Alban's Blog

Better still to have problems...

Everybody is dealing with an unending stream of problems.

Some are tiny, inconsequential problems, while others are literally life and death. But we all experience the distance between our current and desired state.

I stayed up late so I'm tired, the line at the coffee shop is too long, I don't have enough money for a vacation, a friend is diagnosed with a terminal disease, I always mistype "they're" as "there" even though I know the difference...

We know that we're not going to run out of problems, but there's always a feeling that it will be so nice to once this one problem is done because THEN we can relax.

You wait at the coffee shop, praying for the moment that "the long line problem" is resolved, only to be surprised at the new "coffee is expensive" or "barista misspelled my name" problem.

There is a profound serenity in accepting the current problem set, and working to solve it while not resenting your own life for giving you the problem to begin with.

Were you really expecting to have no more problems at some point in your life?

You were just going to wake up one morning and none of this would be happening? There would be nothing on your todo list?

Do you actually want nothing on your todo list?

Life is mostly about solving problems, and you can solve these."

— Solving Problems, Waking Up App

I'm reminded of somebody who talked about viewing life as a video game because, in a video game, the problems are the point. Playing HALO on the easiest mode gets boring incredibly quickly.

I've found it to be a powerful reframing technique. Instead of being frustrated that my daughter is struggling in math, I'm just playing the level where I get to help a 2nd grader with subtraction strategies.

This framing reminds me that the existence of problems isn't a failure state or a sign of a life not well lived; it's THE state of being human.

Having and solving problems is how science, and culture, and everything moves forward:

  1. Somebody identifies a problem
  2. People work to solve the problem
  3. That solution raises new, interesting problems

As David Deutsch puts it in The Beginning of Infinity:

Problems are inevitable – there are always unsolved problems. But they get solved. Science continues to make progress even, or especially, after making great discoveries, because the discoveries themselves reveal further problems.

With this framing, problems aren't just an inconvenience, they're an opportunity to make real progress.

I've recently been re-reading The Culture Series by Iain M. Banks, and this quote from Consider Phelebas has stuck with me.

An AI has barely escaped, it's been damaged and is being tracked by its enemies, and in the midst of listing its problems, it thinks

“Better than nothing, though. Better still to have problems than to let death eradicate them all....

There will be a time when we won't have any more problems. You either believe they'll be solved in paradise or obliterated in death.

Either way, that time is coming, so we should enjoy the problems while they're here.