106 Miles To Chicago
I do a lot of thinking about how to approach problems by analogy. I like to tell stories, and I like to read stories, so when I’m working through a problem, my basic tool for developing a framework is a storytelling framework: I tell myself a story about what needs to be accomplished, and then tweak the story until it makes sense and seems applicable to the reality around me.
This approach has served me pretty well. When I was learning how to use computers professionally, one of my earliest realizations was that every piece of software I ever used was written by someone, for some purpose; so in order to understand how to use that software tool, I just had to recreate the story that that programmer was telling themselves about the problem they were trying to solve.
Later, I learned that this story is what starry-eyed startup founders mean when they use the word “paradigm.” It’s the story context of a problem — in other words, it’s a tool for fitting the human experience into the world.
A wise person once told me that every tool has three parts: A part designed to interact with a problem, a part designed to fit the human hand, and a shaft between them long enough to keep the user safe from the problem while the tool is being used.
So a story has a part that is designed to fit with reality, and a part that fits with our mind, and enough distance to keep us in a place of problem solving and learning rather than a place of reaction or fear.
An example of the kind of story I’m talking about, a tool I use to understand my place in the world, is the story I tell myself about how to do my job:
Imagine that you’re the child of a wealthy family, living in the city where you were born. You are at home there and you feel personally connected with the city and its people; its successes are your successes, their problems are your problems.
Your childhood friend has become, somehow, the ruler of the city, and they’ve set out to fix the many serious structural problems that the city has. The city hasn’t got all the money it needs, and it can’t necessarily draw the outside experts it would like in order to really apply true solutions, so your friend is having to make due with the talent that the city has.
One day your friend calls you up to the palace and you sit with them in a boardroom and your friend tells you that the city has a huge problem with trash. The city produces too much of it, it doesn’t do a good enough job dealing with the trash it produces, and it’s become a serious problem.
You live in the city, you walk its streets, so you know the problem your friend is talking about; you step in it every day. You agree that the problem needs a solution, and soon. As you talk more about it, you realize that your friend, the new ruler of the city that you love, is asking you to take on the problem of dealing with the garbage.
Taken aback, you protest that you don’t know anything about garbage and, frankly, that the work seems hard and kind of beneath you, but your friend presses: Nobody else knows anything about garbage, either, they say, and what they need is someone they can trust to tackle the problem, learning as they go.
Reluctantly, you agree to take on the task. You square your shoulders as you shake your friends hand and you walk out of the room, getting yourself to be the city’s new trash czar.
Now, with this framing mechanism, you can put yourself in a place to tackle any task. You’re doing it because it needs to be done, and even if you don’t have all the skills you need to do it, there’s no-one better suited; and you have the trust of the person who needs the job to be done.
Approaching your job with this story in your head gives you the tools to figure out how to do it well, even if it’s not one your suited for, or one that you wanted, or one that intrinsically makes you happy.
Taking a step back, your friend, the city’s ruler, might have a sort of metaproblem: There’s already someone in charge of the trash, and they’re terrible at it; sadly, they’re the hereditary prince of the trash-removal caste, and removing them would upset the precarious balance of power that your friend is trying to maintain; so what your friend needs is for you to go to work in the trash department, not as its head but as the agent of the ruler, working to both fix the way trash is handled and to improve the way that the trash handling is managed. You may in fact have to interview for the position, because your friend the city ruler can’t just make the hereditary head of the trash caste hire who they want them to, because of balance of power et cetera.
So imagine the meeting once per month: You show up at the palace, and you sit in a room with your friend, and you tell them how the task is going. They appreciate the complexities of the situation and have infinite patience; sometimes, when you tell them of a high-level problem you’ve encountered, you think they might go away and have a quiet word with someone that seems to work its way into making things better, but your friend never promises anything. They always thank you for your hard work on behalf of the city and send you on your way.
Another meta-layer to this thought-tool: Your friend the city’s ruler hasn’t got the necessary insight into the problems of the city at a lower level to know which is the department most in need of help; the city just generally needs to be made better, and they want you to determine for yourself where the most work is needed, and to figure out how to do that work, gather the necessary resources, and make it happen.
So now, with a pair of meta-steps back from the main story, we have a general framework for finding your purpose and building skills and growing wealth and… you get the idea.
An alternate framing of the same problem: You are the agent of an intergalactic development agency. Your job is to prepare civilizations to join an intergalactic federation, to secretly walk among them and get them elevated to the point where they can walk among the stars; you’ve landed with little more than your wits, because any advanced technology might give the game away, so all you really have to guide you is your vision of the galactic civilization you came from and a sense of your purpose at making this barbarous back-water world fit in.
One of the best things about using these framing devices is to imagine that everybody else you’re encountering is using them too — maybe everybody’s using different ones. You might work every day with someone who is secretly the agent of the ruler of the city; your boss might be preparing Earth for its place in the stars, and the cross-purposes at which they find one another are just the results of two professionals with secret but important agendas each trying to work their own frame.
So as you go back out into a pandemic-ravaged post-coup world, remember that you’re armed with the most powerful tool devised by mankind: The story. With it, you can accomplish anything.