I’m a systems expert. I’ve been analyzing, creating, and improving complex business systems for over 25 years. I also have a great deal of experience in technological infrastructure systems as well. Systems are what I do.

Here’s how most people attempt to fix a broken, complex system.

They have a system that has, let’s say, ten problems. These problems range from very serious to strongly irritating. Out of the ten problems, a system may have four or five serious ones.

Most people immediately leap to the one problem that emotionally disturbs them the most. Out of the ten problems, they leap to problem number seven and scream their head off about it. They throw all of their emotional energy, time, and money at that problem.

It never gets fixed. The person is sometimes emotionally satisfied (to a degree) when they see some progress made on problem number seven because of the attention they’re giving it. Yet, the problem is never actually fixed, and the other nine problems remain. They end up working on problem seven forever, until either the entire system breaks down or they leave to work on some other system.

These people don’t understand that systemic problems are usually the result of other systemic problems. Problem number seven is usually the result of problem number six, which in itself is a result of problem number five.

The correct way to fix a system is to completely ignore problem number seven, and focus all of your energy on fixing problem number one. Perhaps you might have to fix problems two and three at the same time, or shortly thereafter, as well.

Once you get problem one, and perhaps two and three fixed, problems four through ten vanish instantly, including problem number seven. The system begins to work correctly once again.

Not only have you fixed problem number seven, but you fixed all ten problems, without even addressing problem seven.

Isn’t that cool? That’s exactly how systems are fixed or improved.

If it’s so simple, why doesn’t everyone do this? Why does everyone focus all their energy on the wrong part of the system (problem seven) instead of focusing on problem number one? That’s because:

1. Problem number one isn’t something that bothers you very much. Problem number seven really bothers you. You get no emotional reward by working on problem number one, but you get tremendous emotional validation working on problem number seven even if you never fix it.

2. Problem number one is usually much more difficult to fix than problem seven. Problem seven seems fixable to you. Problem number one seems impossible (though it usually isn’t). So you take the path of least resistance and throw yourself at problem seven instead, declaring that problem one is either not that important, or “impossible” to fix.

3. All of your friends also think problem seven is where the focus should be. Focusing on problem seven builds consensus and a feeling of community (and later, group think). If you instead focus on problem number one, people are going to be upset with you. The social pressures and rewards of focusing on problem seven are huge.

This is why the world is so full of completely broken or shockingly inefficient systems.

Let’s run through a few examples of how this works in the real world.

Left-wing SJW Example: College is so expensive now that government needs to pay for it.

Yes, but why is college expensive? You’re not asking that question, because you’re just looking at your “problem seven” instead of looking at the entire system.

The reason college is so expensive is because of government interference and support to what used to be a largely independent college system. When government left colleges alone, the colleges were quite affordable as compared to today. When I finished high school in 1990, not one person I knew in my class had any trouble affording college, including the poor kids.

Problem 1: Government made college expensive.

Problem 2: College-age people can’t afford college anymore.

If you’re attacking problem number two, which is what all left-wingers do, your focus is in the wrong place. Getting government to fund college will not solve the system; you’ll just create a never-ending loop where government makes college more expense, and government keeps paying for it. Eventually your taxes will go up, and/or inflation will go up, and/or your government will go bankrupt.

You should be focusing on problem number one. Take government out of college, and college will be affordable again. Problem solved.

Yes, extracting government from college will be difficult and painful. As I said, problem number one is always harder to fix than subsequent systemic problems. It’s still the problem you need to fix if you want a truly functioning system.

Alt-right Example: Too many illegal third world immigrants are pouring into our country, so we need to build a wall to keep them out.

Yes, but why are they coming here? You’re not asking that question, because you’re just looking at your “problem seven” instead of looking at the entire system.

The biggest reason third world immigrants are coming here is because they get mountains of free stuff from taxpayer-funded government. Mexicans weren’t pouring into the US prior to the 1940s welfare state, right? There you go.

Problem 1: Government introduced a welfare state on steroids that gave tons of free stuff to illegal immigrants.

Problem 2: Massive amounts of third-world immigrants poured into our country.

“Build a wall” focuses on problem number two, which is the exact wrong point in the system to focus your energy upon. Building a wall will put a dent in the problem, sure, but it won’t fix it, ever. (It’s estimated that 27% to 40% of illegal Mexicans enter the US via planes.)

