Costing Up Solutions
Back in Self Curiosity I talked about the importance of being comfortable with being stuck, and how an attitude of curiosity can help you get out of that by treating thinking about the problem as intrinsically rewarding even if you don’t solve it.
The problem with this attitude is of course this: If you don’t have good tools for tackling the problem to make it rewarding, this feeling is a lie that you will quickly disabuse yourself of. So in this post I’d like to offer you a fairly general tool for improving your understanding of and, ideally, solving a problem.
The tool is this: Stop thinking in terms of “Can I solve this problem?” and start thinking in terms of “What would it take to achieve the desired outcome?”, and play around with solutions from there.
No Such Thing as Overkill
A long time ago I was given a great piece of advice: If you can solve a problem by writing a cheque then it isn’t a problem, it’s an expense.
(You can tell it was a long time ago because it includes the word “cheque”, a concept that exists only in the USA and the 20th century).
Now, this is of course a problem solving technique that is much more useful given a certain level of financial privilege. At every level of income there are at least some things that could be problems but instead are expenses, but the more money you have the more problems you can turn into expenses.
A corollary of this is that often when you want to think about what solutions to a problem might look like, a good starting point is to ask how you could solve the problem if you just had an absurd amount of money to throw at it.
For example, as I’ve written about previously an ongoing desire of mine is to keep my living environment clean (cf. Refusing to Learn, Cleaning up the fnords in my environment). What would it look like to turn that into an expense?
Well, I could hire a cleaner. How much would that cost to achieve my desired aim? When I’ve had a cleaner before that wasn’t really enough - they would come once a week and they would reset my flat to a baseline but it’s not so much that the flat stayed at a level I was happy with as that it never got too bad.
So imagine I hired a cleaner for a couple of hours daily. Lets say that costs £50 per day. I don’t expect to live more than another 70 years, so that’s an expense of £50 x 365 x 70 = £1,277,500. Of course, that would be very inconvenient with my current flat, so lets say I bought a flat that was larger and thus easier to keep clean and stay out of their way. Even if I stayed roughly where I currently am, that wouldn’t cost more than £1,000,000 or so. I’d probably feel a bit bad about this category of solution (having someone clean up after me every single day to the point of picking up my laundry and doing it, etc. sounds pretty bad) so maybe I’ll hire a therapist to help me with that. Once a week at £100 / week should be enough so lets say £364,000 for that. So all told I can definitely turn this entire category of problem into a “mere” £3,000,000 expense.
This is a relatively trivial example of course, and deliberately so to illustrate the point, but this scales up pretty well to arbitrarily hard problems, even ones that seem intractable. Can I solve climate change? No, probably not. Given access to literally all of the money in the world, could I solve climate change? Yeah, probably - political lobbying, subsidised green tech, found a bunch of research institutions, buy up rainforest land, etc. All the money in the world is a lot of money and buys a lot of options.
Often figuring out how you’d solve a problem given lots of money isn’t even hard. It’s usually just doing the thing you know works more than feels reasonable to do (cf. More Dakka). Hiring a cleaner isn’t enough? What if you hired a cleaner but more. Cleaners are inconvenient because of space constraints? What if space, but more. A remarkable number of problems can be made to move out of the way if you just throw more resources at the problem.
Sometimes what you find out is that actually it just needs an amount of money that on reflection you’re basically OK with paying. Sometimes problems really are expenses for you, and realising that can be great.
For example my recent flat move (See Being, Acting, and Feeling Responsible) was in large part the result of me deciding that I had a whole bunch of problems that I could just throw money at, that I could afford to do so, and that in the present circumstances it actually was worth doing so.
But even when you don’t, this is still a useful thing to do, because it refines your understanding of the problem and shifts its mental category. The “throw money at it” solution acts as an existence proof (See Seeking out existence proofs in everyday life). It is no longer an insoluble problem, it’s just a problem that could in principle be solved if you had the resources to do it, and now it’s just a question of haggling over price.
Dialling it back a little
OK so we now know this problem is soluble. What do we do with that information? Because I’m certainly not going to spend £3,000,000 to keep my home tidy.
The answer is that we take this solution and we fiddle with it. We ask what we can change about it.
