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How do you cope with not being able to solve a problem?

  1. Sep 16, 2010 #1
    I was wondering what everyone here does when they can't solve a specific problem, be it one from homework or just one tackled on their own. How do you cope with that? Me, I get totally frustrated and angry, and I really want to change that. Today, for example, I really wanted to do some Physics reading, but when I got home I thought I'll look up some problems the professor posted first and try to solve the one that looked most interesting. Surely enough, I got stuck on it for 3 - 4 hours, banging my head against the wall (metaphorically), and in the end wasn't able to solve it. That completely messed up my day even though I tried telling myself to just move on and deal with other stuff. Still, I just get totally frustrated when I can't do stuff I was supposed to be able to do and it seems that no amount of rational thoughts can overcome my irrationality.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 16, 2010 #2
    Find someone who can guide you through the problem like a professor or TA, or another student. Then do similar problems and understand it thoroughly on your own. You can't just skip a problem, that is admitting defeat and leaving a big hole in your knowledge about physics. Would you want your doctor to have that kind of philosophy?
  4. Sep 16, 2010 #3
    Yeah, I think the professor is going to post the solutions in a week or so, after we're done with the chapter (said problem wasn't homework). And I do want to understand the problem, but I guess my question was on a more general level, because a week from now is a long time and I just want to prevent this stuff from completely throwing me off track. Because what pisses me off most is not actually having the problem unsolved, but the fact that I can't do it on my own, without someone showing me how to.
  5. Sep 16, 2010 #4
    Welcome to the real world -- you need to learn to seek help when you need it.
  6. Sep 17, 2010 #5
    1) Time allocation. Finish all of the other problems that you can solve first.
    2) Do something else and have your subconscious work on it.
    3) Find someone else and then if they know the answer have them give you a hint.
    4) Find a study group.
    5) Finally, get used to not being able to find the answer. In the professional world, it's common to have problems that people spend years if not decades trying to solve.
  7. Sep 17, 2010 #6
    In the real world, sometimes your problem is so unique or new, there is no one else to help you.

    I'm with the OP on this one. It's very rare for me to give up on a problem that I've been assigned, whether it be back in school or now working in industry. I don't get angry, and I don't feel frustrated, but I do get obsessed with solving the problem. Eventually the answer comes, and the most troublesome problems are solved when I'm sleeping.
  8. Sep 17, 2010 #7


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    Getting confused on a problem can mess up my whole day if I'm not careful, since I tend to get tunnel vision on these kind of things. Seriously, If I'm confused on a problem, I have trouble keeping up a conversation because my mind just keeps wandering back to it.

    It's a pain, but it's something we all deal with. It's ok to get frustrated, but you have to remember not to let that problem take over your life. You really just got to train yourself to have the right kind of outlook on these situations.

    This is a good point. One of the best reasons to get used to dealing with these situations and handling them correctly is that once you start independent research, you are going to be confused, VERY confused! We all are! There most likely won't be anyone else out there with the answer, either. It's just the nature of the job.
  9. Sep 17, 2010 #8
    That's true, but at least for me these two situations differ a bit in that in the situation I described above you are supposed to be able to solve an exercise, whereas altough you're kind of expected to solve the problem in your example, as well, the expectations aren't really on the same level.

    But I'm glad to hear I'm not only whose day gets "ruined" or at least altered by these kind of things. And if I do solve at the end that makes it all better and I don't really care that much about "wasting" so much time, but it's those situations when I'm NOT able to come up with an answer that bother me.
  10. Sep 17, 2010 #9


    Staff: Mentor

    These are all good points, but #2 is an especially good one. It's often better to put in several separate blocks of time on a problem, with a rests in between, rather than trying to solve it all in one go.
  11. Sep 17, 2010 #10
    +1 about the 2nd point. When you start getting into spending 3 hours on a problem, you NEED to stop. This much time on one problem usually means that you have "taken a wrong turn" in your thinking somewhere and you need to "refresh" the thinking process. You are continuously building on some improper assumption or approach somewhere, yet since you are so invested (time wise) that you get tunnel vision and refuse to see your misconceptions.