If you want to fix the system, you need to focus instead on problem one; stop giving free stuff to illegal immigrants. The instant you do this, they’ll stop coming here. At a bare minimum, the only ones who will take the trouble to come here are the ones who want to work hard instead of getting a handout.

You can use this analysis and apply it to literally any systemic problem in any area: politics, economics, business, you name it.

If you’ve ever wondered why the world is so full of wasted time, wasted emotions, and mass inefficiency, this is why; people are focusing on the wrong part of the system.. the part that is emotionally satisfying to them, but not conducive to actually fixing anything.

27 thoughts on “The Wrong Way to Fix a System

  1. Hi there Caleb, awesome post as always.

    One question (which might be out of the scope for this post) – how do you identify problem #1 of a system?

    Say, you have a business that’s not growing at the rate you expected. You try to identify and fix problem #1 and even when you’re a critical thinker and have the will to face the core problems, that thing you are fixing might be problem #7 in disguise, and you can’t really identify problem #1 for whatever reason.

    One way would be to hire a mentor or a consultant, but that doesn’t guarantee he’ll identify problem #1 right (though they’ll have a higher chance, or might find out problem #3 instead of #7).

    Do you have any tips? (I recognize this is way beyond the scope of this post, so any quick recommendation like a pointer to a book on the subject would be ideal, I’d be very grateful and research it on my own) – thanks in advance!

  2. One of your best posts I’ve ever read.
    It’s funny because I’ve had those thoughts bouncing around my head but the way you put it made everything seem so clear.
    Can you also do a post on how people abandon one system that’s has horrible problems for another one that’s different but also horrible?

  3. Great post man! I work in IT myself and constantly deal with the most “emotional” problem that users see.

    Your points on government issues are solid too. I’ve had many an argument with Obamacare fans. They love the feels of getting everyone covered and making sure no one goes broke from health issues, to which I agree, no one should go broke. BUT Obamacare did nothing to curb the actual costs of healthcare, which is problem #1, the high cost of it. Anyone who’s looked at an itemized bill from a hospital visit can attest to the extreme prices. As long as government is knee deep in healthcare, the costs will never go down. Only true competition and transparent pricing can help the issue.

  4. Definitely sharing this article on FB.
    It may seem only remotely related to this, but I feel people like anti-aging advocates are facing this same kind of faulty thinking from the majority of people; say when Aubrey De Grey points out that 2/3 of all world deaths are aging-related, thus totaling DOUBLE of ALL other causes of death united (war, poverty, illness, everything), and that therefore getting aging under medical control is the number one problem to address for people who want to reduce human suffering, it falls on deaf ears most of the time. People will say “How dare you invest so much effort into such luxury when we have population and inequality and environmental problems etc”, with no sense of scale of how much total suffering is caused by the mere fact of being biologically 80 as opposed to 30 – and how rejuvenated older people would in fact be much more productive citizens and decrease the need for pensions/retirement etc. When you think of it, “if anti-aging comes into the scene, there will be an even further rich-poor divide, at least at first” is definitely a “problem number seven” when you stack it againt the defeat of aging, but people irrationally consider it as some kind of killer argument.
    Same when similar-minded people object to money being poured into fusion research, “because there’s more important stuff to spend on, like curbing poverty”. Another case of Problem n°1 having the potential to solve the bottom of the ladder, but being ignored anyway.

  5. One question (which might be out of the scope for this post) – how do you identify problem #1 of a system?

    Step 1 – Think visually and on paper. Diagram it out. Keep asking yourself questions like “Why is this happening?” “What am I not seeing?” “What else could be happening?”

    Step 2 – As you said, get a fresh pair of eyes from someone else and have them help you. Yes, hiring a consultant or business coach is a good idea if you can afford it. Otherwise, have some intelligent friends help you.

    Can you also do a post on how people abandon one system that’s has horrible problems for another one that’s different but also horrible?

    Well, the chapter in my book regarding The Box is pretty much that.

    But I have more upcoming posts on this systems topic.

    BUT Obamacare did nothing to curb the actual costs of healthcare, which is problem #1, the high cost of it.

    It’s worse than that. Obamacare not only didn’t curb costs, it’s increased costs, not only of healthcare, but of insurance.

