155: 12 Favorite Problems


The discussion of “favorite” problems resonates with some reading I’m doing right now about Toyota and lean manufacturing. A person who doesn’t know what their problems are still has problems, but because they haven’t identified they can’t learn from them and fix them.

Some classic lean moves are designed to make problems apparent. Doing great with 10 people? Then take away one and require the same production with only 9 people. That creates problems, which you have to solve so you can produce with 10% less resource. Meanwhile, that extra resource can be used to do something new.

Most of us don’t do manufacturing, but the idea of uncovering problems should generalize. What crutches do we depend on, and how do we improve things where we can perform without the crutch?

David’s filter question, about whether something (a guest, topic, tool) advances his goal of helping people with technology can be read as an example of a tool to help him do more with less resource, by eliminating the things that would consume his time and attention without creating any value.

Lean thinking doesn’t cross over into the personal productivity space too often, but it does sometimes. David Allen recently posted a conversation with Paul “Two Second Lean” Akers that touches on some of these ideas as well.


Great episode. Thank you. I appreciate his open and generous you both are.

I have 2 questions logged, which is a pretty good start.

I really liked this episode.

One of @MacSparky’s problems was, “How do I become more courageous and less fearful? Because I feel like courage is the inverse of fear.” I’d encourage David to reconsider how he thinks about the relationship between fear and courage. The way I like to think about it is that courage is not the opposite of fear, but the ability to keep going despite being afraid. There are good quotes from Mark Twain (“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear”) and FDR (“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear”) along these lines. In this way of thinking, fear is actually a requirement for being courageous. I think that aspiring to acknowledge our fears and not let them control our actions is a healthier and more achievable approach than trying to eliminate fear.


Agreed! I’ve sometimes used these clips from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King to illustrate the point for my students.

The setup (so students who are unfamiliar will have context):

And the main point (I’m quite sure that everyone in front of the Black Gate — Aragorn included — is terrified):

This is a great episode. Incredibly valuable. Thank you both.

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I’ve been playing with this for a few months. Not sure who inspired me.

Here my first 10:
Personal Growth

  1. How do I grow my Soft skills - social ease, humor, easy to be with, make people feel good - heard, listened to, even entertained?
  2. How can I grow my sense of humour?
  3. How can I grow more authentic [[Friendship]] and relationships?
  4. Why am I often defensive?
  5. How can I be more intentional?
  6. How can I best help my daughters grow?
  7. How can I grow my relationship with my wife?
  8. How can I reduce the friction in my business?
  9. How can I continue to reach and grow my audience?
  10. How to make teams/work more magical for people who do work?
  11. How do I [[Teach]] more effectively?
  12. How can I help people from anywhere in the world?
  13. What more can I automate?

! and 2 have some overlap and I want to re-write some others. If you have comments/questions that would help make them better please go for it.

Yes I’m an obsidian user and am starting to link these to areas I already take notes on

FWIW I also been inspired by Donald Miller’s book Hero on a Mission: Hero on a Mission: A Path to a Meaningful Life: Miller, Donald: 9781400226948: Books - Amazon.ca

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Try tackling one or two objectives at a time. Go easy on yourself.

@Katie Thanks I can’t tell if you’re replying to me. There appears to be some missing context. I answered this in response to the 12 questions exercise from Richard Feynman. He always had 12 questions he was working. See this article for more context: 12 Favorite Problems: A Practical Framework for Discovering Your Purpose

Since David and Mike did a focused episode on this I thought I would share the 12 problems I have so far.

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Good. I also have personal goals which I usually fail to achieve. I also have a set of questions, some of which remain unsolved, by me or anybody else over a period of 50 years. I always thought of them as, like Feynman’s, of a different kind as it were than the ‘how do I retire rich at 40?’ ones. For example his were more like “is there a minimum gap between Prime pairs”, that kind of thing? So you think the questions are of the same order so to speak? Or is that the 13th question too far!

