Choose constraints wisely
September 21, 2012
I know it seems odd to write about “choosing constraints”… why would anybody choose a constraint? Wouldn’t you choose to be unconstrained wherever possible? Is it a constraint if you choose it?
A constraint does something very useful for you. Here we live in the universe, a place that places extreme constraints on everything in it, but that to an individual human offers an unfathomably large array of choices. I’m sitting in a terminal in SFO.
I can stand up and walk in many different directions.
I can go buy one of about a thousand products from the cafe in front of me.
I can sit here and keep writing this post.
I can send a letter of inquiry to a grad program in petrochemical engineering.
I can go talk to that person over there, and in that moment of conversation I can say an almost limitless number of things.
And those are just a few of the choices available to me, in the range of the next few seconds. Never mind in the range of a day, or a year, or a lifetime. And at the moment, I can only live for about a century, and I’m probably confined to this planet. A thousand years from now my range of possible lifetimes today will seem extremely small compared to the potential of a human being living at that time. Just as my life offers me far more opportunity, happening now, than I would have had I lived 5,000 years ago.
So, how do I know what to do? How do I act in a purposeful way that involves me accomplishing something and being satisfied with my life? I guess I place constraints on it (or perhaps they have already been placed for me, but that’s a discussion for another post). I want to have a family. I want to be liked. I want to live in certain places in the world and not others, and do certain things and not others. These are constraints, and because they are (probably) the right ones, they don’t feel that way. But they’re chosen nevertheless.
I think the same thing happens in trying to solve any design problem. If you are an entrepreneur, your constraints are your funding, your time, and the needs of your customers, thought perhaps these are largely interchangeable. You might want more resources, but would you accomplish anything if you had an infinite budget, infinite time, and your customers would buy anything you care to make?
Constraints are a good source of problems, and solving problems is an important part of accomplishment. But of course, if the constraints are too tight, the problem cannot be solved. That means, you either have to loosen them, or choose another problem (i.e. a different set of constraints).
If, on the other hand, the constraints are just right, sometimes you get really innovative solutions to a problem. And then not only have you solved the problem, but you may have helped solve an entire class of similar problems with slightly looser constraints. For example, elite athletes develop a hydration drink for their specific needs (Gatorade), which is then consumed by many thirsty people and regular athletes. Aircraft travel used to let high-powered politicians and executives save time and do more work, and now everyone uses it.
Or alternatively, you may have solved your problem in another way that is interesting for some other reason, perhaps aesthetics. For example, the technique of braising, which I have written about here before, is a way to make delicious food out of subpar cuts of meat. Many flowers are exceedingly beautiful in order to attract bees, circumventing the difficulties associated with windborne pollination.