Two complementary concepts for solving tough problems

The two concepts are:

  1. A willingness to flail around blindly in the dark.
  2. Applying constant pressure.

These two concepts aren’t frameworks or mental models. They’re simply me putting to words what it feels like to solve difficult problems.

I think it’s valuable to talk about this because people often give up too soon because they think they’re too stupid or that the problem is too hard to solve. Or they worry they’re being unproductive and spending too much time on a problem.

When, in reality, the shape of solving complex problems looks like applying constant pressure and flailing around in the dark.

I hope knowing this provides a form of reassurance for you. It means you can keep on trying. It hopefully even means you’ll get better at solving more difficult problems over time as your willingness and capacity to apply constant pressure and flail around in the dark grows.

A lot has been written about applying frameworks and mental models to solve problems. But that’s really only useful for known and constrained problems with fixed solutions.

In reality, a lot of problems aren’t like that.

Here are some business examples: “should I reposition my business?” “should I shut it down?” “should I pivot?” “should I invest in a new revenue stream?”

Here are some career examples: “should I ask for a raise?” “should I quit my job?” “should I volunteer for this project?”

Here are some life examples: “should I get married to this person?” “should I have a kid?” “should I break up?”

The importance of flailing around in the dark.

People want clear answers to these questions, but they’re so subjective and context-heavy that there aren’t any clear answers. A framework that works for one person, would be nonsensical for someone else.

The friend that inspired me to write this post said “but I’m even having trouble knowing where to find answers…”

And that’s precisely the problem. A problem isn’t complex when you know which framework to apply, which keywords to google, which expert to ask. With complex problems, there’s no way of knowing those things until you’ve flailed for a bit.

It takes time for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. For your hands to feel out the boundary of the space you’re in. For you to stub your toe and swear a couple of times.

Embrace the flailure! (sorry)

The value of applying constant pressure.

Often, people want to solve their problems via hackathon. They put a deadline and force a decision or solution at the end of it. But difficult problems don’t get solved in this way.

They can only be solved by applying sustained, constant pressure in the direction of the problem.

By doing so, you open yourself up to serendipitous opportunities. You have a gnarly problem in January and meet someone in July that might know someone who can help you. You see something on Twitter in September that sparks inspiration and finally sends you down a productive rabbit hole.

That latent pressure keeps your eyes and mind peeled for opportunities and breakthroughs, even when you’re not actively looking.

Sometimes, it simply takes that long for you to recognise a pattern. You might not be able to recognise a pattern the first, second or twentieth time you see it. But something might click on the twenty-first time.

Sometimes it takes that long for the bad ideas to dissipate and the good ideas to rise up.

Finishing up, I wanted to write this because so many people are uncomfortable with flailing around blindly in the dark. They believe that flailing means they’re doing something wrong, or that they’re stupid – and god forbid you look stupid.

They also give up too quickly instead of applying constant pressure. They worry about wasting time.

Stories of success are never linear. Go read the biography or feature of any person you look up to, you’ll find they all had a long journey in the wilderness.

In reality, this is how most hard problems are solved.

Interestingly, this is a topic I have written about multiple times now because I think I’ve struggled a lot with this. I often wonder if I’m taking too long, being unproductive, simply lazy and stupid. I’m listing those articles here so that you can see how my thinking on this has progressed over time. Which, to be meta about it, is me applying constant pressure to this problem.