Day 25: Problems

What are the biggest questions – personal, societal and technological-that you think need solving today?

This is no light fare. After receiving an email with the subject “Big questions, looking for yours” (from a friend I highly respect), I scoured my brain. I complain all the time. Surely, I can come up with TONS of problems worth solving.

At first I thought big: world peace, AIDS, healthcare. Problems worthy of the name are generally…big, right? They wouldn’t be substantial issues if they weren’t.

After further inspection, however, I realized that the biggest obstacles in my life are quite small.  Things like:

– being perpetually late,

– not getting enough sleep,

– not having time to exercise or take care of myself,

– feeling perpetually guilty about neglecting certain relationships,

– not having enough time to stock my fridge.

Selfish as this may sound, I don’t really have time to think about problems bigger than me and my anemic fridge. Can anyone say SERIOUS FIRST-WORLD.

So, here we arrive at the root of near all first-world problems: time and choice.

When these two variables are at odds, we fail to be healthy, productive, or happy citizens.

 Too little time and too much choice, we are overwhelmed.  (typical first-world)

Too much time and too little choice, we are deprived. (third-world)

One world suffers from excess, the other from scarcity. So, I propose this question for those of us in the former group:

How do we allow our lifestyles to be a healthy balance of time and choice: one with ample time to take care of ourselves, our loved ones and the world outside our sheltered bubble? What is the minimum number of options we need to feel self-sufficient in life?

One of my favorite restaurants is a cozy Indian restaurant nestled on a corner in the Lower East Village. The menu fits neatly on a glossy 8 1/2 x 11 pamphlet. I have my 2 staple dishes, which I usually alternate between. If I’m feeling a bit more adventurous, I’ll try something else on the menu. The waiter can helpfully guide me through the possible choices but even without his help, I can usually navigate the menu myself since there aren’t an overwhelming number of options. Plus price, taste, and quality are all pretty consistent. It’s glorious. For once, I don’t get a headache from calculating all the cost-benefits. (Such is the plight of neurotic maximizing New Yorkers.)

This is the way life, ideally, should be.

In today’s mass consumer market, selection is an asset. It’s a sign of wealth, choice, freedom. But with the number of choices we face daily, from the breadth of cheeses at Trader Joe’s to even the variety of lingerie I can get at Victoria’s Secret, at some point, I’m willing to say, “Just give me your most pretentious cheese and scandalous underwear.” I don’t want to try a million different options; I just want something that’s good. (Of course what is good? That’s another can of worms.)

So what big question needs solving? It boils down to what we prioritize. The big question that we each need to solve is, in fact, very simple.

What do you want?

The reality is that modern society presents us with so many choices that answering this question is actually pretty difficult. Perhaps it would do us good to create systems that restrict information flow, with all the products, sales, and news blips. It’s our duty to stay informed, but with just enough information. We need time and choice, but just enough.  Just enough is… enough.

God is probably laughing. This is what we’ve run our lives into. We’re so wealthy that we’re pushing away options. Of course I”m sure that the minute these choices are removed and we move to, say, North Korea, I’ll yearn for these days of over-inundated marketing.

In response to my own question, I want to have more time to take care of myself, so I can then spend more quality time with loved ones, so I can then thoughtfully decide how I can help the rest of the world. Re “helping the rest of the world”, I know there are a million ways but just give me just 3 choices – seriously. Otherwise I’ll spend all my brainpower deciding what to do and by the time I decide, I’ll be too tired to do anything.

There are plenty of problems. But tackling the self is the biggest obstacle.

“If there is beauty in character, there will be harmony in the home. If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation. If there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.” – Confucius

If you want to change the world, start small. The biggest questions lie within.

future life

4 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Beautifully written, Lynne. I would just say that, while third-world countries are certainly limited in choices, they’re often limited in time too. Some people work constantly just to make enough money to feed their families; plus, the lifespans are often not as long there.

    How appropriate that you posed the question, “What do I want?” I cringe to admit this, but I’m reading “The 4-hour Workweek.” If you haven’t heard of it, Google it to see all the hype over this book. When I bought it yesterday, I was kind of embarrassed because at first it seems like a “get rich quick” book, but I think it has some valuable info. In it, the authour talks about how imprecise and overwhelming the question “What do you want?” is. When someone asks us this, it’s such a broad question that we can’t produce any real and actionable answers. He suggests a better question is, “What would excite you?” Not sure I agree with the suggested question, but I do agree “What do you want” lacks the specificity needed to come up with clear, actionable goals. It’s just like the too-many-options problem you talk about in your post. That question covers way too many areas of life; how can we pick? So maybe if you ask, “Where do you want to visit in the next 3 months?” or “What language do you want to learn?” it would be more fruitful.

    Keep up the great posts. I can relate to them so much!

  2. Amy, you’re so right that many people in the third-world don’t have the luxury of time. In fact, I may have gotten the whole time variable flip-flopped; some of us in the first-world may actually have more time than others! But there are also plenty of people in America who have little time, little choice – ie. working single moms – so you really can’t generalize with the time thing. Choice may be the stronger distinguishing factor.

    Abner you’re right – ‘What excites you’ is better than ‘What do you want’, especially since what you want can be different depending on the context. It’s crazy though, I’m still not sure how I would answer ‘what excites you’ generally. Making it a multiple choice question might help haha.

    I’ve heard good things about ‘4-Hour Workweek’. Let me know how the rest of it goes…maybe even in-person when I’m in San Francisco this week? I”ll message you details of my visit. I hope we can meet-up! 🙂

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