What are you working on right now? Why are you working on that? What interests you? Would you rather work on something else? Why aren’t you working on that something else?

These are questions we all grapple with, yet due to external factors (schools, bosses etc.), we may not have the final word when it comes to what we work on. Maybe you want to work on that SaaS side project but your boss is expecting you to fix that bug by monday, so you one way or another end up postponing your side project.

Leaving the external factors aside, choosing a problem to work on is still an intricate task. It can be hard to assess what we actually want to do, and whether it is right for us. To look for a way out, we can turn to one of the greatest minds of the 20th century and see how he chose what problem to work on.

Claude Shannon, generally known as the father of information theory, was much more than a one-hit-wonder scientist. At age 21 he found out switching circuits could do boolean algebra (spoiler: that’s what your computer does all the time). He then went on to work on genetics, cryptography, artificial intelligence, investing, and juggling while creating the field of information theory and solving pretty much all of its major problems in the meantime.

One of his most famous inventions was Theseus, a robotic mouse that could find its way in a maze and remember the path. His then employer, AT&T Bell Labs, filmed a video before the word got out, featuring Shannon explaining how Theseus related to the nation’s telephony infrastructure so that people wouldn’t think those geniuses there were spending time on such toys instead of focusing on the nation’s more important problems such as, you know…the Cold War.1

Another one of his “inventions” was the Ultimate Machine, a box with a switch on top. When the switch was turned on, the lid on top of the the box would open, a mechanical finger would creep out and turn the switch back off before retreating back into darkness.

Then there is his juggling theorem:

where stands for the time a ball spends in air, in hand, the time a hand spends empty, the number of balls, and the number of hands.

You see where I am getting at? These are not typical problems an accomplished mathematician would spend time with. Shannon couldn’t care less about the practical benefits of his work. He did not found a company creating robo-mice, or mass produced the Ultimate Machine. He had solved a problem and he was done. What drove him was sheer curiosity:

I do what comes naturally, and usefulness is not my main goal…I keep asking myself, How would you do this? Is it possible to make a machine do that? Can you prove this theorem?

Though he gave due credit to those who focused on practicality:

the discoveries of science are wonderful achievements in themselves, but would not affect the life of the common man without the intermediate efforts of engineers and inventors - people like Edison, Bell, and Marconi.

Okay. So?

One naive takeaway from these anecdotes would be to just follow your curiosity and forget about the rest. I am not interested in such bold, and useless advice.

Shannon was working at Bell Labs, one of the most free work environments ever. He was in a sense getting paid to follow his curiosity. I am not, and I assume you are not in such an environment. So the ‘follow your curiosity’ advice breaks down anyways.

The point I want to make is that there is no problem unworthy of a solution. Note that while pursuing such toy interests, Shannon wasn’t a nobody dwelling in his garage from day to night. He was one of the most well-known mathematicians of his time, even before his information theory breakthrough at age 32. It would be a no-brainer for him to decide to focus on more “important” problems instead of juggling for example.

If you are working on something that you don’t want to, but you feel like you have to, then think once again. Why do you think you should work on that certain thing? Maybe you must (e.g. boss asked you to, class assignment etc.), but most of the time our actions are shaped by external factors that are not really factors without us being aware of it. Do you think people would think you entered a midlife crisis if you took up model trains as a hobby after wishing for one your entire childhood? Would you be wasting your time learning Japanese, having never been there? What about learning to program in COBOL?

If you are interested in something, then there is nothing keeping you from exploring it deeper. Leave aside your truly mandatory responsibilities, and everything else is optional. There is no problem you shouldn’t try to solve.

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