The simplest thing is to just try and optimise the price a little bit. For example I gave a ballpark figure of “I’m sure it doesn’t cost more than £1 million to buy a flat in my area”. I’ve now looked it up on rightmove and it’s less than half that. Cool, just saved half a million! Also more importantly it’s something I’m likely to do anyway at some point, and not on the critical path for this problem anyway given that the issue it solves is just that having a cleaner come every day is a bit inconvenient in a smaller place.
Similarly, do I actually need the therapist part? Well, no, probably not. Seeing a therapist might be a good idea anyway, but I’m already pretty much doing my own self therapy. This is, again, a part of the solution that only really exists to convince myself that other problems with the solution are solvable in principle.
This just leaves the cleaner part of the solution. There are a couple of directions that one could go from there:
How long do I actually need a cleaner to come for? £50 is a reasonable amount for about three hours of cleaning (most cleaners I’ve hard have charged less than that). My flat definitely doesn’t need that amount of cleaning per day.
What are the specific things that a cleaner would do for me and can I find alternative ways to do that? e.g. one of the things a cleaner would do is vacuum, could I just buy a roomba?
Which bits could I just do myself? e.g. I really would like someone to occasionally clean my bathroom and oven for me, but honestly I really should be able to figure out how to get myself to vacuum and mop my place more regularly myself.
I could definitely get a cleaner for a day a week and that starts to sound a lot more affordable. Could I do that but also learn to better keep on top of the rest of the flat? Although also there’s a pandemic on and that complicates matters.
Another thing that is useful here is to use this solution to look at the underlying needs and emotions related to the problem. For example, how would I feel about this solution? Well I’d feel bad about it - I said so already. Why? Well, a couple of reasons:
This isn’t really about a clean flat, is it? It’s much more about my ability to maintain my space in some more abstract sense. It feels like something I should be able to do, and merely offloading the problem so someone else feels more like an abdication of responsibility than solving the problem.
There’s definitely a sort of privilege guilt sitting there around the idea of hiring a cleaner for that amount of time even if I could afford to do so. There’s a certain amount of that going on even with a sensible rate of hiring a cleaner.
Also is this actually a problem I need to solve? My flat is probably a lot tidier than you’re imagining it to be for the amount I talk about being bad at cleaning, and if I look at the amount I’m actually willing to spend on this maybe this is something of a non-issue and this is really entirely an emotional problem.
This ties in to the double loop learning aspect that I talk about in How to do hard things. When solving complex ill defined problems, often your initial conception of the problem is wrong, and trying to solve it helps you find that out. These sorts of hypothetical solutions can often work just as well.
Another reason to look at the underlying needs is that often there’s a cheap solution lurking in there. There’s a great (now deleted, but still findable on the internet archive) Twitter thread about “$50 solutions to $2000 problems” where you investigate your fantasies and find out that actually they’re just pointing to some really mundane underlying need that you can solve for comparatively small amounts of money (or even just time and effort!). I found the discussion on this tumblr post particularly valuable.
In the original formulation they are talking about how the fantasies are a problem to be solved. They are if you fixate on those fantasies as something you actually want to do, but taken in another light those fantasies are something to deliberately lean into because they enrich the space of tools you have for thinking about your problems.
Will this solve all my problems?
No, absolutely not.
The basic, fundamental, flaw with this approach is that, I regret to inform you, you are not actually a billionaire with nigh unlimited amounts of money to spend.
(Or, uh, if you are can you let me know? We might be able to arrange some sort of very mutually beneficial patronage scheme where you throw lots of money at me for me to help you solve your problems)
If you’re reasonably well off the “How would I throw money at this problem?” frame is very useful for finding actual solutions, but a lot of problems are not really ones you can just throw money at. They are, at most, ones that money can help streamline. You can’t throw money at a broken relationship for example - you can pay for couples therapy, certainly, and this approach will reveal that as a sensible thing to do, but you can’t actually do the work.
Even many problems which you can solve with money are likely out of your reach. There are many problems in my life right now that I could solve with £1,000,000 (mostly living situation ones), but I don’t have £1,000,000 and am not on any sort of immediate track to getting it, so a lot of them I’ll have to look for alternative solutions for.
Instead of solving this problems, what this approach does is change your relationship to them. It lets you think of them in terms of concrete, practical, terms, and to encourage you to think about and play with them. Problems become not intractable existential states, just things that you’ve yet to figure out how to make work for you. This isn’t the only frame to look at the problems in your life through, but it’s one that is often beneficial and it’s worth being comfortable with.