WoW 028: On identifying important problems [Words of Wisdom]

First, a quick update on what I've been up to recently. Instead of describing that here, I'll let you know that I decided to create a Now page.

Since it's a relatively new concept, a Now page is a page on my website that talks about what I'm currently focused on in life. An About page of course talks about who I am in general, and what my background is, but a Now page gives more of a personal and professional update. Essentially, think of a Now page as the big picture update you'd tell a friend you hadn't talked to in a year. I'm not familiar with anything, even social media, that gives an opportunity for that kind of an update.

Check it out at, and if you like the idea and have your own website, consider creating one yourself. If you want to learn about where this idea originated, see

Now on to Words of Wisdom!

On identifying important problems

Richard Hamming was an accomplished mathematician and computer scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project and for most of his career at Bell Laboratories. He was known to go to colleagues in other fields, such as physicists, and ask them: what are the most important problems in your field?

Hamming was concerned with and fascinated by making a meaningful impact in one's field, and his focus was answering that question as a scientist.

You can answer that question in your career and your personal life. What is the most important problem you face? Are you working on solving it?

If you avoid what is most important, you will only get second-class results, at best. Most likely, you'll get less meaningful results.

If you don't name the problem, you are less likely to head in a helpful direction.

So start by listing the most important problems you are facing. Then identify the most significant problem by asking questions like these:

What makes each problem important?

Is there anything underneath that is even more important to solve?

If fear didn't limit you, what would you work on?

What is most fundamental?

What am I missing?

How would solving this problem change things?

How would solving the problem lead to what is most needed?

Now seek to solve the problem with courage, generosity, and persistence. If you want a deeper dive into solving complex problems, refer to these questions.

But on your path to solving significant problems, don't fail to be curious about the smallest of things. Grow your awareness and learn to see more clearly.

Inquire about the inconsequential. Allow yourself to wonder. Ponder what is small and intriguing. Everyone has something to teach you. Search wide and far and close to home for what fascinates you. Keep exploring.

When you combine curiosity with a clear focus on the most valuable problems to solve, you can create powerful new ideas, inventions, and solutions.


"Leonardo had almost no schooling and could barely read Latin or do long division. His genius was of the type we can understand, even take lessons from. It was based on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves, such as curiosity and intense observation. He had an imagination so excitable that it flirted with the edges of fantasy, which is also something we can try to preserve in ourselves and indulge in our children...skill without imagination is barren."

Leonardo da Vinci, by Isaacson, Walter

"Your legacy is determined by the quality of your questions and the degree you live out wise answers."

On questions and influence, by Josh Kalsbeek


What is my field's greatest problem? What is my life's most significant problem in this season? How can I work on it?

What do I need to do to move forward on my biggest challenge?


Life is too short not to focus on what matters most. Prioritize your problems and develop practices to grow.

Live wisely,


P.S. We all need wisdom to flourish. Please help me share the Words of Wisdom with others by sending them here.

Continue reading

A woman thoughtfully holds a glowing orb.
Our newsletter

Do you hear the call of wisdom?

How you respond to the call of wisdom determines the direction of your life.

Get the Words of Wisdom email every Wednesday: brief reflections on wisdom to help you grow in the skills of virtuous living.