Types of Problems

Problems worthy of attack
prove their worth by hitting back.
—Piet Hein, “Grooks”

Some problems make you smarter. You come away from having wrestling with them with a deeper understanding, more skills, and a broader outlook. Such problems, I like to think, are ones that you look back on with satisfaction in later life, after the desire and skill to tackle them has passed.

Then there are problems that just wear you down. You grapple with them, pin them to the ground, then walk away feeling tired and grimy, wondering what you learned other than “I never want to do that again!” Many of life’s problems are of this type. They’re worth solving, but you don’t get smarter. But these problems are not all without compensation. On reflection, you may learn how to recognized the type of problem in advance, find ways the work can be simplified, automated, or even avoided, and so on. You get a tiny bit smarter, but without much satisfaction.

And then there are problems that suck of hours, days, or months out of your life, until, by some stroke of luck, you discover the completely non-obvious reason why the problem had you banging your head against the wall in bewildered frustration. But you don’t come away smarter. What remains is the urge to extract satisfaction by tracking down whoever caused the problem, and ensuring that they never pass their defective “clever” gene on to future generations.