One of the types of content that I share on this blog is learnings from personal experiences. These include learnings relevant to startups as well as learnings about life in general.
However, you don’t always have the benefit of applying an existing learning from a past experience directly to a problem. Sometimes a new problem emerges for which you don’t have directly relevant previous experience. You don’t know exactly what the expected outcome maximizing approach is to the new problem.
In these cases, rather than walk without a compass, it’s useful to try to think of analogous problems you faced in the past and your learnings from these analogous problems. A problem is simply a set of weights assigned to different dimensions. Although the new problem may be uniquely different than anything you’ve seen before, several of its weights on specific dimensions are likely similar to other problems you’ve seen in the past.
Thinking about the attributes which the new problem shares with other problems you’ve seen in the past, reflecting on your learnings regarding the approaches that work if a problem has a specific attribute, and bringing together these learnings from different problems which together have all the attributes of the new problem takes you a long way towards getting to the right solution.
I want to share with you a strategy which I use to help make progress on solving difficult problems that don’t have a clear answer. These include making specific investment decisions, deciding how to approach the resolution of important interpersonal conflicts, and identifying common patterns across successful and unsuccessful startups to improve my investment thesis.
I first push my brain to think about the problem as hard as I can for as much time as I can. When I spend a lot of mental capacity to think about a problem, my brain usually starts slowing down after 60 to 90 minutes. Even though I might try thinking about the problem for longer, I realize that I’m no longer making progress towards a solution. The strain which the previous 60 to 90 minutes of concentrated thought produces requires that may brain take a break to recharge. I then lay on a couch and let my thoughts wander. My brain is so tired by this stage that it usually shuts off and I fall into a nap. This nap usually lasts under an hour.
When I wake up, the first thing that comes to my mind is the difficult problem that I was thinking about. The only difference is that, somewhat miraculously, the pieces of the problem are much clearer to me and I’ve either arrived at a solution that I’m comfortable with or made a lot of progress towards the solution.
A critical part of this strategy is that you really need to think hard about the problem. You can’t be thinking about it every once in a while while letting other thoughts interrupt you. The reason for this is that if you’re only thinking lightly, your brain won’t feel the need to recharge. You therefore won’t fall into a nap and experience the post-nap epiphany. This is why the approach works for important problems which your brain naturally wants to think hard about to solve.
I don’t know if this strategy will work as well for you as it does for me. Our brains are all machines in the sense that they process inputs to produce outputs. However each machine is wired differently. But the next time you find yourself thinking hard about a difficult problem, you might just want to give this strategy a shot.