What Fundamental Human Problem are You Trying to Solve?
Get clear on why your content ultimately matters then genuinely communicate its worth to others
In one of the most popular TED talks of all time, with over 50 million views, Simon Sinek claimed that most people know “what” they do, some people know “how” they do it, but few people consider “why” they do it.
Your “why” is different from simply describing what your product does, what your service offers, or what your content is about. Your “why” is about your purpose, your cause, your belief, why your content exists, why you get out of bed in the morning, why anyone should care.
In other words, what fundamental human problem are you trying to solve?
Here’s the thing: there are two very different fundamental human problems. To discover your “why”, you need to be clear about which of these two problems you’re trying to solve — why your content ultimately matters. Only then can you genuinely communicate your worth to others.
Two fundamental human problems
But wait, don’t humans have a lot of fundamental problems? As biological creatures, we have basic needs for oxygen, food, drink, warmth, sleep. As social beings, we have needs for connection, recognition, and affection. How can these needs be reduced down to just two fundamental problems?
To see how, let’s briefly go back and forwards in time. In the 1930s, the renowned economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by 2030, we’d all be living mostly lives of leisure: working on average just 15 hours each week, only 3 hours a day. In his paper, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, Keynes said this would be the natural result of compound interest and technological innovation. Of course, he was (almost certainly) wrong.
The average workweek in Western Europe is still 38 hours; in the US, it’s 40 hours. That’s a long way off Keynes’ 2030 vision of 15 hours. But you can see where his optimism came from. Keynes was born in the 1880s. At that time, the average workweek was 66 hours in Europe and 62 hours in the US — that’s over 20 hours more than it is today. Even if Keynes’ utopia hasn’t been realised yet, it’s undeniable that our quality of life has dramatically improved.
Why does this matter? Because, although Keynes was optimistic about our material progress, he didn’t think a life of leisure lead to a problem-free existence. Instead, he said we’d have a new existential problem to grapple with — what to do with our freedom:
Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.
In foreseeing the future of human progress, Keynes viewed the history of humanity through the lens of two fundamental human problems: 1) Economic Problems — how to meet our material and social needs; 2) Existential Problems — how to live wisely and agreeably and well.
Keynes saw that, in the long run, humanity was “solving its economic problem”. In the past, the economic problem, the struggle for meeting our basic needs, was always the most pressing problem of humanity. Even for the privileged few, resources and opportunities were scarce and threatened by the general conditions of scarcity faced by everyone around them.
But with breathing space from economic concerns, Keynes said the world would become a completely different place. What would remain is the problem of what to do with our freedom. For many people, this wouldn’t be an easy transition. There would still be those who value money and the accumulation of wealth above all else. Even after their basic needs had been met, they’d still want more— to live longer, be fitter, stronger, happier.
To solve our existential problem, Keynes claimed that humanity will need to learn how to “value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful.” We will need to draw upon traditional and religious teachings on the “art of life itself”, not just the accumulation of more and more things:
We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things… It will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.
In sum, for most of human history, the economic problem has been the most pressing problem for people across the world. But that’s starting to change. In the future, the economic problem may be solved, leaving only the existential problem. In the meantime, we’re starting to care about both: how to meet our material and social needs and how to use our freedom from economic cares.
Which problem are you trying to solve?
Ask yourself: Is my product/service/content ultimately trying to solve an economic problem or an existential problem?
If you think the answer to this question is obvious, I can assure you that it’s not. We live in a world where these two problems are increasingly entwined, though one will always take precedence in someone’s mind over the other.
For example, you might create content about how to live a happier life. But what do you mean by happiness? If you try to help people achieve their goals, is that an economic problem or an existential problem? The answer depends on their motivation. If their goal is to be financially secure or receive the recognition of their peers, it’s economic. But if their goal is to grow as an individual or be a better person, it’s existential. So, let’s get clear: which is it?
How you answer this question will have a direct impact on how you genuinely communicate your worth to others. To continue to the example, if what you ultimately care about is solving the economic problem then you can show people how your advice will make them happier, more secure and respected. But if solving the existential problem is what matters, you can show people how to have a happier and more meaningful life, not just be materially and socially better off. The difference between these two offerings is substantial.
Advertisers have for a long time exploited this difference — promising to solve people’s economic and existential problems all at once with their product or service. Not only will this car get you from A to B faster and increase your social status, but it will also result in meaningful connections and an exciting life! Not only will this pair of trainers make you better at basketball, but they’ll also elevate your existence to those you most admire and aspire to be like!
Of course, it’s bullshit — we all know it is. It works (up to a point) because, in our relatively affluent modern lives, we’re no longer solely concerned with the economic problem. We also have time and space, as Keynes predicted, to think about how to live wisely and agreeably and well. The temptation to solve both fundamental problems with one product is often hard to resist.
The thing is, people aren’t falling for it anymore. The more we’re able to focus on our existential problems, as well as our economic ones, the more we care about someone’s genuine “why”. As Simon Sinek points out in his TED talk, people see that a company like Apple really does believe in challenging the status quo and thinking differently. They can buy into that. In contrast, people quickly see through the false promises of adverts for shiny new cars and expensive sports shoes. The “why” being communicated isn’t genuine.
The first step to genuinely communicating your worth to others is getting clear on why your content ultimately matters. What fundamental human problem are you trying to solve — the economic problem or the existential problem? Figuring it out isn’t easy. But it’s essential in differentiating yourself from everyone else claiming to solve one or the other, or both.
In Summary: Which fundamental human problem are you trying to solve?
To get clear on the “why” of your product/service/content, you need to know which fundamental human problem you’re trying to solve.
There are two fundamental human problems: 1) the economic problem — how to meet our material and social needs; 2) the existential problem — how to live wisely and agreeably and well.
Getting clear on which of these two problems you most care about will help you genuinely communicate your worth to others.