This 3-Minute Exercise Will Change the Way You Solve Problems
‘Structured thinking’ is about building a big answer by asking many small questions
How much toilet paper is sold in France each year? How many miles of train tracks are there in Germany? What percentage of people are standing up versus sitting or lying down at 9:45 a.m. in the United States?
In job interviews, you may face a brain teaser like one of these. “What’s the point of guessing the answer to a question when you can just take five seconds and Google it?” you might wonder. The purpose isn’t to make you sweat and scream curse words in your head, but rather to test your capacity for structured thinking and your ability to use logic, practice deduction, and build a big answer by asking many small questions.
With structured thinking, you methodically break down problems and solve them piece by piece, rather than worrying, relying on past assumptions, or shrugging in absolute cluelessness. Neil deGrasse Tyson once told a hypothetical story about asking two job candidates the same question: How tall is the spire on the building they’re in? In this scenario, one candidate happens to know the answer. The other steps outside, measures the building’s shadow against her own, and gives a rough estimate. “Who are you gonna hire?” Tyson said. “I’m hiring the person who figured it out. ’Cause that person knows how to use the mind in a way not previously engaged.”
Anyone can improve their structured thinking with practice. The best thing to do is ask yourself pointless questions, ones you can’t easily find the answers to online. Writer Hannah Yang shares a prompt that should take you about three minutes to figure out: How many customers visit your favorite restaurant every year? Here, I’ll give it a shot.
I live in Munich. My favorite restaurant is Lemongrass, a Vietnamese place around the corner.
First, I’ll start with what I know: I know 1.5 million people live in Munich. I’ll assume two-thirds live in the city center. That’s 1 million. Is this accurate? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that making an assumption allows me to further break down the problem. Then I can iterate from there.
- There are about 10 neighborhoods…