A system to put problems in perspective
All day, every day, you’re being bombarded with problems that need solving. Here’s a simple framework that’ll help put things in perspective so that you don’t lose sleep over an ant bite or sleep through a snake bite.
I propose a general purpose framework that I call the 𝐀𝐫𝐞𝐚 𝐔𝐧𝐝𝐞𝐫 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐂𝐮𝐫𝐯𝐞 𝐅𝐫𝐚𝐦𝐞𝐰𝐨𝐫𝐤. It’s got two dimensions–how big a problem appears to be and how often it seems to occur–and you can use it to rank problems and plan a response.
Imagine a 2X2 matrix with Problem Size and Problem Frequency as the vertical and horizontal axes. Let’s plot some examples.
Low size-low frequency: A malfunctioning gadget
Low size-high frequency: A long commute
High size-low frequency: A job change
High size-high frequency: A toxic personal relationship*
*You don’t get yourself into bad relationships repeatedly but let’s say you’re in one where bad interactions happen repeatedly.
The bigger the area under the curve, the more attention it needs.
What’s new here, you may ask. Well, if you’ve ever posted anything online to generally good reviews and then you find yourself fixated over that one negative comment, you would know your internal apparatus is fallible. 𝐘𝐨𝐮 𝐧𝐞𝐞𝐝 𝐚 𝐬𝐲𝐬𝐭𝐞𝐦 𝐭𝐨 𝐬𝐚𝐟𝐞𝐠𝐮𝐚𝐫𝐝 𝐚𝐠𝐚𝐢𝐧𝐬𝐭 𝐬𝐢𝐭𝐮𝐚𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧𝐬 𝐰𝐡𝐞𝐧 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐦𝐚𝐲 𝐠𝐨 𝐟𝐫𝐨𝐦 𝐥𝐨𝐠𝐢𝐜𝐚𝐥 𝐭𝐨 𝐩𝐬𝐲𝐜𝐡𝐨-𝐥𝐨𝐠𝐢𝐜𝐚𝐥.
Here are typical scenarios where we misread either problem size or frequency.
Underestimate problem size (in fat tailed distributions): health. Because these are fat-tailed problems, which means that there’s a likelihood, however small, of disasters. But we tend to ignore that part. Think about chronic diseases and ask if your life is designed to avoid them.
Overestimate problem size (in normal distributions): salary. There are several things that determine your happiness at work, but you could focus all your attention on moving this one number up. But even in the best case, it’ll only move so much for reasons of parity.
Underestimate problem frequency (common inconveniences): traffic. People visiting Mumbai are often taken aback by the traffic. Locals simply get on, like after a mosquito bite. Yet, what animal kills the most humans every year? The mosquito.
Overestimate problem frequency (the odd unpleasant emotional experience): terrorism. It may not be at your doorstep but thanks to availability bias it’s what you think and talk about disproportionately.
Once you plot problem size and frequency on the AUC matrix, you can think of how to tackle them: plan for, prioritize, control, or ignore.
If you really want to tackle a problem or not, you’re likely to find a way to justify it. What the Area Under the Curve framework does is slow that decision-making process down so that your rational mind has a say.
Special credit to Aditya Sehgal who’s been kind enough to teach me how to think about frameworks.