Too late for the easy solutions

The other day I took a day off, to do whatever I felt like. One appealing idea early in the day was to solve a major problem that has been bothering me for as long as I remember. I won’t go into details, but it seemed like maybe if I just sat down and tried to solve it, I might.

Then I realized that I didn’t really feel like solving it. If I could just sit down and solve it, then why hadn’t I already solved it? What would I say happened, even to myself? Either I had so far failed to do an easy thing—at great cost— or a legitimately hard problem had been magically and unintelligibly solved. Either I would be a bad person, or reality would not make sense. Neither of these seemed appealing at all. Better to suffer a little longer, and solve the problem some hard way, without blame or confusion.

When I noticed this, I realized it was actually a familiar pattern. It would be disconcerting to just casually decide to not have the problem any more, without some more meaningful banishment ritual.

This relates to forgetting to solve problems because you assume that you have tried. Instead of assuming that you have tried because you are reasonable, you implicitly assume you have tried because you are too scared of learning that you didn’t try or that your trying was somehow wrong.

This is related to the general mistake where a task feels like it is meant to take a long time, so you dutifully spend a long time on it. For instance, you think you might be curious about this philosophical problem, and so you talk to your advisor about your curiosity, and arrange to get some funding to pursue it for a little while, and make a schedule, and think about how to go about thinking about it, and try to go to more conferences on the topic. When, if you had just immediately sat down and tried to answer the question, you might have just answered it. This is something that ‘rationality techniques’ such as setting a five minute timer for solving a problem, or trying to solve a problem assuming it is really easy, are meant to eradicate.

It also reminds me a bit of people who sacrifice a lot for some goal, and then are faced with the prospect of everyone achieving the same ends without sacrifice, and are reluctant to accept that fate.

I’m not sure what to do about this, but for now I’m trying out just not making this error, without any fancy debugging.

3 responses to “Too late for the easy solutions

  1. If I could just sit down and solve it, then why hadn’t I already solved it? What would I say happened, even to myself? Either I had so far failed to do an easy thing—at great cost— or a legitimately hard problem had been magically and unintelligibly solved. Either I would be a bad person…

    It might be that you discover that many problems are like this: avoided because they’re daunting despite being eminently solvable. Since your priors are apparently that you’re not a bad person, you should believe it is probable that you would learn something about the world. I’m surprised you’re not curious – even regarding how bad/good you are.

  2. > One appealing idea early in the day was to solve a major problem
    > that has been bothering me for as long as I remember. I won’t go
    > into details, but it seemed like maybe if I just sat down and tried
    > to solve it, I might.

    Wait! did you solve the particular problem (or at least investigate it), or did you retire from the field with a good solution to the general case?

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