Cultivating the Skill of Figuring Things Out

There’s a skill I’ve noticed some people possess which, for lack of a better term, I’ll call the ability to figure things out.

Some people are really good at figuring things out. Give them an ambiguous problem and they’ll investigate, try things out, push through frustration and solve it.

Other people are terrible at figuring things out. The slightest hiccup or stall and they give up in protest, or repeat the same failed action again and again, hoping this time it will give the desired result.

What Makes Someone Good at Figuring Things Out?

It’s hard to pick a single example that definitively says whether or not a person has this quality, because some people are good at figuring out some things and not others. Someone may know to turn on and off a computer to fix a glitch, but would be lost if you told them to move to a new city and make friends.

Figuring things out doesn’t simply reduce to ability, although more ability certainly makes it easier to figure things out. I’ve met people, for instance, whose proficiency with a language was objectively higher than mine or Vat’s who would have balked at the idea of relying solely on that language when we did our year without English. Similarly, I’ve met hackers whose knowledge of programming was rudimentary, but could fix problems much better than those with a masters degree.

Similarly, the ability to figure things out isn’t simply a function of intelligence. Some intelligent people naturally display the persistence, resourcefulness and creativity needed to figure things out, while others approach things in a rigid, brittle way.

My best understanding is that the ability to figure things out comes from a combination of things, but most importantly its an attitude one can cultivate and become more effective as a human being.

Why Are Some People Good at Figuring Things Out?

The attitude of figuring things out, from my experience, tends to come from a few places:

  1. A self-confidence that, continued effort, will result in success.
  2. Security in knowing that failure won’t have high costs.
  3. A belief that figuring things out is the correct way forward.
  4. A focus on self-reliance rather than looking for help.

Most of these seem rather obvious, yet I think the fact that we often don’t live up to this attitude that these factors may not be in place.

Let’s look at each of them, briefly.

1. Self-Confidence in Success

The first quality needed is self-confidence that continued effort will result in success. This can be undermined if one’s experience with a domain is that continued effort does not result in success, or that failure is often enough that it isn’t worth the investment.

I think, for many of us, this belief forms for some domains early. We learn that we’re not good with computers, relationships, languages or math. When we apply effort, it results in disappointment, so the best strategy is to actively avoid this area.

This results in a kind of learned helplessness, which even though it is counterproductive, becomes the default behavior for us.

To become good at figuring things out, this barrier needs to be pushed through, so that success results often enough that fear and aversion aren’t the emotional reactions associated.

2. Low-Cost Mistakes

The second quality is believing that persistence and experimentation won’t be punished. If you believe that talking to strangers might result in being abducted, that trying to fix your computer will erase all your files, that speaking a new language will be met with scorn or that trying to fix a light switch will result in electrocution, you won’t be good at figuring things out.

What’s interesting here is that although the price of the mistakes tends to be a function of the environment, there are wide divergences in the actual willingness of people to figure things out. This implies that peoples beliefs about the environment, and the risks of mistakes, are also out of sync.

Certainly some areas demand caution from everyone—I wouldn’t want my surgeon to just “figure things out” without knowing medicine. But, lowering the perceived risk—through minimal training, experience or simply questioning this assumption about life—might flip some people to be more willing to try things out.

3. Figuring Things Out Makes Sense

In some problem types, figuring things out isn’t not the preferred strategy. This is often the case in formal problems where there’s only one expected solution, and to do something unusual, even if it works, will likely result in failure.

This quality tends to happen in more formal environments, such as working in big corporations, government or school, and I think this is why many people shrink away from trying to figure things out. We’ve been overly exposed to these unusual environments where there’s only a single valid solution, and working, but “incorrect” solutions are frowned upon or punished.

The irony here is that many disciplines that rely on formal training require large amounts of figuring things out at the level of practice. Learning math in school is often a process of matching the exact solution to the exact problem, with any deviation being incorrect. Practicing math involves the process of figuring things out, experimentation and thinking.

4. Self-Reliance

A final component in figuring things out is self-reliance. Many people learn that a more effective procedure for solving a problem involves asking for help. On its face, there’s nothing wrong with this. I’m certainly happy to have many skilled jobs be done by professionals rather than do it myself.

However, whenever you get someone else to do something for you, there is a lost opportunity to learn it yourself. While this is probably useful to some extent, it can create a rigid mentality that certain domains are impossible for you to learn, because of the habit of seeking help immediately when there is a problem.

I don’t know what the exact balance of delegating to self-reliance is, and certainly it will vary from person to person. But I don’t think this calculation is done deliberately for most people. Instead, whatever skills they happened to cultivate early become the things they “can” do, and those they learned to delegate or ask help on become the things they “can’t”. Informal observation suggests many people might benefit from reorganizing some of these categories, even though they don’t.

How to Get Better at Figuring Things Out

Looking at these above qualities, it suggests a few ways that one could get better at figuring things out.

First, you need to build confidence. Confidence doesn’t start all at once, so it needs to begin with simpler problems more likely to produce success. Don’t try building a house from scratch, start with trying to fix your toilet. Don’t aim for fluency, try ordering food in a restaurant.

Second, you need an environment that doesn’t overly punish mistakes. If what you’re doing is potentially costly or dangerous, you might want some practice or training in a safer environment first. Often a little training can make you aware enough of how to avoid the costs and make figuring things out a possibility.

Third, figuring things out needs to feel like the right way forward. If you feel you need the “correct” answer before moving forward, you won’t make progress.

Finally, you need to convince yourself you can actually do it and want to be able to figure things out in this area.

My sense is that while figuring things out is sometimes tied to specific areas, cultivating the more general tendency to figure things out is something you can do. The more you apply this approach, the more likely you’ll apply it in the future. So even if it isn’t strictly necessary for you to fix your own computer, repair your toilet or learn how stocks work, the attitude will serve you when you’re faced with other problems in life.

  • As Marie Forleo says, “Everything is figure-outable.” Great insights on increasing your skill for figuring things out. Definitely feeling something isn’t worth figuring out could be the biggest hurdle to overcome to figuring things out, or that you can’t. Necessity is the mother of invention.

  • aligncenterdotorg

    This has me think of the backpacker example — how some people can be dropped off in the middle of a foreign city with only their backpack, not speaking the language, but being confident that they can find a hostel, navigate around and feel comfortable that they will figure things out and enjoy their adventure. I’ve used the term “having agency” for this concept, but the definition is fuzzy. From Wikipedia: “the power to influence their own actions to produce certain results”.

  • MikeT29

    There are probably a bunch of factors at play here, including the ones you mentioned. One I’d add is “tolerance for ambiguity.” Some people are just not comfortable moving forward when the right answer/path is not known. This may be an inborn personality characteristic, but even if it isn’t I think our education system reinforces low ambiguity tolerance. Think how a typical class is taught, starting in elementary school. The teacher covers some topic and then assigns homework which involves applying what was taught.

  • Zahrane Mehdi

    I agree with you, education is a big factor that concerns confidence and the abiliyy to figure things out, instead of teaching kids how to think, they teach them on what to think.

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