The Problem We’re Trying to Solve

This is a work of fiction.

The avatars above and below were created using Picrew

“Dad — can I ask you something?”

“Of course”

“My mentor team has suggested I participate in a new program called Evolving Avatars. You know what avatars are, right?”

“Um, yeah. They were actually around before the movie. Been around longer than you, even.”

[sarcastically] “Ha ha.” [pause] “Well I’ve been asked to create one, and it will be used in a bunch of special projects, potentially over the next five years. And they have a whole bunch of restrictions on them, that make them totally unlike what I’ve ever called an avatar. They’re supposed to be, uh…” [pause, reading] “…aspirational and feasible.

“Sounds interesting. Tell me more.”

“Well here’s what Mentor Monster —” [looking toward her father] “sorry, her real name is Shareen — wrote” [reading]:

  1. The purpose of your Evolving Avatar [EA] is to play a role in various team problem-solving exercises you will be encouraged to participate in, with players your age all over the world. You will do this work in an online universe called World Apart.
  2. Your EA can look any way you like, but must be humanoid. If you can’t imagine working on problems with someone who actually looks like your EA, you probably need to work more on it.
  3. Your EA can have skills and knowledge that you don’t have, at least not yet. The EA is supposed to represent who you imagine yourself possibly becoming. That means no more-than-human superpowers, but could certainly reflect you becoming the best in the world at doing something.
  4. The attached checklist includes 120 [pause; she flips over the page she’s reading]holy fuck! — characteristics and skills, and you can add more as you choose, provided you know, or know of, at least one real person that has them. You are asked to choose 15-20 from this list that represent your Aspirational Abilities — things you think you’re already very good at, or would like to be very good at. If you don’t think you’re able to come up with at least 15, ask your friends to help identify your strengths.
  5. Now select just 3 of the 15-20 as your Most Important Abilities.
  6. You can change your EA’s Aspirational Abilities and Most Important Abilities at any time.
  7. Next, please review the list of Personal Interests from the 100 in the second attached checklist, and select 15-25 of these subjects that most interest you. This will create your Interest Portfolio, which will determine which specific problems you will be invited to participate in addressing in World Apart, with others who share those interests. You can add Interests to this list as well. Again, please select just 3 of the 15-25 you’ve checked, as the subjects you care most deeply about. You can change your Interest Portfolio at any time.
  8. From time to time, you will receive reports on problem-solving activities you are not involved in. If you’re intrigued, the reports will tell you which Abilities and Interests most closely relate to these activities, and you can choose to add some of them to your Portfolios.
  9. You will also receive Curriculum suggestions for deepening your selected Abilities, and becoming more knowledgeable about your selected Interests, which we’d encourage you to explore.
  10. The problem-solving sessions are of many different lengths. All entail mentoring by selected people, some of whom you will have heard about, who are renowned as particularly knowledgeable or skilled in relevant areas. You will have the chance to correspond with them when you’re invited to the sessions.
  11. Some of the sessions that have been held so far, which have included children as young as age 6, have already been cited in major published research and analyses for their novel and exceptional insights. But while you are free to note which sessions you participate in as part of your resume or other documents,  credits for session accomplishments are given to the entire team, with no individual plaudits or recognition given.
  12. Prior to your first invited session, you will be asked to participate in an intensive three-week online workshop on the Dialogue process. This process will be used in all sessions, and is likely quite different from group discussion formats you’ve used in past.

“So that’s it”, she concluded, turning to her father. “What if I have no idea whatsoever what my ‘Abilities’ or ‘Interests’ are? I don’t know enough about them, or about myself, and they change from day to day anyway. This is meant for people a lot older and more mature than I am, I think.”

He laughed. “Well, I actually took a hundred adults through a similar kind of exercise when I wrote my book about entrepreneurship, to help them find ‘the work they were meant to do’. And if it’s any consolation they were just as clueless about what I called their Gifts and their Passions as you are.”

“So what should I do?”

“If you’re intrigued about the idea, take a rough stab at it, and let it evolve. You can use me as a sounding board if it helps. But if it seems impossible, just tell ‘Mentor Monster’ you’re not ready or not interested.”

