I think many problems are fundamentally unsolvable. But I don’t think that means there’s no way around them.
The reason I think many problems are unsolvable is because solving a problem takes time and effort and thought and those are all finite things. It’s possible that a problem might be solved on an infinite time scale, but we don’t have that. And what often happens before solve a problem (either as individuals or as a society) is we outgrow it.
For instance, allow me to engage in wild speculation for a moment. Take all this with an enormous grain of salt – I’m not an expert here in any sense, so this is just me musing about the unforeseen. That being said, here’s my prediction: we won’t ever solve any of the problems relating to renewable resource use on Earth. We won’t ‘solve’ climate change, non-renewable resources, etc. Because long before we get to the point where we would solve those problems, we’ll just figure out how to live in space and on other planets instead.
Someday all of Earth will be a preserved, historic park. Tourists will come here and take pictures of the “birthplace of civilization.”
Today a private company brought humans to the International Space Station for the first time in history.
Here’s how I made up a recipe for campfire hash browns. It was a nice day, the kids wanted to do outside stuff, and I wanted to cook.
Step 1: Get a big piece of tinfoil, and put a big pile of potatoes, onions, corn, cheese, and bacon on it. Put a half a stick of butter in the middle and put some paprika and whatever other spices you happen to like on there.
Step 2: Wrap it up, then do that two more times.
Step 3: Put it on a fire that your three kids help you build. If you don’t have three kids, just get any kids to help, they all want to build fires anyway:
Step 4: Move them around so they only burn a little and not all the way. Keep moving them around on occasion for maybe half an hour? Whatever:
Step 5: Open those bad boys up and scrape out the delicious heart attack you’re going to eat along with a can of beans you cooked hobo-style in the can and some hot dogs your kids gleefully set on fire and then ate:
This was so ridiculously good.
What? You want a deeper lesson or something here? Okay, it’s this: learn the basic principles of a category of knowledge (such as the basic principle “butter + potatoes + pretty much anything else will probably be good”) and then experiment. Involve your kids if you have them, or just anyone you like, because learning together is fun. You’ll burn the edges a little, but you can always scrape that off, and there will be something delicious in there. And if that’s not an analogy for all of life, I don’t know what is.
Be wary of people who tell you that you need to “live in reality” whenever you propose change.
In fact, forget “wary.” Tell those people to go jump in a lake.
By its very nature, change requires a vision of a world that does not exist. A fantasy, a dream. If you’re trying to change anything at all, you’re “not living in the real world.” So that’s a foolish complaint for someone to levy against you just for proposing an idea that doesn’t yet exist.
Whenever someone tells you to “live in the real world,” they’re always proposing a reactionary, grueling endurance of life’s woes. Your job sucks, and you want to start your own company? “Live in the real world,” says some jerk, by which they mean “go to your job that you hate and be miserable every day.”
Create a reality without that jerk. And once you’ve made that improvement, keep right on going.
Hey all you music lovers! I’ve got some albums I’d like to share with you. If you’re looking for some new (to you) music, or even just want to gab about old classics, look no further. Here are a few for your playlists:
Rust in Peace, by Megadeth. The early 90’s were a really glorious time for metal, and this album is one of the great harbingers of that era. The threshold of talent required to make metal good is way higher than a lot of other genres of music, so the truly outstanding metal bands always feature incredible proficiency that just isn’t duplicated anywhere else.
Carnival, by Bryce Vine. This is new music, and it’s just so incredibly vibrant. Try not to involuntarily move while listening to this. If you just want one sample, listen to “Drew Barrymore,” and just let the music give you a good time.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters, by Fiona Apple. What? New music from Fiona Apple? She’s as savage and deep as ever, and whether you were a fan of hers in the past or not you won’t be disappointed. She has a way of singing that makes you feel like you did something wrong, like you broke somebody’s heart, and she just forces feelings into you. If the current world has gotten a little monotone and you need a hit of something different, listen.
So Much For The Afterglow, by Everclear. Everclear had a few hits in the 90’s, mostly from this album. They’re still around and they’ve done great work since (Black is the New Black is a great and more recent album), but So Much For The Afterglow had everything going for it. Catchy pop hits with genuine heart and fun tracks to sing along to in your car. Sometimes that’s exactly what you need.
