Problem Solving, Obsession, and Letting Go

“Any solution is nothing more than a commitment to future problems.” –Some wise guy

I like to solve problems, and I don’t believe I am alone in this endeavor. It is nice to think that for every problem there is a viable solution. It is even nicer to think that for every problem-causer in the world, there is at least one problem-solver. Maybe this is a bit too optimistic. There seem to be a lot of problems in the world, and not enough people who know how to deal with them.

Problem solving is a powerful skill. Problem solving is more than just possession of knowledge or technical expertise. In fact, a person who knows everything about every subject may turn out to be a terrible problem-solver. Good problem solving comes from a mixture of two traits: persistence, and humility.

It is fairly obvious why persistence is important for problem solving. Of course you have to keep working until you find a solution. But persistence is a difficult thing to maintain, especially in times of doubt. It is one thing to be wrong once. When you are wrong again and again, it is easy to wonder if there is any solution at all. You are supposed to be such a good problem solver. Why has it taken so long to solve the problem, then? If you’re not as smart as you think you are, then maybe you should just give up.

Nutty Professor

Me? Not as smart as I think I am? Never!

This is why humility is just as important to the problem solver as persistence. If you have no expectation that you will ever be correct, then you can pursue solutions indefinitely without worrying about how many times you have been wrong. Sometimes you have to be willing to be wrong a million times if you want to be right just once. This is the strength that persistence and humility give to the would-be problem-solver. An observer might just call that obsession.

For problem-solvers, obsession can become a real problem. The truth is, no matter how skilled you are, no matter how much persistence and humility you possess, some problems just have no solution. What’s the square root of zero?

Broken Ladder

“How do I get up there?”

When I am faced with a problem I can’t solve it drives me crazy. It takes over my life. I am humble enough to not get discouraged when continually wrong. “It’s ok. You don’t know everything. Keep trying!”

And I am persistent enough to keep trying in perpetuity.

Skeleton in Chair

Don’t worry. You’ll remember your password eventually.

Obsession is the pitfall of the problem-solver. For me, the only cure for obsession is boredom. Even the most vexing problems will get old over time. I am persistent, sure, but not so much that I never get bored. This is my saving grace. This is the only reason I haven’t spent the last two decades trying in vain to defeat Donkey Kong 64, or find that action figure I lost.

The sages say we should let go of our problems. Detachment is the path to enlightenment. But I am humble enough to know that this is probably not the path for me. I can’t just willfully let go of my obsessions. The best I can hope for is to eventually get bored with them.


Is that the same thing?