Wild Problems (2022) is an exploration of decision-making, particularly when it comes to the thornier issues of life that can have the deepest impact. Although the modern world offers algorithms and practical approaches to doing so, calculations are not always the best way to a life well lived.
Introduction: When it comes to the toughest of decisions, rationality may need to take a back seat to discovery and principles.
What’s a wild problem?
Wild problems are the ones that no algorithm, app or clinical pro-vs-con list can solve. And they’re everywhere. When it comes to issues like marriage, children and careers – the things that truly define us – sometimes the best way to make a decision is by jumping in with an open mind and strong sense of self. You can’t simply cost these decisions out. After all, the happiness you might feel from the right choice is not something that can be added up like a transaction. It is usually something more ephemeral.
Scientists, philosophers and thinkers have parsed through the problem of decision making, but few have an approach that can be universally applied. We are unique individuals who all have our own paths to happiness. While logic and reasoning can help us decide between things as trivial as toothpaste brands or as clinical as types of surgery, old-fashioned soul-searching might be your best bet to solve a truly thorny Wild Problem. In this summary, we’ll break down Russ Roberts’ thoughts on how to tussle with wild problems and not just solve them, but flourish while doing so.
In these summaries, you’ll learn
- Why a pro-con list might not be the best tool for decision-making
- What Charles Darwin worried about, and
- Lessons from the NFL Draft
Solving “wild problems” requires more than just tackling a pro-con list; it calls for a deeper and more experiential dive into the self.
Decisions, decisions. They’re the bane of our existence.
Pizza or sushi for dinner? Road trip or beach vacation for spring break? Regular braces or Invisalign? Surgery first and chemo later, or vice versa?
The above pairs of choices may seem vastly different from each other, but they have one thing in common. They are what author Russ Roberts defines as “tame problems.” Regardless of how serious and life-altering they are, tame problems have a rational pathway through which you can find a way to a decision. They are quandaries that can be resolved by science, engineering and logic.
What’s the best route to the airport? Check Google maps. Which restaurant to pick for your anniversary dinner? Compare Yelp reviews. Which surgeon should I go with for my operation? Consult others who have undergone this procedure and check out the surgeon’s stats. Whether the end goal is a Mars Rover or a pasta recipe, these decisions have clear conceivable goals.
But what about these trickier questions? Should I have a child? Should I marry? Should I be a jazz musician or computer scientist?
These are complicated problems with no right answer and no clear path to the end goal. Roberts calls these “wild problems.” Just a couple of decades ago, we may have turned to our parents, priests or maybe even our teachers to guide us to these answers, but many of us no longer place as much faith in these bastions of authority. So we’re left to untangle the knots ourselves.
This kind of decision-making is something that thinkers from Erasmus to Benjamin Franklin have wrestled with and written about. Most advocated using some form of a pro-con list when making a decision. It’s certainly a neat and doable solution. However, there’s a fatal flaw with this approach and that is: Some things are simply unknowable.
Roberts calls this the vampire problem.
Let’s say you are trying to decide whether or not to become a vampire. However, you can’t make a pro-con list because while you can imagine what it might be like to actually be one, you don’t really know. The only way to really know is by becoming a vampire. But once you’ve become a vampire, you cannot undo the decision and go back. By this point, it is no longer a choice.
Many of the biggest and most impactful decisions we have to make in life fall in this category. Whether to become a parent, whether to marry, whether to switch careers or move to another country, these goals or results are impossible to truly understand until you are smack dab in the middle of them. And once you’re in – you’ve changed.
That’s why wild problems are a whole different animal than the tamer ones we face in life. As we move on to the next summary, we’ll learn more about why a pro-con list isn’t an ideal tool with which to address these quandaries.
Making decisions based on the goal of living a fulfilling life will lead to richer, happier experiences.
The ancient Greeks gave us democracy, the Western alphabet and the Olympics, to name just a few contributions.
They also introduced us to many interesting ways to think about things. Let’s take the word eudaemonia. Loosely translated, it means “flourishing,” and refers to a richer, more fulfilling way of living, one that cannot be directed by a pro-con list.
Eudaemonia is about more than taking in pleasure and avoiding pain, both of which can be fleeting. It is about taking the long view and truly occupying and relishing your life. It’s about living a life of beauty and integrity and passions, which can sometimes involve pain. Just think about a challenging mountain hike. You might sweat and strain your muscles making it to the top, but conquering the challenge makes it a valuable experience, if not in the moment, then after the fact.
Or think about children, for example – the having of them; the raising of them. Any parent knows that nothing can bring you to your knees in pain or make your heart leap in joy like your child. Pain and pleasure don’t quite cut it to describe the depths and heights of emotion that this decision can have on you, but on a piece of paper, the downsides can easily outweigh the upsides of this decision.
