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.

Day 24: Solutions

If ever there was a heaven on earth, I imagine it involving unlimited food & drink on a beach.  The world’s most talented and intelligent folks would be present, including David Muir and Anderson Cooper (my big news crushes). Cue the right music and they’ll change the world.

What’s described is basically one big cocktail party, only high-achieving and probably out of my reach. Since cocktail parties typically don’t accomplish much more than tipsy small talk (at least in this physical world), I can only hold hope that creating a productive (non-celebrity) one in the digital sphere is possible.

My friend Steve Spalding is working on a network that gets clever people together to discuss difficult (but solvable) questions, form thesis’ about how to solve them, and create actual solutions (papers, products, organizations, events etc…) to help chip away at them. Here are 3 examples of questions that this proposed network would attempt to solve (keep in mind there are a wide range, these are just the top 3 that piqued my interest):

Improving your diet is often as much about where and when you eat as it is about what you are eating, how can we develop way(s) to get people to include more vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and fruit in their diets without making the plan seem like a “diet”?

Crowdfunding technologies have been highly beneficial for small producers, artists, and engineers who need capital injections without the onerous terms often associated with them, however, they don’t allow communities to come together and share both their skills and their capital to create larger more complex projects. How can we develop a system of Crowddoing that brings people, their skills and their capital together to complete big projects? 

The reasons for high unemployment are complex and varied, but one solution that has been posed is to increase the ease, diversity and scope of entrepreneurial ventures, allowing more people to build stable companies that help kickstart new industries that can support new employment  How can we create better support systems to allow small entrepreneurs to develop more varied businesses faster, cheaper and more easily?

Eating healthier, enabling large-scale collaboration, and solving unemployment – who wouldn’t want this? Yet  we need people to seriously think about how. Also, there are more problems that need solving. What would make each of us advance closer to our best selves? How can technology help rather than limit us?  Steve proposes that we think about what we’d like to solve and pose it in a question. Perhaps presenting it to a group of other like-minded folks in the arena would yield tremendous progress.

I have a few questions which I will be sharing in the next post. If you have a question you’d like to pose or just want to learn more about this network – leave a comment, or drop Steve a tweet @sbspalding.