I remain very skeptical about the approach in the linked article. Much of what happens is due to forces outside one’s control, luck and being in the right place at the right time and the help or lack of from people around one or colleagues etc… Otherwise, to quote my own fave source, T.S. Elliot, who once said, ‘There is no method other than to be very intelligent’.
Though I am a big admirer of Richard Feynman I tend to be very wary of sources that quote or over quote him. He often said things he hadn’t thought through or had more complicated meanings than the memes or quotes. In fact it is something of a red flag to me nowadays, along with Karl Popper and Kennedy…
Especially if the article also quotes approvingly Newt Gingrich :woozy_face.
As for @MacSparky, I think the key to his success, though he might not see it himself, is a) real Smarts and talent and b) he is decent, genuine and really ‘nice’ guy, as they say in here in America. Everybody who comes here is actually, rare these days or the result of good moderation policy?

I also thought Feynman’s problems were more specific - I saw that he also suggests having some favorite solutions. I thought the exercise was more having a problem like “Is light a wave or a particle” that’s bouncing around, and one day you see a snake wind its way between two poles and go “wait, if light does that, it’s a wave! We could create two slits off center and prove it!”.

That’s not to say that having a list of deeper questions isn’t useful, but I think that may be why @MacSparky kept thinking they might be going too broad. Personally, I liked his questions about “How do I be a good dad to my daughter who’s wrapping up her school time” and “How do I change my style to be a good dad to a young professional” because they felt a little more bound and solvable - you might see other examples of teaching and developing someone that resonate, or take inspiration from nature etc. I see that as a little different from “How do I make this a story” - which is a great question to reframe and focus adversity, but doesn’t feel like a problem with a solution.

I hope I’m not coming across as critical - I think this was a great episode and unpacked a lot of good thoughts.


@TudorEynon - I hadn’t remembered the Newt quote. I just used it as a quick example that I had an explanatory link to,

@Ted_Martin I’m not particular on how specific his problems were. I do think they were ones he hadn’t solved.

I’m using the approach as a focusing tool, to help me remember to give more time and energy to things in my life that might otherwise get ignored. If humour is on the list and I hear something that makes me laugh I’m more likely to take a note. Same with business friction. I claim I want to work fewer hours for the same revenue, yet I’m replying to you at 5:30 pm when I could be making dinner.

I see the questions as a way to direct my thinking a bit more. When one is mostly solved I will retire it and find a new one.

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Absolutely and well expressed.
To go back even further to the sources of those excellent commentators you cite.
One finds in Aristote a specific view of Courage as a mean between Foolhardy recklessness, which is what fear, at least a rational assessment of real risk and cost, helps one avoid, and quivering submission to every slight and opposition, even if not real, which is what unconstrained fear results in.
In other words fear is a component part or weighting to the Virtue of Courage. That sort of hangs together with it as it were. It is a form of wisdom you might even say in this perhaps over intellectual ethical scheme which has ‘Knowledge’ or Practical Wisdom at its core and as its highest value.
I think your point that fear is not an ‘opposite’ of courage is a excellent one and correct in the Classical view and indeed in more modern Christian, more self-helpy internalized and Republican versions.

On the other hand I am never sure though if I have enough Courage myself in any sense and some very unwise, even silly or evil folk do, in my opinion, seem to be quite brave under any sensible description and without much awareness of risk or danger.

I just was thinking it might be a lot of handle at the same time. Just thinking out loud.

Perhaps it is. However the number items is what Feynman claimed to do. Most of these aren’t actively being worked on. I keep these on my Obsidian dashboard

I see the dashboard several times a day. They exist to remind these are the areas I’m thinking about right now. They help me with focus and notetaking.

Example - I’m reading about Sparta right now. Should I take extensive notes? Maybe not.

I’m also reading Jenny Blakes book about Free Time. Should I take notes - yes because she is covering ways to reduce business friction.

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