  6. To get rid of Mexican immigrants, systematically prosecute the bejesus out of people that employ them. If it’s a company, haul the the directors up on racketeering charges and dissolve the company (corporations are creations of the state, and so a state is well within its remit to dissolve companies that commit felonies – beats me why any country tolerates such a thing). You don’t need fleets of buses carrying the illegal entrants into your country to a border wall, and you don’t need new laws. Enforce the existing laws, and they’ll head to the border all by themselves.

  7. To get rid of Mexican immigrants, systematically prosecute the bejesus out of people that employ them. If it’s a company, haul the the directors up on racketeering charges and dissolve the company (corporations are creations of the state, and so a state is well within its remit to dissolve companies that commit felonies – beats me why any country tolerates such a thing).

    Yes, that’s the authoritarian, big government, somewhat right-wing solution.

    I like the libertarian method better; instantly terminate any and all free government services to any illegal. No enforcement needed, no need to shut down companies, no need to use cops or courts, etc.

  8. Could you elaborate on how exactly government involvement with college has led to cost increases? I’m not disagreeing at all, just curious as to what hard evidence exists to support this claim.

  9. Could you elaborate on how exactly government involvement with college has led to cost increases? I’m not disagreeing at all, just curious as to what hard evidence exists to support this claim.

    Very hard evidence.

    https://fee.org/articles/government-loans-make-college-more-expensive-worsen-income-inequality/

    http://reason.com/blog/2015/08/03/study-yes-student-loans-are-making-colle

    http://www.the-american-interest.com/2015/10/20/how-the-federal-government-makes-college-more-expensive/

    Anything the government subsidizes eventually becomes more expensive. It’s an avoidable law of economics.

  10. This idea of college being unaffordable is overblown anyway. When you see these huge debt numbers it’s either from people who got expensive post graduate degrees (like an MD or lawyer) or who went to an expensive private school. If you did 2 years at a community college and then 2 years at a local public school while living with your parents you would end up with about $17.5k in debt (using numbers from where I live). And you can get even that number down if you take AP or dual-credit classes in high school.

  11. Libertarians. Lol.

    I studied in a government-funded college because I was poor. In my country, it’s called government subsidy. Just like me, a lot of poor but intelligent guys were given a chance to study under government subsidy with almost FREE OF COST.

    We never had a problem with free education or college debt.

    Do you really think government shouldn’t provide a helping hand to guys with dirt poor parents like mine to receive the same education as an upper middle class kid does? If the government doesn’t interfere, then there’s no way to bridge the gap(atleast, in terms of education) between a poor kid and a rich kid.

    Way to go , systems expert!

    I am not a socialist and I am not a capitalist either(this is why I don’t like talking about political issues). The debt-problem you’re talking about is way more complex than you think. If it was that simple, then the government would have already fixed it.

  12. We never had a problem with free education or college debt.

    Oh really? Your country doesn’t have a debt problem? Great! Tell me which country that is and we’ll carefully examine their financial situation so we can learn from these wise people.

    Do you really think government shouldn’t provide a helping hand to guys with dirt poor parents like mine to receive the same education as an upper middle class kid does?

    No. If your local city wishes to give you a government funded education on the municipal level, because the local voters there voted for it, then I have no problem with it at all.

    More information here:

    http://calebjonesblog.com/how-to-handle-the-poor-part-1/

    http://calebjonesblog.com/how-to-handle-the-poor-part-2/

    http://calebjonesblog.com/how-to-handle-the-poor-part-3/

    If the government doesn’t interfere, then there’s no way to bridge the gap(atleast, in terms of education) between a poor kid and a rich kid.

    Then how do you explain the literally thousands (likely millions) of success stories of men who used to be poor and became rich, and did so without any government help or free college?

    Here are just 25 examples:

    http://www.artofmanliness.com/2008/12/28/self-made-men/

    You can find literally thousands more examples if you look for them.

    Way to go , systems expert!

    Thanks! I’m quite badass.

    If it was that simple, then the government would have already fixed it.

    Incorrect. The government hasn’t fixed it because it doesn’t want to, not because it’s too complicated.

  13. Hey Caleb,

    I’m interested in your opinion on pouring foreign aid and charity money into wartorn African and Middle Eastern countries. But knowing that you’re a Libertarian, I probably know what you’ll say. Still…Yay or nay and why?

