In the movie Redbelt, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Mike Terry, a Jiu Jitsu instructor who will fight but will not compete. He will fight in a real fight if necessary, but he won’t fight in a ring because competitions have arbitrary rules. He is a skilled fighter because he is creative, and competitions take away that creativity. At one point in the movie, someone Terry if he teaches people to win. He says no, he teaches people to prevail. In his mind, you can’t “win” a fight. A fight is a problem to be solved.
Mike Terry’s distinction between fights and contests makes me think of the distinction between practical and academic problem solving. Practical problem solving does not have arbitrary constraints whereas academic problems often do: you can use this technique but not that one, you can use this reference but not that one, etc. These academic limitations serve a purpose in their context, but sometimes we can imagine these constraints are still on us after we leave the classroom.
Sometimes we’ll struggle mightily to solve a problem analytically that could be easily be solved numerically (or vice versa). Or we’ll imagine that a problem must be solved using a particular programming language even though it could be done more easily using a different language. It feels like “cheating” to go for the easier solution. But if you’re not in an academic setting, you can’t “cheat.” (Of course I’m not talking about violating ethical standards to solve a problem, only dismissing artificial restrictions. Where there is no law, there is no sin.)
There may be good reasons for pursuing the more difficult solution, such as entertainment value. But often we do things the hard way for no good reason other than not having examined our self-imposed limitations. Maybe we’re trying to win rather than solve the problem.
Related post: Try the simplest thing that could possibly work