3 Lessons from Albert Einstein on Problem Solving

Solving problems can be more fun than frustrating.

Vishal Kataria
Apr 8, 2019 · 5 min read
Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Ugur Peker on Unsplash

Problems are an integral part of everyday life. So is problem-solving.

But where people differ is in their ability to solve problems.

Problem-solving has a synonym today, especially in the corporate world — fire fighting. Up to 70% of employees’ time is spent ‘fire fighting’. They spend more than six hours a day grappling with problems which should not exist.

Trouble is, we spend most of our time creating and solving problems of the 3rd type in the quest for being busy.

What a waste of time and productivity! Imagine what organizations can achieve if hundreds (or thousands) of employees get these 6 hours daily (or 30 hours weekly) to work on something constructive!

The biggest reason for never-ending problems is our ‘fireman’ approach. While firefighters were our childhood heroes (they still are), there‘s a glaring difference between firemen and us.

While solving problems, firemen set up breakpoints and let some fires burn. Using good judgment, they focus on the real problem and come up with permanent solutions.

We, on the other hand…

Fire fighting is not exclusive to the corporate world. The corporate is, after all, made up of people and their habits. In reality, our firefighting skills — or problem-solving skills — are flawed, though we hate to admit it.

The Flawed Approach to Problem-Solving

Image for post
Image for post

Our mantra to solve problems is, “if it isn’t urgent, worry about it later.” We procrastinate until it’s too late. Eventually, the ignored problem becomes so massive that it calls for — you guessed it — fire fighting.

Every problem you neglect on Monday morning will arise and bite you in the back on Friday afternoon,” says Yuval Danieli, director of customer services at Morphisec.

Then there’s the solution-centric approach. When we face a problem, we jump headlong into finding the solution without much thought and apply the first idea that comes to mind. This behavior is more fashionable than owning the latest iPhone. Thinking twice… that’s farfetched.

Here’s the thing.

The problem is not the problems (no pun intended). It’s our ability to solve problems.

Enter Albert Einstein

Contrary to the popular myth, Einstein was remarkably intelligent right since childhood. He built powerful mental models to attack and solve his problems — at work and in personal life.

Einstein’s principles prove useful to solve problems better. Here are 3 of them:

#1. “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

We try to get rid of a problem as soon as possible. Hence, we jump into the water without testing its depth.

Image for post
Image for post

The result is that we repeat mistakes of the past and then put out self-berating social media status updates about how we suck because we never learn.

Astute problems solvers, on the other hand, stay with a problem, come up with various possible outcomes, and examine each of them at length. The more they struggle with a problem, the more resilient they become and the better they get at solving problems.

#1. “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

The more time we spend understanding a problem, the more effective the resolution. Intelligent people don’t jump into solution mode quickly. Instead, they ask themselves, “which other factors are at play here?” and dig deeper.

Techniques like 5 Whys and Fishbone allow us to get to the root cause of a problem and prevent it from occurring again. But these techniques also help us eliminate challenges we didn’t foresee or address.

Ask Paul O’Neill, who turned an ailing Alcoa into one of corporate America’s heavyweights by addressing just one problem — worker safety.

Examine what’s in front of you. But also uncover latent factors that contribute to the problem. Don’t look for solutions immediately; keep redefining the problem until you arrive at the root cause.

#3. “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking
we used when we created them.”

In his bestselling book Lateral Thinking, Edward de Bono points out that we spend a lot of time measuring how right or wrong a solution is. But you cannot dig a hole at a different location by digging the same one deeper.

Image for post
Image for post
source

In other words, you cannot approach a solution with a mindset that created the problem in the first place. Because if the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.

Step away from the problem, encourage a pair of eyes that are distant from the situation to examine it, reach out to people who’ve already done what you’re trying to do — do anything, but break away from the cycle you currently follow.

Summing Up

Persistence, focus, and imagination are the key to solve problems better.

Most problems don’t come from bad people or sources. Rather, they stem from our loathing for uncertainty. Hard thinking and critical analysis don’t offer instant gratification and hence make us uncomfortable. That’s why we quickly dismiss the advice mentioned above.

Problems are inevitable. The unpleasant feelings which accompany them… they’re not. Consider all options, regardless of how irrelevant they currently appear. Keep an open mind. Seek comfort in the uncomfortable.

It’s only a matter of time before you begin to punch above your weight. Now wouldn’t that be something!

Image for post
Image for post

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +441,678 people.

Subscribe to receive our top stories here.

Image for post
Image for post

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +720K people. Follow to join our community.

Vishal Kataria

Written by

I write to teach myself and hit “Publish” when I think it might help you.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +720K people. Follow to join our community.

Vishal Kataria

Written by

I write to teach myself and hit “Publish” when I think it might help you.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +720K people. Follow to join our community.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store