Problem obsession

The Philosopher Developer

July 11, 2013

My last course as a grad student at CMU was Entrepreneurship for Software Engineers, in which teams of students basically worked on startup ideas for one semester, sharing their progress and collecting feedback during each class session and presenting to a small group of VC reps at the end of the term. I worked on a silly little app called InstaPie–which I haven’t touched in months (mainly because I don’t have an Apple computer anymore!), though I do plan to pick it back up soon, I swear—and I remember during my presentation to the VCs, one of them asked, “What problem are you trying to solve here?”

This wasn’t my first exposure to the question, of course. We’d been taught to always keep this question in our crosshairs, to not lose sight of the goal. Identifying the problem and proposing a solution is an important part of any elevator pitch, I hear. If you can’t answer that question, then you’ve lost your way somehow. Start retracing your steps until you get back to the place where a problem is clear and what you’re working on actually solves it.

It makes sense; I won’t debate that. Nonetheless, I think this mentality is too fixed in our brains. We have problem obsession: always needing to fix something, solve something. Take something problematic and address that, rather than just pursuing an idea for its own sake.

I’m reminded of this whenever I hear people discussing things like space exploration or research into seemingly sci-fi notions like wormholes, or time travel, or cloning a woolly mammoth. There’s a very practical attitude some people have about this, which is: until we’ve solved all of our actual problems, happening right now, here on Earth, we should put those other things on hold. They’re not worth the resources, taxpayer money, etc. I don’t have a strong opinion about that, to be honest (the taxpayer money part—if private enterprise is the way forward for space travel, I won’t complain); but I do feel these things are important. Almost more important, in a way, than solving our problems.

Before you dismiss me as speaking nonsense, let me propose two possibilities.

First, let’s say that one day, hundreds or thousands of years in the future, we’ve solved all of our problems. No more crime, hunger, sickness, any of that stuff. The whole human race is living prosperously and peacefully. Then what? Do we have nothing to do anymore? Of course not: hopefully, in a world like that, we’d all be artists and scientists: creating and discovering things, just because. In which case, the whole point of solving problems was presumably to get to that point.

That’s not very realistic, if you ask me; so here’s the second possibility. We never solve all of our problems. That is, there will always be something “wrong” that needs to be addressed. What then? Are we going to perpetually work on solving problems when the work will never be done? Well, yes, actually; but is that all we’re going to do, to the exclusion of all other things? Seems a bit like Sisyphus, doesn’t it?

In either of these scenarios, I think we’re better off not diverting 100% of our attention to the mere solving of problems. It would not be a very gratifying existence. In the first case it ends up that we’re just getting the rough part out of the way, setting up some distant future generation for a truly good life while we toil away in the present. (As noble as that may sound, it still undermines the inherent value of solving problems as more than just a means to an end.) And in the second case we’re devoting all of our energy to what is ultimately just maintenance: perpetually chipping away at an issue that’s never going to be fully resolved.

Of course, I’m not saying that we should forget about solving real problems and turn all of our attention to purely creative or theoretical work. That would be a mistake. Really it comes down to this: solving problems should not be the only thing we think about. Problems are important, and we need people in this world to be working on them. But not every person.

Circling back to my experience in the entrepreneurship class at CMU: I think this all struck me with particular force hearing that question from a VC investor. Because there’s undoubtedly a lot of awesome innovation happening in Silicon Valley, the Bay Area, and all around the world’s other tech centers. But there are also a lot of “problems” getting solved here that maybe aren’t really so important, and I blame problem obsession. Maybe we can actually spare a few heads on “It’s hard to get a taxi in San Francisco!” and “We’re going to turn the restaurant reservation system on its head!” I, for one, would like to see a higher percentage of the talented people in this world making things that are just intriguing, or beautiful, or fun. For its own sake.