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Albert Einstein’s Problem-Solving Formula, and Why It Still Works Like a Charm

Albert Einstein’s Problem-Solving Formula, and Why It Still Works Like a Charm

When asked how he would spend his time if he was given an hour to solve a thorny problem, Einstein said he’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem and alternatives and 5 minutes solving it.

You’ve probably used a handy invention called “coffee sleeves” if you’ve ever visited a coffee shop.  These insulators make it bearable to hold that super-hot cup of coffee.  Jay Sorensen is the inventor of the coffee sleeve.  He came up with this idea when he was driving his daughter to school when he spilled a cup of coffee in his lap, because the coffee was too hot to hold.

It’s common wisdom that innovative ideas must be original, new, and a flash of creativity out of the blue. But this belief is a real obstacle to creativity.

Jay Sorensen didn’t create the coffee sleeve because he was setting out to innovative. He needed to solve a problem.

Innovation is not about creating something from nothing.

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There are problems everywhere, as long as you pay attention to them. Lots of great inventions come from the daily problems people encounter.

When it’s raining and you don’t want to wear clunky, unfashionable rain boots – but you don’t want to get your feet wet?  There go the Dry Steppers.  You want to bring a water bottle to work, but the shape of normal water bottles don’t work with your briefcase? Someone came up with the idea of Letter paper shaped bottles.

True breakthroughs happen when you notice problems and create solutions. Problems stimulate you to really think about what can be improved. Observing problems is a good start.

Different Levels of Problems

There are different types of problems. Some are easier to stimulate innovative ideas, some are more difficult.  Finding out the type of problem you have identified helps you to know your effort needed to create new ideas.

Type 1: Problems with Good Solutions Available

Difficulty Level: ★★★

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Some problems already have good solutions available. For example, in hot and humid climates, people have adjusted to the use of fans and air conditioning. It would take a huge breakthrough in order to think of a solution superior to what’s already available.

So, a brand-new invention to address hot climates would be a very difficult innovation to accomplish. There is no clear need for a new solution.

Type 2: Long Existing Problems with No Solutions Yet Found

Difficulty Level: ★★

A more intermediate scenario is when a problem has existed for a long time, and no solutions have yet emerged.

These intermediate problems are often very hard to fix because of their scale or complexity. For example, poverty is a huge problem, and everyone knows that. But nobody has “fixed” it probably because it’s hard to fix, and there are limitations on the resources to fix it.

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When anything is possible, it’s difficult to know when and how to kick it off. But this situation can also be positive. With intermediate problems, you have no restrictions, and so you’re free to try out creative ideas. Take this as a source of inspiration. You might not have the resources to apply your solution right now, but that shouldn’t hold you back. Think of a solution and try it out when the timing is right.

Type 3: Problems That Have Flawed Solutions Available

Difficulty Level: ★

Finally, there are easy innovations. These include problems that do have available solutions, but those solutions are flawed. You can take what’s already there and improve on it. For example, the smartphone is in many ways an improvement of the original cell phone; it has added a lot of new functionality to an old technology.

While you might feel inspired to tackle a 3-star problem, you might try to kickstart your innovation with an 2-star or 1-star problem first.

Start with a Problem Within Your Reach

There are tons of problems out there, in every conceivable area of life. Look for one that is within your own field of expertise – where you can excel by using your knowledge and skills. By narrowing the scope of the problem, you also won’t get distracted by problems that you can’t control.

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In your own field of work, you see recurring problems all the time. Find one that bothers you and dig deep into the root causes. Ask yourself, why does this happen all the time? Are there layers of causes? Understanding the problem deeply helps you think of more and better approaches to it.

Once you have identified the causes, turn to solutions.

First, are there any existing workarounds? If there are some, why aren’t they effective? Perhaps they don’t really address the root causes, or only address some of them. Consider how you might improve the available solution. If it’s possible to improve an existing solution, it could be easier to implement than something brand-new.

If there are no available solutions, then start brainstorming new solutions. In this scenario, it could be pretty tough to fix the problem outright. So instead of aiming to fix the root cause immediately, try to target individual layers of causes one at a time. This piecemeal kind of approach can help you work your way up to a complete solution.

Stop Thinking of New Ideas, Find Problems

Don’t look for a great idea. Look for a good problem. Observe the troubles that you come across in your everyday life.

It’s by addressing these problems that you can make the most positive impact on the world.

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Last Updated on May 16, 2019

The Daily Rituals of 7 Successful CEOs

The Daily Rituals of 7 Successful CEOs

One of my favorite success quotes ever comes from one of the original and most successful ‘CEOs’ of his era: Aristotle. Here’s what he said:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

This advice is just as sound today as it was when Aristotle first expressed it, way back when. I’m reminded of this at least once a week, when I interview an inspiring author, leader, or successful CEO on my show. I ask my guests a series of questions about what has contributed to their success and their ability to build something meaningful.

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You want to know what nearly all of them say? Almost every time, they respond by telling me that their success is the result of simple habits  enacted day after day.

These quotes from seven successful CEOs demonstrate the daily rituals that have contributed to their success:

1. Promote what you love.

“It’s so much better to promote what you love than to bash what you hate.” – Jessica Alba, CEO of The Honest Company

2. Develop a feedback loop.

“I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better. I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.” – Elon Musk, CEO of TESLA Motors

3. Create things that are better, not just “different.”

“Our task today is to find singular ways to create the new things that will make the future not just different, but better—to go from 0 to 1. The essential first step is to think for yourself. Only by seeing our world anew, as fresh and strange as it was to the ancients who saw it first, can we both re-create it and preserve it for the future.” – Peter Thiel, CEO of Palantir and best-selling author of Zero To One.

4. Meditate.

“Meditate. Breathe consciously. Listen. Pay attention. Treasure every moment. Make the connection.” – Oprah Winfrey, CEO of OWN Network

5. Read every day.

“Read 500 pages every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up like compound interest.”-Warren Buffet, CEO of investment firm Berkshire-Hathaway

6. Block time for email.

“Set aside a 20- to 30-minute chunk of time two or three times a day for email. Do not check continually through the day.” – Doug Camplejohn, CEO of predictive lead marketing company FlipTop.

7. Make your customers happy.

“We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.” – Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com

Develop the right rituals. Become a successful CEO.

If the majority of these daily habits are new to you, avoid making the crucial mistake of adopting all of these habits at once. Research on habit-formation indicates that lasting habits are formed one at a time.

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For example, let’s say you’re excited about developing the following daily habits:

  • daily reading,
  • daily meditation, and
  • updating your to-do list every night

Let’s say that daily reading is the one that excites you the most out of the three habits noted above. It would be wise of you to begin by choosing and scheduling time to read every day, and then sticking to that time until it becomes a habit. Once it feels effortless and automatic, you’ll know that you’ve turned it into a daily habit. Now you’re ready to install the next habit… and the next… Until before you know it, you’ll start looking in the mirror and seeing the reflection of a successful CEO.

Featured photo credit: Amy Hirschi via unsplash.com

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