It’s not that people haven’t tried to use a pro-con list to make up their minds on family issues; Charles Darwin and Franz Kafka both wrote down long and detailed lists to try and decide whether they should marry. They tried to weigh the benefits of having a lifelong companion against the demands on their time that might keep them from a fulfilling career.
When making such decisions about your future spouse, Roberts suggests thinking about your future as a trip to Rome. You have a rough idea of what you want to do there. Maybe you’d like to visit the Vatican and the Colosseum, eat some great food and spend a few days driving around Cinque Terre. You ask a bunch of different people, read a lot of message boards, but realize that no one experiences a place the same way and therefore it’s impossible to plan everything based on other people’s input and experiences. You don’t know exactly what you’ll do, but you know you like art, architecture, and beautiful coastlines. So you search for a companion who has similar interests and values and will be a good companion for the ride, and then strap in and hope for the best.
You see, it’s not about making a perfectly rational decision with every piece of information you need. In fact, the flourishing aspect of life may lie in the parts of the decision that you do not fully understand and cannot properly anticipate.
Think of all such wild problems: Where should you work? Who do you choose to be your friends, and how much do you invest in these relationships? How do you vote? Which religion do you follow? The bigger question surrounding all these is, ‘Who am I?’
The answer is deeply personal to each individual. What works out great for one may not for another. Remember Kafka and Darwin and their pro-con lists for marriage? Each came to a different conclusion. Darwin worried about how marriage would stop him from writing, but chose to give it a shot. He ended up happily married with ten kids, a very happy life and obviously, a career that would keep him in history books for centuries. Kafka made the opposite decision: to stay single and focus on writing – and his name is also immortal. They made opposite choices, but each flourished in his own way.
When making decisions, be guided by your principles.
We have learned that the end goal of many of life’s major decisions or wild problems is to flourish. But how do we make the decisions that take us here?
It’s not that we are all hedonistic or nihilistic, craving 24-hour abandon or despairing of true meaning. Many of us are perfectly sensible, using tried and tested systems for decision making such as the one defined by economist Ariel Rubinstein. First you ask, ‘what is desirable?’ Then you ask, ‘what is feasible?’ And then you choose the most desirable options among your feasible options.
Sounds like the perfect way to do things… but what about impulse? Coincidence? Uncertainty? Bias? All these can slip into any sensible, rational model of decision-making and throw a spoke in the wheels. What we don’t often realize is that this method itself may not take us to the decision that will allow us to flourish.
Luckily, Roberts has a simple answer: Always make the decision that saves your sense of self.
Here’s a great story to illustrate it. When Roberts and his wife were on vacation, his wife lost a diamond earring, part of an anniversary present, in a hotel room. Although they thoroughly searched the room, they couldn’t find it. She was distraught, especially because they had already arranged to change rooms that day. However, they decided not to let this ruin their day, and stuck to their plans to go out for a hike.
When they came back, they found a note on the side table in their new hotel room. On top of the note, something glittered. There sat the earring.
Turns out, the woman who cleaned their old room found it. When Teodora (that was her name) found out that the previous occupants had switched rooms, she figured out their new room number and left the earring there for them. Why did Teodora go to all this trouble? There was no clear benefit. No reward was advertised, and the process would have taken significant time out of her day. In fact, not returning it and taking it could have benefited her materially. If she had made a pro-con list for keeping the earring or returning it, keeping it may well have won.
Rather than returning the earring based on the utilitarian motive to get a reward, Teodora returned the earring because she saw herself as an honest person who does the right thing. She put her principles first.
Here’s an exercise that can help you make decisions in the same way. Fill in the sentence: I am the kind of person who –.
It can be anything. Pays my taxes. Votes. Takes a dish over when a friend is ill. Donates. Doesn’t say anything behind someone’s back you won’t say to their face. Whatever you decide it is, make it inviolable. Whatever decision you need to take, it should conform with this.
Identifying and sticking to your principles and then doing the things that give your life meaning and purpose is the shortest way to making a decision about a wild problem.
Don’t allow decision-making to paralyze you; you always have the option to change course.
The guru for this next set of rules is not a writer, philosopher or economist. Rather, it’s a football coach. Not just any old coach, but perhaps the most storied one alive: Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots.
The NFL Draft is how teams choose from the incoming crop of college players. They do this by reviewing hours of tapes, poring over statistics and interviewing players. Although Belichick has the option to pick some of the top early-round picks – and he does – people have noticed that he’s always willing to trade his early picks for multiple picks later. In other words, he’s okay with losing a top prospect for a bunch of potential ones.
What’s the lesson about decision-making we can learn from observing him? Belichick understands that when he makes that first choice, he does not have all the answers. He’s okay with this uncertainty because he knows that (a) it might work out and (b) if it doesn’t, he can change it up later.
What Belichick illustrates is the importance of optionality – this lets you have the freedom to do something without obliging you to do so. Think of a company like Zappos which lets you order shoes online and return them if you don’t like them with free shipping both ways.
