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"Wild Problems" by Russ Roberts -my top 5 takeaways

Fancy yourself a problem solver?

Yeah, me too.

Our natural impulse with problem-solving is to assume that each decision has a “right” choice.

WRONG! according to Russ Roberts, author of the book Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions that Define Us.

There’s a different way to think about decision-making, especially as it pertains to wild problems.

Wild problems are the life choices we face that aren’t easy; decisions where the stakes feel high.

They include questions like:

With wild problems the “right” choice isn't always clear.

We contemplate these high-stake questions by formulating our own cost-benefit analysis, an attempt to approach decision-making with a rational mindset. Pluses and minuses – how do they add up and which side wins?

I wrote my own list when deciding whether I should start my private PT practice. It wasn’t until reading Wild Problems that I realize my choice stemmed from way more than that list.

Here are my big takeaways

KEY TAKEAWAY # 1 - There are PROS and CONS to a pro-con list

The most entertaining portion of this book was the story of Charles Darwin’s marriage contemplation. Darwin documented his MARRY vs. NOT MARRY cost-benefit analysis referenced in his journal.

Naturally, Darwin was selecting his choice based on what his values were. Among other things, he worried that being married might limit evening reading time. Spoiler: Darwin did marry and we might assume adopted other evening rituals.

Roberts points out while there are benefits to these lists, they can also be deceptive.

PROS: This type of analysis can reveal our desires. Evaluating the salience of individual elements helps us cancel out pluses and minuses. Preferential Algebra so to speak.

CONS: A cost-benefit analysis is our best attempt at data-driven choosing but it’s only based on what we think will be the BEST CHOICE TODAY.

For example, perhaps you are trying to decide whether you should start a business. Today you have an idea of what you think it will be like to be a small business owner. You don’t know what data tomorrow will bring. Pandemics hit, markets and demand fluctuate.


Additionally, you can’t predict how a choice will change you. And indeed, being a small biz owner may change you.

Our attempt at “informed” decision-making with lists will always have holes because there is more UNKNOWN information than KNOWN.

These days many of our decisions are influenced by complex algorithms but…

KEY TAKEAWAY #2 - “Life isn’t Wazeable”

Google maps and the Waze app are data driven tools to help us make the best driving decisions in real time. Sometimes the algorithm saves the day but occasionally it doesn’t.

In life we assume there is a BEST path and ponder the route more than the destination.

What if you change your mind and suddenly want a different destination? Occasionally detours from your path are beneficial. The long course seems like a pain in the butt in the moment, but your future self may see its worth.

I certainly wasn’t on the fast track to starting my own practice right out of school. For a long time, the # of cons on my list outweighed the pros. I eventually reasoned what I needed was a leap of faith.

KEY TAKEAWAY # 3 – Take a leap of faith

When making big decisions WHAT WE REALLY WANT TO KNOW is how our lives will turn out IF we: decide (not) to marry, (not) to have kids, (not) change careers, etc.).

Will we succeed? Be happy?

Economists describe this as expected utility, the forecast of your well-being.

Only problem is we don’t know what the future holds. We must live by our principles and discover by doing.

All too often the fear of making the “wrong” choice stalls a decision altogether. The fix according to Roberts? - Think of wild problems not as “problems to be solved but mysteries to be experienced.”

KEY TAKEAWAY #4 - Aspiring to Flourish

Since we don’t know how life will turn out we must shift our mindset.

Choices that stem from wild problems benefit from the goals of aspiring and flourishing.

With aspiration we ask both; who do I want to be (now) AND who do I want to become (future)?

“Which “you” should you consider when deciding what’s best for you? The current YOU or the YOU you will become?”

And not only who do I want to become? but what will make me flourish?

Flourishing is different than happiness. “We human beings flourish by taking our circumstances and making the most of them in fulfilling our human potential.”

Flourishing includes “purpose, meaning, dignity and our sense of self”

These goals persist while our day-to-day feelings are temporary. Looking back, I think the components of flourishing all played a role in my decision to start my own practice

Most wild problems involve experiences that will change you and how you perceive the world -often in ways you are unable to predict.

Things might not turn out as you hoped.

KEY TAKEAWAY #5 – Reframing choices gone wrong

“Wild problems are not the kinds of problems with answers.”

That can feel unsettling. Uncertainty about what we “should” do is confounded by the potential that we might FAIL.

I loved Roberts’ suggestion on how we reframe the result. Think of undesirable outcomes as “choices that turned out differently than we hoped” instead of mistakes or bad choices.

While praising the benefits of failure seems to be en vogue, knowing the risks involved with high stake decisions still holds us back.

I wrote my own list when deciding whether I should start my private PT practice. It wasn’t until reading Wild Problemsalize my choice to go for it stemmed from way more than that list. n that list. that list. that list. hat list. at list. t list. list. list. ist. st. t. .

An artist doesn’t know what the end product will look like when they start.


While reading Wild Problems I found myself thinking ‘But I’ve already gotten married, had kids, bought a house, moved cities.’

It took time reflecting to realize that I have made additional wild choices in the past few years. In addition to starting my own business, we decided to have a third child. What I mean is we finally got a dog.

BEST wild choice

Maybe not all wild problems seem like high-stakes in the short-term.

The other day one of my friends asked me why I still take continuing education courses. We discussed the pros and cons and I gave a long-winded answer which can be summarized with “because I’m still becoming.”


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