Don’t Trust the First Solution You Come Up With

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. 

THINK BIGGER. 

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. 

The Glass is Always Full

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"It depends on whether you see the glass as half empty or half full."

…do you ever wonder how we come up with the arbitrary expressions we use colloquially all the time?

We often forget that the very language we use in and of itself shapes our perception of reality. In the expression above, the underlying meaning of the expression is that everything you experience is just a matter of perspective. That it’s important to have a “glass half full” mentality. That you must look for the good in any given circumstance.

A beautiful and hopeful sentiment, right?

Except, ironically, what the expression misses is the most positive (and truthful) perspective of all: the glass isactually, always full. 

So, a few lessons.

1.) Understand how language is shaping your perspective—of business, politics, love, life, the world, and yourself.

Really dig into the meaning of the words you use…the weight they carry, the impact they have on others, and the ways in which they may be limiting your own thinking. Words, by the way, always limit your thinking somehow. By choosing some, you’re eliminating others—and thus, limiting the number of ways you could potentially view a circumstance or outcome. 

2.) It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking there are a limited number of ways to do most things. “Two” is a popular limiting number.

I mean, think about it. How often do we say in politics, for instance, “You need to understand both sides of the argument.” Really? There are only two sides to a story as complex as Middle East conflict or the American debt crisis or gun control? Not likely.

You know what happens when we think that way? This:

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There are very, very rarely only two (or any other limited number) sides or solutions to a given situation. Don’t box yourself into thinking about how you can solve problems. Often, the solutions you’re looking for are sitting outside the realm of the options you’re giving yourself. 

Question your own assumptions. Think broader. Think bigger. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you to look at the glass as half full. 

It’s always, always full. 

Find the frameworks and solutions that help you look at life that way instead. That’s where the best answers are. That’s where the potential to truly make a difference lives.