  14. I’m interested in your opinion on pouring foreign aid and charity money into wartorn African and Middle Eastern countries. But knowing that you’re a Libertarian, I probably know what you’ll say. Still…Yay or nay and why?

    I’m for foreign aid if it’s individuals writing individual checks to organizations or governments in those countries.

    I’m against foreign aid when it’s our government putting gun to your head and forcing money out of your paycheck and giving to to foreign dictators who *say* they’ll give it to poor people, when in fact they use it to build a new palace.

    Currently we have the latter. I’m for the former.

  15. The way to fix the system in the United States is to drastically reduce the role of the federal government. Conservatives should like this because this is a fundamentally conservative idea. Liberals should like this because it will help to get corporations out of our lives. One of the few things the federal government used to be good at was breaking up monopolies.

    It will also keep the federal government out of our private lives. If Hillary got into office she would have pushed her liberal social values on the country. I have a feeling Trump and the Republicans will push conservative social values on the country. Wouldn’t it be better if the Federal government just didn’t push social values on anyone and focused on defense, interstate commerce and protecting our constitutional rights. Let states and local governments decide how much socialism to have. If the federal government was small California could be more socialist and Texas could be capitalist. I think it would ultimately make most people happier.

    You are right Caleb about people trying to fix their favorite issue rather than addressing the system. Every time I mention this argument to friends from the traditional political parties they fixate on how the federal government is needed to address their favorite issue. Democrats tend to focus on the environment and social justice while conservatives tend to focus on Christian issues (a battle they have already lost anyway). Both groups also can’t seem to wrap their heads around the fact that the federal courts at times have been very good at protecting our rights and could also be effective in protecting us from environmental problems caused by lax laws in neighboring states. Too bad people can’t be a bit more logical.

  16. Liberals should like this because it will help to get corporations out of our lives.

    Liberals can’t make this connection. That’s the fundamental problem with left-wingers. They assume the smaller government gets, the more powerful big corporations get. They don’t realize that making government very tiny and powerless actually brings the economy away from corporatism, not closer.

  17. “The biggest reason third world immigrants are coming here is because they get mountains of free stuff from taxpayer-funded government. Mexicans weren’t pouring into the US prior to the 1940s welfare state, right? There you go.”

    OK, but then what is your explanation for the zillions of Chinese who came before the Mexicans? Or the Irish, German, Polish and Italian waves of immigrants?

    Occam’s razor dictates that the simplest explanation which fits ALL the available evidence is usually correct.
    You should try applying it sometime.
    In this case it’s the difference in OPPORTUNITY between the home country and the USA that explains every wave of immigrants that have ever set foot in North America, starting 30,000 years ago and continuing through the European settlements to the present day. Mexicans did it illegally because the perceived risk vs. reward was worth it. This perception is mainly driven by economic opportunity, CPI difference between home country and USA, and security differential. Many illiegal immigrants are not aware of and do not use social programs in the US even though they are often paying taxes on their earnings.
    The immigration wave from Mexico has actually reversed at this point, apparently because the perception of risk/reward and the opportunity differential are no longer as strongly in favor of coming here for them.
    Try changing the welfare state all you want, but I predict as long as Trump ramps the drug war back up and thus returns Mexico to a violence-plagued hellhole illegal immigration from Mexico will actually INCREASE in his term.
    Again, it’s the differential in opportunity. Welfare goodies may be a small part of that but they are an insignificant ripple, not the wave.

  18. “To get rid of Mexican immigrants, systematically prosecute the bejesus out of people that employ them. If it’s a company, haul the the directors up on racketeering charges and dissolve the company (corporations are creations of the state, and so a state is well within its remit to dissolve companies that commit felonies – beats me why any country tolerates such a thing). You don’t need fleets of buses carrying the illegal entrants into your country to a border wall, and you don’t need new laws. Enforce the existing laws, and they’ll head to the border all by themselves.”

    Again, like Caleb, you’re not actually seeing problem #1. They are coming here for the opportunity. As long as that incentive is there you will not have much luck stopping them.
    You have to either
    A: reduce economic opportunity and general safety of our society so it more closely matches Mexico’s and thus reduce the differential which creates the incentive or
    B: Modify policy to help Mexico have a safer, more economically viable society so the differential is smaller and they no longer look to the opportunities of the North as an answer.

