You probably think: the great problems before us today are climate change, social fragmentation, economic stagnation, lost generations of young people, decline. What we can debate is their order, but reasonable people don’t disagree on the list.
You’re right — but also wrong. Those are indeed great problems. But the greatest problems are of a different order, magnitude, and kind. They’re not problems outside us, but inside us. I’ll call them metaproblems.
They’re the problems inside the problems. They blind us to the material problems above, tempting us seductively to ignore, minimize, or deny them — and hence, when you think about it, we now live in a world where material problems are flourishing. They’re getting worse, not better. But only because we’re letting them.
Let me give you a few examples of metaproblems.
The most visible is denial. Miami’s beginning to drown. But millions of people — and plenty of leaders — still don’t believe climate change is happening, much less threatening. It’s not rational . But it’s true. What comes after denial?
The dominant economic narrative is one of recovery. But the middle class is now (for the first time in history) a minority, while the majority of public school kids are in poverty. So while maybe it’s true that there’s a “recovery,” it’s truer to say that if there is, the word is a meaningless one. When it comes to the economy, the metaproblem isn’t just denial: it’s bigger, taking a reality and not just denying it, but renaming it and pretending the problem away wholesale. That’s an example of projection — pretending that because life is great for us, it must be great for them. In other words, projecting our experiences onto others — so that we can deny reality.
But what happens for those who can’t project? If you’re one of the imploding middle, and especially one of the young, you’re probably cynical, bemused, ironically detached. But these are defense mechanisms, too. They hide and mask our anger, resentment, and bitterness — allowing us not to have to feel them. They’re small examples of reaction, uncomfortable emotions converted into more palatable, perhaps even pleasurable, opposites. Think of the snarky masses on Twitter. Now we can laugh at our failing institutions — instead of facing the brutal reality that we still, somehow, have to live among their ruins.
Those are just three small examples of metaproblems. Denying, projecting, reacting with cynical mockery or ironic detachment to problems like climate change and inequality is precisely why they are all proliferating in the first place, before our very eyes. Metaproblems leave us helpless and powerless in the face of material problems.
It’s understandable. The material problems above aren’t little ones. They’re problems of a kind we’re not used to: existential threats to economies, societies, and polities. Stagnation isn’t just a minor discomfort — it threatens us with the end of a once comfortable, effortless way of ascending into prosperity.
Existential threats invoke our defenses. Inside the dark caves of our minds lurk not just monsters, but cunning protectors, who keep us in the dark. We have an arsenal of defenses that we barely see, that prevent mental discomfort and psychic pain. But unless we face that discomfort, we are unlikely to solve our problems. Because we are unlikely to see out of our caves in the first place. When they are triggered collectively, they become cultural narratives, social customs, the impolite, unmentionable, taboo, forbidden … entire ways of life — not just individual psychological phenomena — and that’s what I mean by metaproblems.
This brings me to why you probably need to start thinking about all this.
One of the most striking facts about the world today is that people don’t trust leaders anymore. Once, people were desperate for leaders. Today, they’re scornful and distrusting of leaders. What they’re desperate for is better leadership. But those aren’t the same thing. Today’s leaders are experts at yesterday’s leadership. But that’s precisely how we got into this mess.
So if today’s leaders want to earn back the trust they’ve lost — or maybe destroyed — then they’re going to have to learn to go beyond issuing (or listening to) endless calls to fix a broken system. We’re going to have to understand why fragile, all-too-human humans seem incapable of fixing them in the first place, to solve the cognitive and emotional problems that are preventing leaders, institutions, and societies today from doing much about the parlous, dismal state of the world.
To get there, we’re going to have to cultivate some new — or maybe very old — qualities. Idealism, not just pragmatism. Interest in people’s lives, not arms-length market-driven disinterest. Emotional intelligence, not merely rationality. An insatiable hunger for the radical, the transformative, the life-changing, not merely a cautious tendency towards the incremental. The courage to fail colossally, not just the cleverness to manage your risks. Wisdom, not merely the shrewdness to cut better deals.
All of these hold the possibility to catalyze and inspire and awaken us. And that is precisely what must happen to solve metaproblems. The best in us must awaken, to gently and bravely lower the defenses which only ever keep our possibilities in instead of keeping our problems out.
The inconvenient truth is that we can’t solve problems like denial, projection, and reaction with solutions like bureaucratic institutions, horse-trading leadership that isn’t leading us much of anywhere, or spreadsheet-driven pseudo-analysis which merely pretends to quantify the black-swan-risk of the unknown. That’s because all those half-solutions pretend that people are rational, emotionless robots instead of fragile humans threatened into paralysis by existential threats. We must cultivate, reap, and then sow in each and every life which follows us, higher skills, like empathy, courage, and wisdom.
Why? Because the point of it all — institutions, leadership, economies, human organization, the thing that we call “the system” — is to expand, elevate, and enlarge people’s lives. Into their fullest potential. And if you think about it, that’s exactly what the world we made isn’t doing enough of today.