I’ve always enjoyed trying to solve problems but like all people — some problems you just struggle with. Does it have to do with your intelligence ? Partly. But then smart people regularly can't solve simple problems (so its hardly a defining factor).

I’ve always enjoyed trying to solve problems but like all people — some problems you just struggle with. Does it have to do with your intelligence ? Partly. But then smart people regularly can't solve simple problems (so its hardly a defining factor). That said,  I’m not suggesting that if you’re an expert in physics that you’ll automatically be able to solve a problem relating to copyright law — the point is that for a given field — a problem is always as hard as the narrowness that you give it.

What does that mean ? Most of the time, when you approach a difficult problem you attempt to draw upon existing knowledge that you have in a particular field and then you apply this knowledge in a manner which enables you to solve the complexities associated with the problem. This is what everyone does — including myself — but in being the ‘standard’ solving algorithm it is also the ‘standard’ failure algorithm.

Most problems which are foreseen to be ‘difficult’ are viewed in this light simply because you aren’t using the best approach and you have narrowed your view to one particular field of view. “Tim, it’s called Shortsightedness” — well, in some degree it is synonymous with shortsightedness but of course, how can you be shortsighted when you don’t even know all the possibilities available to solving the problem ? Short sightedness, in my mind, is knowing a set of solutions to a problem but refusing to adopt those solutions because you simply haven’t — or refuse to — consider them. This is quite different from being “unable” to solve a problem because you perceive that you lack the knowledge.

I’ve been reading a little about an American Physicist called Richard Feynman who was for all intents and purposes a genius — although he actively refused to believe he was. His way of solving problems was unique and was aptly termed the ‘Feynman Algorithm’ which goes something like this:

  1. Write down the problem.
  2. Think real hard.
  3. Write down the solution.

‘You’re joking right?’ Well, no. Although this was never actually created by Feynman — rather by Murray Gell-Mann, a colleague of Feynman, in a New York Times interview — it does really show you that no problem can’t be solved. I’ve often said to people that “Difficultly in problem solving is a function of how narrow you are looking at the problem” and I stand by my quote. To solve the problem — you need to look much further and wider than your particular sphere of knowledge. No problem is too hard — for every single problem the world faces, nothing is unsolvable because for each problem we create there must be a solution in turn. The solution, of course, is limited by how narrow you look at the problem and whether there are solutions which you can’t seem to perceive because they are not “directly in front of” the problem. No problem can be more complex than the human understanding — the problem appears difficult because the approach to the solution is too narrow. As Feynman suggested in his speciality of mathematics — which is true for any field:

“I don’t believe in the idea that there are a few peculiar people capable of understanding math, and the rest of the world is normal. Math is a human discovery, and it’s no more complicated than humans can understand. I had a calculus book once that said, ‘What one fool can do, another can.’ What we’ve been able to work out about nature may look abstract and threatening to someone who hasn’t studied it, but it was fools who did it, and in the next generation, all the fools will understand it. There’s a tendency to pomposity in all this, to make it deep and profound.” — Richard Feynman, 1979

Critically, to solve a problem simply don’t look at the obvious solutions unless they are ‘obviously’ apparent. While I’m no expert by any stretch of the imagination, the point is that solving problems easily becomes an exercise in how wide you can extend your field of view. Look for simple solutions to complex problems and look outside your current specialty for motivation in finding solutions. Often, the most successful solutions to problems come from the simplest of beginnings and because people have thought outside their ‘normal thought pattern’. If you’re unsure, ask questions to as many people as you can and then ask again. The craziest and most outlandish solutions or applications from other spheres are most often the ones that solve the world’s most difficult problems in a way that is simplistic and beautiful. Feynman stated:

“You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps.”

There are many other quotes throughout time by very famous people along the same lines — for example Daniel Boorstin stated ‘Education is learning what you didn’t even know you didn’t know’ and Roger von Oech has stated ‘Be foolish; break the rules; be impractical; get out of your box; look for ‘wrong’ answers; seek ambiguity; make mistakes … And set your creative self free’.

So the point of this post ? “Think Different” — you said it Apple.