The Manxome Foe
At work, for the past week or so, I've been wrestling with a complicated-ish thing, born of a conversation over lunch about something completely different, and taking me deep into some statistics and algebra that I don't really understand (yet). It's awesome.
But (more than once), I've been explaining the thing to someone, and had them offer helpful advice: "Isn't this problem basically [this simpler thing]?" My response has consistently been along the lines of "No, of course not! Can't you see that it's obviously more complicated than that?" I even had a version of this exchange with myself recently, where I thought for a moment that it was actually trivial after all, and then (with some relief) reminded myself that it was, in fact, hard. Whew, what a relief.
...except that, if the point was actually to solve problems in the world, that's entirely the wrong attitude to take. This problem either:
- actually isn't complex, in which case rooting for it to be harder is pretty useless
- actually is complex, in which case rooting for it to be even harder is pretty useless
This isn't academia, where pretending that the problem you've got a solution to is actually Really Quite Hard is a good thing, since you can then wow people by solving it. I'd like to think that I'm in the business of actually solving problems -- and to do that, I can't take sides on whether it's hard or easy. Either way, the only thing to be done is to do it. If it's easy, do it fast and get something harder.
Now, it's true that discretion is the better part of valor, and so having an idea of the scope of the problem you're solving is sometimes a good idea, in order to either: (1) bolster the confidence to "just do" something that's actually easy, (2) resist discouragement in the face of a hard problem, or (3) know when to give up on something that's impossible or not worth your time.
But there's a difference between knowing the difference between the bunny slope and the black diamond, and actively resisting challenges to your opinion that "this problem is worth working on because it's hard". Maybe it is, maybe it isn't; either way, the best response is to rely on the evidence that tells you so, react accordingly, and not take it personally either way. It's not as if anyone will judge me for accidentally tilting at a windmill (and then seeing my error and walking away...), but there's no surer way to get backed into a corner of irrelevance than by fighting a rearguard action against the truth. (quote: EY)
I'm reminded of the Litany of Tarski, written for rationalists, which is really to say, all free-inquirers:
If the sky is blue,
I desire to believe that the sky is blue.
If the sky is not blue
I desire to believe that the sky is not blue.
Let me not become attached to beliefs I may not want.
Of course, Tarski's Litany is really a fill-in-the-blanks device, and so the relevant version here is more like:
If my foe is manxome, I desire to believe that it is manxome. If my foe is not manxome, I desire to believe that it is not manxome. Let me not become attached to beliefs I may not want.