Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us 1/2
1/ Wild Problems
An example of a wild problem is whether to have a child or not: it’s a life-changing decision with all its pros and cons that are unclear at the time of making the decision (and which can’t be rationalised). It’s not possible to know which path to take; only in hindsight it becomes clearer. Talking about children – indeed, they consume time and resources, i.e., come with a sizeable opportunity cost.
Tame problems are the ones that can be rationally addressed by experience and the body of knowledge, especially scientific. Problems can be clearly defined, and the results can be replicated.
Wild problems are subjective and resist measurement and replication. Choosing a career or a lifelong partner are two very subjective decisions. (There’s no destiny, so we own our decisions.)
The traditional approach of navigating uncertainty is measuring what you can and then trying to estimate what you can’t. But it can be a step in the wrong direction, as a choice to focus on one thing is a choice NOT to focus on something else, potentially more suitable or rewarding.
TL/DR: there’s no right decision and the attempts to arrive at the right decision will always fail.
2/ Darwin’s Dilemma
A rational approach is listing all pros and cons of the major decision and weighing them against each other, choosing the option with the bigger expected utility. Adding a score against each item helps compare important things with less important but more abundant. It boils down to comparing two numbers in the end, how hard can it be?
TL/DR: it’s easy, but misleading.
3/ In the Dark
Many wild problems require making irreversible decisions (burning bridges), result in changes of personality, circumstances, and the value system.
Looking at others (say, trying to understand how the married life looks like) is not helpful, either, because only a certain part of one’s life is exposed – the positive one.
Preferring emotions to rationality isn’t always wrong: rationality may end up being its opposite.
4/ This is Serious
Creating a list of pros and cons may be useful not because of its outcome (a seemingly rational decision), but because of the process involved in making it. The contents and the framing tell a lot about what one really wants.
An impulse reaction can be helpful in decision making: toss a coin and while it’s in the air think how you want it to land – and go for that option.
Humans make decisions first and justify them with reasons later.
There are more than just our future experiences at stake when we face wild problems.
Utility is a very narrow way of looking at decisions and their outcomes. It ignores the craving for purpose and meaning, the urge to create legacy.
Humans flourish by taking circumstances and making the most out of them in fulfilling our human potential. It means more than just accumulating pleasures and avoiding pain.
Thus, wild problems are about the choices that give life meaning, about the chance to flourish. This can’t be quantified or put in a utility calculation equation.
5/ The Pig and the Philosopher
Purpose, meaning, dignity and sense of self are more important to the overall well-being than simple material pleasures. And these pleasures come and go, but the sense of who we are stays.
Who you are and how you live is more important than your experience. A fulfilling life is not about having the pleasure tally larger than the pain tally.
A life of fifty years of pleasure followed by twenty years of regret and shame is not equivalent to a life of twenty years of pain followed by fifty years of pleasure; timing does matter.
Morality makes some wild problems tame: if there’s something a person won’t do under any circumstances – there’s no need to rationalise it.
Outcomes of wild problems may not be consistent over time: there still can be good and bad days, and there’s always the “after” time: any outcome is transient and depends on when you assess it.
Pain, especially when it’s in service of an ideal, can bring meaning. It’s the hard things that we tend to remember when we overcome hardships and challenges. Pain makes experience richer and fuller.
6/ Flourishing Matters
There are many life decisions that are wild: whether to marry and/or have children, where to live, where to work, who to become friends with, whether or how to vote, whether to divorce, whether to join or leave a religion, crazy acts of kindness, etc.
Where to live: it’s more about who we are (and/or willing to change accordingly) rather than the experience (which also matters, just not as much). There’s a national / regional / religious identity at play.
Friendships: while there’s a transactional way of looking into them (you’re only as valuable as what you can do for me; I’m investing into this relationship), there’s an emotional part to it: how does this relationship make you feel regardless of the utility.
Divorce: a rational way to look at it is when the well-being from being divorced exceeds the well-being from staying married. [MK: as easy as comparing two numbers!] Same as marriage is part of identity, divorce is also part of identity. Some people divorce because they think they will be better off in a new relationship (a utilitarian approach) or because they can’t flourish while being married.
Religion for many people is about finding the truth, no matter the cost. It’s about belonging to a community. Leaving an organised religion is a painful, but completely rational, experience.
Whether to prioritise utility or flourishing is a personal decision. [MK: If one chooses priority over flourishing, they get none in the end.]
Thanks for reading Course Notes: Continuous Business Learning! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.