“Hmmm… Well I got as far as creating my avatar.” [She shows him the illustration above]

“Wow, impressive. It does look a bit like you. Your eyes, your air of skepticism, and your Sherlock-Holmesian curiosity, for a start.”

“Hah! My name for my avatar is Watson! I made one for you, too. You can be an auxiliary Mentor if you want. What do you think?” [she shows him the illustration below]

[laughs] “So you see me as a cheerful beach bum half my age and twice as attractive as I am? I am flattered.”

“Maybe more that it seems like you never want to grow up. I get that. I have no interest in growing up and fitting in, or being an ‘entrepreneur’ or having any kind of career. I’m sure if I’d been in the focus group for your book I’d have run screaming. ‘The work I’m meant to do?’ Geez, I hope I never find out!”

“Well, I guess it’s hopeless then. We’ll never know what we could be doing that we really love and which really makes a difference, because we can’t even figure out what to try.”

“You’re supposed to be encouraging me, Dad.”

“Well, sure. But you’re right. You probably have no idea, for example, how extraordinarily imaginative you are. And even if you know — even if the world knew — you wouldn’t likely be invited to help try to solve some of the very real and critical problems we’re facing right now that are defeating us precisely because the people working on them have no imagination. Because you don’t have ‘expertise’ in those subject areas, and don’t even realize that you do.”

“What, for example? What’s an example of a problem that needs… how is it Zeynep puts it? ‘Fresh eyes and fresh minds’.”

“Well, the train wreck that is Facebook, Twitter et al for example. Horrific and rapidly worsening problems of misinformation and misdirected attention. There are some bold, quite feasible ways to undo the damage that that whole set of ‘social media’ miscreants has created. But nobody’s listening, because the people with power have zero courage and zero imagination.”

“You’re telling me that you think I could help fix Facebook? I don’t even use it anymore. It’s a loser app and a total time waste. Only way to fix it is to blow it up.”

“Perhaps. So, take a step back. Facebook was invented to solve a perceived problem. What’s the problem Facebook was, and perhaps still is, trying to solve? It became popular for a reason. What’s that reason? And how did it create different and more and greater problems than it was designed to fix?”

“And you think I somehow could answer those questions, that probably even its rich nerdy Harvard frat-boy founders couldn’t answer?”

“Elementary, my dear Watson.”

[pause, thinking] “OK, so suppose they originally set it up as a portal so they could exchange their perv-y notes and photos of the women in their classes, but one of them later realized it could be used to connect everyone at the university, and they could make money with it. So their whitewashed ‘problem’ was to enable people to identify their affinities and connect online with other people that share them. No other platform at the time really offered that functionality. One of the real problems, then, is that, to fund it, it was co-opted by commercial interests so that, as Zeynep said, the advertisers became the ‘real’ customers and the users became merely the ‘product’, aggregated, manipulated, and served up to the customers. And another real problem is that as it scaled from hundreds of people on a campus to billions, that sheer mass of eyeballs became an irresistible draw to purveyors of misinformation — advertisers, politicians, cults, intelligence agencies, corporations, and conspiracy theorists.”

“Brilliant. So, if those are the real problems, how might Facebook be reformed?”

[pause, thinking] “Well, all kinds of things. Obviously, big monopoly, break it up into a million pieces, each a non-profit local co-op with a maximum size, and the link them loosely. Funded by a local membership fee, not advertising or data aggregation revenues. So rather than one giant paid-for or influencer-initiated barf to the world, the conspiracy theorists would need to get a million different people to voluntarily propagate their nonsense in each local network.” [pause] “But then it would be so easy for profiteers to re-monetize it by…”

[interrupting] “I rest my case. You aren’t going to solve the problems by yourself, but you obviously have some imaginative ideas. So you could be a major contributor to these sessions, if that would turn your crank.”

“Geez, Dad, ‘turn your crank’? You really are old. But I would never list ‘fixing social media’ as one of my interests. I just don’t care about that stuff.”

“But you are interested in truth, in fairness, in equity, right?”

