Innovation · May 30, 2022

Can problem solving be fun?

The most surprising thing I’ve learned about innovation is this: Innovative thinking is not a thing that you do, it’s how you do things. Think of it as a habit, or a way of thinking.

You cannot switch on innovative thinking as you enter a brainstorming session. It is not something you do a day or over a week. It’s something you continue doing week after week, month after month, year after year.

Earlier I used to think of it like a task: do innovative thinking. But I was wrong. Now I realize that innovative thinking best done in conjuction with your daily work.

Now that I have realized this, many things that didn’t make sense before, have started making sense. Let me show that I mean.

How innovative thinkers see problems?

Paul Dirac was a brilliant physicist. He inspired me very much since school time. I read his biography few years back. There was a little story about him in this biography:

Dirac’s colleagues used to compete over a math game. I don’t remember the specifics of the game, but it had something to do with coming up with the biggest number satisfying some mathematical condition.

Every few weeks, somebody would succeed in coming up with the biggest number so far (which I assume was hard to calculate back in those days when there were no calculators). That person would then stay the winner of the game until somebody else finds an even bigger number in the sequence.

At one of their meetings, Dirac comes to know about this game. Dirac spoke very little so he didn’t say anything in that meeting. But next week when they met again, he came with an equation that predicted all the numbers in the sequence – making the game meaningless.

When I read this story, I was impressed but also confused. Why would Dirac, who at that time was solving some of the deepest physics problems related to quantum mechanics, would spent time solving a pointless puzzle?

This and other similar stories puzzled me before, but now they all seem to make sense.

Most innovative thinkers, like Dirac, have a habit of creative thinking. They see a problem, they can’t help thinking about solutions. They often don’t care where it pertains to their field or not. They don’t sit considering whether it can win them acclaim or make them money. They go ahead and attempt it. They don’t see problem solving as ‘work’. They see it as a fun exercise.

How to see problems as fun?

Now, most people don’t see problems as fun, do they? They see problems for what they are: as problems! And what is the first thing that comes in our mind when we see a problem – how do we get rid of it?

They why some people are different? Are they wired differently? I don’t know. Maybe.

Is it a perspective problem – like one of those ‘double images’ where you either see a duck or a rabbit depending on what you focus on?

I think perspective does play a role. I can tell you this from my own experience. My perspective of looking at problems has changed (and is still changing) by learning about the process of innovative problem solving.

Let’s try it here and see if (part of) the problem solving process can be fun. We will do an exercise today: it will require you to do a simple thing: imagine.

Imagination is the act in which all innovation is rooted. So let’s take this first step. Do this: imagine 5 futures about a technology of your choice.

Don’t worry about whether they are realizable or not. Just do it. And have fun. 99% of the things innovators imagine don’t realize. The 1% that do – still make it worth it. But that’s not the point. The point is to try and have fun imagining.

Here, let me share what I imagined about books to serve as examples:

  1. Ability to read the same book in multiple formats – long-text, visuals, comics, etc.
  2. Books whose text adapt themselves to a style preferred by the reader (e.g., simple English if the reader is not fluent in English).
  3. Books that carry complete information about its reference sources.
  4. Ability to see discussions about any passages from other readers and take part in those discussions right from within the book.

That’s all for this post. Subscribe to the Blip newsletter to understand parts of innovating process that come after imagination:

Cover Photo by Kieran Wood on Unsplash