    I vote B, for some reason ;). I think most of it can be accomplished by ending the catastrophic failure that has been the War on Drugs and perhaps coming up with some economic policy that helps the Mexican manufacturing and service sector.

    As Caleb so wisely pointed out, the Problem #1 is often a very difficult one to solve.

  19. OK, but then what is your explanation for the zillions of Chinese who came before the Mexicans? Or the Irish, German, Polish and Italian waves of immigrants?

    Not part of my example.

    A. The alt-right folks I’m talking about aren’t complaining about Chinese or Europeans here in the US. They’re complaining mostly about Hispanics, and secondly blacks.

    B. When you compare the number of modern-day Mexican immigrants, there were not “zillions” of Chinese coming into this country (for example). You’re comparing apples to oranges.

    C. Most immigrants coming to the US before the early 1970s came here to work, and didn’t seek, nor want, nor expected any free government welfare. Today’s immigrant is very different.

    D. I already said that there will still be Mexicans coming over even if there was no welfare state, but it will be a different kind of Mexican. (I am not bothered at all by a foreigner coming to live in the US, as long has he/she comes here to work and doesn’t go on any government assistance that I’m forced at gunpoint to pay for. However, I know many in the alt-right would have a problem with these people.)

    Modify policy to help Mexico have a safer, more economically viable society so the differential is smaller and they no longer look to the opportunities of the North as an answer.

    Of course this should be done, but the typical American voter has zero control over laws and economics in Mexico. That makes your recommendation irrelevant to the typical American.

    In other words, solving Mexico’s problems is not part of the system I’m referring to, since I’m talking here about right-wing Americans. If was talking to Mexicans, of course this would be a very different conversation.

  20. “Of course this should be done, but the typical American voter has zero control over laws and economics in Mexico. That makes your recommendation irrelevant to the typical American.

    In other words, solving Mexico’s problems is not part of the system I’m referring to, since I’m talking here about right-wing Americans. If was talking to Mexicans, of course this would be a very different conversation.”

    I agree with your overall point here and it’s a good one, but this is a poor example, since you’ve constrained yourself to only recommending something ‘typical Americans’ can do, which in this case is to attack problem #7 to feel good about themselves (deny welfare to illegal immigrants) instead of attacking problem #1 which would actually create the change they seek.

  21. I agree with your overall point here and it’s a good one, but this is a poor example, since you’ve constrained yourself to only recommending something ‘typical Americans’ can do,

    No. The *example* that you’re directly referring to, that I stated in the article, is only for right-wingers who live in the US. No one else. In the context of that example, your recommendations to Mexicans living in Mexico to clean up their own country is completely irrelevant.

    Of course Mexico needs to clean up their country, but the typical American Republican voter has absolutely no control over this. He has to look at the system in which he resides, which is the United States, not a system he’s not a part of (Mexico).

    We agree on the overall point. You’re just misapplying a solution that doesn’t apply to the specific example you’re referring to.

  22. I never said anything about what Mexicans should do, only what we as Americans can do to influence Mexico’s economy and security, which is actually quite a bit since we are the 800 lb. gorilla in the North American room, and they are actually things that will help our country as well.
    Whatever, this is a totally derivative discussion.

  23. It’s a great concept. We should always be mindful of this energy sucking pitfall. I remember the post at your dating blog that talks about it. Amazing how dealing with the source of the problem can make life so much easier and it can basically be applied to everywhere in life.

    Grammar mistake in this paragraph.
    “Yes, extracting government from college will be difficult and painful. As I said, problem number one is always harder to fix than subsequent systemic problems. It still the problem you need to fix if you want a truly functioning system.”

  24. Yeah, I discovered this trend recently of Symptoms VS Root causes, but more on a personal level.

    I.e. I don’t hold always a good eye contact, because i’m not 100% confident, because I’m not putting 90%+ of my free time and effort on productive stuff, because my frame of my current project is that I perceive it as boring, because it’s taking too much time to finish.

    Instead of searching for eye contact life hackz, just finish my project ASAP (Won’t be fun but relieving), start my next one which is hella fun, invest 100% of my time in something that has moderate to high returns %, become confident because I’m learning a lot and giving all, and have a alpha 3.0 eye contact.

    Root cause baby, kill em before they grow

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