This is a draft. I think it needs another transformation.

This essay outlines a surprisingly common issue I find with problem-solving strategies, and also proposes a solution.

In general, I liken problems to being locks and solutions to being keys. My thesis here is that it’s more effective to choose what to do by first thinking “What solutions will solve this particular problem? What keys will fit this lock?” than it is to proceed into action by thinking “What problems can be solved by this particular solution? What locks will fit this key?” When we have a most important goal, we should start by focusing on the problems that need to be solved, and only thereafter search for solutions— we should have a ‘problems-first’ strategy. We can only expect to solve important problems if we start with a prioritized set of problems we want to solve.

This seems obvious when stated clearly, but I have observed this pattern frequently. It usually occurs as follows. First, we find a random new key, a shiny new object. (E.g. the newest app that all of your friends seem to be using.) And because we have it, we decide to explore what locks it can open— we try to fit the shiny new object into our lives without any direct reason to do so. As we do so, we find many ‘fitting locks’ and become excited by the possibilities. But eventually to our dismay we realize that this new key tends to only open locks that don’t need to be opened.

The reason why is because most locks don’t need to be opened— because most problems aren’t important enough to be solved.

There is still a time for solutions-first thinking, but I believe this is in the realm of exploration, slack, and sabbath— and not in the realm of solving concrete, salient problems that matter today. For example, a solutions-first strategy may make sense when we’re developing our skill in using specific tools, as this allows us to explore the use of these tools before we need to apply them with stakes. Moreover, when we don’t have any particularly important locks to open, there’s nothing else we can do in the world but act according to solutions-first. But on the whole I have found solutions-first thinking to be an invariably ineffective use of my attention.

The ‘problems-first’ approach: Find keys for your locks, not locks for your keys.



This idea is still missing something. I think what it’s missing is the answer to “What do you do when you don’t know what your most important locks are?” Currently I’ve only said, ‘you should take time to sharpen your keys I guess’, but this can’t be it.

I mentioned this to Kush Sharma and I think his thoughts are best summarized as “chase interestingness and objective novelty”. I’m also looking forward to reading Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned to explore this more.