    It's kind of like driving: when I get lost because I took a wrong turn, I should go back and figure out where I made that wrong turn. But often I think that I ca figure out how to get to my destination without going back and instead by following my intuition or sense of direction. Unfortunately, the latter method usually takes 5 or 6 times longer than if I had just gone back and started over!
  12. Sep 17, 2010 #11
    So, researchers don't collaborate? I mean even in the BP blowout -- a unique problem as far as I know -- I'm sure they had a team working together and helping one another.
  13. Sep 17, 2010 #12
    That's why I said get help and then solve similar problems. Surely there is another similar problem. You can even get help here if you need it, we usually give hints and not answers.

    In the professional world, if the problem can't be solved by others, its you're specialty, but in general professionals have contacts who help them and they help in return.
  14. Sep 17, 2010 #13
    Why would you take my statement to imply that researchers don't collaborate?

    I simply meant that SOMETIMES collaboration doesn't help. If your problem is unique, new and difficult, then nobody knows the answer. What do you do when everyone you have access to is stumped? Sometimes, you are either the one responsible for getting the answer, or are the one in direct need of the answer? In those cases you either give up, or you persevere and succeed.
  15. Sep 17, 2010 #14
    I thought said implication was pretty strong in this sentence:
    Or you work with a team (in an official or unofficial capacity) of people to arrive at a solution. Of course the individual who developed (or is tasked) with the original and difficult problem may have to expend great energies, but there is no need to become a "lone warrior".
    Last edited: Sep 17, 2010
  16. Sep 17, 2010 #15

    • Solve as many as I can.
      Go back to the unsolved ones, see where I'm stuck.
      Go running/biking.
      I usually have the solution when I come back from my run/bike.
      This also refreshes my mind and I can then tackle more problems.
  17. Sep 17, 2010 #16
    There is no need to seek becoming a lone warrior in the real world, but sometimes the need will be thrust upon you. When given a new project, I always talk to everyone who I believe can give advice and background. However, once into the details, it's rare for me to find anyone who can really solve the deep issues. It's not that I'm smarter than anyone else, but no one else is going to invest sufficient time to solve my problem. For that matter, they are not even going to have the time to truly understand the full depth of the questions. That's just how it is when you have a truly difficult problem. Sure, you can ask your boss to assign two people to your task, but what if he says "no"? What if he says, "OK I'll just give the problem to this other guy who always gets to the answer by himself"? I'd find that a little embarrassing myself.

    Who will be more able to handle that situation in the real world: the person who trained himself to be a lone-warrior in school, or the one who avoided those challenges? Granted, sometimes you have to cut your losses and balance other things in your life, but to improve your skills it's best to avoid that as much as possible.

    That said, teamwork is also very important in the real world. The thing is, often teams are setup so that individuals can tackle areas they are experts in. If the expert is stumped, the others on the team may be able to help, or they may be even more stumped. By all means, ask some questions and seek some advice, but don't be surprised when you don't hear what you want to hear.

    Above, my use of the word SOMETIMES is intended to make my statement less strong than you took it. There are two valid sides to this. You presented one side, and I just wanted to mention the other side. A person needs to be able to handle both situations, since both are commonly seen in the real world.
  18. Sep 17, 2010 #17
    I think we are basically in agreement and seem to be "arguing" only because of misunderstandings or something of the like.
  19. Sep 17, 2010 #18
    Also, you need to develop an intuition of finding more ways to solve a problem. Tackling a problem from a different direction usually gives an answer.
  20. Sep 17, 2010 #19
    That's what I do! It really helps, too.
  21. Sep 17, 2010 #20
    @Ryker: I know how you feel. What I usually do is re-read the chapter and see what I'm not understanding. If that doesn't work, then continue solving the other HW problems. Don't feel ashamed for getting help.
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