On Problems Worth Solving

How to identify problems worth solving?

Key takeaways:

  • problems that interest you
  • learning about things that matter
  • problems that you can solve or contribute to solve
  • asking the right questions
  • reasoning from first principles

 

Dictionary definitions

problem [wiki]

(noun) a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome [ref]
(noun) something that causes difficulty or that is hard to deal with [ref]

worth (worthwhile) [wiki]

(adj) important or useful enough to have or do [ref]
(adj) sufficiently good, important, or interesting to be treated or regarded in the way specified [ref]

solve (solution) [wiki]

(verb) to find an answer to a problem [ref]
(verb) find an answer to, explanation for, or means of effectively dealing with (a problem or mystery) [ref]
Origin: Late Middle English (in the sense ‘loosen, dissolve, untie’): from Latin solvere loosen, unfasten.

 

So I asked a friend, what criteria would he set in order to identify problems worth solving. As a trained IT guy, he would immediately reply: “The problems that interest me!” Then he elaborated a little bit, and I quite liked his analogy with relationships… You see, there are nice problems and ugly ones. Ugly problems just cost you time and energy, and they bring very little or no added value whatsoever. For example a negative colleague or a friend that always complains. On the other hand, nice problems energize you, they bring you joy and excitement. Like when you fancy a girl and you would like to ask her out for a date. This is a beautiful problem, you like solving it and you are interested in cracking it. In the end of the day, it is a matter of preference… so pick your battles wisely.

 

Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, advises to wannabe entrepreneurs to learn about things that matter, although he himself admits he doesn’t know the answer to the following questions:

  • How do you figure out what matters?
  • How do you identify a real problem?

However, a glimpse of what problem areas could really matter can be seen under the label of RFS (Requests for Startups). Among the fundable startup ideas [A] that matter [infographic], Y Combinator mentioned 25 areas [A] in 2016 (compare to the list [A] from 2008). You can also check some discussions about the “problems” topic on HN (hacker news), including a question asked by a HN reader: What are the most important problems in your industry?

 

A very sound advice comes from Richard Feynman, who once wrote to his former student Koichi Mano on what problems to solve [A]:

Dear Koichi,
I was very happy to hear from you, and that you have such a position in the
Research Laboratories. Unfortunately your letter made me unhappy for you seem
to be truly sad. It seems that the influence of your teacher has been to give
you a false idea of what are worthwhile problems. The worthwhile problems are
the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute
something to. A problem is grand in science if it lies before us unsolved and
we see some way for us to make some headway into it. I would advise you to take
even simpler, or as you say, humbler, problems until you find some you can
really solve easily, no matter how trivial. You will get the pleasure of
success, and of helping your fellow man, even if it is only to answer a
question in the mind of a colleague less able than you. You must not take away
from yourself these pleasures because you have some erroneous idea of what is
worthwhile. [...]

No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.

You say you are a nameless man. You are not to your wife and to your child. You
will not long remain so to your immediate colleagues if you can answer their
simple questions when they come into your office. You are not nameless to me.
Do not remain nameless to yourself – it is too sad a way to be. now your place
in the world and evaluate yourself fairly, not in terms of your naïve ideals of
your own youth, nor in terms of what you erroneously imagine your teacher’s
ideals are.

Best of luck and happiness.  Sincerely, Richard P. Feynman.

There is an interesting comment on hacker news, regarding the importance of the problem and the issue of timeiamwil notes that “This seems to echo what Richard Hamming says in “You and your research” [A]. He recounts how his fellow scientists were working on unimportant problems in their field. The judgement of unimportant came not from Hamming, but from the fellow scientists when he asked them “What’s the most important problem in your field right now?” His subsequent question was, “How come you’re not working on it?” He says that didn’t earn him many friends. By “important”, I had also mistakenly thought that he meant “grandiose”. But in fact, he later defines “important problems” as “problems that you have a reasonable angle of attack to solve“. Some problems just aren’t yet ripe, until all the pieces to solve it come together. Which makes the question, “Why now?” a very good question to answer when contemplating what problem is important.” We [at Bell Labs] didn’t work on (1) time travel, (2) teleportation, and (3) antigravity. They are not important problems because we do not have an attack.

And finally, you have to consider that sometimes, the way we ask could already be part of the problem. Maybe our frame (ideology, method, world-view, etc.) contains elements of self-fulfilling prophecy, which could lead to a vicious circle. So maybe, just may be, one should not assume or jump into conclusions, because one can never know for sure what impact certain events can bring about.

Once you have identified what kind of problems interest you and you have figured out what matters to you (depending on your world-view) [trello board], reasoning from first principles might be the way to go.

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