Everyone agrees we’re in a massive transition, but few agree on the best way to navigate it. Every Wednesday at The Nonlinear Life we focus on life transitions. Specifically, how to turn this period of uncertainty and stress into one of growth and renewal.
My father has a wonderful expression: “If it can be solved with time or money, it’s not a problem.” I’ve been thinking about that view a lot over the last few months as we all continue to absorb and confront the enormous number of changes we’re all experiencing right now. Under my father’s definition, a twisted ankle is not a problem, nor a fender-bender, nor a case of bronchitis.
But climate change? Political polarization? Loneliness? Hunger?
In December 1969, two design researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, delivered a paper at the American Association for the Advancement of Science with the unmemorable title, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” The paper included an extremely memorable idea that has grown only more relevant in the intervening 50 years.
The idea was that problems could be divided into two categories: tame and wicked. A tame problem, or what they also called a benign problem, is one in which there is an easy, identifiable solution—solving an equation, baking chocolate chip cookies, fixing a twisted fender, prescribing antibiotics.
A wicked problem, by contrast, has no simple solution, no pat formula, no easy answer. Obesity is a wicked problem, as are poverty, terrorism, income disparity, and getting children to eat broccoli.
“We are calling them ‘wicked’ not because these properties are themselves ethically deplorable,” the researchers said. "But because they are ‘malignant,’ ‘vicious,’ ‘tricky,’ or ‘aggressive.’”
They are lions, the researchers added, not lambs.
The terms tame and wicked can be helpful to all of us right now. I’ve been doing a lot of speaking to different groups on life transitions in recent weeks, and I always get asked some version of the same question: How do I decide which of the many challenges I face right now to focus on? In the parlance of my most recent book, Life Is in the Transitions: What’s the difference between a disruptor and a lifequake?
In my work on life stories, I have identified two types of events that upset the regular flow of our lives. The first is a disruptor. A disruptor can be anything from that fender-bender or case of bronchitis to changing your religious practice or adopting a baby. My data show we experience three dozen disruptors in the course of our lives—that’s one every 12 to 18 months.
Lifequakes are bigger, more consequential bursts of upheaval, from quitting your job to starting a new venture to moving across the country to experiencing a natural disaster. We experience three to five lifequakes in the course of our lives.
In the context of Horst and Webber, a disruptor is usually a tame problem; a lifequake is usually a wicked problem. Horst and Webbrer’s original definition said a wicked problem: a) lacks a clear solution; b) solutions are not true or false, they’re good and bad; c) the solution for each wicked problem is unique to itself; and d) solutions usually can’t be tested before you implement them.
A simple thing you can do to put your mind at ease when you’re feeling overwhelmed is to survey all the challenges on your plate and try to label them as tame or wicked, disruptors or lifequakes.
A few things to keep in mind:
A disruptor that goes unaddressed can quickly mushroom into a lifequake.
A problem that one person might find easy to tame, someone else might find wicked.
Disruptors tend to clump. Just when you get that fender-bender, you learn that a relative needs surgery. (Tune in next Wednesday, October 13th, when I do a whole post about this phenomenon, which I call a pileup.)
But here’s the surprising thing I’ve learned. Sometimes, when facing a tsunami of change, it’s easier to focus on the tame problems first. Fix that fender, see that doctor for that ache and pain, apologize to that friend.
Smooth out that disruptor.
Once you do that, you clear your mind, your body, and your emotional bandwidth to tackle the wicked problem that’s waiting in the wings. The lifequake requires more time and energy, so give yourself ample freedom to develop solutions that don’t involve time or money.
After all, it’s a problem. And, to quote that famous scene in Good Will Hunting, you’re going to need your wicked smarts to solve it.
And you will.
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