If you want to be wealthy you have to solve problems. That’s it. That’s all it takes. It’s deceptively simple, really.
But how to find problems to solve? That, dear reader, is what this article addresses. If you’re interested in learning how to become an expert “problem finder” then read on!
School Teaches Us To Solve Problems Others Have Already Solved
School is terrible. If you have any doubts about this, please read this article and this article. They give a broad overview of why school is indeed terrible and how attending it for 20 years hobbled my growth. I’m not bitter, I’m just stating a fact so we can have a discussion about it.
What those two articles don’t mention is another way in which the schooling system fails us: it conditions us to do things the way they’ve already been done.
What we learn in school is how to sit down, be quiet and take the answers which are given to us. In the best cases, teachers “welcome” questions, but only as long as they don’t get in the way of covering the
entirety of material which is supposed to be covered. The traditional schooling system stamps out our capacity to ask questions.
And in so doing turns us into good little employees who are great at following what has been done before but incapable of coming up with their own questions and, hence, answers to those questions.
That being said, if you enjoy being an employee then don’t pay attention to this article. More power to you. But know that employees don’t become wealthy. You will never become wealthy by trading your time for money, which is the model most of us have been taught to follow by our parents, family members, friends and teachers.
Look instead at how others strike it rich.
How People Become Wealthy
If you look at the wealthiest people in the world, from the merchants of the Colonial Era, to the industrialists of the 19th and 20th centuries until the tech founders of today, you notice they all have something in common: they found a problem and solved it.
Whatever our opinion of these people is today, it doesn’t detract from the fact that they were and are the wealthiest of us. And wealth is a consequence of value created. They created solutions which brought value to the lives of millions, and later billions, and were able to profit immensely from doing so.
That is how capitalism works (in theory), you have a problem, I have a solution to your problem, so you pay me for the solution and we’re both better off from the exchange. Instead of pointing fingers and decrying the millionaires and billionaires of the world as “evil” or “greedy”, we should learn what they did right so we can apply it in our own lives. Then we just might become wealthy and get a seat at the table of wealth.
What we choose to do with that seat is up to us.
The range of problems to be solved is limited solely by our ability to find them. And the way we find problems to solve is through a deceptively simple, yet highly undervalued, practice: questioning.
To Find Problems: Ask Questions
All problems to be solved are first discovered with a question. Questions enable us to go beyond what is obvious, to get at the deeper principles which underlie a process. In the words of David Hacket
Fischer, a Pullitzer prize winning historian :
“Questions are the engine of intellect, cerebral machines that convert curiosity into controlled inquiry.”
If we want to find problems we need to ask questions. These may or may not be questions which have never been asked before, but the starting point of finding a problem is always a question.
Take the steam engine, a device which harnesses the chemical potential of coal to produce water vapor, the vapor pressure of which then pushes a piston back and forth inside a cylinder, performing mechanical work. It was first developed in 1712 by Thomas Newcomen who (probably) asked himself “How can I lift water out of tin mines?”
Asking that question set the wheels of Newcomen’s mind in motion. After some collaborative creative action, Newcomen came up with the “atmospheric engine”, a device which sucked water out of the bottom of mines.
We Can Always Ask Another Question
The atmospheric engine was then further improved by James Watt, who (probably) asked himself “How can I make Newcomen’s steam engine more efficient?” In 1776, Watt designed the “seperate condenser” which dramatically increased the Newcomen’s steam engine’s efficiency by eliminating a process which wasted heat.
The improved steam engine was directly responsible for the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. It allowed for the creation of the steam locomotive as well as centralized power sources in factories which made manpower obsolete. This led to never-before-seen explosions in population and productivity.
Yes, this technological progress came with its own problems, which
we’re still dealing with today, but it’s worth to mention that both Newcomen and Watt became wealthy individuals thanks to the solutions they came up with.
From the steam engine in manufacturing we went to the electric motor in the late 19th century, which brought with it another Industrial Revolution as well as its own experimentalists and inventors, who among countless others, are: Charles-Augustin de Coulomb (Coulomb’s law), Alessandro Volta (chemical battery), Hans Christian Ørsted (electromagnetic interaction), André-Marie Ampère (Ampere’s force law) and Michael Faraday (Faraday’s Law).
Stand On The Shoulders Of Giants
All of these people built their achievements on the shoulders of countless others. None of them alone could have made the discoveries they did, but together with our technologically advanced civilization they were able to direct their natural inquisitiveness to ask the questions which opened up the realm of discovery.
They are remembered today because of their contributions to science and technology. Which they accomplished by focusing their attention on problems no one else had seen and been able to solve.
These people were expert problem finders. In order to find their problems they first had to question. Once they asked the right question which revealed the problem, they then had to learn. They had to direct their own inquiry through experimentation, observation and discussion with other problem-finders. This was and remains the most laborious part of the problem-solving process.
And at the end of the process they had a solution. Which could then be applied to make some part of human life easier, safer or more comfortable. Usually, but not always, the inventors and discoverers wound up becoming wealthy.
The same process is followed by any person who becomes wealthy:
- A question is asked
- A problem is found
- A solution is created
All commercial enterprises fit into one of two industries. There is the industry of things and the industry of entertainment. After human beings have the things they need to live, everything else is entertainment. What the best advertising does, according to the bottom line, is convince us that what is entertainment is actually needed to live.
It All Starts With A Question
In the excellent book “A More Beautiful Question” by Warren Berger, published in 2015, the author writes about the power of questions to spark breakthrough insights. The book is basically an ode to questioning; it’s equal parts fascinating and empowering. I highly recommend it. The book tells the stories of several creative high-achievers, among which is the story of Reed Hastings.
