Imagine that you’re really, really good at jigsaw puzzles. You can do them quickly, efficiently, and you rarely if ever have difficulty finding the location of a piece.
Okay, now imagine I take a pretty difficult, thousand-piece puzzle and pick fifty of those pieces at random and give them to you. I don’t even show you the other 950 (heck, I don’t even tell you how many there are), nor the box or picture.
You can’t solve this puzzle. No matter how long you stare at those fifty pieces. No matter how you turn them and arrange them and consider them, you’ll never complete the jigsaw.
In this scenario, however, lots of people fail to realize why they can’t solve the puzzle. They do one of two things: Either they blame themselves and start thinking that maybe they aren’t so great at puzzles after all and they should just give up and never do a puzzle again, or they get mad and start blaming a cruel and unjust universe for delivering an unsolvable puzzle and they should just give up and never do a puzzle again.
Neither is true. You just don’t have all the pieces. It has nothing to do with your abilities – how smart you are or how capable you might be. It also isn’t that life has dished out a particularly unfair dilemma in your direction. The problem is a simple one – you’re missing 950 pieces.
Where are they? Scattered around the city, the country, the world. You’re not solving a jigsaw puzzle – you’re solving a scavenger hunt.
That is an allegory for pretty much every problem you will ever face.
99% of problems can’t be solved by thinking about them. Thinking about things has a rapidly diminishing marginal return in terms of generating solutions. And that’s because thinking about things doesn’t generate new information; it just rearranges information you already have.
You need to do that… a little. When you have all the information, you need to assemble it correctly into the right action plan to solve your problem. But if you’ve been thinking about something for more than a few days and you’re stuck, then you don’t have all the information yet. You’re smart. If you had all the pieces, you could solve the puzzle. Ergo, if you can’t solve the puzzle, it’s because you don’t have all the pieces yet.
Go out and get new information. Go on the scavenger hunt, grab a few more pieces, and then think again for a little bit. You might not actually need all 1,000. This could be like Wheel of Fortune, where you can solve the puzzle before every letter is visible. But you can’t solve it if you only know 3 letters out of 100, and you don’t even know there’s a hundred total, and you can’t see the spaces between words.
No matter how long you think about it.