Desert Problems
A metaphor for delayed gratification

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1. Desert Problems

One of the ways in which I usually annoy my acquaintances is when I mention random biblical stories. Because most of them assume (correctly) that I’m an atheist, and so they have a little double take moment, wondering what weird conservative take I’m about start rambling about. But if you’ll indulge me…

Personally, I find there are some nuggets you could salvage from religious texts. They do make useful metaphors. One of my favorite usages is by Steve Eisman1. For context, he is: one of the people that predicted the 2008 financial crisis. Particularly, he likens his experience of knowing in advance to the story of the great flood.

“Running my fund in 2008 felt a little like being Noah. Noah builds his ark, and he puts his family on the ark, and off they go. So he and his family are safe, and everybody else is dying.”

— Steve Eisman

I’m interested in usage of metaphors. It’s my opinion that there are thoughts that can only be had through the their usage, and so we must rely on them to advance what we can reason about.2

One such metaphor that I have come up with which keeps being one of the most useful ones is that of the desert problems. Of course, the biblical inspiration is ultimately irrelevant, I just think it makes for a great “meme”.

In the original story (the temptation of Christ), Jesus goes into a dessert for 40 days, fasting, all the while with the “devil” tempting him to break his fast and go home and “sin”.

However, the metaphor under all the fantasy here is kind of useful. It does often happen in life that you have to walk through a metaphorical dessert, and resist temptation, often without any meaningful sign that what you are even doing is correct.

For example, one of the issues that I personally encountered when I decided to slow down my professional career and pursue a degree, is how hard it can be to keep motivated when you suddenly have to adjust to the student lifestyle.

Maybe I’m just lizard brained, and in no doubt does my ADHD play into this, yet… It really does feel like a bad deal. Having had to train people with masters degrees before even entering university, I can not help but feel a bit odd even being there, I mean, most of my fellow students are going to university just to get a job that I could already get, and that I would not even want in the first place!

And that is an example of a dessert problem. Here you are in what seems to be a terrible bargain. There is no money to be made, no feeling of progress or contributing to anything. All you’re doing in university for the most part (at least for a mathematics degree) is solving exercise’s with numbers changed around. Worse, if you start doing original work, you will actually find yourself at a comparative disadvantage, because it is not comparable to the grading standard.3

Yet, I do think there is something of value here. My initial reasoning was actually a bit silly. I have been a programmer for a long time, but I remember feeling like I had hit a barrier in my development.

Specifically, I had gotten to the point where I felt like the only way to improve was to have a deep understanding of fundamental concepts. In an attempt to move in that direction, I attempted to read TAOCP. And I was stunned. I knew nothing yet.

So that wish to improve serves as my north star… But day to day, living more modest, not being able to buy whatever I want just because I want it… Eye shopping… You can really lose track of that reason.

And that’s a dessert problem.

So some characteristics that we might notice about these problems.

  1. They tend to be about long stretches of time.
  2. They tend to give limited feedback.
  3. Usually they don’t look attractive in the short term.

So, what makes a desert problem worth pursuing? How do you pursue it? And why should you even pursue one in the first place?

Well, technically you should not pursue desert problems. In fact, you should prefer to avoid them when that will suffice. But sometimes, you’re unable to truly proceed, or it’s not the most efficient way to avoid them.

Perhaps you wanna be healthy. Maybe you wanna stop smoking. Maybe you wanna become a great programmer. Maybe you wanna make a lot of money.4

For all of these, you might find that if you really wanna solve the problem, you have to consider what kind of desert you have to cross.

If you wanna be healthy, maybe instead of picking up a new fad diet or consuming more activated almonds, what you really should consider instead is getting regular checkups at the doctor, scheduling your biannual at the dentist, and habitually getting exercise.

If you wanna stop smoking, you might perhaps consider cutting down on your consumption, informing yourself of the consequences to smoking, publicly committing to stop, and worst… Actually quit.

If you want to become a great programmer5, maybe instead of looking for what is the best language to learn, you need to just sit down and write code, every day, for a very… very… very… long time.

If you wanna make a lot of money, maybe you need to stop watching influencers online and learn basic accounting, start keeping a budget, start learning about how to run a company, pursue education in that direction, or start saving up to pursue such education.

Either way, we see some common trends in all of these. And that is that desert problems are usually problems of delayed gratification.

A fair amount of programmers I know, myself included, experience being able to code for days on end, enjoying it greatly, but then struggling to do simple tasks such as paying their bills or filing their taxes.

The reason, I believie, is that programming gives you constant, immediate feedback, where as doing your taxes don’t.

The reason that I’m so interested in issues like this is because they are some of the issues I struggle with the most. Yet, most people I know usually seem rather impressed at some of the things that I have managed to do despite of that, to the point where I wonder how they would reevaluate their heuristics if they knew just how bad I really intrinsically am at these things.

And to be honest, one of the primary things that actually have helped me is just having this framework that these problems are desert problems, and knowing that to solve them, sometimes you need to just commit and take a leap of faith.

Reframing these painful moments of prolonged suffering with little sign of progress into a journey through a dessert, where at the end you will finally find what you are looking for, gives me a way to make sense of that pain. And by doing that, it can help me to keep going, instead of taking the easy exit.

And I even think this also applies to companies going through periods where it unclear whether or not all their work will amount to anything. Working on stuff where you’re not immediately able to gauge market reactions can be truly awful. And again, you just have to make sure that you’re pursuing the right goal, and then get ready to hunker down for the trip through the barren wasteland.

Anyways, I hope you find this idea useful when you’re dealing with your next problem. Thanks for reading.

Footnotes:

1

He was also played by Steve Carell in the dramatization of the 2008 finanical crisis the big short, where he was fictionalized as the character Mark Baum.

2

George Lakoff & Rafael Nunez.

3

I think grades are an example of Goodhearts law.

4

Making money is a terrible goal, but I’ll leave that to another time.

Author: Christina Sørensen

Created: 2022-11-12 Sat 03:57