Solve ‘wild problems’ with ancient wisdom

Posted in: Applying Wisdom

I consider myself to be a fairly rational and analytical person. This mode of thinking is useful for making many decisions, but not all of them.

This is the problem Russ Roberts tackles in his book, Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us.

As an economist, Roberts’ default mode it to tackle problems with data and reason. Surely there is a right answer to the toughest problems you face, if only you could think hard enough or research enough information.

But what he points out in the book is that there are a certain class of problems or decisions i.e. the important ones, for which logic or data would be insufficient. 

The problem he leads with is marriage. In particular, Charles Darwin’s marriage. Darwin was conflicted about marriage. He thought it would take away from his work and he would never amount to much professionally. On the other hand, he knew there were benefits to marriage (companionship, not being a single old man weirdo guy, children, etc.).

All these things could be true, and it’s impossible to really “score” the pros and cons such that you get a neat number and final decision.

So what did he do? He used his gut to make the decision. He married, had children, and achieved professional success. He also tragically lost one of his children to sickness, which was devastating to him and his wife.

He lived a very full life that would have been impossible to predict before hand using a logic based decision framework.

We all encounter these wild problems. Where should we live? How much time should we spend with friends and family? What career should we choose?

There is no single way to make this decision, but having had the benefit of exploring a few different ancient wisdom traditions, I want to share some ancient ways of thinking that may help you get some perspective on any wild problems you may face.

Pay attention to your feelings

The Jesuits have a technique called “discernment of spirits” which is the interpretation of the “movements of the soul.”

When solving a wild problem, pay deep attention to the feelings that come from your “soul.” These can give you important clues about which choice you should be making. If you really study your feelings, you may also realize that your motivations are not coming from the place you think they are. Maybe they come from a place of envy rather than true desire. Or maybe you’re avoiding making a decision out of a fear that is no longer relevant. Paying attention to these feeling of “consolation” and “desolation” are critical in making difficult choices.

Spiritual consolation does not always mean happiness. Spiritual desolation does not always mean sadness. Sometimes an experience of sadness is a moment of conversion and intimacy with God. Times of human suffering can be moments of great grace. Similarly, peace or happiness can be illusory if these feelings are helping us avoid changes we need to make.

– Via 

Don’t force it

Taoism has a concept called “Wu-Wei” which roughly translates to “non-action.” It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take action, but rather, don’t force anything to happen. Don’t swim against the current.

If you’re contemplating a decision and you’re making up reasons to justify one path or another, maybe the best option is to…not do anything. Don’t make a decision. Maybe it’s best to keep things the same things for a while. 

Alternatively, if one option or path seems particularly easy to make, feels rights, and comes with no obvious downsides, it is perhaps best to just roll with it. Swim with the current. No need to over analyze.

At its highest level, Wu Wei is indefinable and practically invisible, because it has become a reflex action. In the words of Chuang-tse, the mind of Wu Wei “flows like water, reflects like a mirror, and responds like an echo.”

Using Wu Wei, you go by circumstances and listen to your own intuition. “This isn’t the best time to do this. I’d better go that way.” Like that. When you do that sort of thing, people may say you have a Sixth Sense or something. All it really is, though, is being Sensitive to Circumstances. That’s just natural. It’s only strange when you don’t listen.

 Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

Take action

In the Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna, the Hindu god, advises that there is such a thing as “wisdom in action.”

If you’ve been paralyzed by a decision and your alternative is to stay stagnant, sometimes the best path is to just do something, anything, to shake things up.

While you don’t want to be reckless, you don’t want to be someone who never makes a move. You learn from your life experiences, and to have experiences, you sometimes need to act. Start that business, move overseas, do anything but remaining discontentedly still.

Take action and be open to whatever results from it.

What is action and what is inaction? This question has confused the greatest sages. I will give you the secret of action, with which you can free yourself from bondage. The true nature of action is difficult to grasp. You must understand what is action and what is inaction, and what kind of action should be avoided. The wise see that there is action in the midst of inaction and inaction in the midst of action. Their consciousness is unified, and every act is done with complete awareness.

Eknath Easwaran. The Bhagavad Gita

Do the virtuous thing

The Stoics weren’t emotionless stick in the muds. They believed that you should strive to be a virtuous person. Generous, noble, kind, and just. 

If you have the opportunity to make more money or spend more time with your family, consider what the more virtuous choice is. It could be nuanced. Perhaps earning more money would set your kids up for a better future. Or perhaps you have enough and what your kids need is time with you.

