Fix Underrated Problems

When I studied abroad in the US, on one of the first nights out with my fellow German exchange students, I lost my umbrella. “Oh, you don’t do umbrella sharing?” one of them asked me.

“Umbrella sharing? What’s umbrella sharing?”

“Well, when you lose an umbrella, you’ll shortly find a new one lying around somewhere. So you just take it. Once you lose that, you’ll find another one, and so on. You contribute your umbrellas to the system, and so does everyone else. It’s like karma. Lose an umbrella, find an umbrella. And round and round it goes!”

In a story like only life can write, that same night, after realizing I had forgotten my umbrella in the cab home from the club, I walked in the front door of our shared student housing, and lo and behold, a lonely umbrella sat in the corner of our living room. My roommates had had a party, and someone had forgotten it. Umbrella sharing!

I’ve now been a member of that club for over a decade, and while the system sort of works, every now and then, I wonder: Why do we even need umbrellas in the first place? How come we can tell AI to code a website for us in one sentence, reuse the rockets that deploy internet satellites into orbit, and catch Pokémon in real life, but when it comes to finding shelter from a daily weather phenomenon, our technological development has stalled at the equivalent of a monkey poking a hole through a leaf with a stick? Surely, we could have come up with something better by now. Or, well, maybe not. After all, it’s been a few thousand years. Perhaps I shouldn’t hold my breath.

Initially used only as parasols to protect humans from the sun, umbrellas as a defense against rain go back to ancient China and at least 500 BCE. From crumbling leaf tops to a lack of folding mechanisms, however, they weren’t without problems — and still aren’t today.

As Edouard Bellin remarks, most modern umbrellas are neither windproof nor very sturdy. When the rain flies sideways, they can’t do their job. They can be difficult to open, difficult to close, and even once we manage the latter will they get our floors wet when we return into the dry. That is, if we haven’t forgotten them in the cab, the store, or at our friend’s house to begin with. Finally and most importantly, they rob us of one hand. To this day, all umbrellas must be carried — and that just seems like a not-good-enough result for the 21st century, where everyone carries a supercomputer in their pocket and drones deliver our packages. But why?

Why are umbrellas — a shitty solution to an ever-present, universal problem — all we have? And why, after millennia, is that shitty solution still shitty? Why have umbrellas barely changed since their inception?

The problem with this problem is that it’s underestimated. Assimilated. A thread in the collective tapestry of our culture that, like all single threads, we usually ignore. Somehow, we’ve settled into the broken status quo of individual rain protection, and now we look at the big picture and go, “Yup, that’s it! That’s what it’s always been, and that is good enough.” In fact, like commiserating about the weather itself, there’s a twisted sense of joy in dripping water all over your friend’s hallway while shaking like a wet poodle. We’ve learned to laugh it off and get something out of the shared, universal misery of umbrellaship. “Ah, you know how it is. These damn things always bend over backwards!” That’s a commendable feat in the emotions department, but it does not mean we don’t deserve better.

What’s more, technologically speaking, it may well be that fixing or replacing the umbrella is a hard problem. Mostly, however, it is an underrated one. Think about it: What would you give to be able to walk in the rain, stay dry, and use both your hands, for the rest of your life? That’s the true value of the umbrella problem, and I dare say most of us would gladly pay more than the $1, $5, or $10 we regularly shell out for cheap umbrellas, adding up to hundreds, maybe even thousands of dollars over a lifetime.

The more water backs up behind a dam, the bigger the explosion once it breaks — and this one has been backed up for centuries, if not with demand then at least with quiet resignation. Chances are, whoever gives us a hands-free umbrella that works will make a billion dollars. But when will that be? And who will do it? As with all underrated problems, that is the question. So is the answer: Why not you?

Sara Blakely wasn’t a hosiery expert, but she also wasn’t the only woman who wanted her feet to be free while still benefitting from the shaping effect of a pantyhose. The fax saleslady researched, pitched, and brought her idea to market all on her own. Today, Spanx is worth over a billion dollars. That was an underrated problem.

When he published his four papers that changed the course of science and history, Albert Einstein was a 26-year-old patent clerk without a PhD, an academic scallywag who’d failed to secure a teaching position after two years of trying. In other words, a complete nobody. But he took an interest in problems no one else seemed to care about or even deem as such: Why do particles behave the way they do when suspended in a liquid or a gas? Why can we block light with our hand when it supposedly travels in wave-form, like sound? And is time really absolute? Or is it only the speed of light, and humans can experience time differently depending on when and where they observe the same phenomenon? All underrated problems — the solution to one of which won him a Nobel Prize.

None of this is to say that you should drop everything, become an inventor, and go on the hunt for a billion-dollar idea that no one sees, though if that’s what you want to do, have at it. These examples merely show that underrated problems are everywhere. Most likely, you’re surrounded by several of them right now — and I’m not just talking about your umbrella sitting in the hallway.

Every company suffers from crippling inefficiencies most employees overlook. Every home has a quirk that drives each family member mad. And every consumer application gone stale is just waiting for the arrival of something better. Why not you? When it comes to underrated problems, half the solution is spotting the challenge and accepting it as a viable dilemma. By definition, most people will fail both of those tests, and after you’ve passed those, “the rest is merely tenacity,” as Amelia Earhart said.

Fix underrated problems. Don’t be the compliant citizen, nodding along as the emperor walks by without clothes. Be the wildcard pulling a dysfunctional state of affairs into the light — and then bet on yourself to deliver a sigh of relief shared by many more than even you could imagine. Oh, and if you take a stab at the anti-rain stick, remember me while you’re on Shark Tank. I can’t wait to renounce my umbrella sharing membership, but I’d really like to keep writing in the rain.