The feeling of percolating on stubborn problems

19.33, Tuesday 19 Jan 2021

I wonder what’s going on in my head while I’m trying to figure out a problem.

I’ve been in venture building and strategy for a few months (the gig wraps up at the end of this month). Working to understand whole new-to-me sectors, and disruption dynamics, and client capabilities, all well enough to figure out good entry points.

Periodically, everything gets stuck in my head. I can’t write, can’t make slides, and I can barely articulate what’s interesting about the area. I can plod through a description, but the “why” and “what for” escapes me, and questions leave me stumped.

This lasts for 2 or 3 days. During which time it’s hard to focus on other tasks, I’m mildly short tempered, my to-do list goes untended, etc. Nothing major, just like there’s something occupying 30% of my CPU, if you know what I mean? And then…

Out of nowhere, the entire thing pops into my head. The key goals, a structured articulation of the market and how it’s evolving, recommended next steps, and all in the form of a top-to-bottom narrative. The deck outline comes out of my hands like automatic writing.

It’s not perfect, obviously. It gets presented, tweaked, reordered… It improves mainly through attempting to present it, and getting feedback through conversation. Until the point comes that it’s too brittle: I can see that it’s broken, but I can’t see how to incorporate obviously correct feedback. That’s the point that this deck (or mental model, or narrative) is redundant and it’s time to move onto the next stage, whatever that is.

But what’s going on in that 2 days?

What is this “background processing” feeling?

How come it’s a black box?

Other people I’ve asked share this. But what’s happening, brain-wise?


It’s like this for every project I’ve ever worked on.

(The first time I specifically remember this happening was figuring out an approach to a tricky differentiation in a physics problem that had been bothering me. The whole solution popped into my head unbidden on the dance floor at Downtown Manhattan on George St.)

There are ways to move things along. Talking helps. Going back to first principles helps: asking why, researching, writing down what I know in the plainest possible language. Writing down what I don’t know works. For really stubborn problems: running; hot showers.

But still the feeling of percolation. Like there’s a sub-mind allocated to the problem, one that has access to everything I know yet sits outside my personal experience of self, and all I can do - all I need to do - is wait.

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