Learn to Unwind

Don’t fix problems—unwind them.

Humanity’s problem-solving process is demonstrably flawed. When we attempt to solve problems, our first instinct is correct conundrums with fixes. However, fixes tend to ignore the causes and roots of problems. In this manner we treat symptoms, not problems.

I am not talking in abstract: people’s flawed approach to problem-solving shows up everywhere in modern life, ranging from mandatory drug cocktails to automobile design.

Example 1: Drugging the Youth

In recent years there’s been a marked increase of diagnosed personality disorders among students. Students with short attention spans are labeled ADD; those with gobs more energy, ADHD. In response, we medicate—sometimes without option—to “fix” chemically-imbalanced kids.

It’s an easy solution: medicate kids and they’ll behave “normally”. As a society, this is how we addressing the ADHD “problem”. But, we’re actually just treating a symptom.

Consider why a kid might score as ADHD: their energy levels might be out of whack due to a high-sugar and largely high-fructose corn syrup diet, or their physical inactivity might be leading to heightened stress levels, leading to social anxiety and poor behavior. Or, their environment at home might not be ideal.

…or, he might just be an 8-year old who’s extremely curious about the world and explores it on a bike and by poking inquisitively at the dirt. Maybe our idea of normal “order” as it relates to Attention Deficit Disorder is flawed, or that we’re doing things to our kids that cause ADD. Instead of examining this, we seek to medicate. We treat the symptom.

Without looking at the secondary effects of medicating kids (or looking in the mirror, for that matter) let’s look at another example where we treat the symptom instead of the problem—and what probably most people don’t think about as a problem at all.

Example 2: Starting and Stopping Cars

First, let’s reframe a car trip as a set of problems:

As designed, cars transport a certain number of people from one point to another. Since you can’t just put people in a box and expect magic to take you there, there are a number of problems that need solving:

  1. The car won’t move! The problem: it needs to go.
  2. The car is now moving! The problem: it needs to stop.

This is how we fix these problems:

  1. The car won’t move! Let’s spend energy: The engine will get it to move!
  2. The car is now moving! Let’s spend energy: The brakes will get it to stop!

In both instances, we treat each part of the process as a problem needing a unique solution. But, what if we were to reframe it? Let’s think of braking a “un-going”:

  1. The car won’t move! Let’s spend energy: The engine will get it to move.
  2. The car’s is now moving! Let’s give the energy back to the engine and we’ll stop!

You’ve heard this called regenerative braking. While the technology is primitive, the concept is not. Ideally, the transaction cost of moving a person from point A to point B should only require energy to overcome wind resistance and friction. (And even there—futurists will tell you—there’s room for improvement.) We, however, currently spend energy at every step of the process: we treat each stage as a discrete problem to solve, not a discrete problem to undo.

In our minds, starting and stopping are both problems. But, opposed to identifying and treating them like opposing problems where one is the solution to the other, we treat them individually like symptoms. Where the cost could have been simply the cost of initiating and managing the start, stop, and travel friction, our universal solution is pricey and costly at every stage.

In terms of energy output, it seems our cars were primarily designed to expend energy, and secondarily to transport us from one place to another.* Inasmuch, when we “fix” problems by treating its symptoms, we generate new problems to fix. Over time, these problems layer over each other into never-ending abstraction.

Feedback loops

Unfortunately, we’re addicting to solving problems, not undoing them. Our economy is fundamentally based on solving problems and pain points, and common perception is that it’s cheaper to address problems by patchwork than to rethink how problems arose in the first place and undoing the situation.

And, unfortunately, it is. Treating problems symptomatically is easier. It’s easier to describe and easier to act upon and easier to think about with a divide-and-conquer methodology. There are fewer moving parts in each part of the problem, and any externalities created through “solving” the problem are somebody else’s problem, or a problem we can put off until later.

Ultimately, we create more work for ourselves—problems beget more problems, and these ill-conceived “solutions” don’t adequately address underlying problems, if at all. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once noted, “Perfection is attained, not when there is nothing more add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Let’s stop fixing problems and start removing them.

*On that note, hasn’t anyone else found it weird that we take up half of our available roadway in New York City for the storage of empty cars?

A Cup for Joe

Starbucks can save the world, if it has the balls.

I was reintroduced to Chris Jordan though his TED talk, Picturing Excess, in which he uses images to demonstrate to the enormity of American’s subconscious behaviors in aggregate. The results are staggering and the implications are catastrophic. Worse yet, Americans are apathetic to their own, marginal impact. So, what’s the fix?

Start with paper cups.

Americans use 16 billion (with a ‘B’) paper cups every year. You’ve likely used one or two today to transport your Caramel Macchiato and thought nothing about the aggregate impact. Neither does anyone else, nor do most people care– therein lies the problem:

  1. Bringing your own cup is inconvenient, albeit cost effective.
  2. One paper cup has virtually no impact. 

Solution: Starbucks should stop serving beverages in disposable cups, driving change through ubiquity.

Starbucks should take a cue from the milkmen of yore and dispense beverages with a meaningful (say, $10) container deposit. Any container can be returned to any Starbucks, and Starbucks will sterilize any returned container for reuse. And it’s not that inconvenient: Starbucks is everywhere. (And, if they’re fully committed to their containers, they can include RFID to track customer coffee drinking habits and share that information with them… but I digress.)

Immediate Effects

  1. Overnight 15% reduction in paper cup usage.
    [Starbucks printed 2.3 Billion (again, with a ‘B’) paper cups in 2006.]
  2. Increased awareness that local efforts have global impact. 

Secondary Effects

  1. Increased acknowledgement that local efforts have global impact. 
  2. Increased local action.
  3. More companies will follow their lead.
  4. The homeless (and other financially challenged individuals) will ensure these containers are returned or recycled.

For many Americans, coffee is the alpha and omega. In ridding Starbucks of disposable containers, it’s a constant reminder that our local actions do affect global change. 

Unfortunately, I suspect SBUX stockholders might sue. Admittedly, this is a risky plan; though, I would hope that corporations with the power to affect change would, instead of merely “protecting shareholder value”.

Maybe Dunkin’ Donuts, a privately-owned company, will have the chutzpah.

I hope someone does.

More: B-Corporations, Sustainability is Sexy.