I’m out in SF this week, and went to a cocktail party with David Eagleman a few nights ago. He was talking about a lot of neuroscience stuff that went way over my head.
But something he did say that really caught my attention was this (paraphrasing):
"Our brains are really lazy. They will accept the easiest possible solution. You have a giant network of associations in your head. For instance, when I say "rabbit," you automatically think things like, "carrot, easter, cute, Jessica Rabbit, etc." Your brain doesn’t think about the thousands of other characteristics of a rabbit.
The same is true of our brains in business and life. When we have a problem, we come up with a set of answers based on the information and associations we already have in our head based on our personal learning and experiences. You have to dig deeper to find the unique solutions.”
I thought that was profound.
If you’ve taken any sort of biology, psychology or neuroscience class, you’re familiar with the basic premise of how our brains connect, process, and recall information.
But, when you’re actually in the thick of problem solving, this knowledge totally goes out the window most of the time.
We’ve also been trained from a young age to “trust the first answer we come up with.” How many times did you hear that from a teacher before a multiple choice test between elementary school and college? It’s engrained in our minds that our first answer is the right answer.
That might be true when you’ve studied a ton of information and you have some vague recollection of which answer in a set of multiple choices “feels” the best. But, that’s totally different than solving highly complex, unique problems that have an unlimited set of possible answers.
When it comes to creative problem solving, growth, innovation, etc. here’s what we need to remember:
The first answer is almost never the best answer.
It’s just the answer that’s most readily available to your brain given how it’s neurally connected.
If you want to come up with truly unique and innovative solutions:
- Sit with the problem longer.
- Spend 20 minutes “free journaling.” Write down whatever comes to mind for you—even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else.
- Look outside of your industry or network to get advice from other people on how they’d approach solving the problem at hand.
- Study how successful people think through problems (not their results, but their thought frameworks)
- Chill out. Sometimes, giving yourself space provides all the clarity you need.
If you’re beating your head up against a wall to solve a problem, it’s probably because you are thinking too small about it.
If you’re willing to move past the first and easiest answer, you’ll probably come up with some of your best and most innovative ones.