Think Small to Solve Big Problems

Stephen J. Dubner: One argument that we make is that we could all benefit a little bit from thinking more like children, okay. Now you could say well, we're -- first of all everybody's biased in a lot of ways and we have our set of biases too. It may be that we embrace the idea in this book of thinking like children because we're kind of, you know, childlike. We have kind of obvious observations sometimes. There's observations that strike people as obvious. We ask a lot of questions that are not considered, you know, the kind of questions that people ask in good company or smart company. But one of the most powerful pieces of thinking like a child that we argue is thinking small. So I realize that this runs exactly counter to the philosophy of the arena in which I'm appearing which is thinking big, Big Think, but our argument is this. Big problems are by their nature really hard to solve for a variety of reasons. One is they're large and therefore they include a lot of people and therefore they include a lot of crossed and often mangled and perverse incentives.

But also a big problem -- when you think about a big problem like the education reform. You're dealing with an institution or set of institutions that have gotten to where they've gotten to this many, many years of calcification and also accidents of history. What I mean by that is things have gotten the way they've gotten because of a lot of things a few people did many, many years ago and traditions were carried on. And now to suddenly change that would mean changing the entire stream of the way that this institution has functioned for many years. Therefore, attacking any big problem is bound to be really hard and the danger is you spend a lot of resources -- time, money, manpower, optimism which is perhaps one of our most precious resources attacking a problem that you can't make any headway on. So I mean, you know, history is littered with brilliant people who have attacked large problems in the past half century, century among them famine, among them poverty and most recently I think education reform, a healthy diet and so on. So these are all really big problems.

So our argument is -- you know what? There's a lot of people out there thinking big. Maybe some of them will be successful. Probably not so many honestly. It's very, very hard. Our argument is -- you know what? Let the people who are gonna try to think big solve big problems -- let them go. There's enough people doing that. Why don't you just try to think small. Why don't you try to find one piece of the problem that you can identify and peel it off and try to solve that problem or answer that question. So there are a lot of reasons why it's better to do that. It's easier to satisfactorily answer a small question or solve a big problem because you can get the data, you can understand the incentives, it's just inherently much less complicated. If you can come up with a solution to a small problem there's a much better chance you'll actually be able to get it done. A lot of people feel like they come up with the answers to big problems but then you need to get all the political and capital will to do it. And that can be much harder than actually solving the problem.

So if you can peel off a small piece of a problem and then someone else peels off another small piece and you add them up, you're constantly, you know, working toward a better place. So I'll give you an example. If you think about, let's say, education reform. Even that very phrase is kind of weighted or biased toward the supply side, the schools. It's basically saying that oh, all the kids and the families who are sending their kids to school -- they're all doing exactly the right thing. But education needs to be reformed because plainly the schools and teachers and principals, they're the bad people. So that's kind of an assumption already about where the problem should be solved. So you think, you know, people have been talking about the many, many inputs that go into education -- class size, technology in the classroom, resources spent, curricula -- the way the curricula are taught and so on.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton

Stephen Dubner talks about the importance of thinking small in order to tackle some of the world's biggest problems piece by piece. Dubner is the co-author of Think Like a Freak (http://goo.gl/LVlHtk).

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