“Mere precedent is a dangerous source of authority.”


Old answers, those ideas that have failed to solve your problem in the past, are some of your best clues as to what rules are keeping you from a solution. They are being used, however ineffectively, because something in the way you view the problem makes them seem like a viable answer.

Even if they don’t work, or don’t work well, record your cur- rent best solutions. We will use them to discover your rules for solving this problem.


You might see a rule that is limiting your thinking now. It will look like a condition for solving the problem, a constraint, or a desired course of action. If you do, record it. For example, if you noticed that importing food was a condition for all of your solutions to ending hunger, record “must import food” as a rule. Your own rules are preventing you from seeing innovative solutions. Start identifying those rules now. We will work on breaking them later.


“Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination; do not become the slave of your model.” VINCENT VAN GOGH

Now that you have thought about your problem, create a better one. A better problem motivates you, inspires you, and drives you to take action. The first step is to ignore, for now, certain limitations.

Identify the Real Issues

“What makes life dreary is the want of motive.”


All problems exist in a hierarchy of needs. Every problem is driven by higher-level needs—the reasons for seeking a solution. People solve problems to get rich, continue eating, or show a great aunt that they could amount to something. But these higher-level needs are often ignored in problem solving.

You selected your target problem because you believe it is the way to meet some higher-level needs. But there may also be other, better ways to meet your higher-level needs. Perhaps the higher- level need is your real issue. Your problem statement may be driven by an outdated rule that this is the only way to satisfy your higher- level need. Making the higher-level need the target problem can open up many new possible solutions.

Remember Bob and his apples? Let’s take a closer look at his problem. Our apple farm question presupposed that Bob should turn the rectangles of cardboard into boxes of maximum volume for shipping apples. But shipping more apples to market may be only a small part of Bob’s problem hierarchy. To find a real solution, we need to begin at the basics, with Bob.

If we interview Bob, we may find that he really wants to enjoy life. This shouldn’t be a surprise. As we delve deeper, we find that Bob believes he can enjoy life more if he enjoys farming more, or if he made more money.

If Bob is really interested in maximizing his profit, his problem statement should read something like this: Bob has grown more apples than he has boxes for shipping them to market. He also has five hundred one-by-two meter cardboard pieces. Maximize Bob’s profit.

This statement of the same problem leaves open new possibilities. Bob could form the cardboard into fancy cones or pyramids. Though less voluminous, the new packages may greatly enhance the appearance and value of the apples. There are other solutions that have nothing to do with packaging. Perhaps instead of a shipping- box problem, Bob has valuable information about an oversupply of apples. Instead of wasting his time packaging apples that will

command a poor price because of the glut, Bob should be shorting apple futures, something that may earn him far more.

But another core problem was how to enjoy farming more. Bob may want to establish his apples as the world’s finest. Or he may have more fun making apple cider. Bob’s seemingly simple apple-boxing problem can expand to allow for multitudes of new solutions. By returning to the basics of the problem, we greatly expanded the possible solutions and made finding a solution much more interesting.

Identify a higher-level need that may be at the root of your problem. Then ask yourself if the higher-level need isn’t the real problem. If it is, your possible solutions will expand.

Resize the Problem

“Nothing truly valuable arises from ambition or from a mere sense of duty.”


Your problem may be too big or too small. Small problems often fester for years because the short-term cost of fixing them is more than the short-term pain of leaving them unsolved. We give up on big problems because they are too hard. You may need to resize your problem in order to solve it.

Make a small problem bigger so that it gets the attention it needs now. You will be more creative and persistent in finding solutions to many of the nuisances in your life if you can artificially increase your need. Make your little problem a bigger problem. Invent the worst possible consequences for failure. Revel in the pain you will feel if it is not solved. Then solve it.

Big problems are also difficult. We give up before we start. The dire consequence seems inevitable. Even enormous rewards seem unreachable. You are as likely to attempt to leap across the Grand Canyon as to really try to solve an impossible problem.

Reduce your big problem to something you can solve. Other people use this strategy on us all the time. They say, “It won’t be hard,” or, “Just a few hours.” Right! They are trying to scale the problem to something manageable. They have the right idea. You must believe whatever they want you to do is attainable, or you won’t try.

Ignoring Limitations

Sometimes limitations like a lack of money or credentials stop our brains prematurely from addressing a problem. We just give up because it seems too hard.

Einstein rarely let established ideas limit his freedom to consider new solutions. He even ignored his own theories.

Write down everything you believe will limit you in creating a great solution to your target problem. Then forget those limitations. We will address them later in the “Breaking Rules” chapter. But for now, they don’t exist. With these limitations out of the way, how can you make your problem statement more enabling?


“Simplicity is the shortest path to a solution.”


Simple, spare problems should be easiest to solve. Einstein simpli- fied his problems. He developed his Special Theory of Relativity first. It was special in that it applied to a simple set of cases. A more accurate name would have been the Simple Theory of Relativity.

Working on a simpler problem helped Einstein develop the ideas and tools that made a more general theory possible.

Many people are reluctant to simplify a problem because that seems like cheating. It is. You are trying to break the rules that are making your problem impossible, and simplifying the problem is an important step.

Eliminate everything you can from your problem statement. Remove preconditions, half-solutions, and excess words. Free it from the baggage that makes a solution so difficult. Einstein once declared in a lecture that the laws of physics should be simple. When asked what he would do if they weren’t, he replied, “Then I would not be interested in them.” Focus your interest on a simple problem.

New Attitude

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” KURT VONNEGUT

If you are still certain that you have the right problem and that it can’t be solved, there is only one other thing to change—your attitude.

You may need to find the right mask to hide behind, the right alter ego. Alter egos are often more successful because they lack the limitations that were getting in our way. Since it is not us, our alter ego need not have our weaknesses. Fictional characters like Don Quixote or Dr. Jekyll used masquerades and alter egos to do things that they otherwise could not or would not do. For extraordinary results and temporary fun, construct your own alter ego.

Take out a clean sheet of paper. On the top, create a name for your alter ego. It can be forceful, mysterious, or whimsical, depend- ing on your alter ego’s mission. You may wish to append one or more appropriate titles of accomplishment or nobility.

Next, describe this person. Is she authoritative, strong, and intel- ligent? Describe why he or she wants to solve your problem. Feel free to borrow characteristics liberally from people that you admire. Create a complete picture: the car they drive, books they read, or weekend plans are all relevant. Details are important if your alter ego and his or her passions and strengths are going to be real to you.

Try imagining that this person you have created suddenly became conscious in your body. What would they do right now? How will they solve the problem? Write all of these things down. Since your alter ego is using your circumstances to do all of this, you could do it too. So why not you?

This exercise removes you from your self-imposed limitations by removing you from yourself. Don’t develop a psychiatric disor- der, but convince yourself that your problem can be solved.


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