Stop Solving Problems

Understand them instead.

Yes, it’s good to be helpful. It’s good to solve problems.

But engineers are diseased.

We are chronic problem solvers.

We get fixated on bugs we make up, struggling to solve fake problems.

“There is no problem.”

They say the best way to win an argument is to avoid it.1 Same goes for problems.

The best way to solve a problem is to realize it isn’t one.

It’s like that classic philosophy joke:

“Prove there is no chair.”

“What chair?”2

Or the Blockbuster rewind problem: how do you get people to rewind their videos when they return them?

Be Kind, Rewind—Or Not

Before autorewind was a thing, you’d either invest millions in rewind stations or campaign for people to “be kind, rewind” or just…

Stop trying so hard.

Rewinding wasn’t the real problem—it was the expectation to.

Star Video’s solution? Simply let the tapes be rented out unrewound. They simply put a small sticker on the video case, stating, in effect, that the tape may have to be rewound before watching…

Their customers were fine with the policy change; because they no longer expected a rewound tape, they were not dissatisfied when they didn’t get one.3

Maybe video cassettes are worth reinventing. But should that be your focus? Or are you just wasting time?


We break down problems into subproblems. Sometimes those spin off into their own subproblems.

Eventually you’re solving the wrong problem.

Come back to center.

Understand First, Solve Second

If you get stuck on an implementation, walk away.

“What’s wrong with how we engineer things is that most of what we accept as the proper order of things is based on assumptions, not observations. If we observed first, designed second, we wouldn’t need most of the things we build.” —Hamilton-Baillie3

Stop and look around.

Are you solving the real problem?

Are you asking the right questions?


“We learned that the impossible is not impossible. We learned that if you think you can do something you may very well be able to do it one thousand times better once you understand what’s going on.” —John Mayo4


  1. How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie 

  2. One Word Exam Answer on 

  3. In Pursuit of Elegance by Matthew E. May (see also, An Exercise in Observation 2

  4. The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner