The Problem with Problems

I recently noticed that, in general, most of the errors we make in diagnosing a problem, have to do with identification. These errors are not in the independent variables but rather the dependent ones. Here’s a quick refresher on dependent and independent variables. Independent variables are those variables you need to get the dependent variable. In other words, they are the predictors of the dependent variables. Here’s what I mean, mathematically. On the left, Yi is the dependent variable, and the Xi's are the independent variables.

This means that the problem with our models is often not with the right side of the equation but with the left side. Said another way, we struggle with the issue of incorrect, unrelated, or minimally related independent variables. In my estimation, there are three reasons for this.

First of which is that these independent variables present themselves to us more readily than the dependent variables do. For example, it is easy to identify that you are stressed out but more difficult to recognize the cause of the stress. This reason is significant because potentially having predictors without knowing what they predict or, in most cases, inferring the wrong variable can be detrimental.

The second reason we have this problem is that, in some sense, we don’t truly know ourselves. Indeed much of life is getting to understand oneself and, hopefully, be in full control of our impulses, but in most cases, we fail to accurately understand what it is that truly affects us and in what these effects are on us. The best illustration of this is a question. When you feel what you term “burnout” are you truly burned out? Or do you just need a word of encouragement and acknowledgement from someone you respect?

The third, and perhaps the most important reason is that, in most cases, we might not want to know these dependent variables. In some sense, we do not want what we truly need. For example, many married adults never fail to mention how the traits they thought they wanted in a partner are vastly different from what they actually wanted and appreciated in their partners.

The solution to this, in some sense, is tricky to diagnose because one falls, inevitably, for the same problem - we identify the independent variables, but the dependent one eludes us. The issue here, again, is not with identifying the independent variables. The main problem is what these issues point to. That I do not know. This point becomes more pernicious because it justifies getting lost in the infinite which, as Kierkegaard identified, is paralyzing. In other words, truly internalizing the point of this piece will make one question every decision and or identification of a problem, which is a justifiable reaction, but not the correct one. The only hope we have comes from a huge "maybe." Maybe if we gathered more of these independent variables, we might get a clearer picture of what the left side of the equation is or should be. In my case, I’m more firmly rooted in the fact that by building more mental models and gaining a better idea of what it is to "be," I might find what these independent variables predict.


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