“Yeah, but they’re not listed in the checklist of interests.”

“Well, perhaps they should be. Maybe talk to ‘Mentor Monster’ about that. Maybe there’s a meta-project to improve the checklist to tie better into things that people know they really care about, and then to more specific projects that might bring those things about.”

“Yeesh. Taxonomy stuff. Back to our last talk about ‘need to do’ versus ‘want to do’. Why can’t they just be the same?”

“There is no why, Tiny Dragon. This avatar project is supposed to be fun. So start with things you want to do. You have a whole lifetime to work on things you need to do. So tell me, what do you think about using the Dialogue process for this project?”

“I don’t know a lot about it. I presume it’s a lot about listening, talking stick stuff, ‘yes and‘ rather than ‘yes but‘. All that Schmachtenberger stuff. No?”

“It depends. There are lots of variants since David Bohm first coined the term. Much depends on the participants, which variant they use, and how practiced they are at it. At first, it will take a lot of facilitation. But if I can eavesdrop on the workshop, I’d love to learn how they are doing it. Especially since they’re trying to teach it online.”

“If I made an extra copy of the Abilities and Interests checklists, would you be willing to list what you think mine are, and then we’ll compare notes?”

“As long as you promise not to delete any from your list that I haven’t put on my list, just consider adding a few that I checked that you didn’t. You know yourself best.”

[sighs] “Sometimes I think I don’t know myself at all. Sometimes I just want to read detective novels and tell the world to get stuffed, carry on without me, since we’re fucked no matter what any of us does.”

[smiles] “If you had the free will to do that, you mean?”

[raises eyebrows] “Don’t get started on that free will stuff again, Dad. It’s just annoying. [long pause] I like your framing of this whole thing: ‘What’s the problem (everything we do) is trying to solve?’. It’s a good way of thinking about why we do what we do.”

[smiles] “You mean why we’re conditioned to do what we do? I told you — there is no why.”

“I will throw something at you if you keep it up. Save that stuff for your Philosophers’ Cafés. We are, or we are conditioned to be, problem solvers. Solving problems, to use your ancient term, ‘turns our cranks’. There doesn’t have to be a reason for that, but its evolution is still interesting.” [sticks out her tongue at him]

[pause] “So tell me, when you love your detective stories so much, why do you settle for reading and watching them. Why aren’t you writing them for other people to solve?”

“There is no why, Big Panda. [pause] But if there were, it would probably be that I’m too lazy to write them. I don’t want to work that hard. Wonder where I got that from, huh?”

“No one should have to work hard, Tiny Dragon. For a million years humans probably just lived like bonobos, food right at hand, lives mostly of curiosity and leisure. Then somewhere along the way it all went wrong.”

“So if I married some rich person and just lay around reading and making love and eating figs and raspberries all day, you wouldn’t be disappointed in me?”

“Not at all. Maybe your rich lover could adopt me at the same time. I can be useful, I don’t take up much space and I entertain myself.”

“You’re too much alone, Dad. It’s not too late to let go and fall crazy in love again. Just sayin’.”

“So seriously, make up your own mind about this avatar project. It’s very ambitious, maybe with too much wishful thinking by jaded, idealistic adults.”

“Thanks Dad. But we’re still going to compare notes on the Abilities and Interests checklists, though, right?”

“Sure. Though what I’d list for you is unlikely to be on any predesigned checklists.”

[pause] “So, if it all comes down to solving problems, what’s the biggest problem you’re trying to solve?”

[pause] “You know, one of your distinctive competencies is the ability to ask challenging and important questions, at just the right time. Is that on the checklist?”

“Probably not. I’ll check. But what’s your answer?”

“I guess there’s a few problems that are top of mind for me. I think you kind of touched on some of them when you gave me your unsolicited advice a moment ago. How to let go. How to be less scared of everything. How to see through the illusions of self, of separation, of free will and choice.”

“But those problems are all about you, not about the world.”

“I thought we’d already established that the world is fucked no matter what we do. So I tend to focus on problems on the inside.”

“But if we’re all completely conditioned the way you say, then you have no control over any of those ‘problems’ anyway.”

