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Outlier’s Path

Problem-Solution Paradox

Closed for the year of the pandemic, the TED Conference resumed in 2021 with a smaller audience in Monterey, CA. Kevin Kelly, the founding executive editor of Wired magazine, spoke about “The Future Will Be Shaped by Optimists.” The TED audience is full of optimists, which made me think it was a filler talk. I sat in the back for a potential exit, but had I not stayed, I would have missed a line I have been repeating ever since: “Every problem has a solution, and every solution creates other problems.”

As an editor who puts together the headlines of articles and then the headline of each magazine edition, Kevin talks about why pessimistic views rule us in the short term. First, bad news is more apparent than good news. Second, bad news travels faster, but good ideas take time to develop. Third, society is capable of both good and bad, but as long as we net out a small positive and compound that over time, just a few percentage points a year can make a massive difference in society over a decade and then over a century, which has been the case for the last five centuries.

Imagine you were the editor of a newspaper for humankind. What would your headline be for today? What about this week, month, or year? Imagine if you had to write one for the last few decades you have been alive. After studying history, what would your headline be for the last few centuries?

In human history, our ability to harness power was one of the most important inventions. For example, learning how to make fire kept us warm, helped us scare away predators, and allowed us to cook food and eat enough calories to fuel and develop our bodies and, more importantly, our brains. However, with that solution, the problem was sometimes we had access to things we could burn, and sometimes we couldn’t find anything to burn. We found better ways to harness and store energy to use it where and when needed, which allowed us to read at night and live closer together to form small villages and eventually towns and cities. This population migration created a new problem. The demand for energy and goods from far away increased, so the problem was we needed much more powerful machines to move a lot of weight. This problem led to the solution of the steam engine that powered vehicles across land, sea, and air.

Kevin believes all the problems we have today resulted from past solutions, just as our ability to harness power is the cause of climate change now. We might lament this fact, but would we go back in time and prevent our ancestors from discovering fire, so they would live in cold isolation, hunted by prey, and constantly searching for food as hunters and gatherers? The planet might be better off with fewer humans, shorter lifespans for them, and less pollution, but humanity would look very primitive compared to what we accomplished in the last millennia.

Problems and their solutions do not exist in isolation. Instead, solutions have ripple effects that create new challenges because we live in an interconnected, dynamic, and complex world. While one could view this as a discouraging cycle, new problems present new opportunities for learning, innovation, and solutions. This is not a depressing cycle but a spiral of progress! As Kevin said, “Problems are the conduit to progress. No problems, no progress.”

I wish upon you more problems than you can handle, a love of problem-solving, and a heavy dose of optimism that you can find all the solutions. When you do, you create and shape our future.