It’s All In Your Head, by Eve 6. Eve 6 is one of my favorite bands, but this album flew under the radar for me for a long time. Horrorscope, their second album, is in my top 5 of all time, and I think that made it almost impossible to appreciate any follow-up when it was released. So it took a long time for me to come back to this album and really give it its own space, but when I did I found out that it was actually excellent on its own.
That’s it for this month. As always, I hope music gives you something you need – and if it does, share. Sometimes that’s all we can do.
When I was a boy, I once attempted to emulate one of my many namesakes and buried a few apples in the back, untamed area of a relative’s property. I was eager to reap the literal fruits of my labor and give my cousins and I some delicious apples in the future.
And sure enough, something sprouted in only a few short days! What fortune! Within a week it was quite a large plant and I proudly told all my cousins about the bounty we would soon receive due to my efforts. Based on the rate of growth, we’d have apples before the month was out! My cousins, similar in age to me, were quite impressed and eventually the adults discovered why.
They laughed for an hour before pulling up the weeds that were growing in the spot where I’d buried the apples.
Here was the problem I had as a kid, and it’s the same problem many adults have today – I didn’t understand the concept of the counterfactual.
See, I had a reasonable (if incomplete) understanding of how seeds and plants work – seeds go in ground, plants come up. I knew, to borrow a phrase, just enough to be dangerous. And I had reasonable (to me) evidence that my theory was correct – after all, I’d put a seed in the ground and a plant had started to grow! That’s exactly what I wanted and expected to happen, so why shouldn’t I assume I was successful?
Of course, it was the counterfactual that I had never even considered: yes, a tree might grow if I plant a seed. But that doesn’t mean a plant won’t grow if I don’t – which means I can’t be sure that this plant is from my seed without more information (such as, and this is just a start, how an apple tree might differ from a weed in both appearance and growth rate).
Adults continue to make this mistake all the time.
Watch it happen: “Yes, my kid is doing very well in kindergarten. It’s all because of that expensive pre-school we paid for.”
Watch again: “I owe all of my success to my time at college. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without it.”
Watch once more: “My business is successful because of my decision to invest in this new technology. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be doing nearly as well.”
Here’s the pattern: you take a reasonable-sounding, plausible but simple theory of how the world works. Then you run exactly one experiment with zero control groups. If you get the result you wanted, you declare your theory correct. Bad science, easy rationalization. You say, “It makes intuitive sense that a good preschool would give my kid an advantage in K-12, and my kid is doing well in kindergarten, so I must be right.” What you’ll never get to know is whether your kid would have done equally well in kindergarten without the preschool. Maybe they’d have done better!
“It makes intuitive sense that if I plant an apple, an apple tree will grow. Something is growing, so it must be an apple tree.”
The lesson here isn’t to never try things. Send your kid to preschool if you want, go to college if you enjoy it, invest in a new technology that seems cool. But be careful not to turn one anecdote, no matter how appealing, into an iron-clad life lesson that you try to impart to others. “Sales guru” shysters have been doing this forever – they succeed in one specific way, then capitalize much further than is reasonable on that success by selling their one-time anecdote as a “road map to success” or some other kind of fool-proof blueprint. That’s just not how it works.
In the garden of true knowledge, those are the weeds. Pull them and work hard on the real trees; that’s the only secret.
I’m tired, sore, and I have plenty of strained muscles. I think my right knee (always my bad one) is worse than usual. My hands are pretty raw.
All signs of a great time.
I just got back from a last-minute overnight backpacking trip. I just barely managed to squeeze this one in – the Spring season was shot as everything was closed down, and I really dislike hiking/camping in the summer months (too hot, too many bugs). So even though this was already too late in the year to be ideal for me, I really didn’t want to wait all the way until fall to go, and since the state forests all reopened, I jumped at it.
I’m glad I did, bugs or no bugs.
