Work on Important Problems

Late last week, I tweeted a quote from Jeff Hammerbacher that I found through a talk by Shane Becker:

The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.

This reminded me of the now-famous motto of Peter Thiel’s VC firm (often attributed to Thiel himself):

We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.

I see two reasonable reactions: continue with the current flow, or try to re-orient your efforts to make important contributions. No matter what field you are in, who you work for, or where you live, you can contribute to a better world. It starts with asking yourself the questions:

What is the most important thing you could be working on right now? What is the most important thing you are working on?

For most of us, the answers to those two questions will not be the same. And of course, even being able to answer the questions accurately is a huge first step. (Feel free to stop here and go answer them.)

If you are an academic struggling with this step–I feel scarcely qualified to share answers beyond that small part of the world–you might consider some of the grand scientific challenges recently published in Physics and Society by Dirk Helbing. Here are the challenges for my field:

1. How to reach a balance of power in a multi-polar world (between different countries and economic centers, between the worlds of business and politics, between individual and collective rights)?
2. How to promote security and peace (e.g. avoid organized crime, terrorism, social unrest)?
3. What are the contributing factors and dynamics of conflict? How to avoid, overcome or moderate conflict, or turn it into a creative force? How to facilitate a peaceful interaction of people with incompatible values and diverse cultural back- grounds?
4. What contributes to the spreading of crime and corruption, and how to counteract it?
5. What is the origin of social and economic inequality? How can poverty and precarious living conditions be reduced? How much inequality is beneficial for socio-economic progress, and how can it be stabilized?
6. How to increase the quality of life, satisfaction, and well-being of people? How to reduce suicide rates?
7. How to promote public health (increase food safety; reduce the spreading of epidemics, obesity, smoking, or unhealthy diets…)?

One thought on “Work on Important Problems

  1. If you think that big challenges are rarely solved directly and on purpose—and I do—then there’s an appealing third option: work on something that a) you enjoy doing and b) earns you a tolerable living and hope that it somehow helps to produce positive change.

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