Problems Are Like Muscles

Have you ever been so frustrated by not being able to solve a particular problem that you just thought “fuck it”, and gave up, only for the perfect solution to just plop itself into your head later on that day?

It’s maddening, isn’t it? You spent all that time doing it the “right” way – grinding on it, working hard, putting your blood, sweat, and tears into it – all for nought. And then as you lather up in the shower, or you hit the halfway point on a long run, suddenly it hits you.

Not only does it hit you, the solution you now have feels incredibly obvious and inevitable. You feel like a fool for not having seen it before, and as though all that time at your desk was clearly a waste of time, because it wasn’t until you gave up on it that you actually solved it.

All of this can make you wonder whether there’s any point in “trying” to solve problems – if the answer is just going to fall out the sky, why not save yourself a few painful hours and skip straight to giving up?

There’s a simple reason for that: if you do, the answer will not fall out of the sky. I promise you. Why not?

Well, first, let’s look at the human body. (Obviously, I’m no doctor, but I think what I’m about to claim is basically correct.) When you exercise, the shocking truth is that you don’t get fitter and you don’t get stronger. You actually get weaker… at first.Whilst you’re exercising, you’re heaping a ton of unexpected stress on your body, which only serves to temporarily weaken it.

But then, because your body is incredible at adapting to whatever shit you throw at it, it spends the next hours and days rallying around with blood and nutrients and what have you, and in time you emerge fitter and stronger than before.

You see, it’s the recovery period where all the magic happens. Your muscles don’t grow whilst you’re exercising, only afterwards. But if there’s no stress, then there is no recovery period either – they have nothing to recover from! They need both – stress and recovery.

Your creative mind is no different when it comes to solving problems. First, you deliberately stress it out by consciously trying as many ways as you can think of to solve a problem. You probably don’t solve it there and then, and you maybe even feel a whole lot stupider than you did before you started.

But then, in the hours and days following – as you consciously focus on other stuff – your mind whirrs away in the background, and slowly adapts itself to the stress you gave it, trying its damnedest to solve your problem. And when it does, you get your Eureka! moment – the perfect answer plops into your head.

And for that Eureka! moment to happen, you need both the stress, and the recovery period. You need both the grinding-it-out-at-your-desk-and-feeling-like-you’re-getting-nowhere, and the showers, the long walks, the doing-anything-you-can-to-take-your-mind-off-the-problem.

As with just about everything, this is about which parts you can and can’t control. You can’t control the second part – when or where the penny finally drops. For that, I’m afraid all you can do is be patient. But you can control the first part – doing “the work.”

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