These solo backpacking trips do a lot for me. There’s something awesome about the exchange of physical discomfort for mental discomfort. The whole time I’m out there, I’m sore and strained. Everything is difficult. The second you aren’t working, you’re getting cold, getting hungry, getting thirsty. And while you are working, you’re getting tired. But while all of that is happening, you don’t have time to be worried about anything beyond it.
My various problems and stressors that come from my modern life don’t get magically solved by a weekend in the woods. They’re still there, patiently and loyally waiting for my return. But they can’t follow me there, which gives me time to reset all the meters and measures of whatever internal reserves we use to combat those things. The problems don’t get magically solved, but my capacity to solve them is often replenished.
Everyone’s problems are different, and it’s impossible to compare the severity of two people’s situations objectively. No one truly knows if another person has it “rougher” than they do, or the reverse. But I think that’s asking the wrong question. I think the things that wear people down have less to do with what those things are, and more to do with the ratio of how often you can step away from them, clear your head, and return.
We see this in all sorts of study & work techniques, things like the Pomodoro Technique (where you work/study for 25 minutes, then break for 5, and so on). And while most people recognize the need for vacations and work/life balance, I don’t think those solutions directly address the root problem.
The root problem is that if you’re worried about something, you can almost never willingly stop worrying about it. If something stresses you out, you can’t just say, “okay, for the next 4 hours I’m going to not be stressed, then turn it back on.”
So going on vacations and always clocking out by 5:00 PM might be good surface-level solutions, but they’re physical solutions to a mental problem. For the majority of people, you can’t stop worrying or stressing unless something physically prevents you from doing so.
That’s why some people turn to alcohol or drugs as stress relievers. The right application of them can make it physically impossible to worry or stress about certain things. Of course, they’re far more trouble than they’re worth, but at least I get it.
There are other, better solutions. Hard labor is one of them. Give yourself enough physical exertion and I guarantee you that’s all you can think about. That’s why I don’t do well with vacations or breaks based on “relaxation.” If my mind isn’t forcibly occupied by something else, it will naturally revert to its most frequent state, which is thinking about all the stuff that needs to be done. I can’t get around that by just changing the location of my body; I also have to engage my body in such a way that the mind is overruled.
All this is to say, I had a very nice time camping. My mind was quiet for a time. I even slept. Whatever you do to quiet yours, I wish you all the success in the world.
Pretty much every time I go grocery shopping, I have the same fantasy about how I would design my perfect grocery store.
It’s more or less the same as any grocery store until you get to the checkout lanes. There are ten of them, all in a row. The first five are “normal.” The sixth one costs an extra 2% surcharge to use. The seventh is 4%, the eighth is 6%, the ninth is 8%, and the tenth is 10%. If you use that tenth checkout lane, you have to pay 10% more for everything you buy.
The lanes are otherwise identical. There’s no additional benefit for using any of the lanes, not even the last one.
Before I explain why this would be WAY better than the current way grocery stores are set up, take a minute to think about it and see if you can guess. Why would this configuration be good? Why would you pay 10% more for your groceries for no reason?
Okay, I’ll tell you why:
Because each line past the first 5 would be shorter and shorter. The tenth one would usually be deserted. You’d be paying more for a shorter line.
Forget “express lanes,” they don’t work. Because there’s no real way to enforce them beyond social norms which don’t hold up well in big grocery stores. But if you only had one 8-dollar item and you were in a hurry? Paying 80 cents to get out fast and skip the line seems like a great deal!
If there were long lines, you’d be able to customize your experience. Imagine you approach the checkout area and it’s a crowded day. The first five lines are pretty full; let’s say an average of 8 people each with varying amounts of stuff. Ugh. So you look at Line 6, with its minor 2% surcharge. Well, 2% is minor enough that a few people have picked that line, but it’s only 6 people and on average they have smaller cart loads. Still not short enough for you, so you look at Line 7 with the 4% surcharge. Now there are only 4 people in this line with even smaller carts, so you step in line. Someone else wants to get out even quicker, so they go to Line 8 which has nobody in it; they’re willing to pay 6% to skip the line entirely. You could have done that, but you were willing to save 2% by waiting a little, just not a lot.
