As an intellectual, should you tackle big or small problems? You might think you face a trade-off: since big problems are harder, you should either tackle many small problems or a few big ones. You could invest in learning a tool-set for tackling a long stream of similar and moderately important problems, or you could learn everything about a particular very important problem in the hopes of finding a solution.
In fact, however, the folks I’ve known who focus on big problems usually try to tackle more problems than those who tackle small problems! I’m guilty of this, as is Steven Landsburg, who takes on twenty big questions in his latest book, The Big Questions. It seems that most intellectuals either refuse to engage big questions, or they have a life-long quest to personally answer all big questions! Many of the later are embarrassed to hear of a big question they have not pondered. Why?!
One might argue that there are two basic intellectual strategies, focusing on something particular, or looking for connections between varied things, and that the connection strategy is more likely to lead to big innovations. But even if true, this doesn’t justify trying to tackle specific big problems, much less all of them, rather than just telling folks about the connections one finds.
My guess is that there are two key kinds of intellectual status; one goes to those who make any clear contributions whatsoever, no matter how trivial, and the other goes to those who can talk thoughtfully about a wide range of big topics, even if they make no progress on them. Far too little status, relative to the effort required, awaits those who actually make progress on big questions, which is why so few folks focus on big questions.