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The Paradox of Unsolvable Problems
Solving complex problems makes us undeniably human.
Had you asked me a week ago what the difference between complicated and complex was I would have said there wasn’t one. But after some further thought and reflection, I found the difference between them to be a powerful way to think about how I spend my time.
I hope the thoughts and prompts below will help you do the same and as always, thanks for reading!
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The Paradox of Unsolvable Problems
Complicated problems are all the things that you can solve with computational horsepower and tech. Complex problems are super easy to understand, but you can never solve them. [This is the] reason that we’re always unsatisfied in life… because we have complex problems.
Arthur C Brooks
We have lots of problems.
Problems are a blessing and a curse. Problems stress us out, but solving problems brings us joy, excitement, and a feeling of accomplishment. Without problems, we would slip into a state of apathy.
But not all problems are created equal.
Some are easy and fun to solve. Others take an immense amount of work but are very satisfying to solve. And some are altogether unsolvable.
We have limited time and energy so choosing which problems to solve and how to solve them defines the type of life we create.
Author and Harvard professor Arthur Brooks thinks about problems in two distinct categories: complicated and complex.
Complicated problems require lots of effort and computation but are solvable with technology or lots of hard work. Complex problems are simple but unsolvable.
Managing our calendars is a complicated problem. We have a lot to do and not much time to do it, but with enough effort (or the right tech), we can create a schedule that fits everything in. Parenting is a complex problem. There is no amount of computational power or technology that can handle raising a child and there’s no way to “solve” the problem. It is ongoing and all-consuming.
In the same way urgent but unimportant tasks often pull us away from important projects, solving complicated problems steals time away from complex ones.
Complicated problems provide a sense of satisfaction. Building a clever spreadsheet, cleaning the house, or similar work provides a dopamine hit when we cross it off our to-do list.
They provide a feeling of accomplishment, but to become a bit better each day and create unique value in the world for ourselves and others, we should eliminate time spent on complicated problems to focus on complex problems instead.
Complex problems are difficult, nuanced, and never-ending, but unlike complicated problems, only true human effort can make progress with complex work. Finishing something complicated provides a fleeting sense of satisfaction, but working on something complex provides a source of deep fulfillment and impact in our lives.
In the digital world, new AI technologies are making this difference increasingly obvious. Ask AI to solve a math problem and you’ll have an answer in seconds. But ask AI to love your family, run a community group, write a book, or build a relationship, and it won’t have an answer.
Working on complex problems is what makes us undeniably human.
No one wants to be a cog in a machine, but spending time on complicated problems is exactly the same thing.
As we work to craft the life we want, we instinctually eliminate complicated work and replace it with the complex. When retirement hits, we stop clocking in and out of work in favor of spending more time with our families and friends and trying to master new sports or hobbies. When our income rises, we begin to pay extra to outsource landscaping or laundry to focus on our health or our relationships. Entrepreneurs and executives increasingly automate or outsource complicated work as they climb the ladder of their careers to spend as much time as they can on complex work only they can do.
When these changes or progressions occur in our lives it sparks a transition from complicated to complex, but we don’t have to wait for these changes to reallocate what types of problems we invest our energy into.
Problems will never go away, but we can take control of our lives by choosing what problems to work on. Doing work that is undeniably human and pursuing complex, but worthwhile problems with no clear solution is not easy, but the outcome is the durable sense of fulfillment that we’re all chasing.
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What are the biggest complicated and complex problems in your life?
Do you spend more time on complicated or complex problems?
What complicated work can you remove or outsource? What complex work would replace it?
An interview with Arthur Brooks from the Tim Ferriss show discussing, happiness, the difference between complicated and complex, and much more.
Thanks for reading! I’ll see you next Sunday.