Solutions are Problems, and Problems are Solutions

Solutions are Problems, and Problems are Solutions
Some people, when confronted with a problem, think “I know, I’ll use regular expressions.” Now they have two problems.
— Jamie Zawinski

Most software developers will have come across the above quote. Others may have encountered this one:

Mo’ money, mo’ problems.
— The Notorious B.I.G.

If you read them closely, both challenge the same idea: that a solution is an improvement upon the problem it solves. What this boils down to is that any given solution has some cost attached (not necessarily monetary), and a cost is not a problem most people want to have.

Does this mean that you shouldn’t create solutions? Of course not, we need solutions. However, we need the right solutions. Put another way, we need to choose the right problems.

The Right Problems

When you conceptualize solutions and problems as being equivalent, you can start to bypass the mindset that a solution is intrinsically better than a problem, which can help your openness to considering alternative solutions. This is a good thing, because what you are really doing is finding which problems you would rather have.

Sometimes, this can even mean that the right solution to your problem is the acceptance of the problem itself; in other words, the right course of action can sometimes be to do nothing. However, that is another trap that can be easy to fall into.

Risk Can be the Safest Bet

When you spend much of your time trying to solve problems, you might eventually feel like those problems are insurmountable, or that the solutions are too risky to try. There are two issues with this:

  1. Problems never go away; they can merely be switched with different problems. You never actually “solve” a problem.

  2. Aversion to risk can lead you to accept the problems you already have; in a competitive society, this means somebody less averse to risk will eventually solve the problems you are unwilling to attempt to solve, leaving them with an advantage over you.

Regarding the first item, it can be useful to think of problems as good things. In fact, you may have heard of this common quote:

That’s a good problem to have.
— Literally Everybody

That quote is usually what somebody says when you explain a problem you are having that has an obvious way in which it can be viewed positively. Just by changing your perception from problems being insurmountable to problems being inevitable and even positive, it becomes more palatable to strive for choosing the right problems, rather than giving up based on the idea that change is too hard.

Regarding the second item — that aversion to risk can itself be risky — you might propose that risk aversion is a natural personality trait present to varying degrees in everybody (with the exception of S.M.). While that’s certainly true, you might also consider that nobody exists in their own universe; decisions can be delegated to others who are more accepting of risk. In this sense, it it sometimes useful to incorporate others into your problem solving process so that you may benefit from different perspectives.

Put simply, invite risk where appropriate; if you can’t stomach risk, take a risk on somebody who can.

There is No Spoon

It is not the spoon that bends; it is only yourself.
— Boy From The Matrix

How can you use the concept of solution-problem equivalence in your daily life? Simple. Stop trying to solve problems, and start choosing which problems you’d rather have. Or, if you like, which solutions you’d rather have.

Embracing the idea that much in life is simply an equation in which you can trade two of X for three of Y, or problem A for problem B, will enable you to consider more of your options with less bias, which could very well lead to better choices being made.

Be a Trouble Maker

Speaking of choices and challenging assumptions, I urge you to be a trouble maker. In other words, don’t accept the same problems that others have accepted. Choose your own set of problems. That might mean ruffling some feathers every now and then. So be it. A bird that has never ruffled its feathers has probably never flown.

If you aren’t occasionally creating problems, you aren’t creating solutions. And if you aren’t creating solutions, you are probably the problem. Invent, solve, aspire, create, improve, change; whatever you call it, do it.