Archive for October, 2010

Free your mind from boxes

DISCLAIMER: I’d like to point out, that the issue I am addressing here transcends the field of software developement, but this would drastically go beyond the scope of what I intend this blog to cover.

Human thinking tends to revolve a lot around boxes. Why? Boxes are useful. During everyday life, we constantly bump into objects of our perception and we tend to put these into boxes. There are two reasons:

  • The most important “feature” of boxes is, that we can (mentally) carry around multiple objects in just one box. We can say “I like classical music”, instead of iterating all classical pieces and saying we like them.
  • Up to a certain point, boxes are even a boost to everyday perception. If there is an item a, and a box A with many items that share common features with a and one-another, we can put a into A. We tend to infer from that, that a is likely to also share features of other items from A, without actually inspecting it. The nice word for this is “induction”, the common word is “prejudice”. It  is a way of concluding, that is very efficient, because it doesn’t require a thorough study of the subject, but not without risk, because it quite often yields poor  conclusions.

None the less, the main point is, boxes are useful, because we can put objects into them, which helps us dealing with the enourmous complexity of the world we live in. I suppose, we all agree, at the bottom line, the purpose of boxes is to put objects into them. I also suppose, we’d agree this doesn’t imply the purpose of objects is to be put into boxes. Yet we often behave like that. We like boxes. We can label them and then put objects into them, saving us the work of labeling all items individually.

It is my belief however, that for any kind of task, that requires problem solving, having boxes is not the biggest quality. Having boxes is good. Nowadays it is a popular oppinion that thinking outside the box is the new “shizzle” and will solve all your problems. I don’t think it will. It will perform just as poorly as thinking inside the box, because either way, the box is the limit.

The point is, to think past the box. The box is a support, a tool, and as such should not be in your way. The actual “shizzle” is the ability to build boxes and to choose clever labels. It is a more less mechanical task to  sort a set of items into a given set of boxes. The stroke of genius is choosing a certain way to box things. Thus the important quality is the art of “meta-boxing”, the tool that transcends boxes, the understanding of why certain boxes are chosen the way they are and being able to replace or add boxes as the problem, one is solving, evolves.

The actual art of problem solving consists of looking at the problem in search of the right perspective, until this sweet moment comes, where all parts fall into their places and the solution becomes obvious. You’re less likely to find a good solution if you try to use the same approach you used on an old problem you consider similar. Probably it even isn’t, but your perspective is so poorly chosen, it looks similar. You’re also quite unlikely to succeed, if you try hard not to draw knowledge from problems you’ve already solved. The word is “why” and the task is to understand why you succeeded in solving other problems. Why your solution worked. To understand how you found the right perspective. And apply that understanding.



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