In this post, I share a way of thinking regarding how one can approach and solve almost any problem/challenge.

The purpose of this post is just to share a way of thinking. Nor am I a big master in solving problems. Neither I am conveying whatever I am saying below is the only truth. It’s just one of many ways of thinking. I personally found the below things useful whenever I face a problem.

First of all, “problem” here does not represent any negative sense. By problem/challenge I mean a puzzle or a task or a real-world situation that we need to or we want to solve. A problem can be anything like,

  • Learning a new skill
  • Win a competition
  • Make better, stronger & long-lasting relationships
  • To win people’s hearts
  • To negotiate your requirements

A problem here means anything that requires our brain to make a significant effort & try to complete/solve it successfully.

Let’s start!

Transfer Learning

Almost 80-90% of our problems can be solved in this simple & naive way. How others have solved the same problem in the past? Ask this question whenever you face any problem.

Billions of humans are living on this planet. It’s very likely that someone else has faced & solved the same problem as ours. We just need to copy that solution. That’s all.

Whatever problem you want to solve, chances are higher that someone out there has faced the same problem & solved it successfully. You just want to copy that. It’s a very naive solution but works surprisingly most of the time.

All the common problems like, how to cook something or how to find a house in a new city or how to get a good job. Someone in this world has already solved that problem.

In this information age, solutions are available freely on the internet. You can learn almost anything if not literally anything on the internet. Platforms like YouTube have revolutionized information and knowledge sharing to a whole nother level. In an era of free knowledge, all we need to do is search on the internet about what we want to do, and get the solution in minutes.

Now, it’s possible that different people may have solved the exact same problem in different ways. That’s better! Now, you have multiple ways to solve that problem. You get to choose the way you want to solve that problem!

To summarize, most of our problems can be solved by just copying what others have done to solve that problem. Almost all the “common” and day-to-day problems will be solved in this way.

First Principles Thinking

We saw how our day-to-day problems can be solved by transfer learning. Now, how can we solve problems which very few people have faced or tried to solve? For example, what people like Elon Musk are doing to build electric cars and efficient rockets.

A bit of innovation is required here to solve these problems. By innovation, I don’t mean some groundbreaking innovation. Just a problem which no-one has ever solved/faced.

First-principles thinking tells, to start reasoning from very basic things which are known to be true and to build up from there. In other words, to solve a problem, boil it down to fundamental truths which we are sure to be true, and then reason up from there.

Contrary to this, reasoning by analogy means, to solve a problem in a similar way in which we solved a similarly looking other problem with slight variations. Which is not an optimal solution in most cases.

It’s mentally easier to think by analogy rather than to reason from the first principles. That’s why many people don’t try to think that way.

A famous example that Elon Musk shares is, the cost of a battery cell. Traditionally, battery cells were $600 per kWh. Now, a battery cell is made from elements like Cobalt, Nickel, Aluminium, Carbon, and some polymers.

Now, if we add the cost of those basic elements from market value, it’s $80 per kWh. So clearly, we just need a smart way to combine all the basic elements to reduce the cost of a battery cell.

This first principle thinking is contrary to the transfer learning way of solving a problem. In transfer learning, we copy other people’s solutions exactly the same or with slight variations. That’s okay for day-to-day problems.

We don’t need to solve every problem by first principles. First-principles thinking is better for problems that are new and haven’t been solved before, not the usual day-to-day problems. This way of problem-solving is better for solving counter-intuitive problems like quantum mechanics.

While thinking from first principles, a good habit is to always look for negative feedback from friends. This may sound simple but not many people do it.

Things to keep in mind while solving a problem

  • Ask these questions:
    • What are the things you can leverage?
    • What tools do you have or can have that may help you in solving the problem?
    • Is there someone you know who can help you?
    • Can you combine multiple best things & make something unique & better?
  • Go BFS; not DFS. Cover all the aspects shallowly once, instead of going deeper in a few.
    • If we imagine a problem and the things correlated to it as a tree, most of the time, it’ll have multiple diverse branches than the depth of each branch.
    • When we shallowly explore all the branches first, instead of exploring one branch in-depth without thinking about others, we get an overall idea about the problem and we get ways which may solve this problem.
  • This problem has given you a chance to prove yourself & to explore this world. Every big problem makes you go outside of your comfort zone, which is for sure a good thing for growth.
    • Problems give us a chance to learn new things and make us stronger than before.
  • If you have a fear to solve a problem, think this way:
    • What’s the worst thing that can happen to you if you fail badly at this? Now, most of the time, that worst will not be that bad like, losing your life or losing everything you have.
  • Always take win-win problems/bets. If in some problem/risk, you have not too much to lose & so much more to gain, you should always take those risks.
    • Possible RoI(return on investment) should be higher.

Solving big problems that makes people’s lives happier and better, gives a unique meaning to life. Society will reward you with money and respect if you have solved big problems or even have tried to solve big things. Every company is doing it - “solving big problems”.

  • Google is solving the problem of making all the information available to everyone freely.
  • Amazon is solving the problem of delivering everything you want in less than a day with minimum cost.
  • Apple is solving the problem of providing high quality and easy to use mobiles and laptops.
  • Tesla is solving the problem of reducing our dependence on nonrenewable energy resources.
  • SpaceX is solving the problem of making humanity multi-planetary.

Every rich person in this world has solved some big problems and society has rewarded them with billions of dollars. That is not to say, we should solve problems to make money.