What’s Our Problem? Summary

1-Sentence-Summary: What’s Our Problem? explains what’s going on in our modern times, why everyone seems to be acting crazy, and how societies function, fall, and thrive, using plenty of original frameworks to give us new, better ways of thinking and communicating in our complicated world.

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What's Our Problem Summary

In a 2018 interview, Tim Urban, the writer and sketch artist behind Wait But Why, shared a thought experiment: If all 100,000 years of human history went into a 500-page book at 200 years per page, for the first 450 pages, it’d be all hunter-gatherers. How boring!

Only in the last 50 pages, things pick up steam, from Jesus to the Enlightenment. But on the last page, you’ll lose your mind. Suddenly, you get cars, phones, and two World Wars. You read about about airplanes, the internet, and the moon landing.

That last page is where it all seems to start. It is a time unlike any other in history, and that’s why it’s so important we — the people alive on that last page right now — get it right. Otherwise, the book might end on the next page.

Hence, Tim wrote What’s Our Problem? (A Self-Help Book for Societies). At the same time that exponential technological progress is ushering in a new age, we seem to be losing our wits. When did we become so angry and unable to communicate as a society? Urban proposes several ideas and solutions.

Here are 3 of the most important lessons from the book:

  1. “The Ladder” shows us 4 primary ways of thinking, and some are better than others.
  2. For political governance to function, high-rung thinkers must work together.
  3. If we want to change society for the better, we must show awareness and courage.

Let’s figure out “our problem!”

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Lesson 1: There are 4 primary modes of thinking, and they function like a ladder.

The most important concept from the book is what Urban calls “the Ladder.” The Ladder is a 4-rung, vertical framework showing that how we think is more important than what we think.

We all have a “higher mind” and a “primitive mind.” The newer parts of our brain are capable of reason, restraint, and thoughtful analysis. The older parts, however, just want us to eat, sleep, and reproduce. Depending on which part is currently in charge or at least stronger, we’ll think like one of the following 4 archetypes, each on a lower rung of the Ladder than the last:

  1. Scientist — We truly think for ourselves. We gather information, form hypotheses, and are open to changing our mind whenever new evidence appears.
  2. Sports fan — We’re slightly more biased. We’ll still accept the rules of the game, but we really want our team to win. Whatever is good for our team, we’re likely to believe.
  3. Attorney — With the primitive mind taking over, we become attorneys arguing our case, regardless of the facts. An attorney is always on their client’s team. They get paid to be. So if the client wants to be not guilty, they’ll work tirelessly to prove it — even if it’s not true.
  4. Zealot — We are no better than religious zealots, refusing any dissenting information. We hold on desperately to our beliefs and defend them viciously. No amount of facts or differing opinions will change our mind.

No matter the topic and situation, rather than ask, “What is this person thinking?” we should ask “What rung are they thinking on right now?” Only on the higher rungs can we have real intellectual discourse and solve humanity’s problems. Which brings us to…

Lesson 2: Politics only functions when high-rung thinkers with different viewpoints work together.

Politicians who think clearly concern themselves mainly with 3 questions, Urban says:

  1. What is?
  2. What should be?
  3. How do we get from what is to what should be?

Often, it is only the third question that the political left and right disagree on. So even if they might argue about the methods of making progress, charting a path forward together is usually possible. It’s entirely an attitude-problem: Are you open to other people’s ideas and willing to work with someone with a different worldview?

As long as politicians share that attitude, governance runs fine. High-rung thinkers differ in what they think but relate to one another in how they think — and that makes all the difference.

In low-rung politics, none of this is possible. Urban calls it “Political Disney World.” In such a world, each party has its own narrative that looks as perfect as a Disney movie, like Aladdin or The Lion King. Each party member is the underdog hero, going up against “pure evil.” Now, rather than two different parties, poring over a map together, we have two loud and angry giants, shouting at one another.

Low-rung thinking in politics blocks all progress. Only high-rung thinkers can even get things done, let alone help us move forward as a society.

Lesson 3: Awareness and courage are the 2 prime contributions anyone can make to a well-functioning society.

While the world might feel particularly divided these days, Urban still has hope. To form an upward spiral out of the low-rung-thinking bog, we need 2 things, he suggests: awareness and courage.

Awareness starts with realizing that everyone, including you, is a low-rung thinker at times. Luckily, it only takes a few questions to start figuring out when and where it happens. Some examples: “Where in your internal life is your Primitive Mind holding the reins? What are the triggers that activate your Primitive Mind? Where do you tend to be at your best—consistently high rung, wise, and grown up?”

While being more aware of our thinking is great, it’ll take more than that to change society as a whole. “Courage is an Outer Self project,” Urban writes. And while those can be scary, we can slowly increase our courage in 3 levels:

  1. Stop saying things you don’t believe.
  2. Start saying what you actually think in small circles with close friends and family.
  3. Go public in your larger communities and even online if you dare.

The first one is easy. We just have to keep our mouth shut at the right times. The second one is a trust advance to our close ones, giving them a chance to also speak their minds freely. The last step simply extends that trust advance to more people. It shows others they’re not the only ones disagreeing with the status quo, and that it’s okay to say what you think.

If nothing else, that’s a takeaway worth remembering from this book — and it’s also a credo all thriving societies must be built upon.

What’s Our Problem Review

Despite its weighty topic and length, What’s Our Problem? does not feel heavy at all. Urban brilliantly illuminates complex ideas with fun metaphors and wit, making this one well worth your time to understand one of the biggest issues of our time.

Who would I recommend our What’s Our Problem summary to?

The 17-year-old high school graduate, who struggles to make sense of the loud world she lives in, the 45-year-old, disillusioned PR expert, and anyone who wants to know how society really works.

Last Updated on September 6, 2023

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