How can you translate this mentality in a way that helps you solve Wild Problems? Try doing more things in the hope that some of them will work out. This is really the only way to truly understand a situation. Think of the perfect university, for example. You can ask a bunch of alumni and read posts from students about what it’s like attending that university, but the truth is that you will probably have your own unique experience when you are there. The only way to know is to actually try things for yourself.
We’ve all experienced committing to something and then realizing that it didn’t work out. It can be anything from an entrée at a restaurant to a move across the country or even a relationship. Admit that things go wrong, and when they do, forgive yourself. Learn to become comfortable with moving on from mistakes and undoing them by changing your mind, returning the thing, switching the career – even moving university or divorcing the partner if that’s what it takes.
The thing is, you won’t know until you’ve done it. Instead of worrying about making the right decision, think about finding a bunch of options to choose from, and be prepared both for disappointment as well as to change track.
Maybe celebrated author William Faulkner understood this best. Writing about his process, he said that “once the character is in your mind and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself. All you need to do then is to trot along behind him and put down what he does and what he says.”
This does not mean Faulkner had no control over his process. He revised exhaustively until he came up with a final draft. But artists understand that they have to work with what they don’t know in order to come to their final goal. When we relinquish trying to have control over everything, we allow ourselves the grace to discover true meaning.
It’s like a conversation. Instead of going into life and its many messy problems with a transactional approach that seeks to gain the most points, approach life with genuine curiosity about what you want to learn. Think of yourself as the piece of art: a script or a statue unfolding in its truth, living toward its best expression.
The most important thing to remember/take away from all this is:
Making a decision should not be a utilitarian mechanism by which you derive the most benefit. Rather, the process should put at its heart your sense of self and your principles. Using these as a guide, and giving yourself the grace to make mistakes and start again, will lead you to a life truly well lived.
About the author
Russ Roberts is the president of Shalem College in Jerusalem and the John and Jean De Nault Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He hosts the award-winning weekly podcast EconTalk, in which he distills economic concepts with guests such as Michael Lewis, Jill Lepore, Angela Duckworth, Christopher Hitchens, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He is the author of five books, including Gambling with Other People’s Money and How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, and cocreator of the Keynes-Hayek rap videos, which have been viewed more than 12 million times on YouTube. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago.
Motivation, Inspiration, Personal Development, Psychology, Economics, Philosophy, Business, Management, Leadership, Decision-Making, Problem Solving, Happiness Self-Help
Table of Contents
1 Wild Problems 1
2 Darwin’s Dilemma 9
3 In the Dark 21
4 This Is Serious 41
5 The Pig and the Philosopher 55
6 Flourishing Matters 69
7 Penelope’s Problem 89
8 How to Get Over Yourself 115
9 Privilege Your Principles 133
10 Be Like Bill 157
11 Live Like an Artist 171
12 Summing Up 185
Sources and Further Reading 199
From the host of EconTalk, a guide to decision-making when you can’t crunch the numbers
Algorithms and apps analyze data and tell you how to beat the traffic, what books to buy, what music to listen to, and even who to date—often with great results. But what do you do when you face the big decisions of life—the “wild problems” of who to marry, whether to have children, where to move, how to forge a life well-lived—that can’t be solved by measurement or calculation?
In Wild Problems, beloved host of EconTalk Russ Roberts offers puzzled rationalists a way to address these wild problems. He suggests spending less time and energy on the path that promises the most happiness, and more time on figuring out who you actually want to be. He draws on the experience of great artists, writers, and scientists of the past who found creative ways to navigate life’s biggest questions. And he lays out strategies for reducing the fear and the loss of control that inevitably come when a wild problem requires a leap in the dark.
Ultimately, Roberts asks us to see ourselves and our lives less as a problem to be solved than a mystery to be experienced. There’s no right decision waiting to be uncovered by an app or rational analysis. Reality is harder than that and, perhaps, a little more interesting.
“This excellent book won’t make your decisions for you. Instead, it will do something more powerful: help you think about your most important decisions in a completely new light.” – EMILY OSTER, author of Expecting Better
“Wild Problems is a powerful guide to a more meaningful life.” – DAVID EPSTEIN, author of Range
“I’ve learned more about economics and economic reasoning from Russ Roberts than from all other sources combined. I am delighted to find out in this book that Roberts is also a source about the limits of economic reasoning when it comes to existential decisions.” – NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB, author of The Black Swan
“An interesting and useful book. The ‘wild problems’ it explains how to solve include the biggest ones you’ll face in your life.” – PAUL GRAHAM, founder of Y Combinator
“A beautiful meditation on big life choices, gently reminding us of the limits of narrow cost-benefit reasoning and presenting an alternative approach to human flourishing.” – ANGELA DUCKWORTH, author of Grit
“Roberts’s thought-provoking take on the limits of data and the overquantification of contemporary life provides a bold and original perspective on how humans can make better decisions. Daniel Kahneman’s fans will find much to ponder.” – PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY