The Problem is Not the Problem

A lot of us waste our time worrying about specific problems — how to deliver a project, how to get funding, how to crack an interview — whereas the real problem is we don’t know how to think about the problem correctly.

As a kid I struggled with chemistry whereas my physics was top notch. I was one of the few in class who could grasp physics concepts rather easily. I was pretty proud of myself. But later I realised I wasn’t unique in anyway. It had nothing to do with me and everything to do with knowing the fundamentals very well. I understood physics naturally because it had rational (and almost unbreakable) laws whereas chemistry was full of exceptions.

I knew the correct way to approach physics problems — learning a handful of concepts helped me solve almost all problems — whereas I had no idea how to attack chemistry problems. I put more time in physics since I enjoyed it and more or less ignored chemistry, while other classmates loved memorising the exceptions in chemistry. Chemistry didn’t scare them because they knew how to think about them correctly.

But the same framework (that solves chemistry problems) cannot solve physics problems and vice versa. So physics and chemistry weren’t the real problems, how each of us thought about them was the real problem.

Now, there are innumerable problems in life and we can never prepare ourselves ahead of time for all of them. Therefore specialisation in particular kind of problems isn’t scalable.

Therefore, real education is not learning what to think about, but how to think in general. In other words, real education is not in kicking ass in physics and being dumb in chemistry. Real education is learning enough frameworks to attack physics and chemistry problems, and then some more.

The first step to solving any problem is to figure out its mechanics. Without the common laws, we cannot solve any of the physics problems. Without a fair understanding of elements, bonds and their exceptions, chemistry would baffle us.

Therefore, a good strategy is to be a person who knows a little bit about a lot of things and constantly draws analogies and lessons from them. These lessons become general frameworks that help us solve specific problems.

For example, Johannes Kepler drew analogies from planets imbued with souls riding on interlocking crystalline spheres, from boatmen steering in a whirling river, from giant magnetic bodies pulling and pushing each other — before concluding that celestial bodies pull one another and larger bodies have more pull. He didn’t have Newton’s laws at hand (Isaac Newton was born more than a decade after Kepler’s death), but he knew a little bit about a lot of things to attack unknown problems.

You see, the more we experience new things the more we learn, and the more capable we become in seeing the world with varied lenses, thinking about problems from multiple angles, and considering possibilities that were previously inconceivable.

On the contrary, when we do not do the work of learning how to think, we become stuck in the face of a new problem, make the same mistakes we made countless times, and remain under the mercy of the situation rather than taking control of it.

A problem is not the real problem. The real problem is either a fallacy in our knowing, our understanding, our focus, or our perception. If we don’t consciously focus on learning more about how the world works, we’ll waste a lot of time reacting to things without knowledge. This isn’t the smartest way to live.

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