Locating valuable problems: When the destination matters

A successful person isn’t necessarily better than her less successful peers at solving problems; her pattern-recognition facilities have just learned what problems are worth solving

Ray Kurzweil

The above quote conveys some important information. Today, I want to elaborate on two key insights found within it. This is vital for making the most efficient use of your time or any other finite resource.


Brains are uniform

The first piece of wisdom within the statement is something that is well known to cognitive psychology. It is that the human brain functions in an almost entirely uniform manner. “But I’m special!” you may cry, and you would be right. However, it is the subtle differences that make you so. Not the fundamental manner in which your grey matter operates.

Uniquely intelligent and talented individuals do not possess parts of the brain that a more standard individual does not. Instead, such individuals have standard features that differ quantitatively. This is where the discrepancy in output stems from.

For example, we all have limited capacity to utilise our working-memory — on average 3 to 6 “chunks” of information. We also all have a delay period — around 5 seconds — that is required in order to encode information into long-term memory. This long-term memory differs from working memory in the sense that it appears to be essentially unlimited; though, the required encoding time cannot be escaped. It is standard-issue across the board. Our similarities mount further when we look at how memories and knowledge are stored. Leading theories suggest such information is organised into list-structures and semantic networks, which can then be searched to recall a fact or solution. Provided the appropriate environmental cues are present.

Differences in output, productivity and “success” arise for a number of reasons; but it isn’t to do with the possession of a special brain feature than only some are gifted with. Differences can be due to a slightly faster ability to encode or recall information. Or, because someone stores knowledge more abstractly and thus it can be drawn upon with fewer or less specific cues. This is to name but a few. There are a variety of other reasons. However, the important point I am trying to make is that ultimately, the uniformity is still there. We are all made up of the same components.

That’s the first point.


The importance of problem-seeking

Now that we have established that — at the level of cognitive neuroscience — we are essentially all homogenous, let’s zoom out a bit. At this point we will take a more agent-centric focus, operating at the level of the individual. The same level at which we experience conscious thought and feel like we are orchestrating our behaviour, making use of our “free will”. This is the primary piece of value in Kurzweil’s statement and is an important point that I wish to expound on.

If we all have brains that are more similar than not, and thus problem-solving hardware — which only differs quantitatively — the best way to make use of our bounded cognitive capacities is to solve problems that are the most worth solving. Provided they are within our ability to do so.

What this means is, what we actually want — as strange as it sounds — is more effective problem-seeking software. Locating the most profitable problems to solve is the only way to extract maximum value from any given environment.

A car analogy should hopefully illustrate this point sufficiently.

All cars have an engine, a steering wheel, an axel-system, tyres and an ability to accelerate and decelerate — among other uniform things. Sure, some cars are Ford Falcons, and some — though disproportionately less — are Ferraris. Either way, cars (like brains) are made up of the same components and they function in an essentially standardised way.

Your car influences the speed and comfort at which you travel, but it does not determine where you go. Driving a Ferrari does not inherently exempt you from driving it to remote or downtrodden locations. Or, even less desirably, into a tree. In just the same way, driving a Ford Falcon does not mean you can’t travel along some of the most picturesque roads or visit a multitude of fruitful locations.

This sentiment — of seeking out and focusing on the most desirable and profitable problems/destinations — is what I want you to take away from reading this. The job of both your car and brain is to “get you there”. It’s up to you to set the most profitable coordinates into your GPS.

In this regard, where you go is much more important than how you get there.

It sounds blatantly obvious to say, “focus on things that are more important,” but so many of us still fall victim to not doing so. In fact, we all do this! Again, we only differ in this regard quantitatively. Each of us is guilty of depositing cognitive pennies into some of the most futile of tasks. Yet we are still surprised when things don’t turn out the way we want. Or, on other occasions, we find that we don’t have the mental-energy to concentrate on tasks or hobbies that we do want to do well with — because we were so liberal in our attention-spending.

Two popular cognitive psychology books point this out. Both The Organised Mind and Thinking Fast and Slow, make a specific point of highlighting that the common phrase “pay attention” is more apt than most people realise. Attention is a limited commodity. We only have so much of it to spend, and if  we spend one thing, then we can’t spend it on another. As Herbert Simon warned many decades ago, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.

That is why you must be wary of what you spend yours on. Emails, social media, gossip, how to arrange your clothes in your wardrobe — or really any other activity that pales in comparison to the bigger picture — not only deplete you of time, but  also the ability to do more cognitively demanding work. For this reason, you must choose your problems wisely.


Everything you want is a “problem”

Before we close, let’s wind it right back. Not just to the start of the article, but the start of your life…

At birth (well technically, before even that) you are gifted with a brain, which is a wonderfully complex and effective organ. It shares approximately half of its DNA with your biological mother, and the rest of it hails from your father. It adapts at a rapid rate to the stimuli it receives and continues to develop, if prompted, up until the day you die. As current technology stands, you can’t do anything to change the genetic code you received from your parents. As such, your brain may have specifications that are analogous to a Ford Falcon, a Ferrari, or something in between. Importantly, though, you certainly can make some worthwhile modifications either way.

That is not the point of this article, however. The point is — irrespective of what brain you are “driving” — the most important thing is how and where you drive it. The direction in which you drive, and the destinations that you arrive at, is what will determine the success of your endeavours. In this regard, the destination is more important than the journey.

Now you might think to yourself, “I don’t care about solving problems”. Or, you might say that you have no interest in how the brain works. “I just want [desirable-thing-X],” you say. Fundamentally, that is a problem. Whether you conceptualise it as one or not, your brain will spend resources on solutions to obtaining it. In an abstract sense, all we have are problems and resources.

I think this one of the reasons that practices such as meditation tend to be a common trend amongst various domains of successful people. By actively working towards desiring less, more cognitive resources can be spent on the problems that matter.

Do yourself a favour. Focus on the types of problems that you will thank your brain for solving. Your cognitive algorithms are going to be doing the calculations regardless, so you may as well feed some important and valuable information into them.

I am fascinated by the power of knowledge; in particular, how through its implementation we can build a better life for ourselves and others. Most specifically, I am interested in ideas related to rationality and morality. I believe we can all be benefited by having a concern for both probability as well as people. As a student, I am studying Artificial Intelligence. As a professional, I work in mental health case management. When I am not doing one of these things, I am very likely writing for my blog, recording an episode for the "PhilosophyAu" podcast, hanging out with my nan, reading a book or, occasionally, attending a rave. A previous version of myself obtained a bachelors and a masters degree in sport science and was the Manager of Educational Services for a leading health and fitness company.
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