Recently, I led a discussion group and an interesting thread emerged on, the question of identifying interesting problems to work on. My answer was one I’ve internalized for a while though I don’t practice as much as I should. Since it appeared relatively novel to the rest of the group, I decided to share it.

A common pattern with which folks approach creativity is what I call the “Eureka myth”. The idea that similar to Archimedes, and his Eureka moment great ideas, just appear, in his case, the baths of ancient Syracuse. However, in his case, he already had a problem to solve. Finding an interesting problem is the first step.

I’ve learned, counter-intuitively that making the time, to sit down and think about problems, very intentionally, leads to pretty interesting outcomes.

I came upon this when I took a course at college where the first assignment we were given was to present a technology problem that annoyed us, the students taking the course, personally. The important shift for me was:

  1. Focusing on the “problem”
  2. A finite time to come up with a list of our most annoying problems

The class was 6 people and we all returned with problems, varying from email spam, to the security and privacy of cloud-based apps. The investigation of these problems and potential solutions occupied the rest of the semester. And these were all unique problems, that objectively needed complex technical solutions.

Since then I’ve used this to approach in other areas:

  1. Technical project proposals: This is an obvious extension of the previous scenario. Thinking through my own experiences as the user of the software, often allows the discovery of interesting problems, which is often the most exciting first step to solutions. E.g the only patents I hold were from a similar discussion group my teammates and I at a previous company participated in.
  2. Conference talk proposals: Framing the same scenario but as conference talks, I would like to listen to. An alternative approach is problems I am currently working on as a proposal for a talk.
  3. Blog post ideas: I have a backlog of posts based on this. Though, I haven’t taken the time to actually write them!

This also demonstrates why deadlines and constraints are often good fuel for creativity. It also extends to writing, painting, music, and other art forms that while fundamentally creative, need constant practice for excellence.