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August 23rd, 2005

Tell me what you're trying to do. [Aug. 23rd, 2005|12:01 pm]
Okrzyki, przyjaciel!
This comes up at work a lot, but I also run into it doing studio or live sound work.

Someone ask me "How do you do X?"

Usually X sounds really obscure, or makes no sense. You can ask people "why do you want to do X?" but it's often not the right question. The right question is usually "What were you trying to do when you got to the point where you wanted to do X?"

Often when people get stuck it is because they start out trying to reach a particular outcome -- call it Z. They don't know how to get to Z, so they try something that they think will get them closer to Z. Then they take the next step they think will get them closer to Z, and the next, until they've reached the point where doing X is between them and their outcome.

The problem isn't how to do X at all, but how to get to Z. X might be difficult, or impossible, but often X is beside the point. At any rate, they're stuck, and they ask me*

And then I have to ask them 'what is this Z you want to get to?' Often -- in the right problem domain, of course -- I know how to get to Z without having to do X at all.

I find that when I'm up against a problem, I make the same mistake too. If you don't know how to get to Z, there's an infinity of wrong paths that look like they'll lead to Z, but all end up at the dreaded X. That's when I need to do something else for a while, and then go back and reconsider what I was trying to do in the first place. So the moral of the story is to always keep in mind the ultimate goal and don't fall in love with intermediate steps toward that goal.

*I may seem like a big dummy, but I actually know some stuff.
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