“When the solution is simple, God is answering.”


When Einstein began working on relativity and the solution that ultimately became E = mc2, he had a big advantage—he had a good problem. Many of Einstein’s contemporaries had been working on the same phenomena, but they were trying to solve a very different problem. Their problem went something like this:

“How can nature appear to act that way when we know that it can’t?”

They did not succeed. More experiments, more money, or more effort would not have helped. They failed because they were looking for an answer that did not exist. Einstein succeeded because he was working on a problem that enabled a solution. He asked himself:

“What would nature be like if it did act the way we observe it to act?”

This problem has a solution. Einstein found it, and it changed our world. But even the great Einstein would have failed if he had pursued the wrong problem. The first step in thinking like Einstein is to form a problem that enables you to seek and recognize a solution.


“In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” LOUIS PASTEUR

Answers are not answers without questions. We find answers and solutions because we have good questions. Consider the following list:

  • Herbert Hoover
  • Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station
  • Belgian Congo These items don’t seem to have much in common. But they are all related answers—you just don’t know the questions. All of the answers deal with political aspects of mining, as shown in Figure 4.1. But that is hard to discern without knowing the questions. You cannot identify answers without the right questions. And without a good problem, it is hard to spot even an obvious solution.

Solving a problem is like looking for valuable antiques. You will find only junk unless you know what you are looking for. Great new ideas are too different from our current thinking, and too sim- ilar to nonsolutions to be casually recognized. But when we know what to look for, the probability of finding a great solution soars.

The ancient Greek genius Archimedes took baths all of his life, and each time he entered the bath, the water rose. But only when he was looking for a way to measure the volume of the king’s crown did he recognize the rising water as a brilliant volume-measuring solution. He was so excited that he ran naked from the bath. To find a breakthrough that exciting, you must have a clear vision of the solution that you are seeking. Then you too can recognize your answer when you step into it.


“With fame I became more and more stupid, which of course is a very common phenomenon.” —ALBERT EINSTEIN

Before defining the problem you will work on solving, remove the clutter from your mind. You won’t live long enough to adequately consider all of the problems that you are aware of, and having too many can defocus your thinking. You will do better if you set most of them aside.

Problems suffer from a lack of attention. We tend to ignore difficult problems rather than give them enough attention to spark a solution. Other easier problems are some of the worst distractions. If there are multiple problems you want solved, record them as in Figure 4.2.

After you have completed your list, select one problem to solve thinking like Einstein. I only give active consideration to one of the problems at a time, usually the one I find most interesting. The others will have to wait. Don’t let them clutter your head.


“The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” —ALVIN TOFFLER, AUTHOR OF FUTURE SHOCK

Great problems have many distinguishing characteristics, but they start with tangible form. They are best written and refined so that they support your most adventurous thinking. And so you must write your problem down. Recording thoughts gives them life. Unless you are faced with immediate death, write out a problem statement to solve a tough problem. I will use the Better Problem Guide found in Appendix A, but any format that will guide your thinking to a superior problem statement will work.

A problem statement focuses your mind. Just as the focused beam of a laser can slice through metal, your mind can slice through the toughest problems if it is focused. Your problem statement is that focus.

You will be tempted not to do this exercise. You may be think- ing, “I know this problem. I don’t need to write it down. Didn’t I just do that with my de-clutter list?” You would rather just read on. But don’t even think about it. It won’t work. You must write out problems in order to work out brilliant solutions.

Begin with a brief problem statement. Condense it to those few nouns and verbs that are essential to the problem. Use twenty-five words or less. Even the most difficult problems can be expressed in twenty-five words. Any description beyond a few essential points is more likely to drag some of the very rules that are preventing a solution into the problem. After describing the problem, briefly record why it must be solved. Problems with compelling needs get solved. If you don’t need to solve it, it isn’t really a problem.

Review your problem regularly. When you think about a prob- lem, even if it is only a brief review, your brain is reminded that the solution is needed. Your neurons will fire away until eventually you find some answers. The brilliant mathematical genius Maria Agnesi would frequently awake in the middle of the night with the answer to a problem. After detailing the solution, she went back to sleep. She was often surprised to find a solution by her bed in the morning.


“Perfection of means and confusion of ends seem—in my opinion—to characterize our age.” ALBERT EINSTEIN

No problem is impossible to solve, although some tasks may be impossible to do. You may think you need to do the impossible, like create a new product line overnight or build a factory in a week. If so, you have the wrong problem. Bad problems seem unat- tainable. Good problems enable great solutions. Your next step in creating a great solution is to craft an enabling problem.

Structure your problem so that you can find answers, as many and varied answers as possible. Good problems seek to satisfy real needs. Bad problems specify explicit solutions. If an explicit solution is impractical, you are stuck. Good problems allow for trade-offs. Bad problems are inflexible.

You can never tell where your solution will be found, or how you will ultimately stumble across it. An enabling problem allows you to pursue solutions in many directions, particularly those you don’t think will work.

Suppose you have been given a problem like the following to solve:

Bob needs more boxes to ship his apples to market. He has rectangular pieces of cardboard, one-by-two meters in size. What is the biggest box Bob can form from the cardboard to ship his apples to market?

This is not a good problem. The only way to solve this prob- lem is to calculate how to make the biggest cardboard boxes. The answer seems almost built in. This is fine when the built-in answer works, but it usually won’t for tough problems like the one you are trying to solve. (We’ll consider Bob’s dilemma in more detail later in this chapter.)

