important in helping us become who we want to be.“
Here are some closing thoughts from Roberts:
Try to have more experiences rather than less. Try things out. Stop doing things that are not for you.
Don’t assume that what works for them will work for you. If you can test drive.
Sunk costs are sunk. Life choices that are different from what we hope are not mistakes. They’re just choices that turned out differently than we expected.
Strength and endurance are overrated. Much of what hurts wild problems is regret. All the facts really don’t exist. It’s not wrong if you can’t do better. So spend less time thinking about the “right” decision and more time thinking about how to expand your options and how to deal with disappointment if the decision turns out to be bad.
Not everything is in your control. Trust the opportunity and adapt the plan or journey to the new information you learn as you go through the experience.
Instead of seeing life as a series of decision nodes where you maximize happiness or well-being looking as far ahead as you can, instead see it as a journey.
Wild problems are not problems to be solved, but mysteries to be experienced, tasted, and savored.
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