The Order You Solve Problems Matters

I have been looking at some thoughts from Peter Thiel recently. There is valuable material in this one.

“Ted Kaczynski was a child prodigy who enrolled at Harvard at 16. He went on to get a Ph.D. in math and become a professor at UC Berkeley. But you’ve only ever heard of him because of the 17-year terror campaign he waged with pipe bombs against professors, technologists, and businesspeople. In late 1995, the authorities didn’t know who or where the Unabomber was. The biggest clue was a 35,000-word manifesto that Kaczynski had written and anonymously mailed to the press. The FBI asked some prominent newspapers to publish it, hoping for a break in the case. It worked: Kaczynski’s brother recognized his writing style and turned him in.

You might expect that writing style to have shown obvious signs of insanity, but the manifesto is eerily cogent. Kaczynski claimed that in order to be happy, every individual needs to have goals whose attainment requires effort, and needs to succeed in attaining at least some of his goals.

He divided human goals into three groups:

1. Goals that can be satisfied with minimal effort;

2. Goals that can be satisfied with serious effort; and

3. Goals that cannot be satisfied, no matter how much effort one makes.

This is the classic trichotomy of the easy, the hard, and the impossible. Kaczynski argued that modern people are depressed because all the world’s hard problems have already been solved. What’s left to do is either easy or impossible, and pursuing those tasks is deeply unsatisfying. What you can do, even a child can do; what you can’t do, even Einstein couldn’t have done. So Kaczynski’s idea was to destroy existing institutions, get rid of all technology, and let people start over and work on hard problems anew.

Kaczynski’s methods were crazy, but his loss of faith in the technological frontier is all around us. Consider the trivial but revealing hallmarks of urban hipsterdom: faux-vintage photography, the handlebar mustache, and vinyl record players all hark back to an earlier time when people were still optimistic about the future. If everything worth doing has already been done, you may as well feign an allergy to achievement and become a barista.”

Ted Kaczynski’s idea of a hard problem is relative. Your problems are undoubtedly different from the large social and scientific puzzles he worked with every day. Nonetheless, you will find that sorting into impossible, hard, and easy is something you can do within your own context and resource set. And to your advantage

You should do it. You do it with the same strategy you use to write a challenging, time-limited exam. Clear the easy questions. Sort the rest from least hard to impossible and start on the least hard with the most marks available. Eventually, the time will be exhausted, and all that will be left are the hard problems with little payback and the impossible. No great loss to leave those undone.

The bits to take away.

Organize around cost-benefit relationships. If you begin with the very difficult, you may not achieve the answer you need, while the low-hanging fruit will have been overlooked.

Never fail to notice that easily solved problems provide you with resources of money or skill to solve more challenging problems.

Life has an order to it that helps you if you use it. “In the field of observation, chance favours the prepared mind” Louis Pasteur” preparing your mind for more is a big part of success in life.

Ordering problems is the “When” element in planning.


I build strategic, fact-based estate and income plans. The plans identify alternate ways to achieve spending and estate distribution goals. In the past, I have been a planner with a large insurance, employee benefits, and investment agency, a partner in a large international public accounting firm, CEO of a software start-up, a partner in an energy management system importer, and briefly in the restaurant business. I have appeared on more than 100 television shows on financial planning. I have presented to organizations as varied as the Canadian Bar Association, The Ontario Institute of Chartered Accountants, The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, and Banks – from CIBC to the Business Development Bank.

Be in touch at 705-927-4770 or by email at don.shaughnessy@gmail.com.

One Comment on “The Order You Solve Problems Matters

  1. Glad to see that this is functional at last!!👍🏻
    Too bad it requires (as in don’t ignore the boxes with *) to leave a comment. This comment will likely die because of it. ☹️

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