Einstein had the peculiar habit of attacking a problem by going back to the basics. He dispensed with most of the known facts, deriving the key concepts himself from scratch. By doing so, he avoided many of the bad assumptions that confused his colleagues. You can use this same technique to make your prob- lem an enabling one.


“When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” ÑSAMUEL JOHNSON

We need compelling reasons to consider uncomfortable, fresh ideas. Finding a solution must be important enough to overcome our mental and physical inertia. That is why necessity is called the mother of invention. If there is an incentive, good or bad, a solution can be found. Great ideas are great because they are needed.

The Christmas hymn “Silent Night” was written because a church organ was broken. Only a guitar would be available for Christmas services. Consequently, a beautiful hymn was composed that could be sung with a guitar for accompaniment.

Another genius, Stephen Hawking, claimed he embarked on his physics career because he met a nice girl and wanted to get married. He needed a good job to do so. Hawking unraveled the secrets of the universe to support a family.

James Spangler invented what became Hoover vacuum cleaners because he wanted to keep his janitorial job. He was too old to lift the heavy carpet-cleaning machine, which also kicked up dust that made him violently sick. Spangler would have to quit his job, some- thing that he could not afford to do, unless he could find another way to clean carpets. He did.

J. C. Hall helped reinvent the American greeting card business because he had to. Like other card distributors, he was in the business of importing elegantly engraved cards from Europe for Valentine’s Day and Christmas. But Hall’s entire inventory of cards was destroyed in a fire weeks before Valentine’s Day. It was too late to get more cards from Europe. Facing financial ruin, Hall bought a small engraving firm and began producing simple designs. And since he now owned his own press, he started producing more casual cards for other occasions to keep his press running. Because he had no choice, Hall changed his company, now Hallmark Cards, and his industry.

You will be much more inventive if your need is great. Imagine a simple problem like cleaning out a closet. It has been impossible to clean. But if you were to be executed in two weeks unless you cleaned the closet, you would do it. Or if you were to be rewarded with $100,000 for cleaning the closet, you would do the job. And you can solve vastly more difficult problems with the right incentives.

Hernan Cortez was a master of motivation. He used the trick of cutting off retreat, destroying his own fleet, and stranding his army in hostile territory. But he was equally skillful at creating carrots to entice his small army. Cortez promised fortunes in treasure to lure an army to Mexico. The men who followed him wanted to become fabulously rich, so rich that it was worth years of toil, deprivation, and risk of death in a strange land. He was so convincing that the island of Cuba was deserted by most of its Spanish settlers, who left to join Cortez’s expedition.

Cortez provided motivations that were not abstract. Those that followed him had a clear picture in their minds of what success would bring. They saw themselves as lords of vast estates, receiving obsequious guests beneath regal coats of arms. They anticipated wenching and gluttony. The masses they would buy to assure the salvation of their souls gave them great comfort. They saw their portraits hung in great halls, honored and respected for generations by noble descendants. It was gloriously compelling enough to brave real torture, pain, and death.

Motivated by Cortez’s carrot on a stick, his army found a way to conquer. They didn’t do it solely by strength of arms, nor did they do it alone. Cortez picked his way through complex linguistic and diplomatic problems to win many battles without any physical fighting. He convinced many powerful vassal states that they could throw off Aztec oppression by following him. It was never easy and never pretty, but Cortez and his men found the solutions. They had everything to gain and everything to lose. It is too bad that Cortez was not looking for a cure for cancer.

You must create rewards and consequences that will motivate you to find solutions. After defining the problem you want solved, specify what you will gain if you succeed. It must excite you, thrill you, or even scare you. You should want to continue work on a solution whenever you can. Problems with compelling carrots or sticks get solved.

Your motivation cannot just be abstract words on a page. Picture yourself running your division, receiving that prestigious award, enjoying the fruits of your success. Your vision must be tangible enough to inspire you when your problem seems impossible. It must capture all that finding the solution will mean to you. Words will not motivate you to do the impossible. An emotion-charged vision will. Describe that vision.

The consequences of failure should be equally compelling. How will you feel if you are beaten? How will you suffer? Think of the regrets, the disappointment, perhaps even the real physical pain. Make the image real and frightening. And, of course, record your images so they can be quickly recalled.

Until your motivation is compelling enough, you will not solve your problem. Motivation precedes resolution. To check your motivation, ask yourself:

Do I believe this problem can be solved? Can I solve it?
Will I enjoy solving it?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, then something must change. Otherwise, your lack of conviction or distaste for the problem will sabotage your efforts.

We humans have a poor record of succeeding at anything we believe to be impossible. But there is also a remarkable record of people doing the impossible when they didn’t know it was impossi- ble. Problems we think we will enjoy are much the same—they get solved. You will stack the deck in your favor if you believe that the problem can be solved and that you will enjoy doing it.

Continue working on your motivations until you feel commit- ted to spending the time and energy needed to find a solution. If you can’t create sufficient motivation, start over on your problem statement. Don’t even try to solve your problem if it is not compel- ling. My rule of thumb is that a problem is compelling if you think about it before breakfast. And if you remember it when the alarm clock goes off, you are truly motivated. If you can’t create sufficient motivation, you have two choices: abandon the problem or create a new attitude.

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Author: Billy Walters