“Very perceptive. I may not be able to change anything, but I’d still like to know the answers to those problems, even if I can’t act on that knowledge.” [pause] “But how about you? What’s the biggest problem you’re trying to solve?”

“Huh.” [pause] “My misanthropy I guess. I actually don’t like most people very much. I can’t help judging. And we’re a social species, so an aversion to other people probably isn’t very healthy. I much prefer the company of cats and dogs. And books. I like places like secluded beaches and dark forests without any people in them. And for me, falling in love has been like this horrible disease — you get this initial flush of fever, but after that it’s all pain and puking and disappointment. A lousy crutch for coping with a terrible world full of psychologically damaged idiots.”

“Wow. And exactly how is that enlightened cynicism a ‘problem’?”

“Because it doesn’t fit with what everyone around me wants and needs and cares about and thinks and feels. I have to be with, and navigate the world with, these people. People my own age. My mentors. Even our family. Except you of course. But you’re weird.” [long pause, and then a sigh] “Fuck, Dad, you say you’re scared of everything, but you’re not scared of being lonely. How do you manage it? It scares me to death, living in this insane asylum, thinking that somehow I need to find someone to make it all worthwhile, to give meaning to my life, and just the thought of looking, of being open to that, to my heart cracking open, it’s absolutely terrifying.”

“Maybe I’m just numb to it, and have convinced myself that I can’t or shouldn’t care that much about anyone or anything. Maybe I’m so afraid of feeling, at least the way most people feel, that being alone is the lesser evil, so loneliness just doesn’t occur to me. I don’t know. It seems to work for me, but then I can’t possibly know what I’m missing. Being lonely is how you feel when you remember there’s another way to be. I’ve forgotten. I’m not sure I even want to remember. It’s my form of mental illness in this crazy world, and my way of coping, perhaps.”

“But you said two of the biggest problems you want to solve are how to be less scared and how to let go. Maybe that means you still really want to care in a crazy deep way about people, and still really want to stop being afraid of feeling, no?” [pause] “Whereas I kind of want to stop caring and stop feeling so much, but — and don’t start with the ‘conditioning’ thing again — I can’t stop myself.”

“You mean we’re like two people on the opposite side of a crazy busy highway, each looking at each other and saying How do I get over to your side?

“Except it’s in human nature to want to solve problems, so if we suddenly found ourselves happy exactly where we were, there wouldn’t be any problems to solve any more, so then we’d be unhappy and have to invent some.”

[smile] “So we’d all become mystery story writers.”

“Do you really think that’s the problem with everything — that there’s a fatal hardware or software error in the ‘programming’ of our species, and that there actually are no problems?”

“That’s very Zen of you to say, Tiny Dragon. Could be. Would it help to know that?”

“Sometimes I guess. But knowing that I’m unhappy for no good reason doesn’t make it any better.”

[Sings in falsetto Neil Young voice] “Though my problems are meaningless, that don’t make them go away. I need a crowd of people, but I can’t face ’em day to day.”

[Sings in twangy country voice] “And the white line’s gettin’ longer and the saddle’s gettin’ cold, I’m much too young to feel this damn old.”

[raises eyebrows] “Whaaa? Garth Brooks? Who are you and what did you do with my daughter?”

“So we’ve solved all the world’s problems by declaring that the only real problem is that we don’t realize there are no real problems. What should we do with the rest of the afternoon?”

“You got the checklists? We could do that.”

“I’ll just go make copies.”

“You realize it’s all pointless, right?”

“Like either of us has any choice. I’m sure we’ll be identifying new problems in no time.”

“Yeah, except now we’ve already solved them: Zen Master Mustard, in the Library, with a Koan”.

“Geez, you’re old, Dad.”  [fade out]

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2 Responses to The Problem We’re Trying to Solve

  1. Paul Heft says:

    There are no real problems. Gotta problem with that?
    A fun story, thanks!

  2. David Beckemeier says:

    “No one should have to work hard” Right! I think I’m getting it now in my fifties there never has been any ‘work I’m meant to do’.

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