Thursday, January 14, 2016

How to Tackle Large Problems: Pirsig's "First Brick" Principle

In order to set the scene here, I am going to have to quote a rather long passage from Robert M. Pirsig's amazing novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  It is, in fact, my favorite passage in the book.

He’d been innovating extensively. He’d been having trouble with students who had nothing to say. At first he thought it was laziness but later it became apparent that it wasn’t. They just couldn’t think of anything to say.

One of them, a girl with strong-lensed glasses, wanted to write a five-hundred-word essay about the United States. He was used to the sinking feeling that comes from statements like this, and suggested without disparagement that she narrow it down to just Bozeman.

When the paper came due she didn’t have it and was quite upset. She had tried and tried but she just couldn’t think of anything to say.

He had already discussed her with her previous instructors and they’d confirmed his impressions of her. She was very serious, disciplined and hardworking, but extremely dull. Not a spark of creativity in her anywhere. Her eyes, behind the thick-lensed glasses, were the eyes of a drudge. She wasn’t bluffing him, she really couldn’t think of anything to say, and was upset by her inability to do as she was told.

It just stumped him. Now he couldn’t think of anything to say. A silence occurred, and then a peculiar answer: "Narrow it down to the main street of Bozeman." It was a stroke of insight.

She nodded dutifully and went out. But just before her next class she came back in real distress, tears this time, distress that had obviously been there for a long time. She still couldn’t think of anything to say, and couldn’t understand why, if she couldn’t think of anything about all of Bozeman, she should be able to think of something about just one street.

He was furious. "You’re not looking!" he said. A memory came back of his own dismissal from the University for having too much to say. For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses. The more you look the more you see. She really wasn’t looking and yet somehow didn’t understand this.

He told her angrily, "Narrow it down to the front of one building on the main street of Bozeman. The Opera House. Start with the upper left-hand brick."

Her eyes, behind the thick-lensed glasses, opened wide. She came in the next class with a puzzled look and handed him a fivethousand-word essay on the front of the Opera House on the main street of Bozeman, Montana. "I sat in the hamburger stand across the street," she said, "and started writing about the first brick, and the second brick, and then by the third brick it all started to come and I couldn’t stop. They thought I was crazy, and they kept kidding me, but here it all is. I don’t understand it."

I propose to you that this is the exact strategy that one must follow in attempting to tackle any of the world's ridiculously huge problems.  It works on smaller problems as well.

If you are trying to do something about World Hunger, you have an enormous problem on your hand.  It is large enough to immobilize you.  But you can find the nearest hungry person and give him or her one meal.

If you are trying to end the murderous practice of Abortion, it is going to seem impossibly large.  It stops you in your tracks.  But you can adopt one (supposedly!) unwanted child, and give lie to all the rhetoric of the pro-Abortion camp.

Perhaps you are one-hundred pounds overweight.  It seems a hopelessly difficult problem.  But you can go to the gym and do some modest amount of exercise ... just today ... just that upper left-hand brick.  Just that one brick.