November 2, 2022

President Russ Roberts Tackles Life’s “Wild Problems” in Newest Book

For those of us facing big, fork-in-the-road decisions, from what to study to whom to marry or whether to have another kid, the Hoover Institution economist and president of Shalem College Russ Roberts has a surprising claim: The normal tools of rational decision-making might just lead you astray. If you’re not careful, he writes in his newest book Wild Problems, you’ll over-focus on the day-to-day pleasures and pains you expect to result from your decision, and ignore the role our choices play in defining who we are.

Trying to gauge our expected happiness from our decisions, argues Roberts, is not just an imperfect exercise. It can also cause us to under-appreciate the roles that meaning and purpose play in our lives. That’s because, he writes in his sixth and arguably most reflective book to date, when it comes to many of life’s most defining decisions, not only is there no reliable way to anticipate how our choices will turn out, but those choices also change what we care about and come to define who we are. Rather than focus on anticipated happiness, he concludes, we should consider who we are and who we want to be.

“Apps like Waze or Google Maps tell us the best way to get to where we’re going,” he says, “but no app or algorithm can tell us whether we should head there in the first place. That question doesn’t have a right answer. For that, we need other measures beyond happiness.”

If it sounds strange to hear a renowned economist insist that such traditional tools of his trade as cost-benefit analysis have their limits—indeed, that in some cases, reason and logic may actually do more harm than good—an anecdote from Wild Problems that formed the backdrop for a guest essay in the New York Times this July shows that, at the very least, he’s in good company.

“In 1838, a 29-year-old Charles Darwin agonized in his journal over the question of whether to marry,” says Roberts, who explains that the young naturalist, thinking of his aspiration to be a great scientist, engaged in one of history’s more amusing examples of scientific inquiry: He made a list of marriage pros and cons. (“It’s a really embarrassing list,” Roberts laughs. “It’s so bad.”) In the end, the number of negatives far outweighs the positives—but Darwin pursues marriage, nonetheless. Roberts suspects that Darwin aspired to be not just a serious scientist but a husband and a father, a part of the human experience. And went on, Russ concludes, whether despite or because of what ended up being a long and happy marriage and fulfilling family life, to become one of the world’s most brilliant and accomplished scientists, anyway.

To Roberts, this makes perfect sense.

“Darwin had no idea—how could he?—of what marriage was like. He had never been married, and he therefore had no access to the inner life of a spouse. It was impossible for him to anticipate the depths of pleasure and pain he would experience once he was living out his decision. Or, to put it differently,” Roberts concludes with a smile, “once had he consciously turned his decision into his destiny.”

Just over a year after facing a wild problem of his own—namely, the opportunity to move to Israel to become the president of Shalem—Roberts insists that he has nothing but sympathy for those in the throes of a tough choice. “On narrow utilitarian grounds, this was a no-brainer,” he writes in the book of the reasons for him to stay in the United States, from a fulfilling job and a beloved home to distance from family and friends and a tenuous grasp of Hebrew. “But when it came to who I am and who I want to be, it was a no-brainer in the other direction,” he says. “To play a role in an institution that hopes to prepare the next generation of leaders in Israel would be a privilege close to my heart… how could I say no?” To turn down the position, he concludes, would simply have felt wrong, despite all the rational reasons why it might have been the “right” thing to do.

As for how the decision has defined him, Roberts admits that even he was surprised on that point. “Naively or not, I did not anticipate that the change in my legal status would have such a profound impact on my internal narrative and sense of identity. And that’s really the essence of ‘wild problems’: When we make them, we cross into experiences that change us in ways we can’t imagine beforehand, including what we value and what brings us happiness.”

Fortunately for Roberts, being the president of Shalem has been the source of enormous happiness—which, he’s careful to note, “isn’t a good thing for humans, or policymakers to aim for…Meaning, purpose, love, flourishing, using our gifts to the fullest” are all far better, even more attainable goals.

Nonetheless, he says, having made his decision, he wouldn’t have it any other way. And that, ultimately, is all that matters in the end.

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