On Problems & Solutions

Problems are a fact of life, and they come in all varieties to anyone who is sane enough to confront his problems. But it is also simplistic to lump all categories of problems into one semantic bag and let our minds think no more.

In fact, I have thought often as to how many categories of problems can exist, and of these I have so far arrived at five: soluble problems that appear unsolvable, soluble problems that appear soluble, unsolvable problems that appear soluble, insolvable problems that appear unsolvable, and miscalibrated problems.

God Wiling, I will attempt to explain each and propose remedies as I have discovered.

Soluble problems that seem unsolvable are a vicious category that paralyze action and instill worry. The identifying feature is you wondering why that must be so and then not being able to find a satisfactory answer. That is, you seek answers that all seem improbable, or mythical.

Examples include: being poor and having to work all day to just survive, with no reprieve and no certainty about future prosperity. Or being in a marriage that brings a litany of psychosomatic diseases without the benefits and bliss and the love that a marriage is supposed to have. Or your firm borrowed huge amounts of money which it cannot pay back. In each case, it seems as if depression is going to take over and you see yourself as a victim of circumstances.

When solutions seem impossible, the first tool you should use is the art of tenacity. Note I didn’t say “tenacity” itself, but the art of it. That is because tenacity, like art, must be first observed, then learned and practiced, and after being acquired, applied in the right amount of the right kind to the ever-changing situation.

So this means having the capacity to go the distance without worrying whether you will reach or not, but also knowing how tenacious you should be in order to achieve your goal. You must believe that you can succeed before you attempt solving such problems, but if you don’t, your efforts would be half-hearted—resulting in more chaos than you can clean up.

The second tool is the creativity box, out of which amazing answers can come out. When you are stuck in an impasse, instead of solving the problem the same way others do, or the retrying your original solution to no avail, it is best to change course and ask questions about alternatives.

That such a problem exists that its solution doesn’t seem to be working is a sign that it may have more than just one solution. For instance, to deal with your financial woes you could relocate to a better place, change your job if possible, attend an evening school to update your qualifications, work two jobs to save enough for a go at the stock market, negotiate with your boss after making yourself indispensable, and continue to try a variety of solutions until you are no longer poor.

Soluble-seeming soluble problems are not a serious threat. As soon as we tackle them, we see fruits of our progress, although the enemy of this category is procrastination. For instance if you wish to learn a foreign language, it is a problem because you need to balance your time, efforts, energy, and other aspects to accommodate this. Here, a common psychological illusion that what seems difficult is actually easy, and vice versa makes the start seem difficult because we imagine all of what we are to do at once, instead of the more rational view that we don’t have to do more than we can per day.

Moreover, whether you learn a foreign language or join a gym or start doing push-ups in your bedroom, at some point you will also reach a point of low returns; but a very poor country’s GDP may show a 15% growth not because it is rich, but because it had started from a zero status. As this country keeps growing, it will be increasingly difficult to maintain previous growth levels, however, as we see in the 3-4% growth rates of most industrialized countries. So your returns were large relative to your having nothing in the first place, but the ensuing returns will naturally appear smaller compared to your initial returns.

Unsolvable problems that appear soluble are the worst of the worst, not the least because they waste your time and pose as category one (insolvable-seeming soluble problems). The first method of dealing with such problems is early recognition. If you recognize them, you can abandon them so that you may focus on problems that at least bear a promise of a solution.

To do this, you need to consider your costs and benefits: after listing all the hypothetical costs that you will incur by solving a problem and then listing the certain benefits you will receive, the rule of thumb should be never allowing the costs to reach twice the benefits. For instance if the cost-benefit ratio is 6:4, and from the 6 of costs nearly half are hypothetical or subject to low probabilities, then the problem is worth tackling.

You should also consider that if least three different solutions failed to work on a given problem, this may be a blind-tie problem that is best considered a “sunk cost” (a cost you have incurred and must accept because any further attempts of solving it will only cost more). Example: lending 1000 dollars to someone and then spending another 5000 bucks to find and punish him for having taken you for a ride. This is the “rational” thing to do, but most people, when angry, are not rational and therefore will lose twice in order to satisfy their egos. In terms of solving this problem, you can refer to the first step for this problem (preceding paragraph): what are my costs and benefits in lending 1000 dollars to a questionable person?

Miscalibrated problems are very interesting, but harmful nevertheless. This happens when you think the problem is easier to solve than it actually is, even though it might be soluble. Another aspect of such problems is their appearing as a single problem, whereas in fact they might be a chameleon-problem (changing and mutating as you attempt to solve it), or a bee-hive problem (one problem leading to other, more serious ones, or one problem’s solution creating a host of new problems).

For an instance of the bee-hive miscalibrated problem, a lady seduces a married man and forces him to divorce his wife, only to realize she doesn’t love him so much, anymore, or vice versa as told in “Anna Karenina”. That leads to further problems, such as her man committing suicide, while his man’s ex-wife seeking vengeance of some sort, while she has to be bear the brunt of all this, on top of being lonely again, not excluding the possiblity of slander, gossip and shame taking their toll. Now her seduction, which solved the miscalibrated problem of her being lonely (and lusty) in the unethical and immoral manner led to four different problems, each even more serious than the original.

A chameleon version of this problem can also apply here: the said lonely lady marrying the wrong guy who makes her life a living hell. Now as she attempts to cope with him, he becomes abusive, goes out most nights and comes home late, probably also cheats on her, and the specter of divorce looms not too far. All this because she considered solving the problem of her ‘loneliness’ or ‘lovelessness’ too trivially, by grabbing the first solution that appeared feasible and available, that is, by miscalibrating the the extents of her problem and applying an inadequate solution to a serious problem.

So not all problems are alike, nor two similar problems require the same solution, although very different problems may also be tackled with the same solution; and then some problems are more difficult to solve than you think, and some are easier. The starting point to solve problems then, is the ability to understand your problems before you attempt to solve them.

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