The Problem Is You're Solving The Wrong Problem

"The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem. Do you understand?" - Jack Sparrow

The Problem Is You're Solving The Wrong Problem
AI Generated - "searching the universe for the right problem to solve"

The story of the MacCready Gossamer Condor is a fascinating one with a crucial lesson on how to view problems that I like to reference when looking at large-scale issues or transformational efforts.

Here's the story: Back in 1959, Henry Kremer issued a challenge (aptly known as the Kremer prize) to create 'the first human-powered aircraft capable of controlled and sustained flight.'

The rules of the contest were pretty straightforward:

  • The machine had to fly a figure-of-eight course around two markers half a mile apart.
  • It was conditional that the designer, entrant pilot, place of construction, and flight must all be British.

After 15 years of no one solving the challenge, Kremer decided to spur more interest by increasing the prize to £50,000 and opened it to the world. It wasn't until 1977, 18 years after the award was offered, that Paul MacCready built and flew the Gossamer Condor in only SIX MONTHS.

How on earth was this possible?

The takeaway from MacCready's approach is in how he thought about the problem. While others would spend a year prepping for a flight, crashing, analyzing data, and rebuilding, he created a plane that he could fly, fix, and fly again in hours.

Rapid iteration was the key. The problem was, as he said, was the problem.

MacCready realized that what needed to be solved was not, in fact, human-powered flight. That was a red herring. The problem was the process itself. And a negative side effect was the blind pursuit of a goal without a deeper understanding of how to tackle deeply difficult challenges.

He built a plane with Mylar, aluminum tubing, and wire. The first airplane didn't work. It was too flimsy. But, because the problem he set out to solve was creating a plane he could fix in hours, he was able to quickly iterate. Sometimes he would fly three or four different planes in a single day. The rebuild, re-test, and re-learn cycle went from months and years to hours and days...

So what's the lesson? When you are solving a difficult problem, re-frame the problem so that your solution helps you learn faster. Find a faster way to fail, recover, and try again. If the problem you are trying to solve involves creating a magnum opus, you are solving the wrong problem.

Another fascinating insight comes from this article, which leans in on another methodology that MacCready valued: the power of approaching a problem with naivety.

I think there's a huge power to inexperience. In the context of deeply entrenched problems that many people have given up on, it helps to not have a traditional framework so you can ask the naïve questions. That can help you set goals that more experienced people wouldn't think are feasible.

Think about it - what if you tried to tackle a problem you faced by not having your own legacy baggage and knowledge tying you down? In ways, that thinking is another form of finding freedom through constraint and, it allows you to go after the root cause of a problem.

Imagine not wasting time focusing on the easy, surface-level things that are fixable with bandaids and duct tape, but spending time to go after the challenging, deep-rooted issues. Tackling these issues are often a massive challenge for many individuals and companies; it's easy to solve problems with superficial band-aids that provide short-term relief, but digging into the real problem is where you're going to need to go if you want to make any type of mindset shift or long-lasting change.

I'll leave you with this week's challenge: Be the wolf. Solve complicated, deep-rooted problems. Stop putting bandaids on top. See what you can actually accomplish, not just "fix".

If you enjoy these posts, you can buy me a coffee ☕️, or if you'd rather keep up with my daily ramblings, follow me on Twitter or keep reading my posts on this blog.

Forward Thinking

I've been obsessing over the GapingVoid Culture Design Group lately - they've been hitting all the right vibes for me. I've been a long-time fan of Hugh MacLeod 's unique artwork for many years - I still have a signed copy of Ignore Everybody from 2009.

Recently, they've started up a three-times-a-week mailing and "All the Previous You's" was just what I needed recently.

We've all been there. Kicking ourselves for our past sins, even if said sins have been long forgotten by everyone else.

Marshall Goldsmith has this neat idea that instead of beating up our former selves, we should thank them instead. After all, they're the ones who got us where we are today.

Gratitude, not regret.

I like the sound of that.

Thought(s) of the week

Latest obsession

Of course I'm not bidding on it, but what a fantastic item going up for auction. Hear a quick blurb about "The Rockhammer Bible" from The Shawshank Redemption:

If you want to buy the only copy in existence, as of this writing, early bidding is around £70,000.

Here are a few of the articles and videos that resonated with me over the last week:

  • This was a great read that I need to revisit and take deeper notes on. I've talked before on the "game about the game," and "How To Play Better Games In The Metagame Of Life" was a fun look at 'not only does the metagame make life a lot more fun, but it gives you tremendous insight into the human condition.' - More
  • Continuing on the central theme of this week, "Climbing the wrong hill" is an excellent read on how 'people tend to systematically overvalue near term over long term rewards'- More
  • The more you know 🌈: "The Earliest Known Appearance of the F-Word, in a Bizarre Court Record Entry from 1310" - More
  • For those who live in the PNW, "Hello, 'Big Dark': Wednesday is year's final sunset as late as 6 p.m.". Yes, it's that time of year again (which is going to completely wreck my new intermittent fasting around circadian rhythms) - More
  • I enjoyed this look at "Inside the Identity Crisis at the New York Times", as it's an interesting piece on what happens in legacy culture when its 'business model is undergoing a major transition, cultural and political tensions' - More
  • More than you ever cared to know about "Hotdogging along PCH in the West Coast Wienermobiles." Yes, the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile. You'll thank me later... 'It's like seeing a unicorn — if a unicorn was shaped like a hot dog' - More
  • "Music and the Body: Richard Powers on the Power of Song" was a thought-provoking read on how music is really 'a laboratory for feeling and time' - More
  • I don't view it as heroic sleeping a few hours a night - I wish I could sleep more, but as one of those 'lucky' ones that suffer from sleep apnea, I struggle with it nightly. "Why We Sleep, and Why We Often Can't" was a good look at our society's collective 'estranged relationship with sleep' - More
  • More metagame here, but this was a great one: "Kids Are Master Manipulators. So Use Game Theory Against Them" - More
  • Here are some fun ones to check out; The winners of the 11th annual "js13kGames coding competition" - the participants have to create games in 13kB or less of JavaScript in a month. A few of these are more entertaining than most of the things found in the metaverse (snark) - More


Let's wrap up this week with a clip of Jack Black, who appeared on the Howard Stern show this week. I caught this audio on a ride up to the ferry; I always forget what an amazing frontman Black is.

Enjoy, Tenacious D Performs a Medley of the Who's Hit Songs...

Be well. ✌🏻

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Jamie Larson