If it solves a problem, it's brilliant work!

7 April 2020

Like most people with an aptitude for maths, science and other so-called 'hard subjects', I've had a bias towards solving 'hard problems' ever since I discovered there was a huge upside to being able to solve them.

For people with the ability to solve 'hard problems', this bias influences a lot decisions. It affects decisions such as what to study, what university to go to, what books to read, what side projects to work on and what company to work for after university.

This bias is a kind of intellectual fashion trend, and when you follow it you do not care much about what you are doing or why you are doing it (as long as it's intellectually fashionable). This fashion trend can appear in many forms. In programming it can be trying to jump straight into artificial intelligence or machine learning before learning the basics of programming. In the arts it can be seeking to appear "deep" for the sake of it or poetic for the status of it.

In my early work as a software engineer I suffered greatly because of this bias. From the outset, I would try to do everything the most complex way. After planning every detail of my brilliant solution I would usually be met with "it's okay I finally managed to copy and paste the blah blah" or "thanks, I updated the blah blah this very simple way but this is an interesting trick". In most cases, the "brilliant" solution was not what was needed.

The biggest problem with a bias towards "the hardest thing" is not that you come up with "brilliant" solutions that are not needed. Rather it is that it makes it impossible for you to work on projects that might turn out brilliant, because most projects don't seem brilliant from the start. More often than not brilliant projects start out as a simple python script to do something mundane and grow more complex and elegant with time - because they have to solve problems at scale.

When you seek complexity and brilliance from the outset, you write off most brilliant ideas because they don't seem brilliant or complex enough. By seeking complexity for its own sake, you end up doing the opposite of what is needed to produce something truly remarkable.

While I still suffer from this problem, I've found ways to deal with it. My remedy is simply to prioritise solving real problems, even if initially all I'm doing is repeat one mundane task after another. I've found when you prioritise solving problems, if you actually do solve a real problem that somebody wants solved, your solution mutates accordingly.

With that, the next time you sit down to write a program or a poem or a short story, I challenge you to let every thought about whether it's brilliant subside and just start.