How to excel at solving problems

I have always been a curious cat all my life, trying to work on something or the other. Reading books, solving puzzles, solving problems was something I love to do on a regular basis. Now, having been a part of the education system for quite a long time, I know that the students are always pressured by numerous subjects on a regular basis and this doesn’t them to actually manage to solve problems, discover things in a very efficient manner. This is something that is carried onto the rest of your lives and is not really in favor of anything or anyone.

As a student, you are told every single time that you need to understand a particular concept or remember a particular topic without any idea as to how to do it. The topmost level of this idea is to just understand it. But the question that comes next is how do you actually do that? And to tell you the truth this is something that also continues onto your work life in the future. It is also something I’ve had a problem with every now and then, but I intuitively used to be able to get the answer to any problem or research a topic or discover things.

And after years of doing it I discovered as to how I actually used to do it.

Any problem can be solved, any topic can be understood and as a matter of fact it can be done very efficiently and quickly. Let me tell you an incident that happened to me back in 2008 when I was doing my master’s degree. We had to learn about a subject know as data structures that I absolutely used to love but at the same time used to hate it. I used to love it because it gave the most effective and concise way to solve computer problems and steps to do it, algorithms if you may. And the reason I used to hate it was because we were expected to remember the programs related to these data structures by heart since that’s what we needed to clear our exams with flying colors, and God bless my heart, I’m really bad at learning things by heart (a tale for another day). So given that I had to clear my exams with flying colors, I actually tried to learn these programs by heart and crammed and pounded them into my head before the exams. By the way, I already knew the algorithms for these programs as I understood them very clearly.

On the day of the exam, my brain had filled to the brim with these programs and I was quite confident that I could do it. Everyone is seated in the exam hall is silent anticipation, and the examiner presents us with our question papers. I’m totally ready and start reading through the questions and I’m extremely pleased. I know the answers to all the questions and am excited and happy that I’m definitely going to clear this with flying colors. And the moment my excitement reached its peak, all the tension is released and poof! Everything that I had crammed into my head just disappears as a whiff of smoke, and then the panic sets in. I start sweating beads and try to remember as much as I can, all I can remember are incoherent pieces which barely meant anything. I do not know what to do. I look all around and I see that everyone is completely busy writing their papers, all confident and I’m here totally blank not knowing what to do.

I look at my paper, trying to salvage what I remember in bits and pieces. I look at it and realize that I do know the answer to some of the smaller questions, but I’m sure that I wouldn’t be able to clear the exams just because of those. And in the time of desperation, I decide to do it. I look through all the questions, and I realize that I know the algorithms surrounding those questions. I make up my mind and start deriving the programs by writing down the algorithms on the spot. What would be half a page of an answer became three to four pages worth each, but nonetheless I managed to answer some of the questions. I do not clear with flying colors, but I did manage to clear the exams to move on to the next phase.

So, now let me break it down for you. What I realized from going through this process of understanding was that understanding a particular topic can help you solve problems no matter how difficult they might be. But given that understanding a topic itself might be the crux of the problem, there is a way to get around it. What you need to do is know what you are trying to get as the final result of the problem, what it is that you are actually trying to solve, what it is that you are actually trying to learn. You need to really start breaking down the problem into smaller pieces or chunks which are easy to digest. Not attack the entire problem at once. Once you break it down into smaller pieces, you need to all but either understand it if you are learning a topic or solve it if you are solving a problem. The idea is to break it down till you get to the root of the problem or topic that you are trying to solve or understand respectively.

An example would be, how would you find the largest among three numbers. You break down the problem into 2 pieces. You compare the first 2 numbers and get the output, and then you take that output and compare with the next number, thus breaking down a single problem into 2 steps. Similarly, any problem or topic can be broken down into steps to a root level and solved piece by piece to get to the final solution or understanding. This applies to any problem in life as well. One day at a time. One step at a time. Start walking before running, start crawling before walking and finally you will start sprinting and amazing speeds.

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