Have you ever been absolutely bamboozled by a tricky problem? One that persists, despite your best efforts – a nagging, difficult ‘blank spot’ in your reasoning abilities? Of course you have. We all come across them. It’s part and parcel of attempting anything difficult (and worthwhile).
A lot of the time, we run away from these kind of problems: it’s not worth the effort, we tell ourselves. We’re just justifying our weakness – and that’s not good enough. We’ve got to persist even (especially) when it’s difficult.
Over the last couple of days, I’ve been struggling with a concept integral to my ‘Advanced Topics in Economics’ exam coming up this Monday. Nothing I’d tried so far seemed to clear the blockage: working through example questions, reviewing the theory from the textbook, watching YouTube lectures, going over my lectures notes for the umpteenth time…
So, I decided to break the cycle. Yesterday, I met up with two of my coursemates. We holed up in a room at our Student’s Union, and worked through the problem together. We set about breaking it down into the tiniest possible components, checking our understanding of each and firmly establishing the chain of logic. Suffice it to say that by the day’s end, we’d completely used up a new whiteboard pen with our scribbles, critiques and algebraic proofs – but we understood the problem.
How does that apply to you? How can you get unstuck? Try these two things:
1. Plug your brain into a more powerful neural network (E.G. work with others).
‘Synergy’ is a digustingly overused word, often claimed by the corporate world. But think about it’s definition: ‘The interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.’ There’s something to be said for the sparks that fly when you get together with others. Your brain gets almost plugged into a larger network, you can work off seemingly abstract ideas with ease – and power through difficult (perhaps even insurmountable problems). Sometimes, you’ve got to have another flint to spark off to start the fire.
2. Mix up the method (change the frame).
All the previous ways I’d tried to solve it involved sitting at my desk alone. Perhaps I needed a different environment, the freedom to have a punt and fail on a whiteboard, or maybe it’s just the accumulated efforts finally working together. The point is, you can’t allow yourself to get in a rut. Jocko Willink talks about the idea of ‘flanking’ in business, and life – getting around the outside of the problem, tackling it from a weak spot. He’s right.
Scribble on a whiteboard. Go for a walk. Try talking through it aloud. Draw a diagram. Just don’t do the same thing.
“If you allow the status quo to persist, you can’t expect to improve performance, and you can’t expect to win.”