Well-Defined vs. Ill-Defined Problems
In high school, I played a lot of competitive sports. Every year, I would play for the school soccer team in the fall, and the tennis team in the spring. In my last year, I also tried rowing. The thing I loved most about sports was how directly my effort in practice and games translated into success. It was clear: the harder I ran and the more I focused, the better I played. Effort was so important that no other factors seemed to play a role in my performance. Nutrition, physical health, and the quality of the opposition, all didn’t make much of a difference. It seemed to all come down to effort level.
I came across the same phenomenon in academics. Spending more time and effort on homework and projects resulted in higher marks. Like in sports, there seemed to be no other factors. Strategies such as getting friends to look over my work, and experimenting with different work habits had little effect on the marks I got. I extrapolated this pattern to hold true in all areas of life. I believed so strongly that hard work was the dominant factor in life success, however you define it, that I would heatedly argue with my classmates about it. I distinctly remember once trying to convince my entire math class that hard work is the dominant predictor of success in all areas of life.
The older I get, the more I notice this approach failing me. It just so happened that all of the things I cared about in high school were all very similar in one specific way: they were very well defined problems. Let’s take soccer, for example. Soccer is well defined because its rules are constant. The process of becoming an excellent soccer player is easy to describe. All one has to do is master the well-defined skills required: passing, shooting, dribbling, and team chemistry. Is it difficult to master those skills? Sure. But can one do it with enough effort? Almost certainly.
There exists another class of problems: those, which are ill defined. Ill-defined means that rules may or may not exist, and nobody tells you whether they do, or what they are. You have to figure all that out for yourself. I am encountering more of these types of problems in adult life than when I was younger. What courses should I sign up for? What company should I work for, if any? Nobody can answer these questions for me.
A notable example of this class of problems is entrepreneurship. An entrepreneur can enter any market she wishes with any product she can develop. Her competitors may respond in an infinite number of ways, and she can only guess how her customers will react. If the entrepreneur doesn’t understand her market, she may build a solution to a problem that her market doesn’t have. So, for every unit of effort that the entrepreneur puts into moving the company forward, she must also dedicate a unit of time into understanding the rules of the market, and deciding which way forward is. This extra work is a sort of overhead, which is intrinsic in ill-defined problems, but not in well-defined problems.
To perform well in well-defined problems, it is favorable to focus inwardly. In order to put in the huge amount of practice required to excel in a well-defined domain, one needs to be inward focused in order to ignore distractions. The problem is already well defined. All that remains is to execute well within that definition, and that takes practice. If a chess player became too interested in what her peers did in their free time, she would lose the focus required to put the countless hours required into her craft. The same is obviously true in sports. This is why chess players are often less social than average and successful athletes tend to be self-centered.
In ill-defined problems, focusing outwardly on the world is greatly favorable, since deciding what to do is arguably more important than how well you do it. In such problems, it is important to spend time talking to others, reading books, and trying to understand the external world. How does an inward focused person become more outward focused? I believe the answer may be as simple as exhibiting more humility. If the self becomes relatively less important, then by definition, the exterior becomes more important. With humility comes an increased interest in others and external events. It is no surprise, then, that so many entrepreneurs and businessmen are extroverted.