Imagine that you are MacGyver and facing the following life and death situation. You are locked in a room that is slowly being flooded with water. Your only escape is through a door to your right side. However, this door requires a very unique key in the shape of a lying 8 in order for it to be opened.

You look around and can’t find this key anywhere. Luckily, you notice that there are some materials lying around which could help you in this endeavor. After all, you are Angus MacGyver and once managed to escape a burning room just by using a bar of soap on a rope and a paperclip. This should not be a problem.

What you have available is a candle, a match, and two steel rings about the size of the keyhole. First off, you try to find out whether you can put the two steel rings into the keyhole separately, but unfortunately, they do not hold and therefore don’t open the door. You immediately surmise that what you need to do is to join the steel rings together, so that they can open the door. However, how to do this?

The next thing that you try is to melt the wax on the candle and make the two steel rings stick together. Try as you want, this just doesn’t work. Panic sets in, the water is rising fast and you still haven’t managed to find a solution to your problem. However, you have been in these types of situations before. No reason to panic yet. You decide to take a step back and start thinking with a clear head.

Luckily, in your mind, you have an arsenal of problem-solving techniques and one of these is called the generic parts technique. This method helps you to break down a problem into its constituent parts and to start thinking using first principles. All you need to do is to ask yourself two simple questions:

  1. Can it be broken down further?
  2. Does my description of the object imply a use?

Using these two questions, you have another look at the objects that you have in front of you. Can they be broken down further? Yes, they can. For example, the candle is made up of wax and a wick.

This still doesn’t get you anywhere, so you proceed onto asking yourself the next question. Does my description of these objects imply a use? Yes, using the term “wick” gets you thinking back to candles. However, then you try to go more generic: in reality, a wick is just a string.

Heureka! You solved the problem. You take the wick out of the candle and tie the two steel rings together. They hold, which allows you to simulate a key, put it into the keyhole and open the door. MacGyver does it again! Granted this escape was not as spectacular as the time when you duck-taped your ass to a sled and used natural gas to power yourself up a hill, but it was cool nevertheless.

MacGyver: Made myself a rocket out of paper-mache and a glow stick

Your brain can sometimes fail you

The generic parts technique is not only useful when you need to get out of a life and death situation, but also at times when you just need to rethink a problem from a different perspective. Elon Musk uses a technique called first principles thinking when he solves problems, and the generic parts technique is one way of stripping down problems to their most basic constituent parts.

One reason why it is hard to think in first principles is that your brain is structured in a way as to prevent you from doing so. This is called the Einstellung effect. Your brain tries to be as efficient as possible and that’s why it developed certain ways of doing things that promote a fast response. With the Einstellung effect, you learn one way of doing things and apply it all the time. This is fast and often very effective.

However, this type of mechanism also has the tendency to fall for the to hammers everything looks like a nail effect. If you are a hammers and nails type of person, then you use one true and tested strategy, and can’t even fathom that there might be more effective ways of doing that same thing.

The way this work was demonstrated by psychologist Abraham Luchins in an iconic experiment in the 1940s. Luchins formed two groups of people. Both groups were given 3 jugs of water of different sizes (jug A could hold 21 units of water, jug B 127 units, jug C 3 units) and asked to solve problems using these jugs. The idea was them to use these 3 jugs in order to measure out certain amounts of water. The difference between the two groups was that while the second group waited, the first group was asked to solve five practice problems beforehand.

The trick is that all the practice problems had the same solution. The way of solving all of them was to fill up jug B to its limits, then pour out some of that water into jug A, fill it up to the brim, and then fill up jug C twice. This is how the solution looks in mathematical notation: B − A − 2C.

So when the two groups started doing the real part of the experiment, the first group had already fixated in its head that the above method was the best way of solving all the problems. Most of them proceeded onto applying this solution to all the problems that they encountered.

However, the thing was that this was not always the best method of solving the problems that they were given. At times, shorter solutions such as A-C were much more efficient. The second group, the one that had not been hampered by the practice problems, was able to find these easier solutions, while the first group struggled to.

How you can use the generic parts technique to solve your own problems

What happens when a person with a hammer treats everything as a nail, is that they are hamstrung by the Einstellung effect. They apply the same method to solve all the different problems, even if there are better ways of solving them. Sometimes, this effect even hampers people from seeing a solution that is in plain sight.

This is when the generic parts technique can come in handy. It can help you to solve problems when traditional solutions failed. Using this technique, you can disentangle your usual definition of a hammer as something that beats up nails. Go ahead, think about it.

What other ways can you use a hammer? Can it be broken down further and does your description of it imply a use? Well, for starters, a hammer is just a heavy thing, so you can use it as a paperweight! A hammer is a sharp object, so you can use it as a weapon. A hammer is a regular object, so you can use it to measure things. Heck, when needed, you can even use it to scratch your back!

Elon Musk: Using MacGyver’s paper-mache solution to send rockets to Mars

First-principles thinking

The generic parts technique is one way of getting around your brain’s traditional way of thinking in order to be able to apply the first principles thinking method of Elon Musk. It can be useful when you want to MacGyver your way out of a tight spot, but also when you want to change the world with a new product. The key to its use is to know when to use it, and when not to, and as always that comes with practice.

First principles thinking was used when someone completely changed the way things were done. For example, why not use steam in order to power your vehicles? This not only changed the way people transported things from one place to another, but also changed the way society functioned completely, starting off the Industrial Revolution.

However, most of the time you don’t need to come up with a new way of doing things. Often, the old way of doing things is much more efficient. That’s why your brain is set up in such a way as to promote old and tested ways of doing things. A lot of times reuse of old techniques, thinking by analogies, will be the best way to solve a problem.

Problem-solving and innovation are often accompanied by a process of trial and error, where you try one way of doing things, only to fail, but get back up again, learn from this setback, and then try a new way of doing things. It is important to not be phased when things are not working out, but instead to continue on your path. Through practice, you will become much better, even at knowing when to apply which method.


Note: This article appeared first on the Startup publication on Medium: here.

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