Choose a big problem.

30 March 2006

This post from Irving Wladawsky-Berger of IBM cites Burt Rutan to make the point that "if you want teams of people to perform at an extraordinary level, you need to challenge them with problems that really inspire them."

I read that shortly after having a fascinating conversation with one of my professors in which he stressed the need for great works of scholarship to be "problem-driven." It's not enough for a scholar to pick an interesting era or an interesting phenomenon to study, and it's not enough to carry out a study that treats complex topics from interesting angles. There must be a problem that the scholar is trying to solve — some grand question that begs for a smart answer.

This resonates with something I quoted a couple of months back from Richard Hamming: "If you do not work on an important problem, it’s unlikely you’ll do important work. It’s perfectly obvious. Great scientists have thought through, in a careful way, a number of important problems in their field, and they keep an eye on wondering how to attack them." It also matches with Gian-Carlo Rota's description of Richard Feynman's methods.

I can't tell you how many bright people I know — in business, in scholarship, in art, or in life generally — who have never given themselves a big problem to solve.  They sometimes don't know what to work on, or what to do with themselves, in part because they haven't thought enough about what big problem awaits their assault on it.

The moral of this story:  go big. 


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