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Here’s a way to approach any technical problem.

Piranha Method

I’ll show you what I mean. Say you ask me to deliver a pizza to your house. My next step is not at all clear. I don’t know what kind, when you want it, where you live or how to make a pizza. So instead of throwing up my hands in despair, I focus on one part of the problem, take out my trusty pen and write down a very specific question on the back of an old receipt: “At what time would you like this pizza delivered?” Now I have a toehold. I know how to figure out the answer to this. I text you and ask, and you answer 8:30pm. Great. Now I can move on to the next question and the next.

Snowdrift Paducah

The act of asking a sharp question is a powerful one. It moves you forward toward solving your problem. It requires initiative and is often overlooked. The alternative is getting stuck, a situation we are all familiar with. Questions are your Sword of Alexander to cut the Gordian Knot. They are your snow shovel for getting out of the drift. They are your superjump to get out of the pit.

Stipula fountain pen

Writing the question down is an important step. The act of writing shows how crisp our understanding really is. It usually is not as crisp as we would like to believe. Making us aware of this gap helps us close it. I’ve actually found that just putting pen to paper alone is sometimes enough to help me see the answer to my question.

Piranha fish

You may have to to run through the question loop many times to finish a problem. Because each question is very specific, it tends to address just a small part of the problem. The visual image this inspires for me is a piranha eating a wildebeest. Each bite is very effective, but it’s small. It can take some persistence and patience to digest the whole problem.

The Piranha Method can be applied to problems big and small. I’ve used it in artificial intelligence research, dealing with challenges that span psychology, neuroscience, philosophy and computing. And I’ve also used it to figure out how to write a print statement in PHP.

I hope you find it as helpful as I have. If you try it, let me know how it works. If you figure out something that works better, I’d love to hear that too!

Caveat: The Piranha Method still in beta for non-technical problems, such as deciding what to get a significant other for their birthday. Use at your own risk.