You Know What They Say About Assumptions! Think Differently to Problem-Solve More Efficiently (With Embarrassing Real-Life Example)
This just happened last week. I am somewhat embarrassed to tell you about it, but there is such a good learning opportunity here that I’ll swallow my pride and do it anyway.
‘Daddy, My Light Doesn’t Work’
My daughter Bella came to me with a problem: The ceiling light in her room quit working. It’s a rather basic two-bulb dome ceiling fixture—nothing special really, and nothing much there to break.
The first thing I did was try the light switch on the wall. Sure enough, the light didn’t come on. Next, I checked the breaker box—everything looked good there, too.
So, I went and got the ladder (which is sort of a funny thing in and of itself—ask Brandon Turner if you want to know more) and proceeded to check if the lightbulbs were tightly screwed into the sockets. It wasn’t likely that they wouldn’t be, but they do get loose once in a blue moon.
But that wasn’t it. The light still wasn’t coming on.
Thus, having run out of less labor-intensive options, I went and got a brand new four-pack of LED bulbs in the garage. This meant that I would have to perform manual labor, unscrewing the old bulbs and screwing in the new ones… but I’ll do anything for my daughter.
I am sure at some point someone has told a joke that started out: “How many Jewish violin players turned real estate investors turned prodigious syndicators does it take to…”
Ha! I can tell you—it takes more than one! LOL.
I worked up a sweat and an appetite screwing in those two LED lightbulbs from Costco, only to find out the light still wouldn’t turn on.
I was confused. I’ve replaced a billion of these light fixtures during the course of renovations but never because they were broken. They don’t break. There is nothing in them to break.
Oh, well, I thought. There is a first for everything.
I Called the Electrician
We had a couple of other items in the house that needed attention, so I called the electrician. He took a look at the light and told me that there was nothing wrong with it. There was power to it and everything seemed in order. So, we pulled out the remaining two lightbulbs from that four-pack, thinking that perhaps I got a couple of bad one.
And… nothing. The light still wasn’t working.
Marco, the electrician, walked over to a torchier in the corner of my daughter’s room, unscrewed one of the working bulbs, and proceeded to put it into the ceiling fixture. And BAM—it worked!
He looked at me in disbelief and said, “I’ve seen one bulb be bad in a pack of four, but I’ve never seen all four brand new bulbs be bad.”
Ladies and gents, I did not follow the “first principles,” but I am getting ahead of myself.
How Do They Do It?
As you consider some of the prolific innovators in history, folks like Franklin, Tesla, Edison, and Musk, you’ll note that all of them knew more things about more things than most normal people. And if you ponder this reality, you’ll have to ask yourself, “How in the hell did they learn so many things about so many things?!”
How was it that Benjamin Franklin could invent the Franklin Stove, bifocals, and swimming fins? And how is it that Musk has created three multi-billion-dollar companies—PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla? The respective industries have nothing to do with one another, and yet this guy knew enough stuff about enough stuff to create all three.
The answer is so simple. Think about it.
When Ben Franklin got cold during a Pennsylvania winter, he invented a heating contraption that produced less smoke and therefore was more functional. And when he got tired of switching from a pair of glasses that allowed him to see far to another pair that helped him see near, he invented bifocals. And when he wanted to swim faster, he invented fins.
In each case, there was a problem and Franklin created a solution. The same is true of Musk, who in each case recognized an inefficiency and found a better way of doing things.
But why could these guys do it, and why did no one before them find these solutions? Why did it take so long for a boring suitcase to get some wheels and a handle? Why did it take so long for a boring toothbrush to get a battery?
Examples of such problems are everywhere. The answer is: clearly some people are able to internalize problems and problem-solve in a different way than the rest of us.
First Principles Thinking
If you asked Musk how he accomplishes the things that he does, he’d tell you that he uses first principles reasoning instead of reasoning by analogy (aka copying what others have done in the past).
I can best describe this by tracing his steps throughout his various endeavors.
Let’s consider SpaceX. When Musk underscored the necessity of space travel, making that his “problem,” the first thing he did was try to buy a rocket. He quickly found out that even an old Russian rocket was too expensive, which for most of us would have spelled doom.
Musk, however, considered this question in a more fundamental (I’d say lowest common denominator) point of view, which was this:
Rocket = Raw Materials + Knowledge + Labor
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Well, he added up the cost of raw materials and labor it would take to create his own rocket and realized that it would be drastically less expensive to build one than to buy one. All that was needed was a bit of funding to purchase said materials and the appropriate knowledge. Thus, SpaceX as we know it was born.
Such common sense.
3 Steps in the First Principles Method of Thinking
Step 1 – Identify the Problem
Inefficiency in the banking system was a problem. Enter PayPal. Inefficiency in space travel? SpaceX. Inefficiency in auto transportation? Tesla. Inefficiency in eyesight? Bifocals. Inefficiency in heating? Franklin Stove. You get the point.
Step 2 – Understand the Big Picture
In other words, if you are seeing a tree, focus on the trunk and the largest limbs, not the leaves.
Problem: Rocket is too expensive to buy.
Solution: Negotiate a lower price.
First Principles Solution: Build your own rocket.
In this example, negotiating a lower price is indeed a solution but very fringe, akin to messing with the leaves of the tree. Building your own rocket is attacking the trunk.
Problem: Cars pollute too much and are too slow.
Solution: Fine-tune internal combustion engines to pollute less and be a little faster.
First Principles Solution: Build an electric drive-train, which doesn’t pollute and goes 0 to 60 in under three seconds—because it’s electric.
Do you see what I am saying here?
Step 3 – Do Not Reason by Analogy
You can’t create a new solution to an old problem if you base this solution on what you already know. As advanced as your knowledge may be, it may still be limiting you. You don’t know what you don’t know…
When facing a problem, think like a baby—no skills, no knowledge, no pre-conceived notions. You are starting from scratch each and every time.
Back to the Light That Wasn’t Working
The issue I ran into is that I could not fathom that all four brand new, high-quality, expensive lightbulbs could be defective. My experience told me, no way. I never even considered the possibility. Therefore, I came to a logical but erroneous conclusion that the problem must be the fixture.
Well, just because I’ve never seen it before doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. I relied too much on what I knew and not enough on what I didn’t know, and I missed the proverbial forest for the trees—and that’s the danger in rationalizing by analogy.
I did not envision this article as a real estate piece but more a mindset thing, and yet…
As we ponder the importance of experience in real estate, the easy answer is to say that it is the absolute key—without it, you’re toast. I used to think that.
And then I got wiser.
Clearly, experience means a lot. However, less clearly but equally intellectually, experience honestly isn’t everything. In fact, it can actually get you in trouble.
Finding balance is the key.
What this means to us seasoned guys is that we must always remember that we don’t know what we don’t know. This becomes more and more challenging the more we do know.
And what this means to you, Mr. Newbie, is that if you learn to think the right way, now is as good of a time to start as any! The rest is just noise—even when it comes from yours truly.
Good luck, and try not to make the same mistake I made.
Questions for me about any of the above? Comments?
I’d love to hear from you below.