There’s no reason to even look at lines 9 & 10 of course, if 8 is empty. But the busier the day, the more those lines will fill. It’s like built-in surge pricing – which in turn encourages people to spread out their shopping a little more, lowering congestion.
Now, despite how amazing this grocery store would be in theory, it has one critical problem – people would riot. Most people, in my experience, aren’t great at seeing when a whole system benefits them unless every individual part also benefits them in obvious ways. Many people would see a system like this and complain that either wealthier people would be able to shop faster, or that it isn’t “fair” to charge them more just to use an unoccupied line. They wouldn’t necessarily grasp the deeper concept that people paying extra to shop in a different line benefits you directly, because now that person isn’t in front of you in your line, so they’ve actually paid to make both your waits shorter. They also might not grasp that even having the option to “pay extra for an unoccupied line” is only possible because the line costs extra to use; if it didn’t, everyone would use every available line and there’d be no way for people in a legitimate rush to move ahead.
And I’ll defend that phrase: “legitimate rush.” Yes, everyone is in a hurry. Everyone has limited time, and no one wants to spend more of it than they have to in the grocery store. But there are absolutely some rushes that are more important than others – but I can’t judge them! I can 100% maintain that some people have a more valid reason to hurry than others without being willing to pass my own judgement on those reasons. Instead, I’d like to see a system where everyone could weight their own rushes according to their own opportunity costs. This system allows that.
(Side note: if you have a business that sells anything that takes time to produce, have a rush fee. That way, instead of endless back-and-forth with customers wanting things yesterday, you can just say, “Sure, for a 50% upcharge you can have it in half the time.” See how many people suddenly don’t really need it tomorrow, like they initially said.)
On a macro level, independent stores already do this. You pay a little more at Target so you don’t have to go to Walmart. The goods are more or less the same, but fewer people overall shop at Target and so the lines are usually shorter on average. It’s just that no store practices this internally. I’d love to see one try – I’d shop there every time.
It’s weird to think of culture as mutable when you’re in it. You think of yourself as making informed choices or “following your heart” about everything from which music you listen to, who you find attractive, and what clothes you wear all the way to who you vote for and where you stand on social issues.
And you do! You do make those choices consciously, but there are two big factors that influence those choices. Firstly, you’re influenced by your peers; your “tribe,” however you define it. Social interaction choices have social side effects, and we care about those, for better or worse.
But secondly, you’re influenced by the range of available choices, and that’s mostly determined by your cultural surroundings, not by you. You can choose any music you like, but the range of what’s available is determined by what gets produced. You can vote for whoever you want… of the available choices. And so on.
That window changes over time, but the drift tends to be glacial. So when we’re in it, we usually view the range of available choices as all that’s possible.
It’s worth it sometimes to imagine beyond that. The people that do so are the ones that, an inch at a time, move the window.
I remember the first time I gave a motivational talk in a professional context. It was early in my sales career, and I had been the top performer in my office for a while. The rest of the team wasn’t doing super well, and our manager asked me to say a few words in the next day’s morning meeting.
I remember what I said then, and (unlike a lot of stuff I’ve thought/said/written in the past), I think it holds up. I talked about sales goals specifically, but this applies to any goal. I said every day, I have the same goal for the number of sales I want to make:
See, you can’t make five sales. You can make one at a time. Then you can make another, but your next goal is always that next one, that one more.
And “one” is a very manageable goal. It’s realistic. It keeps you laser-focused on the short term strategy. You’re not distracted by a larger number nor demoralized by it.
So forget about sales now. You have one problem to solve, just one. One goal to achieve. You can only solve one thing at a time, but there’s no need to distract yourself with “at a time.” Simplify it.
You have one problem to solve.
This also gives you extreme clarity about that one problem. If you only have one thing to look at, you’ll truly see it.
It also means you get to succeed, over and over again. If you tell yourself “I have ten problems,” then even if you solve nine, you’ve failed in your own mind. But if you use the “one more” dynamic, then you get constant boosts of motivation that come from accomplishment.
I’ve been writing this blog daily for over a year now. How many more posts will I make?