Monthly Archives: January 2015

The most elegant solutions eliminate variables

It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.      – Albert Einstein

When I first started learning programming (a very long time ago), I came across an exercise which seems simple enough. If you had three variables – say A, B and C – and you had to interchange the values of A and B, how would you do so? Well, the solution to this is simple – you use the variable C as a temporary store for one of the variables and then interchange the values like such:

  1. C = A
  2. A = B
  3. B = C

Easy enough, right? Simple! But is that the most elegant solution to the problem? Let me frame the problem a little bit differently – what if we had to interchange the values of A and B – but without the luxury of having a third variable (C)? For the sake of argument, let’s just say each variable comes at a cost of $1000 – so I am incentivized to make do with the least number of variables. Now it is a bit more interesting – challenging even. If we give this some thought, the solution we come up with would be:

  1. A = A + B
  2. B = A – B
  3. A = A – B

Go ahead and try that out on a piece of paper with some values for A and B. It is elegant and it is frugal. It eliminates an unnecessary variable. And it works!

Why is this important – or relevant? In our lives and careers we often come across many challenges and problems that need solutions. Often times there are a lot of variables that are unknowns (or uncertain) – and these form the foundation of risk. Risk, if not mitigated, leads to issues – which if not resolved can lead to failed solutions.

The challenge then is to determine how one could approach the problem so that the chance of failure is minimized. Working backwards, one could postulate that, all other things being equal, failure could be minimized by minimizing the number of issues – which could themselves be minimized by mitigating risks appropriately. But the heart – the very root – of the matter is the risk itself – which can be reduced or eliminated by the elimination of as many variables as possible. This may not always be obvious – or easy, as our example illustrates – but we should expect nothing less of the work required to get to an elegant design.

Nothing is devoid of risk. And variables, unknowns and uncertainties will always exist – whether we like it or not. But by devising innovative solutions that eliminate variables, we come to the most elegant approach to solving the problem. And such solutions stand the test of time – because simplicity exudes beauty.

To paraphrase Einstein’s wisdom: Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

So the next time you design solutions for a problem with many uncertainties, ask yourself what variables can you truly eliminate wile still solving the problem. I assure you the answer will be the most elegant, and the most satisfying.

Shakespeare’s Advice On Entrepreneurship and Seizing Opportunities

To be, or not to be? That is the question –
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them?
– Shakespeare (Hamlet – Act 3, Scene1)
As an entrepreneur, this extract from Hamlet’s (oft quoted) soliloquy resonates deeply with me. Whether we chose to address a massive pain that exists, and through innovation and perseverance, solve it comes down to a matter of choice.
Far too many of us (and until last year, I counted myself among this group) choose to work for organizations wherein we may be making a difference, but remain bound by the unjust, and often times ineffective, nature of the work that such endeavor entails. Our fortunes – be they good, bad or indifferent – are tied to the fortunes of the organization and at the mercy of the people who govern it. One’s own passions often times lay discarded on the side of a road that we plod along in the name of making a living.
The choice then is do we make a living or do we make a difference. Do we choose to pursue our passions and create something of enduring value, or do we play a small part in a big machine that may solve problems that don’t resonate with our vision. Do we choose the safe path – or beat our own.
Undoubtedly these are not easy questions to address. Doing what is easy, is easy – it is the path of least resistance. Not rocking the boat, etc. Taking a risk is more difficult. It requires the courage to face your fears – which in the end is your biggest enemy. I do not want to come across as being judging or portray myself, or entrepreneurs in general, as being somehow better. There is nobility in a job – any job – being done well. And for some, that is enough. But I think there is joy – and greatness – in leaving the world in a fundamentally better state because you chose to pursue your passions and make a difference. Or at least trying your hardest to do so. And if you fail in so doing, you will have overcome your fears and learned and progressed as a human being far more than if you had stayed on the well trodden path.
We need to make the most of the opportunities that we have. Having fear prevent us from making the leap – and making a difference – is a cost we can ill afford. To emphasize, I will quote the bard again:
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
– Shakespeare (Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3)
Think about this for a moment. Internalize it. And then ask yourself the question – am I pursuing my passion and doing meaningful work that helps address my own desires and vision? Am I happy now, or will I be happier if…
Your move.

Hello 2015!

Wow – I had thought that I would be posting my first post of the year within the first week of the year. I guess I need to be more disciplined around writing here…

In any case – I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season and is gearing up for the new year. I started the new year with some work related travel to Shanghai, China. It involved very long hours – and hence I did not have the time to write a post.

I have restrained myself from creating new year’s resolutions this year – I figure it is arbitrary to just start something because a new year has begun. In fact, late last year I started doing a lot of the things that I would have set up as resolutions. Some of these include regular exercise (I broadened my scope from running – to exercise), staying in touch more with family & friends (I now just schedule calls on my calendar), maintaining a journal (see my post about DayOne and DO Journal) and reading more (got myself a new iPad – which should help)…

I am going to work on just organically creating and sticking to new habits – and not beat myself up if I do not achieve all of the goals I set for myself. Keeping at it until it forms a habit is what’s important. Where possible I use technology to help – Lift (or as is its new name – for habits, DayOne and DO Journal for journaling, iSmoothRun to track my runs, MyFitnessPal to track my food habits and so on. I will post more related to these tools and apps in later posts.

What are some of your new year’s resolutions? How are you developing new habits to keep them going?