Stuck is the default state

Being stuck on a problem is the commonest trouble of all. It’s the default state, the starting point. It’s a sign you found something worth solving.

Image credits: Steve Johnson

There’s a passage in Robert Pirsig’s modern classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where Pirsig is helping his son Chris write a letter. Chris doesn’t know where to start. He is stuck.

Pirsig tells him that “getting stuck is the commonest trouble of all.

Being stuck is more than common; it’s the default state, the starting point of everything new. Once faced with a new problem, we are inevitably stuck because we don’t know how to solve it yet.

If you never get stuck, you must always know what’s the next step to take. But if that’s the case, you are likely working on something too easy or of little value. That’s not a problem per se, but if that’s what every day looks like, your career will be pretty boring.

Being stuck is okay. In fact, you need to become comfortable with the feeling of being stuck. Take getting stuck as a signal you found something worth working on. When that happens, roll up your sleeves and grab a cup of your favorite beverage because you might need to sit with the problem for a while before making real progress.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear compares making progress to melting ice. Imagine a block of ice in a room below 0 degrees Celsius, say at -5. You raise the temperature to -4, -3, -2, … yet the ice is still solid, with no water drop in sight. Only once you reach 0 degrees, and only if you keep providing energy in the form of heat to cross the latent heat barrier, the ice will turn to liquid water.

Getting unstuck is like melting ice. You need to keep throwing metal energy at the problem. It might look like nothing is happening until… there it is, your breakthrough!

There are various ways to get unstuck, too many to fit in this post. One worth sharing is the one Pirsig suggests to his son.

Usually, I say, your mind gets stuck when you’re trying to do too many things at once.
What you have to do is try not to force words to come.
That just gets you more stuck.
What you have to do now is separate out the things and do them one at a time.
You’re trying to think of what to say and what to say first at the same time and that’s too hard.
So separate them out.
Just make a list of all the things you want to say in any old order.
Then later we’ll figure out the right order.

In Test-Driven Development in Swift, I called this approach partition problem and solve sequentially. Pirsig separates the problem of content from that of order. I suggested separating the task of getting the code to run from that of writing “beautiful” code. The point is the same: To get unstuck, decompose a problem into smaller pieces until you find one that seems tractable.

There is a difference between being stuck and being still.

It’s okay to be stuck on a problem, but you shouldn’t stay still. Keep trying. Keep raising the cognitive room temperature until you reach the breakthrough melting point.

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