Solving Problem Solving: Meta Skills For Problem Solving

21 Jun

Each problem is new in different ways. And mechanically applying specialized tools often doesn’t take you far. So beyond specialized tools, you need meta-skills.

The top meta-skill is learning. Immersing yourself in the area you are thinking about will help you solve problems better and quicker. Learning more broadly helps as well—it enables you to connect dots arrayed in unusual patterns.

Only second to learning is writing. Writing works because it is an excellent tool for thinking. Humans have limited memories, finite processing capacity, are overconfident, and are subject to ‘passions’ of the moment that occlude thinking. Writing reduces the malefic effects of these deficiencies.

By incrementally writing things down, you no longer have to store everything in the brain. Having a written copy also means that you can repeatedly go over the contents, which makes focusing on each of the points easier. But having something written also means you can `scan’ more quickly. Writing down, thus, also allows you to mix and match and form new combinations more easily.

Just as writing overcomes some of the limitations of our memory, it also improves our computational power. Writing allows us to overcome finite processing capacity by spreading the computation over time—run Intel 8088 for a long time, and you can solve reasonably complex problems.

Not all writing, however, will reduce overconfidence or overcome fuzzy thinking. For that, you need to write with the aim of genuine understanding and have enough humility, skepticism, motivation, and patience to see what you don’t know, learn what you don’t know, and apply what you have learned.

To make the most of writing, spread the writing over time. By distancing yourself from `passions’ of the moment—egoism, being enamored with an idea, etc.—you can see more clearly. So spread writing over time to see your words with a ‘fresh pair of eyes.’

The third meta-skill is talking. Like writing is not transcribing, talking is not recitation. If you don’t speak, some things will remain unthought. So speak to people. And there is no better set of people to talk to than a diverse set of others, people who challenge your implicit assumptions and give you new ways to think about a problem.

There are tricks to making discussions more productive. The first is separating discussions of problems from solutions and separating discussions about alternate solutions from discussions about which solution is better. There are compelling reasons behind the suggestion. If you kludge discussions of problems with solutions, people are liable to confuse unworkable solutions with problems. The second is getting opinions from the least powerful first—they are liable to defer to the more powerful. The third is keeping the tenor of discussion as ”intellectual pursuit of truth,” where getting it right is the only aim.

The fouth meta-skill, implicit in the third meta-skill but a separate skill, is relying on others. How we overcome our limitations is by relying on others. Knowing how to ask for help is an important skill. Find ways to get help—ask people to read what you have written, offer comments, ask them why you are wrong, how they would solve the problem, point you to literature, other people, etc.

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