4 min read

What is a "problem"?

My definition of the word "problem"

@heyshadowsmith

March 14, 2022

Here's my definition of a problem.

"A problem is a situation where an obstacle applies friction against an entity's transition from a current state to a desired new state." - Shadow Smith

This definition is compelling to me because it identifies the 7 ingredients a situation needs to be categorized as a problem.


The 7 ingredients

Problem Diagram

  1. Entity
    A person, place, thing, or idea that has a state
  2. Current state
    A current characteristic and/or circumstance of the entity
  3. New state
    A new characteristic and/or circumstance of the entity
  4. Transition
    A change in the entity's state from a current state to a new state
  5. Obstacle
    A source of friction pushing against the transition
  6. Friction
    A force capable of stopping a transition
  7. Desire
    A want for the entity to be in a specific new state

The Situation Fractal

Situations with 6 of the 7 ingredients constantly happen all the time, but it is specifically Desire that turns a situation into a problem.

Specifically, an entity can transition from a current state to a new state against the friction of an encountered obstacle, but if there is no desire for the entity to be in a specific new state, the situation is not a problem.

In fact, situations occur with every entity in the universe where they transition from a current state to a new state against the friction of encountered obstacles as they move through time, and below is a visual of what I believe a section of this fractal looks like.

Situation Fractal

So if there is no Desire to transition to a specific new state, there is no problem while an entity traverses different states in their Situation Fractal, but the moment a new state is desired, a problem now exists.

Below is what a problem in a Situation Fractal looks like.

A Problem in the Situation Fractal


The 2 states of a Problem

If all 7 ingredients are present, a situation is always a problem, but whether or not someone believes a situation is a problem depends on how much friction is being applied to the entity’s transition from a current state to a desired new state.

The amount of friction determines which of the following 2 states a problem is in, with these states being:

  1. Unsolved
    This is when an obstacle applies enough friction to stop an entity's transition from a current state to a desired new state.
  2. Solved
    This is when an obstacle doesn't apply enough friction to stop an entity's transition from a current state to a desired new state.

Problem States


Examining real problems using my definition and the 7 ingredients

I saw someone share the following problem in an online forum, and I'm going to use my definition to break it down.

I want to be a Full Stack Software Engineer. I found free websites to learn, but I don't know all the necessary topics.

The entity is a person, their current state is not being a Full Stack Software Engineer, and their desired new state is being a Full Stack Software Engineer.

They encountered an obstacle of not knowing what to learn that has applied enough friction to their transition to stop them from being a Full Stack Software Engineer.

Interestingly, when an entity encounters an obstacle, the state of being faced with that obstacle is a current state of the entity itself with an obvious desired new state of no longer being faced with that obstacle.

Therefore, their problem statement could also be:

I don't know what to learn to be a Full Stack Software Engineer.

Again, the entity is a person, their current state is not knowing what to learn, and their desired new state is knowing what to learn.

They encountered an obstacle of not having an easily accessible resource of information about becoming a Full Stack Software Engineer that has applied enough friction to their transition to stop them from knowing what to learn.

With the entity encountering an obstacle of not having an easily accessible resource of information about becoming a Full Stack Software Engineer, their current state is not having an easily accessible resource of information about becoming a Full Stack Software Engineer with an obvious desired new state of having an easily accessible resource of information about becoming a Full Stack Software Engineer.

Therefore, their problem statement could also be:

I don't have an easily accessible resource of information about becoming a Full Stack Software Engineer.

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