Thinking Toys #13 — Miracle Question

Is there something in your life or work that you’ve been trying to solve but can’t seem to make progress on? Perhaps it even seems impossible. Try posing the miracle question… Imagine you wake up tomorrow morning and a miracle has occurred. What’s a small change that would make you exclaim: “wow the problem is gone and here’s how I know!” Answering this can be difficult. Your first response will often be “I don’t know”, or something along those lines. This is frustrating but normal. Sit with it for 5–10 minutes. Start generating a list of responses that are not quite right or even obviously bad. Eventually, you may hit on something interesting and surprise yourself. Once you have an answer, you can often generate a way to move towards it. Ask yourself, what can you do that would help you move towards this new world, even if only in a small way? This may generate a specific goal or action. Ideally, frame it as a positive rather than a negative: something you do rather than something you avoid doing.

I’m experiencing a growing frustration with a lack of progress on a big project I’m interested in. I’ve been nibbling along the edges but have a sense that a lot more is possible. Posing the miracle question helped. After about 5 minutes of “I don’t know”, I was able to start generating some bad answers. After another 5 minutes of those, I wrote done something that seemed quite good. In hindsight, it seems silly that I didn’t think of it right away, but that’s often how these things go. I found that I’d feel like my sense of a lack of progress would resolve by seeing the results of an experiment. Specifically, a hypothetical experiment on a few friendly participants that tests some implicit assumptions. My next action follows pretty smoothly from that realization!

Sometimes finding a positive action or goal is the difficult part. You know what the world would look like when your problem is gone but you have no idea how to take a step in that direction. Fortunately, having a list of bad ideas is better than no list at all. If you can carve out enough examples of things that won’t work, you can try inverting them. Also, you can compare new ideas to the bad ones to try to help understand what is missing. A bad model is better than no model at all.

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