Flashlights Under the Streetlight

“Not least of the effects of industrialism is that we have become mechanized in mind, and consequently attempt to provide solutions in terms of engineering, for problems which are essentially problems of life.”
— T.S. Eliot, 1944

One night, a man is searching for his lost keys under a streetlight when a passerby comes along to help him search. After some time, the passerby asks the man whether he lost them here, to which the man replies, “No, but the light’s better here.” The story appears in the first chapter of Russ Roberts’ new book, Wild Problems, and serves as an illustrative example of the way much of modern decision-making, particularly about life’s most consequential and difficult questions, has gone awry.

Roberts’ thesis is that the modern tools we’ve become accustomed to using to solve problems and answer questions, like science, data, and detached rational analysis, are fundamentally insufficient to solving life’s “wild problems,” like who or whether to marry, whether to have kids, or how to resolve many of life’s daily ethical dilemmas. Much like using flashlights to make the area under the streetlight even brighter won’t help find keys hidden in far away shadows, adding more data and sophistication to our rational analyses won’t help answer questions for which these tools are incapable of answering. In fact, using those tools can potentially even lead us astray by offering a false sense of confidence in our approach. Roberts’ book offers a friendly and timely guide to a different approach at a time when the area under the streetlight is becoming crowded with electron microscopes.

Rather than offering readers his own new step-by-step guide to decision-making, Roberts resists the trend toward formulaic thinking altogether, noting “Formulas are simple. That’s a feature, but also a bug. Life is complicated.” Instead, he leans on fictional stories, historical anecdotes, and lessons from his own conversations and experiences to call attention to the important concepts of meaning and flourishing. Rather than attempting to correctly balance out the future stream of costs and benefits most likely to result from a given decision, Roberts emphasizes the need to focus on what it means to live life fully, to truly flourish, and understand life as a journey to be experienced rather than a problem to be solved.

An essential component of flourishing is living with purpose and meaning, which is a way of living that reaches beyond isolated sets of experiences. Instead of trying to maximize our time or number of pleasant experiences from moment to moment, our actions should be guided by our aspirations about the kind of people we want to be, even if those choices come at an experiential cost. Often, the experience of suffering in the service of a greater goal or ideal is exactly what makes life richer and fuller. Drawing on ancient wisdom, Roberts introduces readers to the idea that who we are, who we choose to be, and how we live are more important than what we experience. Roberts directs readers to questions of aspiration and living in accordance with the kind of people we want to be rather than narrowly focusing on the experiences we’d like to accumulate based on a pros and cons list.

Some critics—especially those a bit further along their own life paths—might argue that a book such as this is unnecessary or that its themes are borderline self-evident. Are there really people who think that the problem of whether or who to marry can truly be solved in Microsoft Excel? This reaction is understandable, and it’s true that Roberts’ book will be more helpful to some than others. I suspect Roberts might agree that people happily embedded in their communities, with strong family ties, and perhaps even devoted to a faith tradition that regularly brings them into reciprocal relationships with others will have naturally adopted some of the book’s key recommendations already. However, we live at a time when traditional religion is in steep decline, younger Americans report having fewer friends, rates of marriage and childbearing are on the decline, and it’s common for aspiring young professionals to leave their homes behind and move to where there are more professional opportunities. Certainly, many of the bright young people Roberts interacted with as a professor and does now, as a college president, are exactly the type of people who would likely be tempted to use their rationality to guide their life choices and stand to benefit from Roberts’ wisdom.

If there is one criticism of the book, it’s that the emphasis on embracing uncertainty and focusing on experiencing the journey of life risks giving the impression that the stakes of these tough decisions might be lower than they are. True, some wild problems don’t simply have a “right” answer in the way people might hope for, but some probably do. Just because these problems cannot be solved the same way that math problems might be solved, with a single definitive and formulaically derived conclusion, doesn’t mean that any choice is equally valid compared to any other. There may not be a rational calculation available to unequivocally determine whether you should marry your long-term girlfriend but that doesn’t mean that either choice is equally correct.

Still, the powerful exhortation to embrace a more dynamic and enchanted way of thinking about life’s journey rather than the flatter, grayer vision offered by a series of rational calculations is refreshing. Furthermore, despite the absence of an alternative comprehensive decision-making framework, Roberts is able to offer some helpful pieces of practical wisdom. Take traditions seriously, don’t let the search for the “perfect,” “best,” or even “almost perfect” prevent you from making good decisions, understand that grit and perseverance are overrated in some circumstances, and “privilege your principles” are all useful hints at making better decisions, especially when facing wild problems.

Roberts is at his best when discussing the way in which human beings are ever-developing creatures with “desires about our desires.” He encourages readers to understand that “We are in the process of becoming. So give some thought as to what you desire to desire.” It’s here that Roberts offers his most potent advice, again drawing on a fictional narrative to express the idea. He relays Max Beerbohm’s story “The Happy Hypocrite” in which a shameless hedonist falls in love with a virtuous woman. In order to marry her, he wears a magical mask that gives him the appearance of virtue. Out of love for his new wife and remorse about his past, he decides to change his behavior and starts acting like the saintly person the mask makes him appear to be. When the mask is removed by a jilted lover seeking revenge, he finds himself transformed; his real face matching that of the mask. Through love and practice he found himself transformed.

Pretending, practicing, and living the way we wish we wanted to want is a profound insight for a culture that has become accustomed to prioritizing ideas ahead of actions. Readers weighing important life decisions, curious about what flourishing might mean for them, or simply seeking practical wisdom for navigating a complex world will find much to appreciate from Roberts’ latest book.

Ben Wilterdink
Ben Wilterdinkhttp://www.archbridgeinstitute.org
Ben Wilterdink was the Director of Programs at the Archbridge Institute from 2017-2024. He helped found Profectus Magazine and served as one of its editors until January 2024.   Follow Ben on Twitter @bgwilterdink.
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