Understanding the difference between “problems” and “symptoms” is the most pervasive and pernicious of human challenges, and the pathway toward finding solutions.

You’ve heard many people say, “We have a problem.” But what they are really pointing to is a “symptom.” If you continue to do that, you’ll never understand “the problem,” and you’ll deploy “solutions” that are a waste, and actually make the problem worse.

To understand the difference between “problems” and “symptoms” requires leveraging wisdom in a set of different disciplines, including, but not limited to, personal humility, philosophical openness to contrarian ideas, scientific methodology, and mathematics.

Next time someone says, “We have a problem,” ask the following questions:

  • How certain are you that you understand the problem? If they’re “completely confident,” then they don’t understand the problem (lack of personal humility).
  • What other solutions or explanations have you considered? If there are no other options, they don’t understand the problem (lack of philosophical openness to contrarian ideas).
  • What analysis, studies, and/or tests do you refer to that has informed your understanding? And, What adjustments to your thesis have you made in light of that research? If they point to merely anecdotal evidence, circular reasoning, demonstrably false and biases studies, or no change in their thesis, they don’t understand the problem (lack of scientific methodology).
  • What assumptions are you working with? Bad question. Rather, When did you first realize this problem? This gets at the “data” set the person is working with. If they’re operating on their “first understanding,” they don’t understand the problem (lack of mathematical inquiry).

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