The problem of a problem solver is to define a problem

Posted on January 4, 2016 by


Op-Economica, 4-1-2016 — This is my personal essay reflecting my thinking through research and professional work with the academia, politics and business communities. Right, wrong… your judgement, but I am writing what I observe and think, very honestly.

We are all problem-solvers of some sort. We solve problems to earn living, to get promoted, to show that we are smart and deserve colleagues’ respect, and to make contribution to human progress. Yes, so problem solving is important, and the better solution-maker we are the brighter future we expect.

Ben thuyen song Hong An Son - Do Duc Thuan 1930

But we are not such good problem solver for very simple reasons: it is hard to define a genuine problem.

First, we do not have a real problem to solve. I remember nearly 20 years ago, when I encountered the Black-Scholes problem involving some second-order partial differential equations, I got stuck for a while. So I rushed to consult with my uncle – a nuclear physicist – for he had been known as a good problem-solver. He helped me learn how to get over them. Done. Then he said: “Ah these guys are tricky. They tweaked the long-standing problem (and perfectly solved) to show that there is a close connection with their problem in economics. That’s all they did.”

So that became clear to me: the power of defining a problem. The “guys” my uncle – a super-smart superman-physicist – mentioned are Nobel laureates in economics with time-tested solutions so well known that later on Texas Instrument had to make that built-in solution available in millions of electronic calculator for finance and business students…

My supers-mart superman uncle had not had a genuine problem for him to work on, so he continued to live as a Vietnamese university physics professor, making living on teaching computer skills… (He did make awesome physics discoveries in the Soviet Physics school of thought, but that was back in 1960s, early 70s).

Second, we choose a wrong problem to work on. It is in Rene Descartes’ philosophy of science that we know complex problem should be able to be decomposed into smaller and less complex (but interconnected) ones, so that problem solving will become less challenging and more manageable. Everyone has to do just that. So by “wrong” I do not mean the problem we choose is NOT the right one, but the way we decompose the complex one is both inefficient and ineffective. In short, we are not capable of deriving a set of smaller, less challenging and less complex problems to solve.

In fact, while trying to derive smaller and less complex problems, some of the smartest even make them harder to solve. When in high school, we attended a class for the gifted who were supposed to learn lots of math to compete in city of Hanoi and then national competition. Some of my classmates were brilliant. And the most brilliant faced exactly the same problems I just mentioned: They complicated the original problem by using the wrong way of deriving small problems.

So one of our math teachers at the days was angry to conclude: “The smart make the most difficult problem easier to solve. And the stupid make the easiest problem harder to solve. Unfortunately one of the stupid is my nephew.” Yes, his nephew was in our class at the time.

Third, we fool ourselves that we have no problem with our intellectual capacity or skills, or perseverance, and all other calibers. That means: we assume we have no problem with problem-solving at all. In fact, we all do.

Watch a man being interviewed by a television reporter. Everyone tries to tell something in a way hopefully showing his great intellectual qualities, without knowing that his answer betrays him so bitterly. The same with our illusion of problem-solving skills.

Those illusions impede us from seeking collaboration, true learning and true working. A kind of self-indulgence that brilliant scientists try to stay away from, but the rest want to embrace.

That’s it for now.

©2016 Vuong & Associates