Adding a “virtue lens” is potentially clarifying. Is your decision a choice between something you want for yourself and something good for others? You don’t have to be a martyr but give serious weight to the virtuous option.

All right, but there are plenty of other things you can’t claim you “haven’t got in you.” Practice the virtues you can show: honesty, gravity, endurance, austerity, resignation, abstinence, patience, sincerity, moderation, seriousness, high-mindedness. Don’t you see how much you have to offer — beyond excuses like “can’t”? And yet you still settle for les.

– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Do the pleasurable thing

The Epicurean philosophy was based on pleasure. They lived for it. They were hedonists.

BUT, they were mindful and rational hedonists. They knew that the truly joyous things in life were simple and easily attained. Friendship, a rich intellectual life, and just enough wealth to support oneself. They knew that chasing things like prestige or social status, while pleasurable in some ways, is ultimately a fool’s game that leads to suffering.

So think about the things that you truly enjoy. If you’re a nature enthusiast, why are you working as a management consultant in a major city with a 2 hour commute?

It’s not always obvious what is pleasurable to you. You may try to force yourself to think you enjoy things that society says you should enjoy.  Fight back against that impulse.

No pleasure is bad in itself. but the things that make for pleasure in certain cases entail disturbances many times greater than the pleasures themselves.

– Epicurus, The Art of Happiness

Learn to let go

One of the key tenets (perhaps the central tenet) of Buddhism is impermanence. Nothing lasts. We all die, we fade into obscurity, companies go out of business, civilizations crumble.

Is an attachment to some part of your identity holding you back from making better decisions for yourself? Have you always thought of yourself as an entrepreneur and you are holding on to your failing business, even though you could get a job?

Do you have a relationship you’re trying to rekindle when the best decision is to perhaps, move on?

Identifying your attachments is the first step. Learning which ones you need to let go of is the next one.

The Heart Sutra says that there is “nothing to attain.” We meditate not to attain enlightenment, because enlightenment is already in us. We don’t have to search anywhere. We don’t need a purpose or a goal. We don’t practice in order to obtain some high position. In aimlessness, we see that we do not lack anything, that we already are what we want to become, and our striving just comes to a halt. We are at peace in the present moment, just seeing the sunlight streaming through our window or hearing the sound of the rain. We don’t have to run after anything. We can enjoy every moment. People talk about entering nirvana, but we are already there. Aimlessness and nirvana are one.

 Thich Nhat Hanh,  The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching

Move towards community, not away from it

Judaism offers many practices, traditions, and rules that if followed, force Jews to stay together. Those that have to eat kosher tend to eat with other people that eat kosher. If you carve out Friday night and Saturday as a sacred time of rest, you will spend it with others who treat it with the same reverence.

As introverted as you may think you are, you need some sort of community. You’re not as independent as you think, and you need people in your life to truly flourish. 

Make decisions that implant you deeper into a community, not those that move you away from them.

Self-centeredness is the tragic misunderstanding of our destiny and existence. For man, to be human is an existential tautology. In order to be a man, man must be more than a man. The self is spiritually immature; it grows in the concern for the non-self. This is the profound paradox and redeeming feature of human existence. There is no joy for the self within the self. Joy is found in giving rather than in acquiring; in serving rather than in taking.

– Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism

Act as if your life will be judged

Islam teaches that at your death, there will be a day of judgement. God will asses the life you lived and either reward you with very pleasant afterlife or condemn you to a terrible one.

This is a powerful frame for decision making. What can I do in my lifetime to make me worthy of heaven? Living only for yourself won’t cut it. When given the opportunity to make a contribution, to do something for others, take it.

O humanity! Indeed, you are labouring restlessly towards your Lord, and will ˹eventually˺ meet the consequences. As for those who are given their record in their right hand they will have an easy reckoning, and will return to their people joyfully. And as for those who are given their record ˹in their left hand˺ from behind their backs, they will cry for ˹instant˺ destruction, and will burn in the blazing Fire. For they used to be prideful among their people, thinking they would never return ˹to Allah˺.

– Quaran 84 6-14 via


It wouldn’t make sense to apply all these ideas at once. To do so in certain cases would be contradictory. To take action and not take action at the same time would be impossible!

But if you are inclined to one mode of decision-making, pick an idea that forces you to do something different. If you tend to over analyze, take action. If you tend to make moves without thinking enough, be still. If you tend to hold on to the past, learn to embrace impermanence.

Perhaps these ancient traditions can help you solve your next wild problem.