Hastings was going through the frustrating experience of paying exorbitant late fees for Blockbuster rentals when he asked himself “Why should I have to pay these fees?” He then followed up this question with another “What if a video-rental business were run like a health club?”
Hastings then took creative action which led him to design a video-rental model which charged a monthly membership with no late fees. Like a health club. The company that emerged from that is known today as Netflix.
… And Another Question
The book mentions many other such stories, but another of my favorites is the one about Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky. In 2007, they were asking themselves “How are we going to pay the rent?” Neither had jobs nor money. They lived in San Francisco, where a popular conference was taking place. All the city’s hotels were booked, so conference attendees had nowhere to spend their nights.
Gebbia and Chesky had experienced the same trouble themselves. So they asked themselves “Why can’t we find a place for these people to crash for a night or two” which took them to “Why not our place?”
They bought a few air mattresses, ran a cheap classified ad and rented out their inflatable beds at an inexpensive price. With that money they covered some of their rent, while at the same time being led to an even bigger set of questions “What if we provide more than just a mattress to sleep on?”, “What if we create our own website”, “Why not make a business out of this?” and then “What if we could create this same experience in every major city?”
You can probably guess what company came out of this line of inquiry. It was Airbnb.
Both stories followed the same pattern. A question was asked. A problem was found. And a solution was created.
The Right Questions Lead Us To The Right Problems
The right questions can lead us to identify the problems which we can then solve using the tools at our disposal. And if we don’t have the tools, then we can either acquire them or collaborate with others who do.
Multidisciplinary collaboration is a growing trend in scientific research. The days of lone scientists experimenting in their private labs is finished. Today, the best scientific research is performed by teams of people comprised of experts in different fields. This diversity in expertise and perspectives allows for novel questions to be asked which lead to equally novel solutions.
This points to another way in which school is terrible: we learn to compete against each other for grades rather than collaborate to find and solve problems together.
Whether you acquire the tools to solve the problem on your own or you collaborate with others, the most important thing to do is to start!
The creative journey is wild and unpredictable. Do you think Newcomb knew his invention would lead to the steam locomotive? Or that Reed Hastings would found a company which would produce a show like “Stranger Things”? (of which, admittedly, just the first season is good).
If you never start you will never begin the journey of creation. Mistakes will happen. That’s part of learning. Mistakes are to be learned from, not to be feared. In fact, take a page from Elbert Hubbard’s book, who said:
“The greatest mistake a man can make is to be afraid of making one.”
We don’t need to sell all of our worldly possessions or take out a huge loan to gather the capital to start a restaurant to answer the question “I wonder if people will pay to eat my food?” You can start with small risks. Instead of opening a restaurant, get a food cart and sell your food at public events.
Small risks are the best way to start learning. From there we can take increasingly bigger risks, with the benefit of the added experience which we have obtained.
How This Website Started
If you’ve read the set of articles “How To Gain Self-Discipline – A Personal Story” you know that I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself professionally for most of my young adult life. School had failed me. I never took the opportunities to discover my creative interests as a child, teenager and young adult. So when the time came to finally “be an adult” I was wholly unprepared. I made choices which reflected my ignorance of myself.
But I picked myself back up. And as I did so I began asking myself a question “How can I use what I went through to help others who are going through the same?” This question led to the answer “I’ll write a book about my experiences using modern scientific knowledge and ancient spiritual teachings.” I wrote the book and am working to get it published within the next two years.
What’s important is that as I wrote the book, new questions started coming to me: “How will I get this published?” and “How will I get people to read this?” which led me to discover that having an online audience helps a great deal if you want to have a book published. Which then lead me to the question “How do I establish an online audience?”
Which led me to starting this website, which is dedicated to helping others navigate the complexities of our modern world by cultivating their inner wealth. It is my personal creation, I research and write everything on the website and it’s the most satisfying professional endeavour I have ever undertaken.
And it all started with a question.
How You Can Find Problems To Solve
Everyone has a unique problem they can solve. Because everyone has a unique perspective which they can bring to bear in finding problems. The key is knowing how to ask questions which inspire you to act.
Observe your experience, as objectively as you can. What parts of your experience do you wish had a solution? The stories of Netflix and Airbnb started with their founders asking how they could address a problem which affected them. Odds are, we aren’t the only ones with our problems. We’re all human beings alive at the same time in different parts of the world, if one of us has a problem more of us have the same problem.
For me, the book I wrote was the book I wish I had read as a young adult. I wish someone had guided me in the process of becoming a man. But no one did, so I wrote that book to address that lack I experienced, which then led me to starting this website.
Asking questions is an art. When you start, don’t expect to come up with a beautiful question at the get go. School and media do a tremendous job at turning us into passive, unquestioning consumers. It takes a while to break out of that conditioning. But once you do you start seeing questions everywhere.
Here’s a few habits you can practice to break out of passive consumer conditioning:
- Use self-hypnosis (Reprogram.ME is amazing for this!)
- Be in nature
- Stop watching television
- Create art (doodle, write, play music, make sculptures) – creation begets creation!
I hope you found this article helpful. We live in a bountiful world which is facing tremendous challenges. We need people to take responsibility over their lives. One of the ways we can do that is by becoming financially independent. This provides us the freedom to help others succeed; in that way we can all lift each other up and face these challenges together. Together we are stronger!
I leave you with this amazing video by James Jani on how to build wealth from nothing:
To our wealth and success.