Life Coach Magazine

CAN Vs. SHOULD: How to Choose the Right Problem to Fix [A Call To Action]

By Rwilner

There is no shortage of problems to fix.  They’re everywhere:

Personal: I’m out of shape. I don’t read enough. I need to get my side project off the ground.

Work: My reports take too long to produce.  We are losing market share.  I have too many projects and not enough time.

Humanity: Water shortages. Climate change. Income disparity.

We have to start somewhere.  Where do people usually start?  They start with something they can fix…something easy, do-able, a “quick win.”

But – there is another way to choose where to start.  The other choice is to work on the things we should fix. Should means we don’t think about how hard it would be.  We look only at the impact it will have.

Think about the big projects you’re working on now, at home, and at work.  List them all.

Are you working on them because they can be fixed?

Or are you working on them because they should be?


Let’s illustrate the difference between solving problems that can be solved vs. ones that should be solved.

Hypothesis: a large percentage of our smartest, most entrepreneurial people are working on stupid things…because they CAN fix them (and they CAN make money quickly).

Evidence: there are 12 (that’s TWELVE) companies that are focused on delivering booze to you.  (Probably there are twenty more pitching venture capitalists right now.)

What’s their mission statement? Get all the world’s lazy people drunk?  Is that something we should be working on?

How many more entrepreneurs are focused on solving “problems” of convenience?  Is this the system problem we should be working on: allowing people to be as lazy as possible?

As a species, we are massive, incredible challenges. Fortunately, we are in a technical, scientific, and entrepreneurial renaissance.

Ray Kurzweil described a phenomenon that shows our technology and capability as a species advances as a quadratic function — a runaway train of progress.

Anecdotal example: Deep blue — the 1998 IBM supercomputer that bested then world-champion chess player Gary Kasparov and stood taller than a person — is 10% as powerful as the smartphone in your pocket.  That’s several orders of magnitude of improvement in 20 years.

Data-driven example: It cost $100,000,000 to map a genome in 2000. Now it costs $1000.  (That’s a big improvement.  Like, really, really big)

All of this new capacity and ability…how can we use it?

30% of the food we produce is wasted.  We spend an incredible amount of water and oil to produce food…and then an equally incredible amount of water an oil incinerating that same food. This is a system problem.

All therapeutic drugs are essentially developed with lots and lots of trial and error.  How can we crowdsource solutions to develop these therapies faster?  How can we turn cancer research into an MMORPG (or the science version…massively multiplayer online science)?  This is a system problem.

Shouldn’t we be working on these problems?

Entrepreneurs: I beseech you.  We know you can make money.  Please make what should be worked on at the core of what you choose to do.


Donald Schon was a professor at MIT in the 90s.

Dr. Schon makes this observation: what can be worked on and what should be worked on is a dilemma all professionals face.  Especially academics.

Academics like neat problems that wrap themselves up in neat equations and fold their napkins and excuse themselves from the table and never have more than one drink at a party.

Professionals know these problems don’t exist.  Professional problems happen in the real world.  They are rowdy, drunk hooligans.  Real problems slap you in the face.  They throw up on your shoes.

Here is Dr. Schon’s more eloquent characterization (emphasis mine):

In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp. On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through the use of research-based theory and technique. In the swampy lowlands, problems are messy and confusing and incapable of technical solution.

The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or to society at large, however great their technical interest may be, while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern. The practitioner is confronted with a choice. Shall he remain on the high ground where he can solve relatively unimportant problems according to his standards of rigor, or shall he descend to the swamp of important problems where he cannot be rigorous in any way he knows how to describe?


Do you decide to work on a problem because it has a solution?

Or do you decide to work on a problem because it SHOULD BE SOLVED?

(Here is a link to Dr. Schon’s brilliant piece which I recommend you read in its entirety).


I’m not saying that everyone should be working on fixing climate change, or curing cancer, or some other giant problem.  (although, would that be so bad?)

Surely, there are things at your job that you know should be fixed.  You can probably think of 10 right now.  You can ask your colleagues and get 100 more.

Working on things that should be fixed is hard.  It can take a long time.  The path forward is unclear.  And scariest of all: there is no guarantee you can fix it.

In other words: not all problems that can be fixed, should be fixed…and not all problems that SHOULD be fixed, CAN be fixed.

To fix them you have to be brave.  You have to be creative.  You have to have lots of ideas because most of them won’t work.

You have to accept that working on something that SHOULD be fixed will not create a crisp, satisfying feeling, like when you snap the final piece into a puzzle, or hit “send” on that report you spent 4 days on, or finish taking your final exam and get your degree.


Satisfaction in working on problems that SHOULD be fixed comes not from the result, but from the process of fixing the thing.

But here’s the good news: No matter what you work on, results show up sporadically, occasionally…but the process of striving for results happens every hour of every day.

Here’s more good news: Those at the peak of their profession revel not in the results they achieve, but in the process of achieving it.  This is why so many toil in obscurity for extended periods (or maybe forever).

Work is the process, not the result.

Do you want satisfaction every day at work?  Do you want to be at the peak of your profession? Do you want to be the person that drives your business into its future?

Here’s my 3-step process:

  • Find the problems that should be fixed.  
  • Find a lot of other smart people.  
  • Get to work.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog