How to Solve Any Problem I teach a course on decision analysis to undergraduate and graduate students, with the majority of them concentrating their studies in engineering, psychology or economics. Typically, very few of them consider themselves artists. At the start of a semester, when I ask my new students whether they can draw this image of Brad Pitt, I mean a near flawless replica of the photo, the overwhelming majority respond with a resounding, “No”. Some claim they don’t possess the artistic gene, while others concede that with enough training, they probably could do it.
The truth is, I can teach just about anyone to draw a near perfect replica of this photo in a matter of seconds. It doesn’t require a particular genetic gift or the development of a physical skill. The problem isn’t one of artistry, but of decision making.
For so long, we have defined creativity as an ability to devise something representative, perhaps even functional, out of abstraction. Thinking creatively, or creative problem solving is often described as thinking “outside the box”, which in itself, is an abstract concept. It begs the questions, what is the box, who made it and how?
The answer is, the box is actually a frame, constructed by you as a function of all the information you’ve gathered leading up to this moment, and how you went about gathering it. In observing how others behave, solve problems, and gather their own data, you build the foundation of your framework. The way it is delivered to you, complete with the biases possessed by the people who have conveyed it, affects the frame through which all new information is considered, and problems are approached. Therefore, there is no one box, but rather a unique box assembled by each and every one of us, for ourselves. You can’t think outside your own box, but rather the box of someone else. In order for me to teach you how to draw a perfect replica of Brad’s image, I don’t need to teach you a new physical skill. Instead, I must reframe the problem for you. By doing that, your frame expands, allowing you to solve it for yourself.
When I ask my students, “Can you create a near perfect replica of this image, where each box contains a solid pigment?”, with great confidence, they giggle and answer emphatically, “Yes!”.
Well, this second image is a portion of Mr. Pitt’s eyeball, arguably the most difficult aspect to replicate, as seen when the original photo is viewed at 30x zoom. If you believe with great confidence that you can replicate the most difficult part of the photo, it must follow that you can do the same for all the other segments. Therefore, you must be able to replicate the photo in its entirety. The same goes for any problem you face, whether it is how to lose weight, gather more assets or generate better returns. Simply by reframing the problem, new solutions, often obvious ones will suddenly appear, seemingly out of thin air. In that moment, your frame expands. With this new solution lying firmly within the bounds of your new frame, and certainly well within your skillset, it becomes impossible to understand how you missed such an apparent solution.
PS I’m often asked what I discuss with clients in a typical coaching session. Well, this piece should give you an idea. While other coaches give instruction on how to hold the pencil “properly” or provide additional photos of Brad Pitt as seen from different angles, we use cognitive science to help our clients expand their frame, allowing them to better capitalize on the skills they already possess. Whether you are looking to improve how you gather information, form views, develop strategies, structure trades & portfolios, size positions, manage risk, allocate capital, assess managers, or even lose weight, Bija’s proven, proprietary approach to decision making can help. It’s not psychology, it’s decision analysis, and it affects everything.
About the Author For nearly thirty years, Stephen Duneier has applied cognitive science to institutional investment management. The result has been career best returns for experienced portfolio managers who have adopted his methods, the turnaround of numerous global trading businesses, the development of an award-winning $1.25 billion dollar hedge fund and 20.3% average annualized returns as a global macro portfolio manager.
As a speaker, Stephen has delivered informative and inspirational talks to audiences around the world for more than 20 years on topics including global macro economic themes, how cognitive science can improve performance and the keys to living a more deliberate life. Each is delivered via highly entertaining stories that inevitably lead to further conversation, and ultimately, better results.
Stephen Duneier was formerly Global Head of Currency Option Trading at Bank of America and Managing Director of Emerging Markets at AIG International. His artwork has been featured in international publications and on television programs around the world, and is represented by the world renowned gallery, Sullivan Goss. He received his master's degree in finance and economics from New York University's Stern School of Business.
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